Taking a Fresh Start

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXI (6) start of chapter

One of Bishop England's most zealous and efficient clergymen was the Rev. Mr. O'Neill, through the influence of whose melodious flute he obtained, as we have seen, a free dinner and a good bed from one of the rustiest curmudgeons in South Carolina. Father O'Neill was an Irish priest of the finest type, genial, cheery, and light-hearted, but earnest, and even stern, when the occasion required. Arrived at a patriarchal age, and honoured and respected by all classes of the community, he is still on the mission in the city of Savannah.

Father O'Neill could preach quite as well as he could play, nor was his tongue a less persuasive instrument than his flute. Indeed, it may be doubted if, in his most inspired moment, he could perform as successfully with the former as with the latter, and for the same length of time hold his audience spell-bound with the one as with the other. For Father O'Neill had marvellous powers of endurance as a preacher, or lecturer; and his audience were so 'kept alive' by his manner, in which argument, illustration, wit, and delicate humour were agreeably blended, that they did not perceive the time passing, and were rather sorry than otherwise when 'the Father' gave in.

On one occasion he was preaching somewhere in Georgia, and the country round had assembled to hear him. At the end of two hours and a half, during which there was not the slightest symptom of weariness exhibited by a densely crowded audience, he said that the expiring condition of the candles warned him to bring his remarks to a close. Quick as thought, an Irishwoman, who occupied a conspicuous position among the audience, and who would willingly have sat there till morning, cried out, 'Never mind that, your reverence; sure we brought half-a-box of candles along with us, as we thought you'd need them.' The wise considerateness of the Irishwoman was hailed with general satisfaction, and with brighter auspices the preacher resumed his discourse.

There was one occasion, however, when Father O'Neill surpassed all his former achievements. It was on the reception of a Mrs. Taylor into the Catholic Church.

Mrs. Taylor was a lady of good social position, whose conversion to Catholicism excited much interest among her friends and neighbours. Her reception into the Church was to be made an occasion of some solemnity, and invitations were sent to the gentry for miles round, requesting their attendance at the ceremony, which was to be followed by a banquet of more than usual elegance and profusion. The auspicious morning arrived. In the grand saloon, where an altar had been erected, were assembled sixty or seventy people, and crowding in front of the windows of the apartment were groups of negroes, to whom the day was to be one of welcome rest and rejoicing. At the termination of the Mass, Mrs. Taylor was to be received. Punctual to the appointed hour—eight o'clock in the morning—Father O'Neill commenced. Wearing his soutane, or cassock, he made his appearance at the temporary altar, on which the various robes and vestments worn by a priest in the celebration of Mass were placed. Referring to the purpose of the day's ceremony, he stated the leading reasons why a Protestant should become a Catholic. He then specially explained the doctrine of the Mass, dealing with it as a sacrament and a sacrifice; and having justified the use of the Latin language in its celebration, he said he would represent the symbolical meaning of each vestment as he put it on; which he did in a popular and persuasive manner, that excited the interest and riveted the attention of his audience. Having concluded his series of discourses, and being then fully robed, he turned to the altar to commence; but seeing that one of the candles had been entirely consumed, and that the other was flickering in its socket, he glanced at his watch, and found that the hour was within a quarter to two o'clock! Zealous priest! patient audience! Father O'Neill took the matter coolly, saying, 'My friends, 'I have committed an oversight. According to the ordinary laws of the Church, Mass should commence before twelve o'clock. In a missionary country, like ours, we have the privilege of commencing an hour later—any time up to one. But now it is approaching two, and I cannot proceed with the service. I am sorry for your disappointment this morning; but if you will come to-morrow morning at eight o'clock, we will take a fresh start.' The audience bore the disappointment with perfect equanimity, and were determined to see the ceremony to the end; so they enjoyed the hospitality of Mrs. Taylor for the remainder of the day, and next morning again assembled in the saloon at the appointed hour, when Father O'Neill took his 'fresh start'; this time with such energy that the whole was well finished by twelve o'clock.

But Father O'Neill could be quite as effective in a short speech as in a lengthened discourse; and on an occasion of much interest, and in a time of no small anti-foreign and anti-Catholic excitement, he delivered a few pithy sentences which produced a most salutary effect. It was at a public dinner in Savannah, to celebrate the inauguration of a monument erected to Pulaski, one of the heroes of the Revolution of 1776, who, wounded at the Battle of Savannah, had died a few days after. There had been a procession and an oration in the day, and a grand dinner was to be the agreeable wind-up of an event so dear to the patriotic heart. There could be no public dinner in Savannah that did not include the popular Irish priest as one of the guests, and, as a matter of invariable routine Father O'Neill should have a toast or a sentiment to propose. It was in the time when the wretched 'Know-Nothing' excitement was rife in most parts of America, and the furious cry of 'Down with the foreigner! down with the Papist!' found an echo in the South.

'I have listened,' said Father O'Neill, 'to the oration of the day. It was excellent, so far as it went. But it omitted one most essential point—about Pulaski himself. I will supply the deficiency. Pulaski was a foreigner, who had the extraordinary habit of saying his beads every day. He, a foreigner and a Catholic, shed his blood and sacrificed his life for this country. And I am sure that the monument erected by the grandsons of the heroic men who fought and bled side by side with Pulaski is a proof that they still adhere to the glorious principles of their fathers, who welcomed all brave men—whatever their race or religion—to their country.'

The effect was electrical. The majority of the excited audience exclaimed 'Bravo!' and cheered with ardour; while the few hung their heads with shame, crushed by the implied rebuke, and the courage which inspired its utterance.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

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