by Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Resience
The rumour went like this: on Saturday the 9th of June 1832 the Virgin Mary appeared on the church altar in Charleville, in north county Cork, and left ashes which were the only protection against cholera. The ashes were to be taken to neighbouring houses and placed under the rafters, then the inhabitants of those houses were to take four pieces of ash from their chimneys and bring them to another four houses and the inhabitants of those houses were to serve the people of other homes in the same way.
The apparent Marian apparition in Charleville was the beginning of the blessed turf which was a phenomenon which spread across the island of Ireland, or at least the majority Catholic parts of it, from Wexford to Donegal, in the space of six days in June 1832, a phenomenon which, in the main, comprised of using magic tokens and associated rituals to protect against the cholera pandemic.
It was on the night of Monday June the 11th and Tuesday June the 12th, 1832, after it had reached Mountrath, that the really speedy growth of the blessed turf set in, and most especially with rapidity once it had reached the Barrow valley. Also in that particular locality the blessed turf took a different form where the threat was not one of cholera but of a fire from heaven. Seemingly the phenomenon shifted from a supernatural solution to a natural problem, to a supernatural solution to a supernatural problem. However, behind the apparent fantastic strangeness of a fire from heaven lay a sweltering conflagration of social tension.
The Blessed Turf
The blessed turf was a sort of chain-letter, where someone brought to you a magic token and you brought a version of that token to four or seven other houses – in order for the other worldly protection to be effective for you it was necessary for you to share it with others. Also you specifically had to share with people who had yet to receive the protective tokens. Now the tokens varied – they could be ashes, lighted wood or turf, hence the name blessed turf, or they could be clay, stones, or straw. It was especially straw in more northerly parts of the country. There were also rituals like making the sign of the cross on someone’s door with the ashes. There was also always the impression that cholera had just struck in a neighbouring town or district and that there were large-scale fatalities. So it was urgent that the ritual be carried out as quickly as possible. Part of the ritual was that the people spreading the protection would remove their hats, coats and stockings.
So we have to imagine a whole load of people running about the countryside, looking like they had just rushed out of their houses without time to put their coats on, desperately trying to find households that had yet to receive any blessed turf or holy ashes. A thing to note is that this was happening in places where cholera had yet to reach – so it was the fear of cholera – and it is a fearful disease – that was inspiring this response.
Cholera was a seemingly new, very scary and very dangerous disease from the east, the first modern epidemic was in India in 1817, then reaching Europe in its second great epidemic wave – Moscow by 1830, Sunderland by October 1831, Belfast by the 18th of March 1832, then reaching Cork by the 12th of April 1832. There were actually five cholera pandemics in the nineteenth-century, and it was this second one which was the first to reach Europe. Half of all victims died of the illness – with oftentimes as little as twelve hours between the first symptoms and death – and those symptoms were violent – there would be massive vomiting and diarrhoea, to the extent that a quarter of the body’s fluids could be lost within hours, the victims would become comatose and their skin turn a blue-grey pallor.
As stated earlier, it was once the rumours and rituals reached Mountrath on the night of the June the 11th that it all really began to grow and transform. First there was an out-and-out explosion in the spread of the blessed turf and second there was a change in its form – from a protection against cholera to a protection against a fire descending from heaven. The story switched from the next town over had been infected with cholera to the next town over had been consumed by fire, by a ‘ball of fire’ descended from the heavens.
The Fire from Heaven
Collated in Dublin Castle were reports from police constables and from individual magistrates on the scene – these were local gentlemen appointed with overseeing local law and order.
Such an account from Carlow town of the 12th June 1832 reads –
“last night about the hour of half past eleven this town was suddenly thrown into the greatest state of alarm caused by some strangers having made their appearance and circulated a report that the villages of Abbeyleix and Castlecomer as well as the whole of the Colliery District had been destroyed by fire, and that they had been sent forward as Messengers from the Roman Catholic Clergy to communicate the intelligence and in order to save the town and its inhabitants from immediate destruction all persons were provided with pieces of Blessed turf some of which was left by these persons. . . .the whole population of the lower classes were in motion through the streets numbers carrying lighted pieces of turf and other pieces of clay all of which were described as being holy”.
This magistrate put the police out on patrol but there was no disturbance, he reported the same phenomenon in all villages around, and noted the fear of ‘respectable’ persons that this was to be a forerunner of general disturbance.
The area where the blessed turf started to spread with the greatest intensity and where it switched into this fire from heaven variant had a particularity right at that moment. In terms of both time and space there is a co-relation between the uptick in the expansion of the blessed turf, and its transformation, with some of the areas of most pronounced social conflict right at the same time. Simultaneous with the blessed turf the Whitefeet movement was building to a crescendo along the western side of the Barrow while on the eastern side of the Barrow in Carlow and Kildare that summer would see farm labourer mobilisations, and, in general, the south-east was the epicentre of the Tithe War. The Whitefeet were one of a succession of movements going back as far as the 1760s that in short can be characterised as involving violence over land – opposing evictions by landlords and engrossment by large farmers, and these movements shared a particular tactical repertoire and cultural style. The Tithe War was a broader and more diffuse opposition to the payment of tithe – which was a tax for the support of the Church of Ireland. So the blessed turf transformed from a protection against cholera to a protection against a fire from heaven as the ritual transited through the main Whitefeet territories, it was we might say re-interpreted.
The Socio-political Context
Just as the blessed turf was more to do with the tension before the arrival of cholera than with cholera itself so to it is notable that it was more the areas to the edge of the main zone of Whitefeet territory which had the greatest outpouring of the blessed turf.
Some reports make clear the air of tension and link the fire from heaven with aspects of the pronounced on-going social conflict.
A week after the initial news Dublin Castle received the results of a further inquiry in Carlow, this reads:
“men involved constantly described themselves as messengers of the Roman Catholic Clergy . . . to warn people of some dreadful event, which in some places was to be fire from heaven and in other places as a prevention against Cholera and I myself heard some assert that it was a visitation from heaven in consequence of the false swearing at the Special Commission at Maryboro by which the lives of so many innocent individuals were to be sacrificed . . . it certainly had the effect of almost instantaneously turning out the whole population”
Now that “false swearing at the Special Commission at Maryboro” was in reference to a Special Commission in what is now the town of Portlaoise, the Special Commission was a special court sitting to try Whitefeet suspects.
A further inquiry from west Wicklow dated 17th of June 1832 tell us that:
“The cause assigned by the people for acting in this way was that in consequence of a curse pronounced by Doctor Doyle a ball of Fire had fell down from Heaven in the Queens County & had completely consumed it they also stated that two angels had descended to whom they were ordered to offer up seven prayers”.
Doctor Doyle was the Roman Catholic bishop of the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin (also known under his penname J.K.L.).
The significance of the apparent curse on the Queen’s County – as Laois was then known – from Bishop Doyle – is that he had recently issued a pastoral letter against the Whitefeet – which was to be read out at mass and which was printed up and distributed as a leaflet by a local liberal newspaper. The purpose of the fire from heaven has perhaps shifted here – from punishing people for their opposition to the Whitefeet to punishing people for their involvement in the Whitefeet. There is a shift from the story in Carlow town, abutting the Whitefeet heartland of south-east Laois, where the fire from heaven was associated with false swearing at the Special Commission, to comparatively distant Wicklow where it becomes associated with a curse from Dr. Doyle – a curse on the people of Laois.
Meanwhile from Carlow there is a particularly interesting newspaper report which reads thus:
“One fellow whose face denoted the contiguity of his residence to the Colliery not only possessed the gift of the mysterious tongues, but actually, like Watt Tyler, having a desire to treat the people to a specimen of his marvelous powers of prophecy, took up a position on Burrin-bridge at 12 o’clock at night, and entertained a large audience with sundry proverbs, on the necessity of a preparation for eternity, for that God had manifested his wisdom in “raining fire from Heaven” on the Tories – that the whole of the Queen’s county was in a blaze, and the torrents of liquid matter would soon reach Carlow.”
Just to unpack what was written there: by “face denoted the contiguity of his residence to the Colliery” I think was meant that this person’s face was sooty from coal-dust – because he had come in from the colliery or coal mining district in the low hills to the west of the town. The Wat Tyler referred to was a leader of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in England – which was part of the great wave of social conflict in the years after the Black Death. The important thing here though is the claim that what was being asserted was that “God had manifested his wisdom in “raining fire from Heaven” on the Tories – that the whole of the Queen’s county was in a blaze, and the torrents of liquid matter would soon reach Carlow”
We seem to be moving into a different territory here, into a situation where we have a supernatural, indeed divine, political intervention – Tories meaning then, as now, supporters of the Conservative Party, that party actually had seats in southern Ireland in the early-nineteenth century, as there was a much narrower electorate then – most people then did not have the vote. Similarly, the other report from Carlow town had the fire from heaven as a divine judgement to do with false testimony at the Special Commission against the Whitefeet. Carlow was a lot closer to the main Whitefeet centres than Wicklow where as we have seen the fire from heaven was interpreted differently – so to some degree we are seeing a version of the blessed turf and fire from heaven in Carlow that is the most Whitefeet-linked version.
From the perspective of our secular dis-enchanted time and place that seems bizarre. We can just about get our heads around people advocating for this or that policy based on it apparently being God’s will. It seems quite outlandish that people would actually expect an other-worldly intervention on their behalf in socio-political conflict. But this is in fact not an altogether uncommon phenomenon.
What is usually called millenarianism consists of some expectation of a supernatural intervention for a new social order, or divine ordination of a new social order, or alternatively a return to some pre-existing ideal with the removal of a present-day source of disruption effected through supernatural agency.
A millenarianism is much better attested to a decade or a decade and half before the time of the blessed turf. This was the era of the Pastorini prophecies. Those prophecies concerned the downfall of the Anglican church something which in Ireland was interpreted in a particularly expansive way and gave a sectarian edge to popular mobilisation on either side of 1820. Now in the early 1830s things were different and sectarianism is much harder to find in the Whitefeet than in their equivalents from 10 or 12 years earlier.
Indeed, millenarianism has existed on every continent – there were multiple instances during the expansion of European colonial empires in the late-nineteenth century, but it was also to be found in Europe at various times.
So, for an example, millenarianism occurred in the context of profound environmental crises in east Africa in the late-nineteenth century – and even earlier in southern Africa. In the African context there was a combination of drought, colonialism, and disease epidemics linked to colonialism. These were disease epidemics in both man and beast and linked to colonialism in that they were imported from Europe, most notably the cattle plague rinderpest. That disease helped to create the supposedly Eden-like east African wilderness iconic to twentieth-century nature documentaries. Once the cattle died off there was an encroachment of scrubland and that scrubland was the optimum habitat for the tsetse fly and that fly spreads yet more disease – so the areas dominated by the fly become areas dominated by disease and less optimum for humans and their herds and so become ‘wildernesses’. That is in the long-run and was not simply an environmental process – there was also the intervention of colonial and post-colonial states.
In the immediate circumstances of prolonged drought and disease epidemics there was the emergence of prophetic cults seeking to deal with these problems to which there simply was no recognised mode of address and redress because such problems had not existed before in the same way or to the same extent. As with the blessed turf in large part there was a concern there to restore the natural order, stop the epidemics and bring back the necessary environmental patterns, the right rainfall at the right time, but in the mix were also elements of revolt. For sure the colonial authorities exaggerated those elements – and indeed a similar pattern to that exaggeration was to be seen in Ireland. Nonetheless, the spirit of revolt was also there, both in the sense that supernatural protection would aid insurrection against European rule but also in the sense that the removal of Europeans would be central to a process of restoration and renewal which would bring back harmony to the world.
Now we shouldn’t assume that the blessed turf was a wholly plebeian movement – there are references to persons on horse-back bringing the turf, straw or ash tokens, which suggests that this was a popular culture in which people a cut above the average cottier had their place. That said most, nearly all, of what we have to go on with regard to records of the blessed turf, as is typical, is the disdainful gaze of the educated elite. That disdainful gaze was home to conflicting views of the phenomenon. There were two sharply different interpretations, which is not surprising as nineteenth-century Ireland was a sharply polarised society, polarised along political lines which someways intersected with confessional lines.
So there was one school of thought which saw all this blessed turf business as a dress rehearsal for insurrection – and one must remember this was a Catholic ritual – something which was of course noted – so a report from Kildare observes “so exclusive was the distribution, and so perfectly was the religion of the householders known that not a single protestant was favoured with a call”, and indeed Protestants in Newtownmountkennedy in County Wicklow readied themselves to defend their homes and stayed up all night on the 12th of June – waiting for an assault that wasn’t going to come. It is worth bearing in mind here that the Protestant proportion of the population in the south of Ireland two hundred years ago was much larger than it is now. About one-fifth of the population was Protestant in a band of territory from Wicklow into north Wexford, Carlow, north-east Kilkenny and Laois, over to northern parts of Tipperary.
On the otherhand in the diaries of Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin (Humphrey O’Sullivan) we can find a very different perspective. Ó Súilleabháin was a Callan, county Kilkenny, school master, merchant and activist in liberal and Catholic causes. He recorded a hypothesis that it was all a trick of Protestant ministers. Ó Súilleabháin’s account is worth quoting in full:
“The humbler ranks of the Irish people are rather superstitious. Some practical joker sent a silly person round the district with a singed little stick, or other small firebrand that had been extinguished in Easter-Week, or Holy Water, which the joker told his dupe to divide into four parts and give to four persons in four households telling them that the cholera (cholera morbus – author) would carry them off unless each one of them did the same. In this way sixteen persons, and sixty four, and two hundred and fifty six, and 1024, and 4096, &c. &c., got this fire [brand], till the whole country side was a laughing stock for Protestants. Extraordinary was the hurry [lit. the run] so these fools, male and female [to distribute the firebrands] ; so that the face of every one of them was like the full moon and as red as blood by the dint of running. They would tell in every townland that the majority of the people of the townland, they had just left, were dead of the cholera. In Callan it is the people of Gortnahoo that were dead. In Kells it is the people of Callan that were dead, and so on. They did not stop until they reached the sea. This absurd idea went through “New Ross,” Waterford, Kilkenny, Carrick-on-Suir, Clonmel.
A woman asked me what should she do with her little charred stick. I told her to go and give it up to the priest. O! said she, he would horsewhip me ; and she went home sad, as she did not find four houses in which to leave her four charred, be-deviled, magic-working sticks. In other places it was a wisp of straw burned into black ashes, magical and druidical, and extinguished in “wire-worm water”, or water that people think kills wireworms that is, worms that eat corn grass. Though this was a bit of barbarous folly, it shows how easy it is to induce the children of the Gael towards good or evil, with a little urging. People say it was the ministers that set the thing going in revenge for their tithes that have not been collected owing to the combination of the Irish in opposition to them.”
So that was one interpretation, the blessed turf was a Protestant plot.
A European Phenomenon
Richard Evans, the social historian of Germany, has an interesting article on the popular responses to cholera – to the first cholera epidemic to reach Europe – which was the one in the 1830s that the blessed turf was also in response to. That epidemic was met with popular protest – often against the measures introduced to contain it – and typically it seems to have been seen in class terms – as a conspiracy by the rich to poison the poor. In Hungary there was full-scale revolt against the nobility. Britain was a little different, in that on that island there was much more targeting of medical professionals as the focus of popular anger basically because the removal of infected corpses and the disruption of traditional burial practices was seen as a form of body-snatching. Body snatching was the clandestine procurement of corpses for medical research and training, this was only a few years after the time of Burke and Hare when corpses for that purpose were literally being manufactured to order. At least in Dublin, and I am sure other cities, you can still see in old cemeteries traces of various security measures against body-snatching. Notably different from earlier plagues was the comparative absence of anti-Semitic violence, though its presence was still felt in parts of eastern Europe. What is particularly interesting is that later cholera outbreaks did not meet the same popular response at all – probably because energies were channelled into more conventionally modern forms of political assertion.
So the blessed turf was the Irish variant of a European
phenomenon — a moment of panic which manifested itself differently in different
countries but occurred in some way in lots of different countries —
understandably so because cholera was a new dreadful disease outside of any
previous existing experience or knowledge and medical care was drastically
inferior in comparison to what we would now perhaps take for granted.
 S. J. Connolly, ‘The ‘Blessed Turf’: Cholera and Popular Panic in Ireland, June 1832’ Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 23, No. 91 (May, 1983), 214-232.
 National Archives of Ireland/Chief Secretary Office/Registered Papers/1832/1010. This is part of what would have been usually been grouped together as ‘State of the Country Papers’ or as ‘Outrage Papers’ but wasn’t for a couple of years in the late 1820s and early 1830s.
 National Archives of Ireland/Chief Secretary Office/Registered Papers/1832/1010.
 National Archives of Ireland/Chief Secretary Office/Registered Papers/1832/1010.
 Carlow Sentinel, June 16 1832.
 James S. Donnelly Jr., Captain Rock: The Irish Agrarian Rebellion of 1821 – 1824 (Cork, Collins Press, 2009) pp. 119‒149.
 Terence Ranger ‘Plagues of beasts and men: prophetic responses to epidemic in eastern and southern Africa’ in Terence Ranger and Paul Slack (eds), Epidemics and Ideas: Essays on the historical perception of pestilence (Cambridge, 1992) 241-268; Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (Verso, London, 2000).
 Quoted in S.J. Connolly, ‘The ‘Blessed Turf’: Cholera and Popular Panic in Ireland, June 1832’.
 Bruce Elliott, ‘Emigration from south Leinster to Eastern Upper Canada’ in Kevin Whelan and William Nolan (eds), Wexford: History and Society (Dublin, Geography Publications, 1992). For more on sectarian conflict in the nineteenth-century Midlands see: https://laoislocalstudies.ie/the-orange-pole/
 The Diary of Humphrey O’Sullivan. Part III. Containing the diary from 1st January, 1831 to the end of December, 1833. Edited with Introduction, Translation and Notes by Rev. Michael McGrath, S.I. (Irish Texts Society/Simpkin Marshall Ltd, London, 1836), pp. 155‒159.
 R.J. Evans, ‘Epidemics and revolutions: cholera in nineteenth-century Europe’ in Past and Present 1988 (120):123-146