Teampol na mBocht, Altar
Altar Church, beside Toormore Bay on the Mizen Peninsula, near Ireland’s southernmost point, is also known as Teampol na mBocht, the Church of the Poor. It was built in 1847, at the height of the Great Famine.
The Great Famine
The potato crop, which then provided the staple diet of poor people in Ireland, first failed in the autumn of 1845. There was hardship and, when the blight struck again in 1846 and 1847 there was catastrophe. During Black ’47, The Illustrated London News reported that in the village of Schull, five miles from Toormore, an average of 25 men, women and children were dying every day of starvation, dysentery or famine fever. At nearby Cove, the population fell from 254 in 1841 to 53 in 1851. In Toormore, however, over the same period, the fall was relatively slight – from 370 to 343. Why this was is not known, but some believe that one factor was the relief work done by the Rector of Kilmoe, the Revd. William Allen Fisher.
As the crisis deepened, Fisher begged for help from well-wishers both in Ireland and England. Money came. Like many other priests both Protestant and Catholic, Fisher set up soup kitchens and distributed food, medicine, blankets and clothing. But he wanted to do more than dole out charity. A man of his time, firmly believing in the dignity of labour, he wanted to provide paid work.
According to his son-in-law, Fisher ‘asked for and obtained the permission of some of those who had made him their almoner’ to use the gifts on a building project. This was originally to have been a new schoolhouse but, as more money came in, Fisher embraced a more ambitious plan, the building of a church for the townlands of Toormore and Altar. The building was begun and apparently completed in 1847. Tradition has it that, in order to employ as many as possible, without benefiting the less impoverished farmers, no carts or horses were to be hired. The stone was quarried nearby and carried to the site entirely by hand. As Fisher wrote in a report on the church, ‘the employment was given chiefly by contract, so that the poor were able to work about their cabins, fishing etc. at the same time that they earned a subsistence for themselves.’
Fisher called it ‘The Church if the Poor” because it was the poor people who built it. He loved the Irish language, in which he was so expert that the British Museum would send him ancient manuscripts for translation. This is why Teampol na mBocht is the only Church of Ireland Church to have an Irish name.
It is a controversial building. For many Protestants, William Fisher was a saint, a scholarly man happiest at his books, who nevertheless drudged selflessly for forty years in a remote parish, giving all his time and strength to the poor, the hungry and the sick, until he himself died of famine fever. But for many Catholics, Fisher was a ‘souper’, whose manifold projects on the Mizen Peninsula, including the building of his church, had only one object: to win converts from Catholicism to the Church of Ireland.
Which account is true? Fisher certainly made converts, though it is far from clear how many. Did they ‘take the soup’, or were they won over by Fisher’s tireless devotion to all in need? Or was it something of each? Nobody now knows.
The walls of the church are of natural undressed stone bonded with earth. In an unfinished letter, Fisher explained that the church was:
‘…built in the pattern of the old Irish churches. The vestry and southern porch give it a cruciform appearance. It has a chancel, the arch entering which is a cyclopic arch, and the tops of the windows are the same. Its nave is 65 foot by 25 foot. Its gable is an equilateral triangle…..’
To the right when entering the church is the font. It is reputed to date from the Fifteenth Century and came from Kilkirean Church on Cape Clear Island. It was donated by Tullagh Parish, Baltimore, and installed in 1935.
The original font is said to be buried in the church grounds.
The organ is a fine instrument built in 1824 by Flight & Robson of London. One of the few remaining in Ireland constructed by that famous company, it was purchased in 1918 to replace an old harmonium. The cost, including installation, is recorded as £147.
The entrance porch at the West end has a stained glass window to the memory of Michael Allen, a parishioner who served in the Indian Mutiny.
At the east end are three more stained glass windows given by Fisher’s grandson, the Revd. R.B.C. Carson. The central window is dedicated to Fisher’s wife, Anna Waggett Fisher. The two outer windows commemorate Elizabeth Carson, Fisher’s daughter and mother of the donor.
A marble plaque on the left side of the chancel honours William Fisher himself.
Plaques around the building record other gifts to the Church. In the vestry are portraits or photographs of the incumbents who have served the Church of the Poor since it was built.
To find you way to Teampol na mBocht at Altar you will find an interactive map here
An induction loop system is installed in this Church