The 2007 journal of the Skibbereen and District Historical Society contains an interesting article by Eugene Daly on Thomas Swanton a forgotten figure who was an early pioneer in attempts to revive or preserve Irish as a spoken language.
Thomas Swanton, Ballydehob, Co Cork, Irish scholar, Antiquarian and Landlord 1810-1866 and nephew of Judge Robert Swanton of New York, Maritime Court and United Irishman.
He was born in Ballydehob in 1810 and spent some time in the United States with his uncle Robert a lawyer who had been involved with the United Irishmen. Robert Swanton later became one of the Judges of the Marine Court of the City of New York and died in Blalydehob in 1840 aged 76.
He returned to Ballydehob in 1832 where he owned a small estate of 262 aces at Crann Liath, part of the townland of Sparrograda and this included the eastern end of the village of Ballydehob.
He could speak Irish and in 1846 wrote ‘that though the people here seem desirous to give it up, it will be a long time before they can express themselves with some comfort in English’. He tried without success to get his 5 daughters to speak Irish or to have the servants use it in the house.
He was a correspondent of John Windle the Cork Antiquarian in both Irish language matters and local archaeology. Windel’s letters are in UCC and there are over 200 from Swanton. In 1844 he proposed to Windle a scheme to simplify the spelling of Irish and published booklet on this topic. In 1848 he came up with a form of spelling suitable to the west Cork Dialect ‘Cork Irish Pronuntaition – Spelling’. He had to give up this project in 1850. He was involved in various societies to promote Irish but they had little success.
Father Coombes in an article wrote the following
The Swanton Memorial
An Historical Memorial in Skibbereen
by James Coombes
From the Swanton Family History Worldwide by Louise May Swanton
Two forgotten Ballydehob patriots are linked in a memorial in the old Protestant cemetary in Skibbereen. On the obelisk which surmounts the memorial there is a draped urn with the single word ROBERT inscribed on it. One of the four panels had the following inscription:
Sacred to the Memory of
Counsellor at Law
One of the Judges of the Marine
Court of the City of New York
Who departed this life
On the 15th of February 1840
He was a humble Christian and faithful
Friend and Benefactor
Be ye kind to one another, tenderhearted,
Forgiving one another even as God
for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.
Do ghradhaigh se na Gaedhil agus an Ghaeilge
Another panel commemorates three children of Thomas Swanton, Maria (d. 21 July 1852, aged 11 years 5 months); Ellen (d. 1 April 1856, aged 17 years 9 months); Annie (. 21 Nov. 1857, aged 17 years 9 months). It also contains the inscriptions: “Omnibus inservientes sed servi unius Domini” and “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”
A third panel commemorates Sarah wife of Nathaniel Evanson, IV July 1830 aged 33. Sarah was almost certainly a sister of Thomas Swanton, who was a nephew of Robert Swanton.
Thomas Swanton, was born on 16 December, 1810. He spent some years in America, probably with his uncle. Then in 1832 Thomas was compelled by ill health to return home to Ireland. He married, probably in the late 1830’s, and had at least five daughters but apparently no son. The Griffith Valuation of 1852 recorded that he farmed the whole townland of Sparrograda, Ballydehob, 262 acres in all. He himself however, addressed his letters from “Crann Liath”, a subdivision of Sparrograda. He also owned half the ground on which the village of Ballydehob was built.
Thomas Swanton took an enlightened interest in the cultural, moral and material welfare of the Irish people. Here one must consider the astonishing scope of his interest. Even more praiseworthy is the complete absence of any tendency to patronize the people or to talk down to them. One reads his letters with the constantly recurring feeling — ‘this was a good man’. He wrote to John Horn of the Neptune Works in Waterford on 3 July 1854:
“I had always from infancy a love of Irish music and of the Irish language. I was for a long time dissuaded from speaking Irish, but when I came to a man’s estate, I gave myself to this language and to contriving a way of spelling it by which the sound would appear at the sight of the word. I persevered in this from 1838 to 1844 when I got the address of Mr. Isaac Pittman, which whom I occasionally corresponded.”
This love lasted throughout his life. He described Irish as ‘the best poor man’s language in the world’ and was deeply hurt and disappointed when he failed to get either his children or his servants to speak Irish. His cultural activities ranged far and wide, bringing archaelogical finds to the attention of experts, corresponding with many scholars, including the Cork antiquary, John Windele, and An t-Athair Donal O Suileabhain, translater of the Imitation of Christ into Irish, promoting Irish traditional music.
In 1844 he helped to found the Cork Kerry Irish Poetry and Musical Society. He sponsored the work of agricultural instructors and during the Famine years was prominent in relieving distress. Over a period of several years he gave lectures, in Irish, on Temperance every October and November in the Market House, Ballydehob. The following letter from his pen, dated Crann Liath, 6 March 1847, appeared in the Young Ireland organ The Nation.
To the Editor of “the Nation”
Sir — I do not write to announce the unimportant fact of my conversion to Repeal principles. I desire, however, to be allowed to state in your pre-eminently patriotic journal that my conversion has been brought by witnessing the neglect of the sufferings of the poor, and the waste of the resources of my country in these calamitous times.
I can scarcely venture to occupy your valuable space by mentioning the obstacles in the way of my going over to your side, arising from my attachment to the Protestant Episcopal Church, from my approval of a hereditary House of Lords, from my decided disapproval of universal suffrage. I find I can reconcile these sentiments with pure patriotism and an anxious longing for Irish legislative Independence.
But sir, what I now desire, in the bitterness of my soul, to represent, is the famished, diseased, helpless, perishing state of the people of my native district. We have no landlords in fee resident, no medical man resident, no hospital, no refuge, no asylum. The pangs of dysentery and the agonies of death are suffered without shelter, without attendance, without comfort.
I challenge any district in Ireland to prove its superiority in wretchedness to East Skull.
I see no laws enacted — no plans proposed by those in authority, calculated to revive prosperity in our peculiarly depressed circumstances. the horrors of famine and pestilence are before us, and the black cloud of despair hangs over us. We have no consolation but our trust in God, and our belief that after this dismal night the sun in Ireland shall shine forth uncloudedly, and that the golden yellow of fruitful Harvest, and the verdant green of hopeful Spring shall be constantly recurrent realities of which our national colours will be emblems.
I am, sir
Yours, with sincere esteem.
Thomas Swanton gradually found himself more and more out of tune with both Protestant and Catholic clergy, very much to his own regret. At present it is not possible to assess the degree of fault in the parties concerned. His decision to join the New Jerusalem sect in 1853 hardly helped his relations with the Church of Ireland. He was still alive in the 1860’s, still striving, with some disillusion but with unabated conviction, for his cherished ideals. Two of his unmarried daughters lived in Cork road, Skibbereen well into the twentieth century. Jane died in 1929 at the age of 87, and Hannah died in 1941 at the age of 90. All efforts to trace the dates of death of either Thomas Swanton or his wife have failed. One hopes, however, that he was laid to rest side by side with his beloved uncle who ‘loved the Irish people and hte Irish language’.
1. Andrew Power’s wife, formerly Elizabeth Attridge of Greenmount, Ballydehob, was still alive in Lisaclarig, near Kilcoe in 1831.
2. The Truth Teller was the first Catholic newsppaer in New York and was led by Fr. John Power, vicar general of New York, and nephew of Fr. John Power, the saintly parish priest of Kilmacabea.
He published 250 copies of an advertisement for a new fair in Ballydehob
‘Rabhadh: Margaidhe Muc, Caorach, Prataidhe, Ime, agus Eisg, saor o chustam, a m-Beal-adahab gach Deardaoin a-a m-bliadhain, a tosnughadh leis a g-cead Deardaoin a mi na Bealthine, 1848. Buanughadh don Bhainrioghain. Sean d’Eirin. (Notice: A market for pigs, sheep, butter, and fish free from customs in Ballydehob every Thursday of the year beginning on the first Thursday of May, 1848. Long live the Queen. Prosperity to Ireland.)
For a number of years he lectured in Irish on temperance at the Market House in Ballydehob.
He worked ceaselessly for the relief of distress in the Famine and his own health and financial position suffered.
it is believed that he died in 1866
He is the subject of an article by Brendan O Conchuir, in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 98, 1993 (pp.50-60).
Peadar Ó h-Anracháin was given his papers by his daughter and one of his ‘Cois Life’ articles in the Southern Star refers to this in detail.