The Swantons of County Cork, Ireland,
Boston, Massachusetts
and Brooklyn, New York

Ginni Louise Swanton

The Swantons: Protestants and Catholics

There was a proverb among the Catholic Irish that for a man to be happy in this world and in the next, he should live a Protestant and die a Catholic.

Although the Swantons who fought under King William were almost certainly Protestants, over the years, many Swantons and their descendants became Catholics, probably after the Penal Laws were repealed. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to convert to Catholicism while the Penal Laws were still in full effect between 1692 and 1793. Even between 1793 and 1829, the rights of the Catholics in Ireland were still severely compromised.

My great great great grandfather, John Swanton, would have been 26 in 1793 when the Penal Laws were just beginning to be repealed. His children, William, Michael and James all raised their families as Catholics, and at least one of John’s children was baptized in the Catholic faith in 1817.

The following excerpt from the book, Protestant Society and Politics in Cork by Dr. Ian D'Alton, a retired Fellow of Trinity College, provides a good explanation of the interactions and interrelationships that existed between the Catholic and Protestant tenant farmers after the Penal Laws had been revoked. One of the most common and understandable reasons for religious conversion was marriage.

“Rural Protestantism was not the exclusive preserve of the land-owning ascendancy classes in southern Ireland. While not in the great numbers found in the northern counties, there did exist a class of rural Protestant in the south that was neither 'gentry' nor 'poor cottier' nor 'land agent'. This class of farmer was found in pockets throughout the south, usually the result of long-forgotten plantation policy (sometimes by individual lords of the soil over a long period).

One such pocket was in the area from Bandon west to Bantry and south to Skibbereen. Prosperous Protestant tenant farmers inhabited this section of the county, such as the families of Good, Bradfield, Shorten (Bandon), Shannon, Dukelow (Durrus), Sweetman, Trinder (Clonakilty), Swanton, Attridge, Young (Ballydehob), Levis, Roycroft (Schull) Love (Kilmore), and numerous families of Kingston in Drimoleague.

These families intermarried over generations, maintaining their Protestantism with some difficulty since they were so economically close to many Catholic families around them, and producing an intermarriage pattern more complex than that of the gentry. Such Protestant farming families provided the raw material in the 1830s when, through the medium of the Orange Order the gentry tried -- for a brief period -- to imitate Catholic 'mass' politics.

When observed from afar, county landed society in early nineteenth century Ireland seemed self-contained, introspective almost unitary. In many respects, it was almost an extended familial unit in itself -- a conclusion buttressed by the complex interrelationships built up over generations between various families in the county. This notion of an 'extended family' covers more than a concept of two-dimensional relationship -- of cousins marrying, of rows between families. Rather, it represents more mundane matters -- of money, of patterns of land ownership, of the very basic means by which families and individuals within landed society held their positions, improved and disimproved their lot relative to each other.”

After the Penal Laws were repealed in 1829, life was still hard for the farmers in County Cork. They worked their land from sunup to sundown, trying to grow enough crops to sustain their large families and to pay their rent.

The women worked as hard as the men, taking care of their homes and families. They did most of the cooking in bastables--pots that were hung from a crook in the large fireplace. They bore and raised large families, and often had three or four children under the age of six to tend to at any given time. It wasn’t unusual for a woman’s child-bearing years to extend over 20 years.

They cared for the animals, tending to their feeding, milking, egg gathering, and cleaning. They churned the butter and tended the small family gardens. Doing the family laundry must have been a grueling, day-long chore.

Fires were fueled by turf, which was cut from nearby bogs, stacked, dried, turned, and hauled to the home in small turf carts drawn by donkeys. Fields were plowed using teams of horses and crops were planted, harvested, and threshed by hand. Although the work was hard, there was a simplicity and joy to their lives. Weddings, births, fairs, and even deaths were acknowledged and celebrated with music and dancing. There was a strong sense of community, and families and neighbors looked out for each other.

Enniskeane/Dunmanway Swantons and Midleton Swantons

Both of these Swanton branches were Catholic. The Enniskeane Swantons were primarily farmers and carpenters; the Midleton Swantons were sailors/boatmen. However, I believe that these two families may have been related.

In the Roman Catholic parish records for Dunmanway, there’s a record for the marriage of Jeremiah Swanton to Mary Fehilly on February 14,1860. Their children, Garrett (1862), John (1865), Anastasia (1869), and Eugene (1870) were all baptized in Dunmanway. There is also a record of Garrett’s baptism in Midleton on the same day he was baptized in Dunmanway. Jeremiah and Mary’s daughter, Johanna, was baptized in Midleton in 1866, and Jeremiah’s occupation was given as a boatman. The birth of their son, Owen in 1870 was registered in the Union of Midleton. Eugene and Owen are sometimes interchangeable names.

One possibility is that Mary Fehilly Swanton was originally from the Dunmanway area, and wanted to have her children baptized there. Many of the Midleton Swantons emigrated to the Boston area, settling in Springfield, MA.

Next Page

Return to Table of Contents

Home Page