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Saving St Brigids

A friend of mine in Manhattan has joined an effort to save St Brigid’s Church in the Lower East side and I find myself sufficiently drawn to the cause to support them in print.


Photo: Copyright Dale Amon, all rights reserved.

St Brigids was built on the old waterfront of New York at the time of the Irish famine. It was perhaps the first stop for those who escaped the horror which starved one and a half million of their fellow citizens to death in Ireland and then survived the unspeakable conditions of the Atlantic crossing. The trip alone killed perhaps one of every five who attempted it. As one British Captain put it at the time, the difference between carrying slaves and Irish to the new world was that you did not get paid for a slave unless you delivered him alive.

The church was built in a time when the majority religion in Ireland was outlawed; those landing on New York’s quays built their own place of worship on the shore to celebrate the freedom of religion they found in their new home. The ceiling was built by boatbuilders and carried some of the characteristics of that trade. You can read more about the history here.

The Catholic Diocese of New York has decided to tear it down and has thus far turned a deaf ear to the sometimes strident cries from parishioners. I agree the Diocese is legally the owner and does have the legal right to do with the property as they choose. I do not agree they are doing the right thing. Quite the contrary, I feel they are going down a path that runs counter to the long term interests of their religion, their members, the community the church has served for over a century and a half; and those who wish to see a bit of the historical roots of their own families kept alive.

This is not a problem unique to this small parish; due to costly recent legal problems the Catholic church in America has been destroying small congregations in the same way a national store would cut costs and sell assets to raise capital in hard times: by chopping off all marginal operations. The problem is, a church is not a business, or at least that is not why it exists. A small congregation is not a cost center; it is the very reason the religion exists. If religion is to have any meaning at all in the 21st Century it has to be as the last bastion of community. We used to have small community schools in America. The State destroyed education and communities to gain ‘economies of scale’ and to ‘pay teachers more’. I would hate to see Big Religion join Big Government as yet another destructive force in our society.

If you find this argument compelling; if you want to save a bit of 19th century American architecture or have strong feelings about the immigrant history of the Irish, Italians and Hispanics, contact these people and see what you can do to help.

It is a given in libertarian circles that property rights are an absolute right. You will find no one at Samizdata who will stray from that view. This does not mean libertarians like myself turn a blind eye to what their neighbors do or what happens in the community around them. The actions of others can affect my quality of life, and I feel it my duty to use strong but peaceful persuasion when I feel someone is harming others. Many find it confusing that libertarians will at the same time defend someone’s right to do something while saying they are a bloody immoral fool if they actually do it.

I have recently come across two cases which have impacts in areas which I care about. I have dealt with one of them above; the other is a far more complex issue of regulatory distortions which may soon cause disastrous and irreversible secondary harm and are perhaps only answerable in the time available by a devil’s deal. I have yet to figure that one out, so I decided, for the moment, to stick with this far simpler and clearer issue of property rights in an unfree world.

17 comments to Saving St Brigids

  • Can’t the church sell the place? Maybe it can be converted to apartments, you know, capitalise on that property bubble!

  • Dale Amon

    I’ve just been told that the ownership of the place is actually a bit muddy and involves some interesting real estate deals going back to the 1940′s. Perhaps one of the people involved can expand on it.

  • BadLiberal

    Just because something should be legal and allowed doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. You are perfectly free to go down the interstate at 70 miles per hour in the dark and in the rain. Doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

    Similarly, the Church of course has the right to make bad decisions. Freedom of speech means that the community has a right to react, protest, and reconsider. Similarly, parishoners have every right to withhold tithes and gifts.

    In other words, best of luck to you Dale, and if there are emails to write, please post them here.

  • Raw Data Complex

    Please tell us about the second situation as it is clarified.

  • guy herbert

    Dale,

    When was Catholicism outlawed in Ireland? I know that Catholics had few political rights after the plantation, but I didn’t think even Cromwell tried to prohibit the faith there.

  • Dale Amon

    A few seconds got me this link on the subject:

    http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/famine/before.htm

  • David H

    Despite your rather offhand dismissal of Guy Herbert’s comments you are still wrong. In your post you state: ‘The church was built in a time when the majority religion in Ireland [Catholicism] was outlawed’ – this is demonstrably untrue – certainly there were discriminatory laws against Catholics but Catholicism was never outlawed in Ireland.

    As for the church – it was built for a Catholic local population who have now moved on – the best thing that could happen to it is that it’s converted into a block of apartments.

  • Jim Pettit

    I’m afraid the cited irish history web site is wildly inaccurate failing to distinguish between the actions of the Irish Parliament and the “British” Parliament, between limitations on Catholics after a rebellion to prevent further rebellion and limitations on Presbyterians and other non-Church of England adherents generally, and in saying the Catholic Church was ever illegal.

  • Johnathan

    Dale, very well put sir. I also think it is well worth stating the distinction between the right of property owners to do with their holdings as they wish, and yet pointing out that such actions can be stupid and just plain unpleasant.

    I don’t know enough about the facts involved to say a lot more apart from the fact that the story of Irish immigration is one that should be kept alive, and this church is a part of that story.

  • Why don’t the people who want to preserve that church just buy it?

  • Paul Marks

    Myth.

    At no time was the Roman Catholic relgion “outlawed” in Ireland.

    And those (wrong and wicked I agree) restictions on Roman Catholic schools, priests and church building were all removed in the late 1700′s (they were certainly not around in the 1840′s – by the way the slave trade went in 1807).

    Before anyone jumps up and down – I know well that a Roman Catholic could not collect a degree from Trinity University Dublin till 1873 (but I do not think that is relevant to anything).

    Indeed in the late 18th century the British government began to SUBSIDIZE the Roman Catholic church in Ireland (the college at Maymooth – even though there was already a Roman Catholic semanary at Carlow).

    The reaction to the famine in the 1840s was certainly mistaken – for example the great road projects (roads that went from “nowhere to nowhere”) which just meant that people were concentrated together so that sickness could spread without check (it was sickness, rather than starvation that was the big killer – although malnourished people are vunerable to sickness.

    The various famines of Irish history (for example the great one at the that Robert the Bruce’s brother was trying to become King of Ireland, or the one centuries late in the 1730′s) had never attracted interest before.

    Sir Robert Peel was the first politician to ever spend taxpayer’s money trying to save Irish lives – and (no doubt) he did not do the job very well (although he was better than the Prime Minister who came after him – Lord John Russell).

    There was terrible poverty and sickness in every English city in the 1840′s (as there was all over Europe), but the British government could have done a better job.

    An independent Ireland (of course) could have done nothing at all (an independent government would not have had the money to anything).

    One can attack British undermining of the Irish economy by land confiscations and trade and other economic restrictions in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

    But the various regulations (undermining the rights of Catholic inheritance of large estates or putting restrictions on various forms of trade) had all gone in the late 18th century.

    I am sure if Sir Robert Peel had possessed a time machine in the 1840s and could have gone back in time to prevent Ireland becomming a peasant plot accident waiting to happen (when potato blight or whatever hit the place) he would have used it.

    However, he did not have a time machine. The only restictions left were those that concerned Britain and Ireland (such as the Corn Laws and the Navigation Acts) and they were got rid of (1846 and 1848).

    On direct aid – no doubt more could have been spent (and better spent). But Peel got a lot of flack for spending the money he did spend.

    At least we did not get the myth about Queen Victoria being the “Five Pound Queen” for giving only Five Pounds to charity.

    Actually it was (I seem to remember) about 5000 pounds (and remember, contrary to what is often thought, 19th century British monarchs were not flush with funds) – add to zero’s to that number if you want the inflation adjusted stat.

    Still I am enough the son of my mother (of the Roman Catholic Irish Power family) to wish you well in your efforts to save the church.

    Normal apologies for spelling-typing.

  • Young Fogey

    But the various regulations (undermining the rights of Catholic inheritance of large estates or putting restrictions on various forms of trade) had all gone in the late 18th century.

    Both you and Dale are a bit wrong with your timings – most weren’t removed until the great wave of Reform in the early 1830s, although they were little enforced, except to a degree in Ulster where they were often used to harass ‘uppity’ Catholics. They were pretty much gone by the time of the famine though, with the one remaining purely religious dispute of any significance after that time being the continued establishment of the Church of Ireland and consequent enforcement of tithes on non-Anglicans.

    That is, however, not what forced millions to emigrate to America in coffin ships. St Brigids was built at the same time as the great wave of Catholic church building in urban Ireland.

  • Dale Amon

    There is also the factlet that Ireland was exporting food during the famine. Land was being converted to higher value crops which the locals could not afford, primarily animal protein. Beef, etc I believe.

    Around that time landholders were kicking tenant farmers off their land to make room for bigger herds. To make sure people did not return they would break the central beam of the thatch house. I am not sure where that particular period occured. I believe something similar was happening in Scotland.

  • Paul Marks

    The last of the great Acts to remove economic legilsation against Catholice was in (if my memory serves) 1793.

  • Paul Marks

    I should have written 1792 (for the restictions on being lawyers and such).

    1793 was such things as the right to keep firearms (and other such).

    However (having finally hit what few books I have up here) I find something called “Irish Redform Act” 1832.

    My first thought is that is related the British parliamentary reform statute of the same year.

    However, Young Fogey may well be right (and me wrong) i.e. there could have been a few land restrictions left.

    As for what Dale said – potato blight (i.e. potato’s rotting).

    There were many cases of potato’s going (the 1840′s were bad because the harvest got hit year after year).

    So not a matter of wicked landlords in this case.

    Someone would have to have been barmy to keep growing potatoes on the land in the 1840′s – what is the point of planting what is not going to be harvested?

    Sure the locals kept trying – with hide sight (always 20-20 vision) they should have left years before they did (when they were still in decent health).

    Not that places like Manchester were much fun in the early 1840′s.

    The local people could not afford to buy other stuff – quite so (they were poor).

    Scottish Highland clearances.

    Some landlords did try and convert the subsistance farming up there to other products (just as Dale says).

    However, Highland areas declinined whether the landlords “cleared” them or not.

    Many of the big “improving” landlords (who were mostly Scottish by the way) went bust.

    The Highlands was just not a good economic place for any form of farming.

    That is why a lot of the places ended up as game preserves (for shooting and fishing) – not because of natural wickedness of the landlords, but because they are no good for anything else.

    The “local communities” who have taken the land under Mr Blair’s Comrade Bob style land act will find that.

    If they try and farm in a lot of the Highlands they will go bust.

    I will resist the Dr Johnson quote (especially as he liked Scotland when he finally went there).

  • Paul Marks

    potatoes not potatoe’s

    Mad even by my standards.

    However, the St B. case does seem odd to me – I thought that religion (including the Catholic Church) was strong in America.

    Why have not local Catholics (and Catholics in other parts of the country) not helped out?

  • Paul Marks

    If the local Catholic powers-that-be choose to ignore both history and the appeals of local Catholics an appeal should be made to Rome.

    After all the Pope does not hold the big wigs of the Catholic church in America in high regard.