Returned emigrant documents church's big house tradition


IT BEGAN as a hobby but became an obsession which fuelled a growing rage where 73-year-old Nicholas Quirke was concerned. The result can be seen on his website of Catholic parochial houses and presbyteries in Ireland.

The website contains photographs of approximately 1,750 parochial houses, most of them Georgian and dating from between 1850 and 1920.

He took the pictures on a 70,000-mile journey through each of the 26 Catholic dioceses in Ireland over four summers, in the course of which he was run off the road three times and wrote off one car.

The days were long, often beginning at 5.30am, and not finishing until 10.30pm.

The endeavour began in innocence. Mr Quirke was having a conversation with the parish priest of Ballingarry, Co Tipperary, who lived in “a magnificent Georgian house”. He remarked on this, to which the parish priest replied: “There are a lot of houses like these all over Ireland.”

Based in Kilkenny, he began to drive around parishes taking photographs and with about 25 taken, “I realised I was on to something,” he said.

He obtained a copy of the Catholic Directory and “began with Leinster and Munster, avoiding big cities. “I tried Dublin but it frightened the life out of me,” he said.

What enraged him was his realisation that so many of these magnificent houses had been built when millions were emigrating, most without education.

“Every penny available was grabbed by the Catholic Church . . . which built Georgian houses all over the country. And parishes must have been desperate at the time,” he said.

In his own case he emigrated to England at the age of 19 with little education and worked with British Telecom for most of his adult life, where he became a senior instructor in computers. On retirement he returned to Ireland.

Travelling around the country from presbytery to presbytery he became “a very, very angry man” at the way “decent working people, devout Catholics, were treated”, he said. “I wanted evidence that couldn’t be refuted,” he said. He also believed that what he has put together on the website is “an important part of the social history of Ireland”.

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