Ginni Swanton's Web Site

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
in Ballidahab
On the 15th of February 1840
aged 76
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.
Epb. iv.3
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.

Robert Swanton was born about the year 1764. Richard Deasy of Clonakilty wrote of him in 1845 that he had been a 'most active agent of the United Irishmen' and that he had 'organised the country into a military preparation with sergeants and officers'.

Shortly before the rising of 1798 Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the Sheares brothers and other leaders were arrested. Swanton fled to America. According to one account, he had also been arrested and had escaped from jail. The late Thomas Roycroft of Skibbereen kept alive the tradition that he had been hidden in a butter barrel, smuggled out to sea in a rowing boat, and that he had boarded a ship six miles from the coast. 

He soon made his mark in his adopted country, and in the 1820's, was a leading figure in the 'Friends of Ireland in New York'. He was the author of 'A Manifesto to the People of Ireland' issued by the 'Friends'. Among his colleagues in this society were Dr. William Power and his brother Father John Power, vicar general of New York, and one of the most eminent priests in America. They were sons of Andrew and Elizabeth Power (1), who lived in the house now (1981) occupied by Mr. Joe Connolly of Deelish Skibbereen. They were nephews of Father John Power, the saintly pastor of Kilmacabea. Further research would probably unearth more details of Robert Swanton's American career. For the moment, we must be satisfied with the obituary published by the New York Evening Post on 4 April 1840.

"It is with heartfelt regret that we announce the death of Robert Swanton, for many years judge of the Marine Court of this city. He died on the 15th of February last in the County of Cork, Ireland, which place he revisited about four years ago after an absence of more than 36 years. The loss of this inestimable man cannot fail to be severely felt by the poor and oppressed to whom he was an undeviating protector and friend.

Possessed of considerable wealth but disdaining the vanities and luxuries for which wealth is so eagerly sought, he freely contributed to the relief of the indigenous and to promoting the interest of numerous relatives and friends. He was no less alive to the political and moral welfare of his fellow creatures. He was an unswerving and ardent advocate of the rights of man.

In the great effort undertaken at the end of the last century by a magnanimous and self-devoted band of patriots to rescue their native land from the grasp of the oppressor, he nearly sacrificed his life, was driven from his home, to become a friendless and destitute exile. But in the cherished land of his adoption, his sound sense, his intelligence, his integrity and his devotion to popular rights were soon appreciated and earned the esteem and love of a numerous circle of friends.

Neither prosperity nor advancing age dampened the ardor of his philanthropy. We have no doubt that after he had passed the alloted span of man's existence here, he was willing to sacrifice all for the social regeneration of man as when, 44 years ago, he placed his name on the roll of the "United Irishmen".

The Truth Teller (2) said of him "To the above just tribute to the memory of a good man - 'the noblest work of God' - we add that the following extract of a letter from him, for examination of which we are indebted to one of his distinguished friends, dated Cork 30th November last, showing that in his 80th year he was still the same unchanged, unchangeable and uncompromising Democrat which marked his previous course.

The octogenarian asked an old friend in New York "What are the prospects of my esteemed fellow citizen, Martin Van Buren? Electioneering rumor is busy even here. Well have you tacked British to the self-styled Whigs of the present day". In allusion to the name the opposition have taken he continues, "You and I have often been amused with names, but never gulled by them. I know that American Democracy will -- the people will -- be true to theselves and Martin Van Buren will be our next President. I hope to be with you in time to give my feeble support to the good old cause". The prophetic voice of Robert Swanton is now a voice from the grave: "appreciate, believe, act."

Robert Swanton's nephew, Thomas, 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

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.