The moveable sentry box that became the little ark

The Clare priest who outwitted local landlord.

The way Fr Michael Meehan saw it in 1852, he had two choices: to leave his congregation without the rites of their Catholic faith or to get up a portable chapel. His choice of a movable "sentry box" for Sunday Mass has gone down in history as the Little Ark and it is the anniversary of its arrival in Kilbaha which local people will celebrate later this month.

The ark was brought in triumphal procession from Carrigaholt to Kilbaha in 1852 so, on Sunday, June 23, a replica will be brought in pilgrimage over the same route, a distance of about eight miles. The original was placed on the shore between low and high watermarks so the replica will come to rest in the same place. And, at four o'clock in the afternoon, three hours after the pilgrimage sets out from Carrigaholt, Fr Pat O'Neill, parish priest of, Cross-Kilbaha, will once again celebrate Mass on the shore at Kilbaha.

Though it took Carrigaholt carpenter, Owen Collins, just two weeks to make, the Little Ark has survived the past century and a half as much a monument to the struggle against oppressive landlordism as religious conviction. For not only did it give Fr Meehan and his congregation the freedom to worship as they pleased but its location in a sort of no man's land outside the control of the local landlord also meant they couldn't be evicted.

In its construction, it was said to bear a striking resemblance not to Fr Meehan's original idea of a sentry box but to a large bathing box in Kilkee. Known as the Lady Chatterton, it was the first bathing box erected in the West Clare resort in the 1830s. The ark, now kept permanently in Kilbaha Church, was slightly larger with windows on each side and a short stepladder leading to an open doorway. The altar was at the furthest end could be seen through the windows and doorway.

According to historian, the late Fr Ignatius Murphy, it was the custom on Sundays that the portable chapel be placed on the green patch at the crossroads leading to the quay. On wet days, the people went down to the beach and picked up flat stones or pieces of board to keep their knees dry. Fr Meehan himself wrote in 1857, "In this, ever since, winter or summer, I have celebrated Mass while a large congregation kneel around me in the puddle bare-headed, under the open air".

A contemporary observer described it as "an old omnibus" on four wheels. "The sides were glazed and I saw a rough old table inside and this was the altar and this was the sanctuary where the priest and his clerk stood during the celebration of Mass. Before Mass was commenced, the old omnibus was drawn to the centre of the public road for more accommodation: and here the poor persecuted congregation of Kilbaha kneeled on their bare knees."

And persecuted they were. As parish priest of Moyarta and Kilballyowen, Fr Meehan had jurisdiction over three churches - in Doonaha Carrigaholt and Cross. But there was a large area beyond Cross in which he was also keen to prove a church and national school, an area suffering badly by destitution and emigration. However, appeals for a site to Westby, the absentee landlord, met with repeated refusals.

The situation was complicated by the fact that during the 1850s, Fr Meehan's parishes were torn by religious conflict. The friction had erupted in the aftermath of the Famine with a drive on the part of the Irish Church Mission Society to lure people away from Catholicism by offering them free food and clothing and free education for their children. Soup kitchens were set up and schools established with the backing of landlords and their agents.

The campaign of proselytism soon became known as souperism and got under way in the Loop Head peninsula at about the same time Fr Meehan took up duty in the district. Soup kitchens were set up and hot meals were served free to those who undertook to send their children to the newly established schools where a new catechism was gradually introduced and where the children were taught that their Catholic practices were superstitious and idolatrous.

The prevention of Sunday Mass was the next logical step in the campaign and warnings were duly issued that evictions would follow in the event tenants allowed their homes to be used for worship.
But, in the early 1850s, Fr Meehan bought two adjoining houses from widows going to America. He wrote, "I threw them both into one house and had room at least to shelter my congregation of about three hundred people every Sunday.

"I was not a month under the miserable cover of this little chapel when I got peremptory orders from Mr Marcus Keane to give up instant and clear possession. In vain, I besought him, in the most humble terms, to leave me in for a time, under any rent and until he should want the houses for some other purpose. No use - out I went and the houses remained idle and locked up for nearly two years."

It was then he hit on the idea of the portable chapel. While it was under construction, he continued to say Sunday Mass in the open air beneath the tilted shafts of two farmers' carts over which large sheets were thrown to protect the altar. However, the candles were generally blown out several times during Mass.

The arrival of the Little Ark banished these inconveniences but further trouble was ahead. Before long, Fr Meehan was prosecuted for having a "nuisance" on the public road and though he won the case at Kilrush and again on appeal in Dublin, Westby's agent, Marcus Keane, and his brother, Henry, continued to harass the priest.

According to Fr Murphy, the portable chapel was initially placed in the shelter of a house belonging to the Brennans who were pilots on the Shannon. When they ignored orders not to give it shelter, they were evicted and their house knocked. It was replaced by a large slated house occupied by a retired coastguard and it was there, according to contemporary accounts, that the agent's men would gather to jeer and scoff at the people kneeling around the Ark.

Nonetheless, the little portable chapel served as a church for a period of five years. Sacraments were administered there, marriages were celebrated and children baptised. Finally, in 1857, a site for a church was secured at Moveen with the foundation stone being laid in July of that year. The church was dedicated in October of 1888.

Courtesy of Mark Scanlan and The Clare Champion