Thursday, 20 September 2012

Henry Downes 1667-1735 : Bishop of Derry 1727-35

Henry Downes was educated at New College, Oxford and graduated B.A. 1690, M.A. 1693/4. After three parishes in Northamptonshire, he became chaplain to George I and George II.

George I, by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Archtreasurer and Prince-Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg.

George II, by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Archtreasurer and Prince-Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg.

Downes held a number of bishoprics before his translation to Derry: Killala, 1717; Elphin, 1720; Meath 1724. Finally, in February 1727, Downes was translated to Derry.

A good friend of his predecessor, William Nicolson, Downes shared with him the distinction of being termed a "foreigner" (English bishops in charge of Irish Sees) by the resentful native born clergy. Not surprisingly therefore, Downes also came into Archbishop King's line of fire. On hearing that Downes had been hotly tipped to become Bishop of Elphin, the Archbishop, writing in April 1720, issued a familiar warning on the problem of non-residency:

"He (Downes) is very capable of doing good, if he will apply himself to it. The bishopric he has is about £900 per annum, besides a good mensal; and there is a tolerable house on it, in which his predecessor lived comfortably and hospitality, but he has not thought fit to imitate the example. If bishops take the course, that is much in practice, to fix in Dublin, and only make an excursion once in the year into their diocese, I am afraid the gentry and people of the country will not easily find out of what use they are; and to have a set of men looked on as useless, is, I am Afraid, a great temptation to lay them aside."

There were two reasons why Downes moved to Elphin. Firstly, the income was £500 per annum more than Killala. Secondly, it was also fifty miles nearer to the centre of social life in Ireland: Dublin. The diocese itself can hardly have been the attraction. Downes estimated that Roman Catholics outnumbered Protestants fifty to one. While the low number of clergy (twenty) was reflected in the acute shortage of clerical houses fit for habitation. Downes, himself, when he visited his diocese during a two month tour, lived in a "little hired cabin" as the episcopal residence was unfit for occupation. It was by the urging of Bishop Nicolson that Downes rebuilt it at the cost of £2000.

Downes' translation to the bishopric of Meath, an even richer see, was the result of his close connection with Bishop Nicolson, and is a good example of ecclesiastical jobbery within the established church of eighteenth century Ireland. He made no secret of his desire for this particular promotion and used Nicolson;s link with the Bishop of London to advance his claim. London, given his standing at the English Court, was thus able to mention Downes's name for the position.

The Right Reverend and The Right Honorable Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London 
As Downes himself related, "I believe his Grace's recommendation of me to Meath was no sooner received than approved". The same machinations were evident in Downes's preferment to the wealthy bishopric of Derry. He, like Nicolson, had a large family and had also suffered the recent bereavement of his wife. It would appear that the Primate, Hugh Boulter, on the eminent death of the Archbishop of Cashel, had chosen Nicolson to succeed him. Nicolson was reluctant to leave Derry but eventually agreed on the understanding that Downes would follow him north.

If Downes' habits remained unchanged when he was translated to Derry, then it was more than likely that he chiefly resided in Dublin. Nevertheless, a surviving visitation record of 1733 suggests that the northern diocese during his episcopate was kept in reasonable shape. In contrast to the Diocese of Elphin, there were thirty-five beneficed clergy in Derry together with twenty-two curates ministering to the parishioners. During the period, philosopher George Berkley had spent much of the time as Dean of Derry formulating plans (ultimately in vain) for a university in Bermuda. His cathedral, however, appears not to have suffered, The visitation found that "The Cathedral is a goodly substantial fabrick.... has a good steeple, a ring of bells, a good organ and everything necessary for the decent performance of Divine Service." Morning and evening services were conducted daily while on Sunday itself sermons were preached morning and afternoon. There were now five hundred communicants at great festivals compared to his predecessor's estimate of four hundred communicants at Christmas 1724.

Bishop Downes died on the 14th January 1735 and was buried in St. Mary's Church, Dublin. He established the clergymen's widows fund in the diocese and in his will left £20 to the poor of Derry. The bishop published a volume of sermons in 1708. He married Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Wilson, Dean of Carlise by whom he had five sons and several daughters. His eldest son, Robert, later became Bishop of Raphoe.


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