Sunday, 7 April 2013

What the eccentric Earl-Bishop did for Derry

An article from the Derry Journal regarding a peculiar incident that took place in the current UK City of Culture some years ago.

It's doubtful that the mindless morons who burned a portrait of 18th century Earl Bishop of Derry, Frederick Hervey, knew anything of his radical support for Catholic rights in a time of persecution.

An ardent supporter of Catholic emancipation - a stance which invoked the ire of many of his contemporaries - Dr Hervey was honoured after his death by the people of his diocese, including a Dissenting minister and a Catholic Bishop.

At his family home in Ickworth in Surrey an obelisk was inscribed with a tribute which includes the following excerpt: "Sacred to the memory of Frederick, Earl of Bristol, Bishop of Derry, who during 35 years that he presided over that See, eandeared himself to all denominations of Christians resident in his extensive diocese. He was a friend and protector of them all."

According to various sources, the man whose family is well known for many reasons - including the famous sherry, Harvey's Bristol Cream - was extremely popular in Derry and is said to have brought the age of enlightenment to the city with his liberalism and tolerance.

In his book, 'Irish Eccentrics' Peter Somerville-Large says of Bishop Hervey: "He underwent that fierce metamorphosis that turns some English men into Irish patriots. In a time savage religious discrimination he openly supported the cause of Catholic emancipation."

He was well travelled, cultured, an art connoisseur, multi-lingual and an enthusiastic amateur geologist.

But Dr Hervey, was also bit of an oddball, packed full with peculiarities. He was widely regarded as an eccentric character and a host of bizarre tales infuse his lifestory.

On one occasion, according to Somerville-Large, the Earl-Bishop was enjoying a meal in Siena while on his travels and, as a procession of the Host passed under the window of his hotel, "he leaned out and threw a tureen of spaghetti at it".

On hearing of his appointment to the See of Derry, according to tradition, Dr Hervey was playing leapfrog with clergymen in the grounds of his palace at Cloyne. He's reported to have said: "Gentlemen, I will jump no more. I have surpassed you all! I have jumped from Cloyne to Derry."

The philosopher and utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham was impressed with Dr Hervey but also noted his failings.. "He is a most excellent companion, pleaseant, intelligent, well read, well bred and liberal minded to the last degree. He has been everywhere and knows everybody." However, Bentham also described the Earl Bishop as being "touched" and having a tendency to exaggerate.

The Bishop also had a habit dressing like Catholic Bishop, something which irritated the Vatican authorities on his frequent visits to Rome - a home from home for much of his life.

One aspect of his behaviour is described by Somerville-Large as "inexcusable". He spent nearly half of his 36 year tenure as Bishop of Derry out of the country. For the last 13 years he did not set foot in his diocese.

But his tenure, from 1768-1803, was notable for the way he used church collections to transform the Derry diocese, earning him the nickname 'The Edifying Bishop'.

Originally from Ickworth in Surrey, Hervey was appointed Bishop of Derry - regarded as the richest episcopal prize in the coutry - at the age of 39 through the favour of his brother George, Lord Bristol and a former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

During his term in the diocese, he mined stone, built roads and developed ecclesiastical buildings but "perhaps the Bishop's greatest contribution to his adopted city", according to Brian Lacey in 'Siege City', was Dr Hervey's plans for the first bridge across the River Foyle.

He oversaw the plans and donated 1,000 to the initial project in 1769, although the wooden bridge did not come to fruition until 1790.

The Bishop even promoted new farming methods, introducing a "very neat kind of gate, the bars of which are oak rounded", according to one contemporary. He also built great mansions at Downhill and nearby Ballyscullion. The Downhill houses contained, among many other artefacts, galleries with paintings attributed to famous artists such as Rubens, Raphael, Murillo, Correggio, Tintoretto, Perugino, Van Dyke and Durer.

He enjoyed entertaining guests at Downhill, "rich and poor, Catholics and dissenters were all welcome", says Somerville- Large.

Dr Hervey also built Mussenden Temple on the cliffs above Magilligan Strand - which he dedicated to 22 year-old Mrs Frideswide Mussenden, whose beauty he "admired". The temple included an underground room intended for priests to say Mass, safe from religious persecution.

In 1778, Dr Hervey inherited an Earldom with the death of his brother Augustus and he became the first Earl-Bishop since Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent, seven hundred years earlier.

Having, thrown himself into the radical political agitation of the period, Dr Hervey also had military aspirations. He was appointed Colonel of the Londonderry Corps of the Volunteers and made his military debut at the Volunteer meeting at Dungannon in September 8, 1783 which demanded a Grand General Convention of the Volunteers to lobby for greater legislative freedom for the Dublin Parliament.

At the convention in Dublin 1783, Dr Hervey mounted a leadership challenge against his long-term enemy James Caulfield, Earl of Charlemont - the commander of the movement. However, when his challenge failed Hervey was unable to influence any reform. One contemporary wrote: "The volunteer of Derry is of no consequence."

Nonetheless, liberals and Catholics were grateful. Somerville-Large quotes one tribute: "We trust that heavens' providence points you to us as one enobled instrument to raise our injured kingdom from infamy to glory, from misery to felicity."

But Dr Hervey's political enthusiasm waned as did his liberal views and by the time he died in July, 1803 - five years after the United Irishmen's failed rebellion - he had become "utterly reactionary".

In 1798 he was imprisoned by the Napoleon's force at Milan as a suspected spy, remaining in custody for 18 months. He died outdoors at Albano from "gout of the stomach", according to one contemporary and was buried in Ickworth Church.

However, despite all his oddities, he was remembered by Catholics, dissenters and his Anglican flock in Derry as a great patron, liberal agitator "friend and protector".

Those who saw fit to burn his portrait in a bonfire placed on a main city artery would do well to take note.