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On Monday 04 April 1842 the following motion was agreed by the Board of Guardians, Union Workhouse, Dundalk, County Louth:


"RESOLVED, That inasmuch as the children, Sarah and William Montgomery, have expressed their wish to attend the Roman Catholic place of worship, they shall now be entered on the register as Roman Catholics."[1]



The Reverend Elias Thackeray was Vicar of the parishes of Dundalk and Louth at the time. Before he was ordained he was a Captain in the 3rd Dragoon Guards, and in that capacity, was responsible for bringing Wolfe Tone to Dublin after the latter’s arrest in October 1798. He became Vicar of Dundalk in 1803. He contributed to Shaw-Mason’s Statistical Survey of Ireland (1816). The position of Rector of the Parish of Louth was added to his clerical responsibilities in 1823. He died on 29 April 1853.[2] He was a relative of the author William Makepeace Thackeray, and played host to him when he visited the town of Dundalk in 1842.


W.M. Thackeray provides us with an excellent pen-picture of the Vicar: "I was so lucky also to have an introduction to the Vicar of Dundalk, which that gentleman's kind and generous nature interpreted into a claim for unlimited hospitality; and he was good enough to consider himself bound not only to receive me, but to give up precious engagements abroad in order to do so. I need not say that it afforded me sincere pleasure to witness, for a couple of days, his labours among his people; and indeed it was a delightful occupation to watch both flock and pastor. The world is a wicked, selfish, abominable place as the parson tells us; but his reverence comes out of his pulpit and gives the flattest contradiction to his doctrine: busying himself with kind actions from morning till night, denying to himself, generous to others, preaching the truth to young and old, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, consoling the wretched, and giving hope to the sick; - and I do not mean to say that this sort of life is led by the Vicar of Dundalk merely, but do firmly believe that it is the life of the great majority of the Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy of the country."[3]


Dundalk Union Workhouse opened on Friday 11 March 1842.


Sarah Montgomery was born on the 16th of July 1830 and baptised two weeks later in St. Mary’s Church of Ireland, Newry. She was aged twelve, and her brother William was aged about ten when they were admitted to the Workhouse on 14 March 1842.


They were the children of John and Matilda Montgomery. Matilda née Hartford, hailed from the area of Tanderagee, as did her husband, and married "below her station"[4], according to her family, in Ballymore Parish Church, in County Armagh. They were both Protestant and descended from Protestant families. Indeed, in order to press home a point, when controversy later broke out about the acknowledgment of the children as Roman Catholic, Rev. Thomas Carter of Ballimore wrote to Rev. Thackeray: "If there was wanting evidence to confirm Montgomery’s claim to be a Protestant, there are fifty Orangemen in Tanderagee who saw him admitted, and frequently attend with him at meetings of the lodge".


 The circumstances surrounding the children’s admittance to the workhouse were particularly poignant, but probably no sadder, nor more unusual, than that of many children at the time. A cholera epidemic, which had been sweeping across Europe in 1826 (having originated in India in 1817), finally reached Ireland in 1832, causing mortality rates of some 76% in some places.[5] One of the early victims of the epidemic in Dundalk was Matilda Montgomery, mother of Sarah and William. She died in the local Cholera Hospital and was buried in the Church of Ireland churchyard, Dundalk. There is no record of her burial, though there is, coincidentally, another record of the burial of a Susan Montgomery on 01 August 1832, the same time as Matilda died and a few months after William was born. It is probable that the Christian name entry in the register is incorrect.


There were four children in the Montgomery family. They must have moved to the town of Dundalk sometime prior to 1831 and were well known to the local Church of Ireland clergy, as they regularly attended church services. John Montgomery, the children’s father, was a carpenter, a practising Episcopalian, and was attended by his clergyman, Rev. John Hamilton Stubbs[6], a curate of Dundalk Parish, before and at the time of his death at the end of March 1836, in Church-lane, Dundalk. He was buried with his wife in the local Church of Ireland churchyard. Following the demise of their father, the children were looked after in the family home by their elder sister Eliza and an elder brother, though the bulk of the responsibility for their welfare, in the form of private contributions, fell on the local Church of Ireland clergy. This also included their religious wellbeing, and the children were brought up as Episcopalians, attended Sunday school and regularly attended services.


On Saturday 23 July 1836, Eliza married William Shannon, a journeyman carpenter, in a Church of Ireland ceremony in Dundalk. He was a Catholic. It was at this point that the children’s elder brother, who had attended the wedding of his sister, left the family home and joined the army. Nothing further is known of him. Five months into the marriage Eliza approached a neighbour, Susan McCabe, and told her that she wanted to speak to a Catholic curate, as she wished to convert to Roman Catholicism. Rev. Matthew McCann[7] advised her that she should feel under no pressure to convert. She received instruction and was, it seems, shortly afterwards baptised. There is no record of this baptism in the Louth Roman Catholic registers. Eight months into the marriage Shannon deserted Eliza and departed for Liverpool.


After her husband left, Eliza attempted to support herself by sewing and knitting. Then she and the children took fever for a period of about four months and were supported by a local Roman Catholic clergyman. On recovering, Eliza went to England in search of her husband and returned alone two months later. In her absence, she left the children in the charitable hands of their neighbours, in particular a Mrs. Lynch who used Sarah as a childminder, to look after her own children. William was sent off to the Free School every day. On her return, Eliza went into the service of Mrs. Lynch and it was during this time that she brought Sarah to the Rev. Mr. John Clarke[8], to be re-christened on 20 May 1837. Eliza and the Rev. Clarke acted as sponsors for the young girl. Sarah had not yet reached her seventh birthday at the time. In June 1839, Eliza started working for a Mrs. Catherine Darcy of Park Street, Dundalk, again as a domestic servant. She remained in service for only a month, when Mrs. Darcy found out that Eliza was married and receiving money through the local Protestant clergy for the upkeep of her two siblings. However, Mrs. Darcy appears to have had a change of heart for, a few months later, she gave permission for the children to sleep in her house, allowing Eliza to carry out her duties to the full, though Mrs. Darcy herself now received the monies previously given to the young woman. This amounted to three shillings per week and was paid through the church Sexton, John Fitzpatrick. This arrangement stayed in place for about fifteen months, at which time Eliza left her job, in September 1841, and abandoned the children, in order to go to England, once again, in search of her husband. Nothing more was heard from her. Throughout their time living in Park Street, the children went to Mrs Reilly’s Free School at 10.00 in the morning and returned to dinner at three. The school catered for all denominations.


Also, while in the service with both Mrs. Lynch and Mrs. Darcy, Eliza attended Roman Catholic services and used to take Sarah along with her to Sunday evening classes. In her statement to the Workhouse Board of Guardians, Mrs. Darcy said that Eliza and the children would attend services and lectures twice a week at the local Church of Ireland and that she had no idea Eliza was anything but Protestant, until the controversy broke out in the Workhouse.


With Eliza now gone, the children were taken into the care of Mrs. McClelland. William was sent to work for Cavanagh’s, but remained there only a short time as he proved to be very disruptive. The children remained with Mrs. McClelland, who was paid four shillings six pence per week for their upkeep, for a period of about seven months, after which time the unfortunate youngsters were despatched to the Workhouse (14 March 1842). On arrival, and on being questioned on their religious affiliations, they were entered in the books as being Protestant.


Cruel as this might appear, it was deemed that being admitted to the Workhouse would be in the best interests of the children, as here they would be guaranteed bed and board, an education of sorts, and preparation, in terms of training, for when they left on reaching the age of fifteen. Rev. Thackeray had always taken an interest in the plight of the children; it was thanks to him that payment for their upkeep was arranged; and it was he who wrote the note of introduction that the youngsters brought with them to the Workhouse. It may have been the Catholic chaplain in the Workhouse who brought to the attention of the Guardians that Sarah had, in fact, been baptised into the Roman Catholic faith. Whatever way it happened, three weeks after their arrival at the Workhouse, the following marginal note was entered in the registry, beside the original entry that gave the children’s religion as Protestant:  “R. Catholic, by order of the Board of Guardians, dated April 4th, 1842. – F. O’Reilly, master”.


On being made aware of it, Rev. Thackeray was less than happy about this situation and on 15 April 1842, he wrote a long letter to the Poor Law Commissioners, to whom the Board of Guardians reported, pointing out the facts of the case. This included a brief history of the children’s upbringing. He pointed out that unfortunately, unlike their Roman Catholic counterparts, there was no Episcopalian minister appointed to the Workhouse when it opened, and for a month afterwards. Had there been a minister there from the beginning, this case would never have arisen. He also stated that the children’s parents were Protestant and had they lived, their children would have been brought up Protestant. He quite rightly questioned the competence of an eight-year-old (actually six) child, as Sarah was at the time of her re-christening, in determining what religion she should follow, and also stated his fears that this case would set a precedent in the newly opened Workhouses throughout the country, where the religion of inmates could be changed at the stroke of a pen – "something that would endanger the harmony and peace of the union itself or of the district around".


A copy of the Rev. Thackeray’s letter was forwarded by the Poor Law Commissioners to the Board of Guardians for their consideration and reply. At a meeting of the latter on the 13 May 1842 it was agreed that the matter be deferred until the next Board meeting on the 20th. In the meantime, Rev. Thackeray, obviously frustrated by how slowly matters were being progressed, wrote to the Poor Law Commissioners again urging them to expedite this case quickly, and pointing out that on the previous Sunday his minister, Rev. George Studdert[9], was not allowed access to the children for religious instruction. On 20 May the Board of Guardians met and resolved to hold an enquiry, requesting evidence from the Roman Catholic and Episcopalian ministers. Four days later Rev. Thackeray wrote again to the Commissioners, again pointing out the facts of the case, but this time threatening Parliamentary action if no progress was made and the children returned to the guardianship of the Established Church.


The Board of Enquiry was held on the 27 May. Susan McCabe, who was present at the time, gave evidence that Eliza Montgomery was in no way forced to become a Catholic and that Eliza stated at the time of her conversion that she would have the children baptised as well. There does not appear to have been a Catholic minister present at the enquiry and the Rev. Stoddert refused to give any evidence without the presence of a Commissioner or deputy. Finally the children were called. Sarah stated that she believed that the Roman Catholic Church was the true church; that "they were supported by their brother and sister; were going to chapel before they came to the poor-house, and they wished to come to the poor-house in order that they could go to the Catholic Church". The conclusion of the Board of Guardians was that the children were sufficiently intelligent to choose their own religion and that they should remain in the books of the poor-house as Roman Catholics.


On 01 June Rev. Thackeray again wrote to George Nicholls, Poor Law Commissioner. His frustration was obvious. Again pointing out the background to the problem, he also added that the case was causing much unrest in Dundalk and the surrounding area.


Thomas Fostescue, gentleman, of Ravensdale, Dundalk, was Chairman of the Board of Guardians. He was a Protestant, one of only a few on the Board, which was overwhelmingly Catholic. He profoundly disagreed, along with his fellow Protestant Board members, with the resolution agreed on the 27 May and with the way the enquiry had been conducted. On 03 June, at a Board meeting, he ordered that a letter from him be inserted in the minutes of the Workhouse. It once again gave the history of the children as it was known, details of their parents as known and pointed out that for all their lives, except for a brief period after their parents died when they were under the care of their sister, the children had been either members of, or under the guardianship of, the Church of England. He added, "Lastly I protest against the resolution above referred to, because, although it was my duty as chairman of the board to sign their proceedings, I cannot allow it to be supposed that I do in any way concur in their decision". Five other Board members agreed with him. In a separate letter to Mr. E. Gulson, Assistant Commissioner, in Rostrevor, Fortescue said that only he and the other two Protestants in attendance at the meeting dissented when the resolution was presented. There were ten or twelve "Ayes", all from Roman Catholics.


Edward Gulson, Esq., Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, entered the fray and drew up a lengthy report, dated 11 June 1842 after interviewing many of those involved in the case. Among his conclusions he stated that in the spirit of the Poor Relief Act, the children should remain under the care of the Episcopalian chaplain until they reached the age of fifteen, the age of discretion, at which time the Act emancipated the child from the care of its parents. However he also concluded that the Guardians could certainly resist the authority of the Commissioners, in so far as the law would permit.


On 20 June, Rev. Thackeray again wrote to George Nicholls, Esq., Poor Law Commissioner. Yet again he pointed out that there had been no change concerning the children and threatening Parliamentary action if the matter was not resolved by Sunday 26 June.


On 22 June Arthur Moore, Chief Clerk of the Poor Law Commissioners wrote a long and legalistic letter to the Board of Guardians in Dundalk. This letter once again gave a résumé of the case, but stated that the Guardians, in registering the children as Roman Catholic and in proceeding to educate them as such, were in violation of the 49th section of the Irish Poor Act. Furthermore, if the Guardians continued in their action, proceedings would be brought against them and they would become liable to the penalties provided by the 32nd and 102nd sections of the same Act. At this point, the Commissioners wrote to Rev. Thackeray, informing him of what action they had taken in the case. However, by now on a visit to Cambridge, Rev. Thackeray was already lobbying Members of Parliament. It is probably through this action that the documents relating to the case ended up in the Parliamentary Papers. Rev. G. Studdert, Rev. Thackeray’s nephew, wrote to his uncle on 26 June, to say that although the Commissioners letter had been read to the Board of Guardians, they had not yet acted on it. Still the Board of Governors refused to budge. Finally, on 20 July 1842, a letter was sent to them under seal from the Poor Law Commissioners, with a copy to the Clerk of the Board of Guardians and another to the Clerk to the Justices of Petty Sessions, initiating legal proceedings.


And with that, the controversy ended. It is assumed that the Board of Guardians capitulated and the children were returned to the Established Church. There is no indication as to what became of the Montgomery children when they left the Workhouse. There are no further records of them in the Church of Ireland registers.



C.R. Cheney, Handbook of Dates, London 1970

Rev. James B. Leslie, Armagh Clergy and Parishes, Dundalk 1911.

Fr. Michael Murtagh, St. Patrick’s Dundalk, an Anniversary Account, Dundalk 1997

W.M. Thackeray, The Irish Sketch Book, London 1879.

Patrick C. Power, The Courts Martial of 1798-99, Ireland 1997.

Rev. J.F. Stokes [Editor], Centenary Record, Saint Patrick’s Dundalk, Dublin 1947

Co. Louth Archaeological and Historical Journal, Vol. XX, No. 2, 1982.

Parliamentary Papers 1842, Volume 36.

Parliamentary Papers 1843, Volume 46.

Thom’s Irish Almanac 1848



County Louth Genealogical Sources:

Enhanced British Parliamentary Papers on Ireland, 1801-1922 (EPPI):

Slater's Commercial Directory of Ireland 1846:

Louth County Library Genealogy Database:


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[1] Unless otherwise stated, the information in this article is taken from “Dundalk Union” in Parliamentary Papers 1842, Volume 36, pages 545/1-16, NLI Dublin

[2] Biographical details from Rev. James B. Leslie, Armagh Clergy and Parishes, Dundalk 1911, p. 282.

[3] W.M. Thackeray, The Irish Sketch Book, London, 1879 edition, pps. 271-272.

[4] Letter from E.F. Livingston [Belfast] to Rev. Elias Thackeray, 15 April 1842. [Parliamentary Papers 1942, p. 545/10)

[5] “Cholera in County Louth” in Co. Louth Archaeological and Historical Journal, Vol. XX, No. 2, 1982, p.117.

[6] Headmaster of Dundalk Grammar school – see Leslie

[7] Parish Priest of Dundalk 1817-36.

[8] Local Curate; later Curate in Louth Parish. [Thom’s Almanac 1848]

[9] Curate, Dundalk 1842-54






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