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Mr. Skelton went out into the country to discover the real state of his poor, and travelled from cottage to cottage over mountains, rocks, and heath. He was then a witness to many scenes of sorrow, to which the gay world were insensible, and which could be felt only by a soul so sympathetic as his. In one cabin he found the people eating boiled prushia* by itself for their breakfast, and tasted this sorry food which seemed nauseous to him. Next morning he gave orders to have prushia gathered and boiled for his own breakfast, that he might live on the same sort of food with the poor. He eat this for one or two days; but at last his stomach turning against it, he set off immediately for Ballyshannon to buy oatmeal for them, and brought thence with all speed as much as appeased the hunger of some of them. He also gave money to one Hanna to go through the parish, and distribute it among those who were in great distress. By this supply, some of the poor who were so weak with hunger that they could not rise out of their beds, in eight days grew so strong as to be able to get up.
When he had thus afforded them present relief, he went to Ballyhayes in the county of Cavan, and brought thence oatmeal which he could buy at a cheaper rate. He then set out through the country to see what subsistence the indigent people had in their wretched hovels, and used to look into the crocks and chests in which they kept their meal, and count their number of children, that he might be a better judge of their necessities. To some he gave one peck, to others more, according to their wants, and to those who could afford to pay a little he allowed meal at about half value. He thus, like his great Master, went about doing good.
One day, when he was travelling in this manner through the country, he came to a lonely cottage in the mountains, where he found a poor woman lying in child-bed with a number of children about her. All she had, in her weak helpless condition, to keep herself and her children alive, was blood and sorrel boiled up together. The blood, her husband, who was a herdsman, took from the cattle of others under his care, for he had none of his own. This was a usual sort of food in that country, in times of scarcity; * A weed with a yellow flower that grows in corn-fields. VOL. I.
for they bled the cows for that purpose, and thus the same cow often afforded both milk and blood. Mr. Skelton tasted the odd mixture, the only cordial the poor woman had to strengthen her in her feeble state. His tender heart being touched at the sight, he went home immediately, and sent her a hundred of meal, a pound of brown sugar, and a bottle of brandy. He then visited her every second day in her cot among the mountains, bestowing on her such comforts as seemed requisite, until she recovered.
At that time, he and Jonas Good, the strong man, regulated Pettigo market on a Monday, standing among the meal-sacks, each of them with a huge club in his hand. They were obliged, when the carriers were bringing the meal to Pettigo, to guard it with their clubs, as the people of the adjacent parishes strove to take it by force, in which they sometimes succeeded, hunger making them desperate.
When he had procured some meal to supply the immediate wants of the necessitous, he sent off to Drogheda for flax, and having it carried to Pettigo, bestowed in greater or less quantities, according to the number of people in a family that could spin. The yarn thus made was sold every market-day, and the money it produced placed in his hands, as also the earnings of the men, in return for the meal and flax he gave them for the succeeding week; but these far exceeded in value the pittance the women could earn by spinning, or the men by labour. He thus made them contribute their industry to their own support. On those who were unable to work he bestowed meal sufficient for their subsistence; and with the money produced by the earnings of the people, and what he could collect himself, he bought more meal and flax, and thus daily strove to preserve them.
For some time he was tolerably successful; but at last his money was nearly all spent, and yet he knew the dearth must continue many weeks more, before the new crop would relieve the poor. He was then very apprehensive, lest, after keeping them alive so long, he should see them at last dying of hunger. This forced him to an expedient extremely afflicting to a scholar excluded, as he was, from all civilized society. He resolved to sell his books, the companions of his solitude, and relieve his indigent pa
rishioners with the money. With this intent he sent them to Dublin, to William Watson, the bookseller in Capelstreet, desiring him to dispose of them immediately; who, in compliance with his orders, advertised them for sale in the newspapers. But as buyers were tardy, and the wants of the poor very urgent, Mr. Watson bought them himself for 801. and instantly paid the money. Soon after the advertisement appeared in the newspapers, two ladies, who guessed at his reason for selling his books, sent him a 507. bill, requesting him to keep the books, and relieve his poor with the money. These ladies did not discover their names; but I am assured, that one of them was lady Barrymore, who gave 201. and the other a Miss Leslie, who gave 301. However, with expressions of gratitude he told them, he had dedicated his books to God, and he must sell them. Consequently, the contribution of the ladies, and the money he got for his books, were both applied to the relief of his poor. This was a sacrifice to duty of which no one can have an adequate idea, except a scholar, fond of reading, situated like Mr. Skelton, in a barren country, among illiterate people, with a number of agreeable books, the only companions of his many solitary hours.
Such were the exertions and extraordinary charities, of this exemplary clergyman, for the preservation of his poor parishioners. He was, indeed, like an angel sent down from heaven to visit them in their distress. A few such primitive apostolic Christians in this kingdom might almost be sufficient to avert the divine judgment, which God knows how soon may overtake us for our sins.
In the disposal of his charities, he made no distinction with respect to the religion of the persons, as the only claim they had to offer was poverty and want. Indeed he frequently declared, that during the several dearths in which he had the care of a parish, his charities were mostly conferred on Roman Catholics; for these, when they got a little money, spent it all profusely in drinking and carousing, without laying by a penny for any unforeseen accident, and consequently, in times of scarcity, would, many of them, have died of hunger, had they not been relieved. But Protestants of every description, being more economical, had
generally something saved, and of course, when a famine prevailed, stood in less need of assistance.
It is necessary to mention, that Mr. Watson sold a part of the books; those that remained, Mr. Skelton, when he could afford it, took from him at the price he sold them for, but insisted on paying interest for the sum they amounted to, for the time Mr. Watson had them in his possession.
He continued for a few years to lock the church door at intervals, while he examined the grown-up people in religion; but was at last forced to desist, as a woman fainted in the church, because she could not get out. However he did not on this account leave off examining them. It was a fashion with them to be going out and coming in, during the time of service, which obliged him at length to speak to them thus from the reading-desk, "remark the disturbers of God's worship." This rebuke partly cured them of the irregularity.
All his exertions were indeed scarce sufficient to keep his people in due order. Among their other bad practices, they used to steal timber from the adjoining woods. One man, who was notorious for this, he forced with much difficulty to swear to take no more in future. A hearer of his
who, he was told, had taken a bundle of scollops and some timber out of Rapee-wood in the county of Fermanagh, kneeling one Sunday at the sacrament, had got the bread, and was just getting the wine, when looking in his face, he perceived who he was, and then stopped short, and said to him, "You have stolen a part of the Lord's sacrament, but you shall get no more." The man replied to him very sharply. However he was afterward reconciled to this man, and invited him to dine with him.
Doctor Clayton, the bishop of Clogher, was, it is well known, a strenuous opposer of the most essential doctrine of the orthodox faith. He declared his disbelief of some of the articles of our church to which he had solemnly subscribed; though he had no scruple of conscience to enjoy the ample revenue it afforded him. His lordship, it seems, was not content with the consciousness of having found out by his sagacity the right opinion himself, but, like some others of the same stamp, had a longing desire to make converts.
When he was putting down on paper his strange notions in his study, his lady used to come in, and say to him, "My lord, quit writing, or you'll lose your bishopric." But he would not be persuaded by her; the world was all wrong, he said, and he would strive to set it right. Accordingly, beside the Essay on Spirit, he published afterward some other pieces, in which he declared his sentiments too plainly on the subject of the Trinity. This gave occasion for an open attack on him in the House of Lords, when primate Stone made a very severe speech against him. The House resolving to deprive him of his bishopric, summoned him to appear before them. He then consulted a great lawyer on the subject, and asked him, if he thought he would lose his bishopric? " My lord," he answered," I believe you will." 'Sir;" he replied, "you have given me a stroke I shall never get the better of." His apprehensions were too true; for he was instantly seized with a disorder, and soon after died, in 1758.
A lady, who usually had a correspondence with Mr. Skelton, in a letter she wrote him from Dublin, mentioned, among other transactions, the bishop's death, and the probable cause of it. In his answer he lamented the bishop's fate, and thought his gentle spirit could not bear the severity he experienced, but that it broke his heart. The world knows how strenuous an advocate he was for those religious opinions that are exactly contrary to his lordship's; but his gratitude for the benefice he had conferred on him made him feel so sensibly for his fate. This bishop, with all his heretical notions, was a useful man to the poor. Being a member of the linen board, he got a great many wheels and reels for the poor about Clogher, and thus kept the most of them employed. He also had the honour of giving Mr. Skelton his first living, which, if he pleased, he might have refused to his dignified solicitors.
In the see of Clogher, he was succeeded by Dr. Garnet, a prelate of great humility, and a friend to literature and religion. This bishop, though he had but one eye, could discover, as I am told, men of merit, as well as some people with two eyes. Sensible that Mr. Skelton was a man of worth and parts, he treated him with the respect such men deserve. A superior, who treats a man of learning and