William Hazlitt

Albert Einstein said ; “ coincidence is Gods way or remaining anonymous” or to put it another way, according to the sci fi author, Emma Bull; “coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys”.
          While preparing a recent service ( August 1st ), I included a quote from the English essayist and painter, William Hazlitt ( 1778-1830). Hazlitt’s father, William senior was a Unitarian minister, who having been born and raised in Shronell, Co.Tipperary, abandoned his Presbyterian upbringing, becoming a Unitarian while a student at the University of Glasgow. Following his graduation, he was ordained and took up an appointment in Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, marrying his wife Grace in 1766.
          His appointment lasted for four years following which, with wife and two young children in tow, he moved to Mansfield. In 1880, Hazlitt decided to move back to Ireland and that year took up an appointment to the Unitarian meeting House in Bandon, West Cork.
          His time in Bandon was not a happy one both professionally and personally. Professionally he angered locals and it seems members of his congregation by highlighting the mistreatment of American prisoners in nearby Kinsale. In what was a very protestant town, he drew ire, anger and threats of physical violence over his defence of local Roman Catholics and their treatment at the hands of British soldiers. It seems that when he walked down the streets of Bandon, locals would shout; “ Beware of the black rebel”.
          Personally, shortly after his arrival in in the town, his infant daughter Harriet died. In 1783, fearing it seems for his life, Hazlitt and his family made a hasty retreat and headed for America. He had always a keen love for America and was friends with Benjamin Franklin. However, like many Irish immigrants, the streets were not paved with either success or fortune. His first port of call was Philadelphia where here despite his Unitarian ideals, he failed to find a pulpit.
          1783 had seen the founding of Dickson College, now a liberal arts university with over 2,400 under graduates. Situated in the town of Carlisle in Pennsylvania, Hazlitt found himself being offered the job as its first principal. The job offered a house attached to the local congregation and a very handsome stipend of 400 guineas per annum. In his life, nothing was easy for Hazlitt and the job came with one condition from the congregation, that he sign a Confession of Faith. He refused, as his daughter Margaret would later say; “he would sooner die in a ditch than submit to human authority in matters of faith”. His principles would cost him the most prestigious post and the biggest stipend he would have earned. While in America, he lectured at Universities on the Unitarian view of faith and although it seems well received, he failed to land a teaching position or a pulpit. Having had some success as a writer he returned to England.
          It seems on his return in 1786, he had set upon the idea of a pulpit in London but again he was disappointed. The only pulpit offered to him was in the rural Shropshire village of Wem, where he ministered for the rest of his life on what was a paltry stipend of £30 per year. His son would later write of his father; ” After being tossed about from congregation to congregation in the heats (sic) of the Unitarian controversy, he had been relegated to an obscure village where
          he was to spend the last 30 years of his life”. William Hazlitt died in Crediton in Devon on the 16th of July 1820.
          But lets go back to the Unitarian meeting House in Bandon. My research from the National Folklore Collection at UCD and other local sources reveals the church was opened in 1813 by the Rev. Edward King, who built the church on land he leased from the Earl of Shannon for one shilling a year. Its last minister was the Rev.M.Hunter and the church closed in 1908. After its closure, the building became a bakery until it become a storage area for a hardware shop in 1971. A plaque to honour Rev.William Hazlitt was erected at the courthouse in Bandon in the summer of 2002.
          Now lets go return to Einstein and Emma Bull. When I was ordained and installed as minister of the Cork church in 2017, I became the first Cork man to hold the post in almost 200 years. Before even considering my present path in life, I had met, fell in love with and married a Bandon girl. Bandon has been my home now for the best part of thirty years. Remember the hardware shop, that was once the local Unitarian church, well, that hardware shop is owned by my next-door neighbour.

Levers and pulleys!!!

Rev.Mike O’ Sullivan
Minister Unitarian Church Cork.

Addendum : Today, Bandon remains a hotbed of religion. Within the town ( pop about 5,000 ) there are Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland and Methodist churches. As well as a Jehovah Witness hall, an Evangelical church, two Baptist churches and the West Cork Community church. There was also a Quaker meeting house in the town and a Presbyterian church which closed in 1952.


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