Old photos tell the story of a world wide movement that started locally

Eight men and one woman in aprons at Crocknacrieve
Eight men and one woman in aprons at Crocknacrieve

The oft-used adage “every picture tells a story” has marvellously surpassed itself since two old black and white photographs adorned this page on February 20.

Sent by regular contributor Selwyn Johnston, the photos showed two groups of immaculately dressed men and women gathered outside a large house.

The men of Crocknacrieve

The men of Crocknacrieve

Each picture was dated 1913 and captioned ‘Crocknacrieve’.

Selwyn asked: “Anyone know where these might have been taken, and why?”

Almost immediately a reader’s email pinpointed the location: “There is a farm and large house on the left-hand side of the road from Enniskillen to Ballinamallard, about half a mile from Ballinamallard. It may or not be what you are looking for!”

A second email confirmed that Crocknacrieve was in Fermanagh and was described back in 1833 as “a nice new built house on the summit of a noble elevation, standing above a demesne of about 100 Irish plantation acres, beautifully dressed and planted”.

Last month's photo on this page of the men of Crocknacrieve

Last month's photo on this page of the men of Crocknacrieve

I await a photograph of the house itself but the remarkable story behind Selwyn’s two old group pictures (and two more today) has begun to unfold.

Ballinamallard was the centre of a revivalist religious movement known as The Cooneyites in the early 20th century.

A thousand people each summer flocked to evangelical meetings, lasting for a month and more, and Crocknacrieve, owned by Mr John West, was the main venue in Ireland.

The first convention in 1907 was held in the gatehouse but the following year Mr West opened the main house to visitors.

Last month's photo on this page of the women of Crocknacrieve

Last month's photo on this page of the women of Crocknacrieve

Marquees were erected in the grounds and there was overflow accommodation at nearby Mullaghmeen.

Henry Robinson, chairman of the Ballinamallard Historical Society, outlined the history of the organisation, and its connections with Crocknacrieve.

“In the early 1900s John West invited followers of the movement started by William Irvine and Edward Cooney (also known as the ‘Go Preachers’) to his home in Crocknacrieve for their annual convention. The event was based on the Keswick convention and continued from 1907 to 1913.”

The Keswick gathering was an annual meeting of evangelical Christians in Keswick, Cumbria, which began with 400 attendees in 1875 and grew quickly into a major event on the evangelical calendar.

Henry Robinson told Roamer that each of the early Crocknacrieve conventions “lasted four weeks with three two-hour meetings held each day and had several thousand attendees at its peak”.

“The members (or pilgrims) were generally accommodated on site which was no mean feat for the organisers. Each convention ended with baptism in the Ballinamallard River.”

Selwyn Johnston’s photos on this page last month, and two more today, were unquestionably taken at the 1913 event.

“From 1913 several smaller conventions replaced the single large convention,” Mr Robinson continued, “and they ceased at Crocknacrieve in 1921 when Mr West sold the property.”

The movement had originated in Scotland but it was Fermanagh-man Edward Cooney who became the leading light and thus his adherents were known as Cooneyites though they didn’t like the terminology.

The pilgrims kept themselves to themselves but, in the years before the First World War, their presence each summer in the small village must have had a considerable impact, economically as well as socially and spiritually.

They believed in baptism by total immersion and local people used to flock to ‘Cooney’s Hole’ in the Ballinamallard River to watch the baptisms taking place.

One of today’s photographs shows eight men and one woman in aprons at Crocknacrieve and an old newspaper report from 1913 recounted that the visitors to the convention had “all things in common, so much so that they have been described as a socialistic community. All who care to accept their hospitality are entertained. It follows, therefore, that the cook-house is a busy corner of activity. The cooking is done by three or four men. Large boilers are used, and the place sometimes becomes so hot that an electric fan is kept in motion. Plain food is the rule, and three meals a day are partaken of.”

Edward Cooney was an independent evangelist in 1901 when he relinquished his stake in his family business and donated money to William Irvine’s ‘Go Preachers’ in fulfilment of the group’s requirement to ‘sell all and give to the poor’.

Cooney was noted as a powerful speaker and was one of the most vocal of the organisation’s early leaders.

As a tireless itinerant evangelist his name became linked to the group in the public mind.

Cooney hoped to end his days in his native Ireland but made a final trip to Australia where the organisation had quite a number of adherents.

He died there in 1960 and according to historian Patricia Roberts small congregations still continue in various places around the world and continue to meet in homes for religious services.

Notable strongholds are in Northern Ireland, Co Cork and in a number of locations around New South Wales in Australia.

A newspaper report from the 1913 convention perfectly described the clothes we see in Selwyn’s photos, and explains the separated groups of men and women: “The Pilgrims dress extra plainly. In some cases a tie is discarded; but all are well clad…. One of the most notable things is the care which is taken to keep the men and women within their respective bounds. One half of the large tent is set apart for the women, and various parts of the grounds are reserved for the same purpose.”