An eccentric Anglican bishop whose commitment to religious equality during Irish penal times included organising races with Presbyterian clergy and allowing Catholics to say Mass at his home has been remembered in Co Londonderry.
Frederick Hervey, Earl of Bristol and builder of striking mansions and churches along the North Coast, was a wealthy philanthropist and worldly traveller who served as Bishop of Derry until his death in 1803.
A tourist trail from the Giant’s Causeway to Londonderry, including some of the key locations in his life, was dedicated on Thursday to the man known as the “Earl Bishop”.
He built lckworth House in Suffolk where his sculpture stands but this is the first time his legacy has been recognised in this way in Northern Ireland.
Historian Jim Hunter said: “He devoted as much of his time to the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian communities as to his own flock from the Church of Ireland.”
At his now-ruined residence in Downhill House, overlooking the Atlantic, he allowed the Catholic community to say Mass on Sundays when the state was aiming to force Catholics and Protestant dissenters like Presbyterians to accept the reformed denomination.
The Earl added his voice to those backing Catholic emancipation and contributed to the Long Tower Catholic chapel in Derry.
Mr Hunter added: “He had a sense of humour and each year he organised a horse race on the strand in Downhill which Mussenden Temple overlooks between the Church of Ireland clerics and the Presbyterian clerics.”
The races took place during penal times when the state favoured the Establishment Anglican religion and conditions were tough for Presbyterian dissenters.
Mr Hunter said the Church of Ireland ministers were well fed and portly.
“The Presbyterians were suffering at the time and they were lean, mean and hungry and you could understand who was going to win this race each year.”
He added: “He was a man who believed in religious equality. Here we are trying to commemorate this man but at the same time we are conscious that the area we are dealing with is an area that has been forgotten by the tourist world.
“They come to the Giant’s Causeway and Derry but never venture into the forgotten lands between.”
The Causeway is a World Heritage Site for its dramatic hexagonal basalt columns on the Atlantic coastline and attracts thousands of foreign visitors every year.
The tourist trail includes markers from the Causeway to places like Downhill, a National Trust property which features the striking Mussenden Temple, which the Earl ordered be modelled upon a similar building in Italy after failing to have the original transported from there.
He was known as a ladies’ man, an English Casanova who wooed the mistress of Admiral Lord Nelson. But he was also cultured and had a fine appreciation of art, according to the National Trust.
An illustrated map and new website have been produced as well as a booklet explaining the trail and Lord Bristol’s life.
Mr Hunter added: “What we are going to do is put up sign boards along the trail and we are hoping to have perhaps somewhere along the trail a statue of the Earl Bishop.
“There is one at Ickworth that has been created by donations from the County of Derry.
“We want something here.”