One of the lesser-known episodes of Irish history is the Tithe Wars of the 1830s. Tithes, a payment to support the religious establishment and its clergy, had existed in the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic church but from the 16th century onwards, this obligatory contribution went to the Church of Ireland even though its members were always in a minority of the population. The tithe payment was expected to represent ten per cent of the value of certain kinds of agricultural produce. Prior to the Tithe Composition Act of 1823 it was possible to pay tithes in kind instead of in cash. To complicate matters further, a tithe was not payable on all forms of land, and there was even variation from place to place on the types of land subject to tithes. After legislation passed in 1735, for example, pasture (usually held by landowners rather than tenants) was deemed exempt, while tillage land was not. Likewise only certain produce was judged taxable: potatoes, the most widely grown crop for the majority of the population, could be subject to a tithe in one part of the country and not in others. Following the Composition Act tithes were required to be monetary and surveys were carried out in each parish to assess its likely income. Understandably tithes were much resented, and not just by the majority non-Anglican population. Therefore following the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 (popularly known as Catholic Emancipation) it was inevitable the payment of tithes would come under attack.
In the aftermath of the 1829 act, and with a rise in numbers of Roman Catholic clergy and the construction of many new churches throughout the country – both of these funded by local communities – opposition to the payment of tithes grew. Opposition was further stimulated by the publication of lists of defaulters and orders being issued collection for the seizure of goods and chattels, most often livestock. The first open resistance occurred in March 1831 in Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny where the civil authorities unsuccessfully attempted to seize 120 cattle from the local parish priest Fr Martin Doyle: he had arranged for the people of the area to place their livestock in his care. He had the support of a cousin James Warren Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin who famously wrote of the Irish people to Thomas Spring Rice (then-Secretary of the Treasury), ‘An innate love of justice and of indomitable hatred of oppression is like a gem on the front of our nation which no darkness can obscure. To this firm reality I trace their hatred of tithe. May it be as lasting as their love of justice.’ The revolt against tithes soon spread and led to several ugly incidents: in June 1831, for instance, the Irish Constabulary fired on a crowd resisting the seizure of cattle in Bunclody, County Wexford, killing a number of them (the figure cited seems to vary from twelve to eighteen). Three years later in Rathcormac, County Cork a similar incident occurred (over the non-payment of a tithe valued at 40 shillings) which resulted in at least twelve deaths. Eventually in 1838 the Tithe Commutation Act for Ireland was passed. This reduced the amount payable directly by about a quarter and made the remainder payable in rent to landlords who would then pass on the funds to the relevant authorities. In effect, tithes thus became another form of rental payment but the outcome was an end to open confrontation. Tithes were not abolished until the Irish Church Act of 1869 which disestablished the Church of Ireland.
Astonishingly it was during this troubled period that George de la Poer Beresford, who had been Bishop of Kilmore, County Cavan since 1802, decided to embark on the construction of a new residence for himself and his successors. A bishop’s palace already existed close to the site of the present building; when John Wesley visited in 1787 he declared the earlier house, dating from the early 18th century, ‘is finely situated, has two fronts and is fit for a nobleman.’ But apparently not fit enough for Bishop Beresford who in the mid-1830s commissioned its replacement from the Dublin-born William Farrell. In 1823 the latter had been appointed the Board of First Fruits architect for the Church of Ireland ecclesiastical Province of Armagh (a position he held until 1843) and in this capacity designed a number of churches and other buildings in the region. Accordingly even if Beresford’s wish for a new house seems odd, it made sense for him to use Farrell. One suspects at least part of the reason for this expensive enterprise was so that the bishop could commemorate himself: the tympanum of the façade’s pediment carries the Beresford coat of arms. Writing in 1837, Jonathan Binns harshly passed judgement: ‘The Bishop has lately erected a palce in lieu of the old one. The new palace is built in the Grecian Doric style and covered with Roman cement. It appears too lofty and in other respects is not well proportioned.’ Apparently always known as the See House the building is unquestionably stark, of three storeys over semi-raised basement, its three-bay front is relieved a large limestone porch and flanking Wyatt windows on the ground floor. The garden front is asymmetrical owing to the insertion of an off-centre bay window with another tripartite window to one side but not the other. There are two fine yards, separated by a block with a clock tower.
The dominant feature of the See House’s interior is height: the ground floor ceilings must rise to some twenty feet. Beyond the porch, a square entrance hall has a circular ceiling supported on pendentives. Then comes the staircase hall from which open a series of reception rooms, all characterized by their severity and scale. Doors and chimneypieces shrink to insignificance in these spaces, as do the ceilings’ modest plasterwork and cornicing. The current empty condition of the building exacerbates this feature but it must always have been an echoing barn. The bifurcating staircase further emphasizes the See House’s overblown proportions, rising to a return lit by a vast round-headed window before climbing up to the spacious landing off which run a succession of bedrooms. The top floor, reached via stone service stairs is equally substantial, its centre gallery lit by a wonderful octagonal lantern. One of the rooms on this level, presumably used as a nursery or schoolroom, has walls painted with trees. Otherwise here, as elsewhere in the building, decoration is minimal. The See House appears to have been occupied by Bishops (since 1841 of the combined dioceses of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh) until the beginning of the present century. It is now in private hands and although not at present occupied has been well maintained. Perhaps the last episcopal residence built by an Anglican cleric in Ireland, the See House is an example of the purpose to which at least some of those much-hated tithes were put.