Earliest recorded Bahá’ís in Ireland
by Brendan Mc Namara
This article on the Culver family and their time in Ireland was in New Day, the magazine of the Irish Bahá’í community.
When the Culver family set out from Canada for Queenstown (now Cobh) in August 1906, little did they realise that their four-year stay in Ireland would be long remembered and that their time in this small seaport would become a subject of interest and investigation almost a century later.
The Culvers had no previous connection with Ireland, having lived all their lives in North America. Henry Stark Culver was a cultured man, a distinguished lawyer and prosecutor for many years in Delaware, Ohio and one-time Mayor of that city, before he entered the U.S. Foreign Service in the year 1897. His wife, Mary, whose family name was Sprague, had been brought up in less delicate circumstances. During the American Civil War, she had lived on a military fort in Oregon, Fort Klamath, where her father was a captain in the First Oregon Infantry. In her childhood, she played with Native American children from the Klamath and Modoc tribes, conversed quite well in Siwash, a language common to Native Americans of the Northwest, and was quite adept at riding ponies bareback. The Sprague family later settled in Delaware where Mary and Henry were married in 1876.
Of seven children born to the Culvers, five survived and of those, the three youngest, Dorothy (sixteen), Sydney (fourteen) and Lawrence (seven) accompanied their parents to Ireland. Another daughter, Mary Louise (twenty-two), came to Europe a year later in 1907 and settled in Paris.1 At Queenstown, Henry took up his post as U.S. Consul to Cork. For all its bustle and movement of emigrants fleeing economic hardship for the promise of the “New World”, Queenstown must have represented something of a diplomatic backwater. On the closure of the American Consulate in London, Ontario, his previous posting, Henry had sought an appointment to some other English speaking country. He had expressed to his superiors a desire to be promoted and considered “a healthful climate… an important consideration, with a family consisting of a wife and four children”.2
His posting to Cork, it would seem, satisfied neither aspiration. The local Cork Examiner newspaper announced the arrival of the new U.S. Consul to Cork (August 17th, 1906) by describing “Mr. Cuvler [sic]” as “a fine specimen of the native-born American”, obviously unaware that few Native Americans were descended from English Puritan stock as Henry was! In another short report a few days later (August 21st), the same newspaper reported Henry’s presentation to the Mayor of Cork and quoted Henry as expressing “..in warm terms his appreciation of the city and the harbour”. He was described as “a brilliant lawyer” and had his name spelled correctly on this occasion.3
That very little, if anything, of his activities as Consul is recorded in the newspapers thereafter is not very surprising.
The newspapers of the area, The Cork Examiner and The Cork Constitution, were fairly thin broadsheets, carrying a modicum of news-type stories and very little in the way of society reportage. The comings and goings of Consuls may have merited some mention, along with the shipping news, but what they did in between, seemingly, did not. Why we would want to know as much as possible about the Culvers’ activities and their interaction with local people in Queenstown (their every detail in fact) is that, prior to coming to Ireland, while stationed at London, Ontario, Henry and Mary had become Bahá’ís. Most likely, through them, Ireland had its first ever contact with the Bahá’í Faith and this as early as the year 1906, just fourteen years after the passing of Bahá’u’lláh, two years prior to the Master’s release from captivity and a full fifteen years prior to George Townshend’s acceptance of the Faith.
Early Bahá’ís of Canada
The first Bahá’í group in Canada grew up around the Magee family in London, Ontario. Edith Magee of Irish Methodist descent, then eighteen years of age, became a Bahá’í in Chicago in 1898 and, on returning to her home at London, her mother, sister and two aunts all accepted the Faith. Will van den Hoonard, in his excellent, scholarly book about the origins of the Bahá’í community in Canada, relates that the Culvers came to the Faith through their association with the Magee family. He quotes the Culvers’ daughter, Dorothy, from an interview in 1982, reminiscing about that early contact.
…I’ll tell you how my mother became a Bahá’í. We lived in Canada, in London Ontario, a little town …and a friend of ours – a Mrs. Magee, she had two daughters- Edith and Harriet… One time my mother said, “Well, I think Mrs Magee has gone crazy.” And why she’d gone crazy was because she’d heard that Christ had come back – Christ had come back to earth. Of course, it was ‘Abdu’l-Bahá [sic] and then, so from then on, Mrs Magee, they became more and more interested and …all became Bahá’ís, then my mother did too.4
It is likely that the Culvers accepted the Faith sometime between 1899 and 1903, by which time the Magee family had all left London, Ontario and settled in New York.5 Information from the archives of the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States records the Culvers’ registration as Bahá’ís as taking place in 1906 in New York, sometime prior to their departure for Ireland. Unfortunately the archives contain very little more in the way of information about the Culver family “… and none about the Culvers while they were in Ireland but for the fact that they were pioneers in Queenstown.”6
That the Culvers are recorded as “pioneers in Queenstown” in these archives from the year 1906 is, though, hugely significant, for it establishes a record of what is probably the first Bahá’í presence on this island. The tragedy is that, at this remove, only rudimentary information concerning the Culvers’ time in Ireland can be unearthed. There are still enough threads that can be drawn together in order to gain some idea of what life was like for this family in Ireland. It is also of interest that Queenstown (linked in history with maritime happenings and major tragedies such as that of the Titanic and the Lusitania) should feature in the story of Ireland’s earliest Bahá’ís, as this southern port town has strong links with the Celtic, the ship ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sailed on from New York to Liverpool in 1912.
In 1906 Queenstown was a busy seaport, gateway to North America and Australia. According to records of the period, the town had ten thousand inhabitants, a number no doubt inflated by the inclusion at census time of travellers and seafarers. Life in Queenstown revolved around the coming and going of ships, people emigrating or returning home. All the well-known Atlantic liners called at Queenstown, amongst them the White Star, Cunard, American and United States Lines and these major shipping companies had offices there. A Consul’s work consisted mainly of tending to the needs of sailors, navy personnel and intending emigrants. Of the plethora of Consuls and consular representatives in Queenstown, Henry was the only career diplomat. The others were shipping agents or expatriates who acted as Consuls for various countries on a part time basis. Amongst the countries that had representation in this small port town in the first decade of the twentieth century were, amazingly enough, Brazil, Haiti, Chile and India.^[Information from this section came from Mr Tim Cadigan, Cobh historian, and from his publication Cobh in Old Picture Postcards (1991). See also Mary Broderick, A History of Cobh and the Great Island.
Living conditions in Queenstown would certainly have been pretty basic. Ireland in 1906 was poor and relatively underdeveloped. A survey in Cork as late as 1919 cites fifty percent of families living in extreme want, with most children taken out of school at an early age to take up menial work to augment family incomes. Though campaigns of vaccination were in full swing and hygiene was generally improving, there were still sporadic outbreaks of smallpox, typhoid and other infectious diseases. During 1909, in nearby Cork City, an epidemic of diarrhoea claimed seventy-nine lives, mostly infants.7 The turn of the century was still very much a time of emigration from Ireland, of thousands of people escaping to a new, more promising life.
The Culvers lived at 3, Upper Park, an imposing residence still standing today, situated in a small group of period houses on a hill directly above the town. Not far away the enormous, gothic St. Coleman’s Cathedral dominates the landscape on its perch 150 feet above sea level. From Upper Park, it is only a short walk down a steep hill and under the Court House Arch to the centre of town and the US Consulate, close to where the monument to the Lusitania disaster is now situated.8 There, Henry attended to his daily round of paperwork and administration.
Mary and the three children, Dorothy, Sydney and Lawrence, who had come to Ireland with their parents, may have found it difficult to settle in Queenstown. Indeed, within a year, Dorothy, then aged seventeen years, had joined her older sister, Mary Louise, in Paris. Mary Culver and the other children spent the winters of 1908/9 and 1909/10 with the sisters in Paris and, on another occasion, Mary, in the company of a friend from Delaware, made an extended trip to Scotland.9 What schooling the younger Culver children had whilst in Queenstown is unknown but, with this schedule, it could not have been too much.
What is clear from Henry’s reports to the U.S. State Department is that, at least by 1909, the Culvers were seeking to be on the move again. Henry began to canvass for a transfer to another post and applied for a position that came up in Victoria, Canada, which presented the possibility for promotion. In making his case to his superiors, Henry insisted on his suitability for the post and made the following argument with respect to the children.
I can never be satisfied with the methods prevailing here in the way of education, and I cannot afford to educate them here, while, were I at Victoria I could send them to nearby American schools where they will receive the proper instruction.
In October 1909, Henry travelled to America to press his case in person, returning to Ireland in November that year aboard the Lusitania. By then, in his efforts to gain promotion, he had enlisted the support of some influential friends, amongst them U.S Senator Charles Dick. Senator Dick wrote a testimonial for the State Department in which he described Henry as “… a fine lawyer, (a) forceful, effective public speaker, possessed of remarkable social qualities and a splendid personal presence”.10
In July 1910, Henry was finally awarded his transfer, returning not to Victoria but to St. John, New Brunswick, Canada and leaving Mary behind for a further few weeks to tie up the family’s affairs in Ireland.11
From the foregoing it could be taken that the Culvers were not all that happy in Ireland. That their isolation in a Bahá’í sense had anything to do with this is unknown, though unlikely. It is reported that they were connected to wider Bahá’í circles through correspondence with Mason Remey in the United States, and that Mary and her daughters, Mary Louise and Dorothy, were acquainted with Bahá’ís in Paris during their extended stays in that city, then the foremost centre of Bahá’í activity in Europe. The only other contact the Culvers had with Bahá’ís while in Ireland, that we can verify, is in the form of a letter they received from Arthur Cuthbert, one of the early Bahá’ís in the United Kingdom, then living in Stranraer, Scotland. Arthur invited them to come to stay with him and gave instructions as to how they would find his house, having alighted at the port.
We are left with many unanswered questions. For example, were there any Bahá’í activities on the part of the Culver family during their stay in Ireland? An important point to bear in mind when considering the story of the Culvers is that being a Bahá’í in 1906 was vastly different from what we know today. Early Bahá’ís were not asked to resign their church membership and most remained active in the affairs of their respective congregations. We do not know what the Culvers understood, at least in 1906, of their newly espoused Faith. They had come from being part of the first group of new believers in Canada and had been isolated from contact with their friends, the Magees (who had introduced them to the Faith), when this family left Canada for New York. In his article Early Irish Bahá’ís, Jackson Ingram postulates that, while in Ireland, the Culvers treated their Bahá’í identity as a private matter and that, possibly, Henry’s official position imposed a certain restraint.12
Henry has left evidence of having made a special connection with Ireland in the form of his poems and photographs. As well as writing songs, which he attempted to have published, Henry was an avid photographer and travelled widely, particularly in Munster, to photograph nature scenes and people.13 A book published in Boston in 1920, entitled The Emerald Isle is devoted to Henry’s verse and photographs, depicting Killarney and Connemara as well as other scenic areas. Local people are also captured through Henry’s lens, farmers, street urchins and old people in the main, and the pictures are of a high quality. The poetry is mainly descriptive with much dialogue, mimicking Irish accents and stereotypes. One example of Henry’s verse concerns Queenstown itself.
The stranger at thy gate looks in
With admiration on thy charms.
The sun and air and sky temper
Their moods to gratify thy pride
While lured by shady grove and park,
And gardens in perpetual bloom;
Cathedral tower and battlements
Of stone, that face thy boldest cliffs,
The sea, the mighty amorous sea,
Leaps boldly through thy harbour’s mouth
To kiss thy guarded waiting shore.14
A photograph of Henry on the flyleaf of The Emerald Isle shows a distinguished, greying gentleman with strong features, moustache and high collar. He was refined, interested in the arts. He wrote poetry and songs and published at least one article in the National Geographic Magazine, concerning the timber industry in Canada.15 His great love would, though, seem to have been photography. Apart from the photographs in The Emerald Isle, there is one famous photograph of Henry’s extant and that is of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which Henry took at Green Acre in 1912.
By 1910, the Culvers had left Ireland to return to Canada and Henry’s new post at St. John, New Brunswick. They were perhaps unaware of the historic nature of their sojourn in Ireland and there is no evidence that they were apprised of such in later years.
In St. John, the Culvers went from being the earliest Bahá’ís in Ireland to being amongst the first Bahá’ís in Eastern Canada. There was little movement or growth of the Faith in St. John, at least until the Culvers’ daughter, Mary Louise, came to live there on her return from Paris and, with another Bahá’í, began to operate a tea-house in the town. Through Mary Louise’s efforts, the small group of Bahá’ís became more active and were eventually supported by the movement of travel teachers through the country. In 1917 May Maxwell visited St. John and described the Culver family as forming “…the nucleus of the group here … a beautiful Bahá’í family, filled with the spirit of service, … a real ornament to the Cause of God.”16
The visit of the Master to America and Canada in 1912 was a seminal event in the development of the Faith in North America. The Culvers met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His travels on at least one occasion, when the Master stayed at Green Acre in Eliot, Maine.17 Henry’s photograph of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, which shows Him walking with others in front of the Inn, may be one of many Henry took of the Master, though it is the only one we can definitely authenticate.18 Nor does the link with Green Acre and the Culvers conclude there, for it was to this spiritual oasis that Henry and Mary came when Henry retired from the Foreign Service in 1924. Their daughter, Dorothy, had lived in Eliot since 1922. A photograph of the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Eliot from November 1925 shows eight of the new Assembly members with other local friends.19 Mary and Henry are there, members of the new Assembly, as is a young Doris Holley. Doris was a much loved, outstanding pioneer to Ireland in her later years and passed away near Dublin in 1983. The ninth member of the Assembly and the able photographer taking this picture is her husband, the renowned, later Hand of the Cause of God, Horace Holley. Also included in this historic photograph are Dorothy Culver and another resident of Eliot at that time, Marion Jack, later described by Shoghi Effendi as an “immortal heroine” for her exemplary pioneering efforts in Sofia, Bulgaria.20
The Culvers lived out the remaining years of their lives in this growing centre of Bahá’í learning. Henry passed away in February 1936, aged eighty-two years and Mary just over a year later in March 1937 at the age of eighty-one. They are interred in the local cemetery at Eliot. In the same plot their daughter, Mary Louise, who passed away in 1952 is also interred. Nearby is the grave of their other daughter Dorothy and her husband, Albert Cress, both of whom passed away in 1983.
Will van den Hoonard describes what is known about the Culver family as “bookends”.21 That is, it is possible to find information concerning their lives before they left Canada and after they returned but the time in between, their period in Ireland, has been something of a blank. This is particularly true of their interaction with local people in Queenstown.22
If this information gap has not been satisfactorily bridged we can at least imagine the Culvers in Queenstown, walk the streets they walked, see where they lived and feel in some way the presence of their spirits in this historic seaport. We can marvel that Bahá’ís walked there so early in this dispensation and that Queenstown and the Culver family have found a special niche in the history of the Bahá’í Faith in Ireland.23
- Culver family background comes from a family survey compiled by Lawrence Culver circa 1968, kindly supplied by Will van den Hoonard. ↩
- Letter from Henry to the United States State Department, April 10th, 1906 (Roll 6 of Record T196). Only the three previously mentioned children came to Ireland with their parents. ↩
- The Cork Examiner issues referred to are held at the Cork City Library. ↩
- Will van den Hoonard, The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada, 1898—1948, pp.21—28. ↩
- Jackson Ingram, Early Irish Bahá’ís, The Associate, Issue 25 (Spring 1998). Newsletter of the ABS-ESE. Jackson Ingram has conducted research on early Irish Bahá’ís in the United States. ↩
- Email to the author from the office of the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, 29/08/1997. ↩
- Coleman O’Mahoney, In the Shadows: Life in Cork 1750—1930, pp.309—17. ↩
- The Culver residence has been identified by Mr. Tim Cadigan from a local directory dated 1907. The Consulate at 1A, Roger Casement Square (alongside Geasly’s Butcher Shop—formerly O’Reilly & Sons Ltd) has been identified from film footage on show at the Cobh Heritage Centre, The Story of Queenstown, a permanent exhibition at the old railway station, Cobh, Co. Cork, Ireland. The Consulate moved to a larger building, Carrig House, in 1929. ↩
- From the Culver family survey compiled by Lawrence Culver. ↩
- Citations and information are from Henry’s letters to the US State Department found on Roll 6 of Record T196 of the National Governmental Archives of the US publications. ↩
- From the Culver family survey compiled by Lawrence Culver. ↩
- Jackson Ingram, Early Irish Bahá’ís. Jackson has a copy of the letter referred to the Culvers from Arthur Cuthbert. As to the Paris connection, the National Spiritual Assembly of France kindly referred a request for information on the Culvers in Paris to their history committee, but to date no further information has been found. ↩
- Jackson Ingram, Early Irish Bahá’ís. ↩
- Letter from Henry to unidentified friend (Edith?), dated March 25th, 1908. Copy in possession of the author. ↩
- Emerald Isle, p.11. The book is held in the Boston Public Library, Providence University Library and the Library of Congress. ↩
- National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 17 (September 1906), pp.509—11. ↩
- Will van den Hoonard, The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada, pp.23 and 111. According to Rosanne Adams, the Eliot Bahá’í archivist and always a great support in this research, the Culvers, Bolles and Maxwells were all acquaintances (email 23/06/1998). ↩
- It is possible the Culvers also met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Montreal. ↩
- Henry was an avid photographer and some of the other photographs of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to Green Acre may be his. Rosanne mentioned that there was a report that Henry visited the Master in Haifa and photographed Him at His home there, but this could not be substantiated. ↩
- Both photographs mentioned appear in Green Acre on the Piscataqua, published for the Centenary of Green Acre in 1001, pp.54 and 71 respectively. The original of Henry’s photograph is a treasured possession of Rosanne Adams. ↩
- Ruhhiyih Khanum, The Priceless Pearl, p.126. ↩
- Correspondence with the author 02/09/1997 ↩
- Some of the Culver contemporaries in Queenstown are of particular interest. Robert Uniacke Fitzgerald Townsend, a Justice of the Peace who passed away in Queenstown in 1911, was a first cousin of Hand of the Cause of God, George Townshend. Robert was the son of Richard Uniacke Townsend of Merrion Square, Dublin, who was a brother of Charles Uniacke Townshend, George Townshend’s father. (The brothers, for some unknown reason, used the different forms of the Townshend/Townsend name). Robert married his first cousin Gertrude, daughter of Thomas Uniacke Townsend, rector of Isistogue, another brother of George’s father. If that is not enough, Gertrude’s brother Richard, a medical doctor and another first cousin of George Townshend, lived at Ardeevin, Queenstown where he passed away in 1922. See Contemporary Biographies: 1911, edited by W. T. Pike, Burkes Irish Family Records, and A Member of the Long Parliament, a history of the Townsend family. ↩
- A number of people helped enormously with the research for this essay and deserve special thanks. Will van den Hoonard and Rosanne Adams were exceedingly generous with information and materials. Jackson Ingram provided information from his own research and Betsy Omidvaran and Mike Maguire proffered much helpful advice. Cobh historian Tim Cadigan provided essential local knowledge about Queenstown. I am indebted to the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, who kindly answered queries about Henry’s reported trip to Palestine during ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s time, a report that could not be substantiated. The National Assemblies of the United States and France also responded generously to questions posed. ↩