I was recently lucky enough to get inside Saint Werburgh’s Church, which sits on Werburgh Street near to Dublin Castle. It’s a tragedy that the church where Jonathan Swift was baptised and Edward Fitzgerald’s remains are found has fallen into a sad state in places. In a 2009 article in The Irish Times, the Very Rev. Derek Dunne noted that the once glorious church had “…been neglected for decades” and that “Saint Werburgh’s is not ours, it is in the ownership of Dublin. The work needs to be done, it is almost too late.”
In 1715, Commissioners were appointed for the rebuilding of the church, and none other than Surveyor-General Thomas de Burgh was to be the architect to oversee construction of the new church. Thomas de Burgh is an architect of great importance in the capitals history, responsible for example for the Custom House of 1707, along with the library of Trinity College Dublin and Dr. Steevens’ Hospital.
The church contains many items of historical interest, ranging from the bell associated with United Irishman Napper Tandy, which came from Saint John’s Church where he had been a churchwarden, to the fantastic pulpit which was once at home next door in Dublin Castle.
I began looking at the plaques around the church. Normally, Church of Ireland churches in Dublin tend to produce interesting plaques I find, and what I was seeking primarily were monuments to the involvement of men in the parish in the First World War. What I stumbled across however was a very unusual plaque from the 1830s with a fascinating story that connects the church to a young boy shipwrecked upon a Spanish slave ship off the coast of Jamaica.
The church contains a plaque and a framed image of John Mulgrave, ‘The African Boy’. The story is that a young African boy was shipwrecked in a Spanish Slave Ship on the Jamaican coast in 1833, and that he was taken under the protection of Constantine Henry Phipp, the Earl of Mulgrave, the Governor of the island of Jamaica who went on to become the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1835.
When the Earl of Mulgrave was appointed to his position in Jamaica, he urged new measures aimed at better treatment of the slaves, which was met by resistance from local politicians. The British Parliament however passed The Abolition Act in August 1833, and as a result all slave children under the age of six were to be set free.
In a speech delivered in August 1834 at a dinner to celebrate the Abolition Act, the Earl noted that:
The embodied will of a mighty nation, enforcing the irresistible dictates of justice, humanity, and religion, achieved the abolition of slavery, and has enabled me now with pride and with pleasure, to join heartily with my Hon. Friend in the expression of our wishes for the health and happiness of the ” emancipated Negro.”
When the Earl of Mulgrave came to Ireland, the adopted youngster came with him. Mulgrave’s appointment to the position of Lord Lieutenant was welcomed by Daniel O’Connell. Charles O’Mahony has noted in his history of The Viceroys of Ireland that:
The fatal weakness of Lord Mulgrave was his partisanship. He could look at nothing except through the spectacles of well-grounded opinions of his own. At a time when he should have exercised discretion, he rushed into the arms of the Catholic party, and thereby mortally offended the Orangemen and their not-to-be-despised co-religionists
The plaque tells us that the young boy resided in the family of the Earl until “it pleased God to remove him from this life by a severe attack of Small Pox” in February 1838. A picture of the Earl and ‘The African Boy’ sits nearby, telling us he was buried at Saint Werburgh’s Church the day following his death on February 28 1838. The plaque notes that the youngster was a servant, and that his “integrity, fidelity and kind and amiable qualities had endeared him to all his fellow servants”.