Bishop Edward Maginn (1802-1849)

On September 24, 2020 by Kathleen Travers

“The fate of the dead is being envied by the living”.

Edward Maginn, one of Derry’s most notable  Catholic bishops was born in Fintona Co. Tyrone in 1802. He moved to Buncrana with his parents at an early age, spending most of his childhood there.

At age 16 he entered the Irish college in Paris to study for the priesthood and was ordained in 1825.

He was appointed curate at Moville and served there til 1829.

He was interested in political, social and religious movements of the time, being very much on the side of the ordinary people. He was a supporter of Daniel O Connell and his struggle for Catholic emancipation. He had already become popular among the local people before he was appointed parish priest of Desertegney and Lower Fahan in 1829. Here too he was a defender of such rights as ordinary people enjoyed and of anything that was of benefit to the people.

He began a huge scheme of building schools when the national school scheme was set up in 1831.

A mammoth task considering the poverty of the times, he built schools in Cockhill, Drumfries, Tullydish, Illies and Ballymacarry. The school in Cockhill was near a church which stood in what is now the old graveyard.

In 1845 Fr.Edward Maginn was appointed Bishop of Derry following the illness of Bishop McLaughlin. This was a very popular appointment and people throughout the diocese raised £200 to give to him as a presentation, a fortune in those days.This was at a time of great distress for the local people. An Gorta Mór was ravaging the country.

In a letter from Bishop Maginn dated 15th December 1846 to Dr Paul Cullen, (later Cardinal Cullen), of the Irish College in Rome, he begs the Catholic hierarchy to postpone the devotions which were called for by pope Pious IX, because:

 “Our people throughout the length and breadth of the diocese are in a state of actual starvation…”

The winter of 1846 was a particularly harsh one, with freezing temperatures and frost and snow. He states:

“You see that for the present it would be impossible for them to attend to the good works prescribed by his Holiness’s rescript. The scenes here are heart-rending and the fate of the dead is being envied by the living. God only knows where it will end.”

Maginn was an important factor in the rehabilitation of the Catholic Church in Ulster after Emancipation. His letters on land and the Poor Law administration, together with his evidence before the Devon Commission (Report published at Dublin, 1847), contain valuable information on the social condition of Ireland in the first half of the nineteenth century. The conduct of government officials during the famine of 1847-49 inspired him with an abhorrence of English misrule.

Around this time the British government hatched a scheme to send or “transfer” one and a half million Irish catholics to Canada. A circular was sent out to the Catholic bishops to canvass their views on the plans.

Bishop Maginn replied in the form of an open letter to the newspapers:

“In sober earnestness, gentlemen, why send a circular to a Catholic Bishop asking his consent to the expatriation of millions of his co-religionists to Canada?  –  you who reduced by oppression and persecution the greatest people on earth, you who made the most fertile land on earth a place of skulls. You are anxious, I presume, to induce a Catholic Bishop to abet your wholesale system of extermination, to head in pontificals your convoy of exiles, and thereby give the sanction of religion to your atrocious scheme. You never, gentlemen, laboured in a more egregious mistake!”

His efforts were now directed to the relief of hunger and the saving of lives.

In the midst of this horror he built and opened the parish church at Cockhill on Sunday 13th July 1847, the darkest year of this disaster known forever as Black ‘47.

In 1847 Bishop Maginn recorded that:

“In the diocese of Derry we have a catholic population of 230,000 souls. Of these, at the present time, there are at least 50,000 in actual starvation”.

He endeavoured to seek assistance from his contacts abroad and in the summer of 1847 he received the sum of £360 from a group in Paris, £20 from the Bishop of Hyderabad in India as well as contributions from organisations in Canada, US, Italy and England.

He was seized by typhus fever on the 14th January 1849, one of the many diseases rampant at that terrible time and died three days later on the 17th January 1849 in St. Colm’s College Derry. He was 47 years old.

Bishop Maginn had travelled as far as London to raise funds  for the building of Cockhill church.

A loan of £1000 from the commissioner of public works was a major part of his collecting efforts. It was guaranteed by Big John Grant of Glenard and one of the Kellys. It took thirty years to repay, but it was paid out in wages to the workers at the time when they had no other means of survival.

There was a policy at the time, much favoured by landlords, of building Catholic Churches outside of towns and away from areas of population, a common feature in Ireland at the time. In the case of Cockhill, the church was built approximately one mile outside Buncrana.

It is a pity that no trace remains of the older church which stood in what is now the old graveyard.  A mass rock is also situated nearby, across the river Crana which flows past the Church and graveyard.

John McCarron



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