Research Notes in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies,Vol. 2, no. 4 (July 1998)

Early Irish Baha'is: Issues of Religious, Cultural, and National Identity.

by R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram

Historical "firsts" are always of considerable popular interest and a subject of potential controversy. Curiosity about the identity of the "first" Baha'i of a particular country can provide an impetus for digging into historical records; but the results may not be as expected.

For example, there is a much noted "first" Baha'i of a particular country who is easily shown to be no such thing by even a cursory examination of the early records of Baha'i contact with that country. To date, these early records are most systematically available, not in the country itself, but in the National Baha'i Archives of the United States. However, the results of such an inspection have not been integrated into popular usage and this individual continues to be referred to as the "first" Baha'i of that country, including in periodicals published by the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, itself. (1)

It is in the nature of the beast that establishing an adequate data set for discussing the arrival of the Baha'i Faith within particular national boundaries is likely to require reference to records that are outside those boundaries, and that an adequate discussion of that arrival will only emerge through the consideration of a number of partial data sets that are created by those with access to such subsets of dispersed sources. It is my intention to draw together here such a subset from sources available in the United States in relation to the early association of the Baha'i Faith with the Irish. The period under consideration will be 1900 to 1925.

It is probably a safer course to speak of early Baha'i contact with a particular region rather than get involved with priority status claims. Apart from the thorny issue of national identity, what is, or was, a "Baha'i" is often problematic. It is much less so to document contact with the Baha'i Faith and to attempt to draw conclusions about individuals' stances toward it at particular periods of time as a separate exercise, than it is to attempt to establish and defend "conversion" dates.

Thus, when we ask, "Who was the first Irish Baha'i?," we are letting three prior questions go begging: What do we mean by "Irish"; what do we mean by "Baha'i"; and what do we mean by "first?" It is necessary to operationalize these concepts before we have a question that can be answered.

The term "Irish" denotes not one but two concepts that are related but not synonymous. First, "Irish" is a politico-legal term denoting "national" status related to birth and citizenship. However, until around 1921 "Irish" as a citizenship status was subsumed under "British." Second, "Irish" denotes a cultural identity acquired through enculturation. This cultural identity has historically been mediated by either a Catholic or Protestant master status. An individual may be Irish in either the national or cultural sense or in both. Further, there is a sense in which "Irish" simply denotes something pertaining to Ireland and in the case of people may be reasonably used for those who reside there, while they do so.

The term "Baha'i" denotes by definition an achieved status in a situation of religious cultural diffusion: Individuals become Baha'is having previously been non-Baha'is. However, there is no simple and evident content to the term.

The first issue is how the term was used as a label. Did individuals label themselves as "Baha'i"? Was this labeling reciprocated by others and did these others label themselves as "Baha'i"? That is, what are the personal and social contexts of someone being labeled "Baha'i"?

Beyond the question of labeling lies the questions of the content of the label and how it relates to other labels. It is clear that the label "Baha'i" has not had a constant denotation, let alone connotations, for the century of its active usage to describe individuals in the West. The most basic issue is whether it is used to denote an individual who has undergone a change in core identity and basic world view, a convert, or simply someone who has become aligned with a social movement, an adherent. At times the term has been used to refer to only one of these, at other times it has been used to refer to either. A parallel issue is whether a Baha'i identity is exclusive or can be held in conjunction with other religious (or indeed socio-political) identities. Obviously, in which of these senses an individual is a "Baha'i" may also vary during their Baha'i career.

By now we can see how the meaning of "first" is not self-evident either. The "first" of which denotation of "Irish"; the first of which denotation of "Baha'i"? And a further question arises, are we treating it as a horse race and looking for the first individual of an acceptable category of Irish to cross the line to an acceptable category of Baha'i, or are we taking a longer term view and looking for the first who persisted after having crossed the line for a certain period of time or even until death?

Our simple question is really very complex.

To provide us with a basis on which to proceed, for the purposes of this paper: "Irish" will be used to include those who were born in Ireland or who resided in Ireland; and that individuals identified themselves as "Baha'i" will be deemed sufficient and consideration of the specific content of that label will be bracketed. Thus, all instances for the period have been sought in primary sources available in the United States of three classes of individuals:

1 - Those already associated with the Baha'i Faith who visited or lived in Ireland;

2 - Those born in Ireland who became Baha'is in the United States;

3 - Those in Ireland who were cognizant of the Baha'i Faith and who aligned themselves with it there in some way.

As is the case with the general population of the United States, the American Baha'i community has had many members with claims to Irish descent. However, I will be concerned solely with individuals who fit one of these three categories.

The best-known, indeed the only generally known, early Irish Baha'i is George Townshend. I will not be discussing him in detail here except where he is directly associated with the sources used.

Another well-known early Baha'i, but one whose association with Ireland has been largely unrecognized, is Lady Blomfield who was born in Ireland of Irish parentage but who in terms of self and social identification was an "English" Baha'i. This in itself raises issues of interest that go beyond the scope of this paper. She will not be discussed further here as the sources drawn on add nothing new in relation to her association with Ireland.

Apart from these two cases, I have found nine individuals who fit the requirements for inclusion here. Two Baha'is who went to live in Ireland; five people who were born in Ireland and became Baha'is in the United States; and two people who became Baha'is in Ireland.

The two Baha'is who went to live in Ireland were Colonel and Mrs Culver.

Mary Diana Culver was born in Fort Klamath, Oregon, on May 20, 1856. Henry S. Culver was born in Sunbury, Ohio, on April 19, 1854. They were married in 1876. Henry was admitted to the Ohio bar and practiced in Delaware, Ohio. He later served as Delaware County prosecuting attorney for four years and then as mayor of Delaware for four years. He joined the State Department in October 1897 and was appointed United States Consul in London, Ontario.

Toward the end of their residence in London, the Culvers became acquainted with the Baha'i Faith and first Henry and then Mary (probably some months later) identified themselves with it. They both later stated that they became Baha'is in New York city in 1906.

In that same year, Henry was appointed United States Consul in Cork, Ireland. The Culvers lived in Queenstown (now Cobh), near Cork, from 1906 to 1910. They were connected to wider Baha'i circles through Charles Mason Remey who corresponded with them and sent them literature. He also sent their address to Arthur Cuthbert who wrote to them. (We might note briefly that Cuthbert's is another case where "national" identity is not so easily dealt with. He is usually considered an "English" Baha'i as he had business interests in London and associated with the Baha'is there. However, his principal residence seems to have been in Stranraer, Scotland.)

The Culvers' daughter, Dorothy, lived with them the first year they were in Ireland until in 1907 she joined her sister, Louise, at school in Paris where they became acquainted with the Baha'is there. Dorothy identified herself as a Baha'i while in Paris, as probably did her sister who considered herself a Baha'i for a substantial period of years thereafter. Mary Culver visited Paris and the Bahai's there in 1909.

While in Ireland, it appears that the Culvers treated their Baha'i identity as a personal, family matter. They engaged in no public declaration or activity. Although it is possible that Henry's official position was felt to impose restraint.

In 1910, Henry was appointed United States Consul in St John, New Brunswick, and the family arrived there that September. Despite his almost immediate attempt to be transferred back to Europe, Henry spent the remainder of his consular career there, retiring from the service in 1924. In 1925, Henry and Mary moved to Eliot, Maine, and were active in the Baha'i community there and with Green Acre Baha'i School. Henry died in 1936 and Mary in 1937.

The Culvers' four years of residence in Ireland represents the earliest known presence of the Baha'i Faith there, low profile as it may have been. (2)

Basic information on the five individuals who were born in Ireland and became Baha'is in the United States is available from the Baha'i Historical Record Cards compiled in 1935-1936. These cards provide basic demographic information, a date and place for the individual becoming a Baha'i, and a note of their religious "origin."

Obviously, the main problem in using these cards is that they may omit individuals who died or disassociated from the Baha'i Faith before the cards were compiled. Cards were completed for deceased individuals in some cases, but there was no attempt to provide information on those who simply discontinued Baha'i association. I have not found in other sources any case of a individual born in Ireland who became a Baha'i in the United States which was not included in these cards. That does not mean that there were not such individuals; the likelihood is that there were. However, the existence of a record card does demonstrate that these five individual's persisted in holding a Baha'i identity. In discussing them, I will present first the information deriving from the record card and then such further information as is available. (3)

Mrs Catherine Burke was born in Duleek, County Meath, on June 10, 1851. She naturalized as a United States citizen in Chicago in 1913. She became a Baha'i in Chicago in 1914. She gives her previous religion as "Christian." However, according to the Irish census of 1861, the population of County Meath was 93.6 % Roman Catholic, 5.9% Anglican, 0.4% Presbyterian, and 0.1% Other. Therefore, the odds are that Burke was Roman Catholic, especially as the Anglicans would probably have been of a social standing making them unlikely candidates for emigration. In a tablet addressed to Marion Jack dated November 7, 1921, 'Abdu'l-Baha requests that she "Convey my utmost kindness to that Irish lady," and this refers to Burke. (4)

Peter Coyne was born in Clifden, County Galway, on March 1, 1877. His family emigrated to the United States and he was naturalized through his father in 1880. He became a Baha'i in Nevada, Missouri, in November 1907. He gives his previous religion as "Christian." It is clear from an autobiographical account that he wrote in 1927, that he was Roman Catholic. Coyne is the earliest known case of an individual born in Ireland identifying with the Baha'i Faith in the United States. (5)

Marie du Bedat (nee Martha J. du Bedat) was born in Dublin on January 25, 1860. She naturalized as a United States citizen in 1932. She became a Baha'i in New York in 1909. She gives her previous religion as "Irish Protestant" which may mean Church of Ireland. du Bedat was a singer who worked at the New York Metropolitan until her voice "went," possibly in the early 1920s. (6)

Mrs Juliet Jordan was born in Ireland on April 15, 1894. She was married to a United States citizen in Detroit on July 15, 1914. She became a Baha'i in Detroit in August 1916. She gives her previous religion as "Catholic." Interestingly, she gives her national origin as "English," which may reflect her seeing this question in terms of political citizenship.

Mrs Helen Miller was born in Ireland in 1870. She became a Baha'i in Brooklyn, New York, in July 1924. She gives her previous religion as "Catholic."

An interesting general point arising from these cases is that in previous analysis based on the Historical Record Cards an individual's use of the term "Christian" to describe their previous religious identity has always been taken to mean "Protestant" and tabulated as such. (7) Thus, the Culvers use "Christian" on their cards and it may be interpreted in this sense. However, Coyne so describes his religious "origin" and we know that he was Roman Catholic. It is very likely that Catherine Burke was also.

There was considerable anti-Roman Catholic feeling in American culture, and it was part of the Americanism of the United States Baha'i community that it fully participated in that feeling. The result may have been for some individuals to prefer to be related to a neutral generic rather than a denominational label that was considerably socially devalued. There may also have been specific personal factors involved in the choice of label. Certainly, in Coyne's case he had a deeply felt antipathy toward the Roman Catholic church.

We now turn to the two people who became Baha'is in Ireland, Joan H. and T.R. Fforde.

In his biography of George Townshend, Hofman quotes from a letter Townshend wrote to Shoghi Effendi in 1925, "We have seven Irish Baha'is--the two Ffordes, my wife, my sister, my two children (aged four and five) and myself!" (8) This is a somewhat optimistic accounting. Setting aside the cases of the two children, Mrs Townshend could hardly be identified as a Baha'i at this time(she had a pro-forma Baha'i identity after her husband left the church in the late 1940s), nor could his sister Maude although her feelings were not always as negative as his wife's. On October 28, 1933, the treasurer's report to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States noted a contribution of ten shillings received from Miss Maude Townshend of Dublin who subscribed herself a "sympathizer."

As to the Ffordes, this is the only mention of them in Hofman's book. He adds a footnote explaining that according to the Townshends' daughter, Una, they were a couple from Donegal who stayed with the Townshends at the rectory in Ahascragh. Their name does not even appear in the index of the book.

John Esslemont had written a more realistic assessment of the situation in Ireland to Albert Vail in 1924. He noted that Townshend "seems to be a convinced Bahai" and then added, "I only know of two other Bahais in Ireland, a Mr. & Mrs. Fforde." Esslemont later quotes from a letter he has just received from Townshend in which Townshend writes, "I met the Ffordes in the spring of 1921 while passing through Dublin & keep in touch with them by correspondence. Except for them nobody in this island is known to be interested in Bahaism." (9)

The information available on the Ffordes in American sources is fragmentary, but enough to document over a decade of involvement with the Baha'i Faith. The earliest apparent mention is an accounting entry of December 5, 1913, recording receipt of $24.35 for the Temple Fund from Miss J. Waring of Waringstown, County Down, Ireland. This is followed by an entry for September 30, 1914, recording receipt of $47.52 from Joan Fforde of Waringstown. It would seem likely that these contributions are from the same person.

The other information we have about the Ffordes comes from letters from Joan Fforde to Victoria Bedekian in 1923-1924. The letters have the return address of "Bruckless House, Bruckless, Co. Donegal, Ireland," which suggests that the Ffordes would have had considerable local standing. In the first letter, Joan requests subscription details for Bedekian's periodicals The Childrens Hour and World Fellowship. These periodicals acted as resources for those implementing Bedekian's plan of organizing Baha'i "gardens" which were children's groups open to all and often providing social occasions for less privileged children infused with social betterment themes that were broadly Baha'i. Fforde later wrote to Bedekian:

I am sorry to say I have no children and there is no Bahai group here but I am interested in the subject of teaching the cause to children. I love to hear of all you are doing in America and hope the Cause will go forward rapidly there for we are very slow in these countries. (10)

Bedekian regularly mined her correspondence for copy for her periodicals and in World Fellowship for March 1924 she included an excerpt describing Fforde's activities:

This is a rather lonely country place, and I am lucky to have found even a few friends who have become interested in the Cause. One, a dear old man of eighty years, to our sorrow, has just died and he was taken to Scotland for burial, but when he left the house here the Roman Catholic priest and the Protestant clergy all joined in speaking his praises. He was a Baha'i without knowing it and gladly read all the books I lent him about the Cause. I am having a party for the children round about. It will be a purely social affair with games and dance and song. - Baha'i Love and Greetings, Joan H.

There is no direct statement available from T. R. Fforde or evidence of specific activities by him, but the sources that mention the Ffordes evidently regard them both as equally Baha'i. Unlike the Culvers, the Ffordes obviously did have a public Baha'i identity of some kind. Their social standing (and that in Ireland eccentricity is almost expected in the "quality") may have helped to ease any social tension this caused. The Ffordes are the earliest known Irish Baha'is to have a public Baha'i identity in Ireland.

One further individual needs to be mentioned if for no other reason than she occasioned a direct reference to Ireland by 'Abdu'l-Baha. There is a tablet addressed to Anna S. Emerson in Washington, D.C.,dated July 15, 1919 that states, "When thou goest to Ireland, promulgate there the Oneness of the world of humanity, and free the people from racial[,] worldly and religious prejudice. As to political matters we do not meddle for we are expressly commanded by Bahaullah not to interfere in politics." (11) This was a period of considerable political upheaval in Ireland and it is not known if she went. A Miss Anna Emerson appears on a 1920 Washington, D.C., Baha'i list "c/o British Embassy." And a Miss Anna F. Emerson appears on the national membership lists for 1925 living at 435 So. Coast Blvd, La Jolla, California.

At this point we can say that we have identified a number of possible "firsts" in relation to the association of the Baha'i Faith with Ireland and the Irish. But, this paper only draws on a specifically located subset of the possible data. However, the presentation of data from such a subset opens the possibility of conjunction with data from other subsets that may be compiled from sources available elsewhere. The eventual synthesis of such limited treatments may then lead to a rounded picture.

In the case of Ireland, as with most countries in the world, the study of the introduction of the Baha'i Faith there and its establishment as a rooted facet of the local culture and society requires drawing on sources that go well beyond those locally available. It therefore stands as a challenge to those concerned with discussing "firsts" to defer conclusions until an adequate range of such subset studies is available.


1. Since writing this, I have heard privately that this person does now admit to not being the "first" Baha'i in that country. However, that 'fact' is already well established in published secondary materials and one doubts whether the retraction has had equal circulation.
2. Historical Record Cards: Henry S. Culver; Mary Diana Culver. National Baha'i Archives, Wilmette, Illinois, USA (hereinafter NBA):

Arthur Cuthbert to Col. and Mrs H. S. Culver, 19 September 1906. Copy in author's possession.
Judith Kirchoff [on behalf of Dorothy Culver Cress] to R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, 2 June 1982; n.d. [September 1982]. Author's papers.
Who was Who in America, IV. Marquis-Who's Who, Inc.:Chicago, 1968:219, entry for Henry S. Culver.
A useful account of the Culvers is given in Will C. van den Hoonaard, "The Development and Decline of an Early Baha'i Community: Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, 1910-1925." (in, Richard Hollinger, ed. Community Histories:Studies in the Babi and Baha'i Religions, Vol.6. Kalimat Press: Los Angeles, 1992.) See especially pages 218-220. This paper draws on some sources I have not seen and there are minor discrepancies between details given in it and those in the sources I have used.

3. In the notes on these five individuals I only mention sources used in addition to the Historical Record Cards.

4. Judith Oppenheimer for Archives Office, Baha'i World Centre, to R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, 16 December 1984, states that Marion Jack identifies the "Irish lady" as "Mrs Burke." A copy of the translation of the tablet is in the Ella Robarts Papers, NBA.

5. Individual Histories, Peter D. Coyne, NBA.

6. Oral History Interview, Ludmila Von Sombeck, NBA. Von Sombeck was taught the Baha'i Faith by du Bedat.

7. e.g. Robert H. Stockman. The Baha'i Faith in America: Origins, 1892-1900. Baha'i Publishing Trust: Wilmette, 1985:102. And, Peter Smith. "The American Baha'i Community, 1894-1917: A Preliminary Survey." (in, Moojan Momen ed. Studies in Babi and Baha'i History, Vol.I. Kalimat Press: Los Angeles, 1982):120.

8. David Hofman. George Townshend. George Ronald: Oxford, 1983:96.

9. J. E. Esslemont to Albert Vail, 26 January 1924. Vail Papers, NBA.

10. Joan H. Fforde to Victoria Bedikian, 2 December 1923. Bedikian Papers, NBA.

11. Translations of Tablets of 'Abdu'l-Baha, NBA.

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