Early or pre-Christian statue, Boa Island, Loch Erne, near Pettigo
Wikimedia, Public Domain
In the dead of night, the lady was awoken by voices. The first begged that the household rise and pray for the speaker, a poor sinner. The second, the house-owner Robert Plunket, tried to comfort the first, telling him he was a charitable, pious clergyman, with few or none as good as he. The seeker of prayers was the rector of the parish, Philip Skelton, who rented an earth-floored room from Plunket for lack of a rectory.
It was true that the clergyman toiled for the people in the parish of Templecarn, instructing them in religion (whether they wanted it or not), distributing charity and even acting as doctor when needed. A place of wild moorland surrounding Lough Derg, it was not a place where one would expect to find the author of Deism Revealed, one of the most popular books of the age, already in its second edition .
This religious despair was (his biographer suggests) a result of his intellectual isolation. The biography also paints Skelton as a person of strong emotion. Born near Lisburn Co. Antrim, in February 1707, in his youth he was strong and handsome, adept at swords, cudgels and boxing and with a “warm” temper. He reportedly fought at Donnybrook Fair, beating all comers but returning the prize-money so the ladies’ entertainment could continue. At Trinity College (where he graduated BA in 1728), he argued with a fellow student, who then accused Skelton of Jacobitism to the Provost, the student’s relation. This resulted in the Provost’s emity towards Skelton for the rest of his life, almost resulting in Skelton losing his scholarship. Yet Skelton also formed a life-long friendship with his tutor, Patrick Delany, friend of Swift. This was a repeating pattern in his life – he had warm friendships, but his forthright manner, inability to lie and habit of dissolving friendships when affronted meant he remained in a lowly position in the Church of Ireland hierarchy. Hence “as his opinions were orthodox, his manners were primitive”, a description of him included on his tombstone.