Bernard Cavanagh

The Man Who Lived On The Word Of God


Between late 1840 and early 1842 Bernard Cavanagh rose from obscurity to become a major celebrity in Ireland and at one point began to rival Daniel O’Connell, The Great Emancipator, in popularity and newsworthiness. His reputation was based on the remarkable claim of being able to abstain from food and drink, and also to be able to control all his body’s excretions. Consequently he became known as the “Fasting Man” and he regularly attracted audiences numbering in the thousands at the Adelphi theatre in Dublin. For the privilege of seeing him attendees were charged between 6d (£1) to 2s (£6) on entry and for their money they were treated to a spectacle similar to a modern day television gospel preacher. The sick, the blind, the lame and the desperate gathered from miles around in the hope of a miracle and to receive his blessing. Obviously a showman, Bernard recalled the words of Jesus himself and was heard to say “Arise, and walk”. Thanks to the attention of the media he quickly became a topic of discussion within the medical profession and the public generally.

When asked to describe the source for his extraordinary powers Bernard explained that it began as a result of the penance imposed on him by his parish priest. Gradually he found himself able to endure longer and longer periods without nourishment until finally, he could abstain completely. Indeed, he claimed that rather than being a hardship he now enjoyed such an ordeal and that he lived not by the bread of man but by the word of God. The local authorities were unable or, unwilling to put a stop to his activities though he quickly attracted the attention of the church and was denounced from the pulpit.

In August 1841 Bernard left for England and on arrival he was again the subject of much speculation by both the popular press and the medical world who debated the authenticity of his claims. While most doctors were sceptical, some argued that his claims might be possible. When questioned by a reporter Bernard produced a testimonial:

“We, the undersigned, certify that Bernard Cavanagh, who is now on his way to London, is the same person who underwent the ordeal of fasting during the space of seven days and nights, in the town of Claremorris, in the county of Mayo.”

George Gore, Dean of Killala
John Coleman, Parish Priest
Edward Dean, Justice of Peace

As Mr. Gore was a brother to Lord Arran and also to the Duchess of Inverness there was a distinct reluctance to accuse Bernard of being a charlatan and a liar. The ability to abstain from food and drink was apparently a popular boast at the time and the claimants were usually revealed as impostors after an elementary investigation of the facts. In Bernard’s case his physical appearance did little to persuade the doubters for he seemed to be in full health with no trace of malnourishment. He responded to all doubters by offering to seal himself in a room and therein, to be deprived of any provisions. Eventually a gentleman took him up on his offer.

It was suggested that Bernard be locked in a room for ten days and nights to demonstrate his powers beyond doubt. A room was found measuring fifteen feet by nine feet by seven feet high. Bernard himself requested that the window and fireplace be sealed shut but this was refused on the grounds that there might be insufficient air in a room so small. He was stripped, searched thoroughly by a Dr. Kenney in the presence of an observer and finally sealed in the room. On the seventh day of the fast Bernard was released temporarily to attend mass being accompanied at all times by a physician and a solicitor. On his return he was again stripped and searched before returning to the room.

On the eleventh day of the fast the seal on the door was broken in the presence of a number of witnesses and Bernard emerged triumphant. The only outward sign of the ordeal was that he looked a little thinner than when he had entered, and this he cheekily put down to a lack of exercise. The room was examined closely but no sign of food or excretions could be found. A barrage of questions followed but he offered no information that could shed any more light on his performance. Slowly he was winning over some of the sceptics; many now accepted that Bernard could fast for anything up to two weeks but few believed his claim of being able to endure for five years.

Within days of completing the fasting experiment, its result was thrown into doubt. Serious questions were raised over the failure to seal the window and it was suggested that an accomplice, or other third party, could have taken advantage of the opening to supply food. Those in charge of experiment were confident that nothing of the sort had occurred but accepted that there was room for doubt and so, a second experiment was quickly arranged. A larger room was found so that all openings could be sealed without depriving the occupant of a suitable supply of air. On October 12th Bernard was again stripped, searched and sealed in a room. A certificate was drafted and signed:

“We, the undersigned, saw Bernard Cavanagh, the fasting man, generally so called, entirely denuded of his clothes, and examined in our presence as to the possibility of concealing any food about his person, and are of opinion it was not possible that any food, even in the smallest quantity, could have been concealed on his person. We also state that a fresh suit of clothes, which had been substituted without his previous knowledge for those he wore when he entered the room, were put on by him.”

“He was subsequently confined in a room, and our seals affixed to the door, and the keys delivered to Dr. Edward Blundell. We also observed that the window, doors and chimney were all sealed.”

E.S. Blundell M.D.
J.T. Reeve, Surgeon,
Peter Kenney, M.D.,
J. Spencer, Druggist,
J. Eyles, Surgeon-Dentist

On Thursday, October 21st, the seals were broken and the door opened in the presence of approximately thirty-five witnesses. The seals on the window, fireplace and doors were meticulously examined for tampering but none could be found. The bed and all corners were examined for traces of food and excretions and again none could be found. At first Bernard appeared a little sluggish but after stretching his legs for a minute or two he was soon back to his usual self. He had once more placed himself under the microscope and emerged to silence his critics and detractors. A journalist was moved to write “...his powers are extraordinary, that to physiologists he presents a singular case…”

One of the witnesses present asked if Bernard would mind submitting to scrutiny on a third occasion in St. George’s hospital. At first he accepted but then, whether due to genuine fatigue or the thought he might be pushing his luck a little too far, he subsequently declined the offer saying he would rather be locked up.
By November 12th Bernard, accompanied by a friend, found his travels had taken him to Reading in Berkshire where he lodged in the “Black Boy” public house. The companions were later joined by Bernard’s bother. The following morning notices and leaflets were appearing all over town to announce his arrival:


The celebrated Bernard Cavanagh, from the county of Mayo, who has excited so much attention from the medical and scientific world, on account of his excessive powers of abstinence, which are attested beyond all doubt, is now in this town, and invites all inquirers into this case of so singular a phenomenon to pay him a visit at the Black Boy, Reading during his stay. A few of his philosophical friends in London, wishing to gain some additional light upon this case, have advised him to give this general invitation, and make no distinct charge for admissions; but as the expenses of travelling about the country with his brother, who eats like other men, will be beyond their means, any friendly donation will be thankfully received."

In the following week Bernard proved to be a popular hit and large crowds gathered to see him. However due to a “no distinct charge for admission” policy little revenue was generated. During each session the audience repeatedly quizzed him on the length of abstinence and the source of his powers. He was reluctant to answer their questions but one woman in particular, a Mrs. Hatt, was determined to get to the bottom of the matter; in reply to her questioning Bernard finally stated he had abstained for 5 years and 6 months.

The next morning, November 18th, Mrs. Hatt was shopping in town and stopped for a chat with the shopkeeper of a provision store. During their conversation a man entered with a handkerchief across his eyes and a black patch on his nose and requested a quarter pound of ham, a saveloy and three-pennyworth of bread. Despite the comical attempt at disguise Mrs. Hatt recognised the man immediately as “The Fasting Man”, Bernard Cavanagh.

Hatt did not say anything immediately but watched the man pay for his goods and leave the shop after which he would presumably consume the feast. Angry at what she had just witnessed she then made for the Black Boy and enquired of Mr. Cavanagh, where she was informed that he gone out for a walk. Obviously a woman of patience as well as determination she took a seat and waited for his return. An hour and a half later Bernard appeared and Mrs. Hatt confronted him, notified the landlord of events and the police summoned. Some time later Bernard was brought before the Mayor for questioning.

During the investigation that followed, Mrs. Hatt was adamant that she had made no mistake in identifying Bernard Cavanagh as the man in the shop. Bernard was then requested to make his defence to which he replied, “If he did say anything it would not be believed, and he might, therefore, as well say nothing.” As matters progressed however Bernard realised the tide was against him and he finally admitted “the Lord caused me to be hungry, and I did eat.”

Bernard was convicted of being a “rogue and a vagabond” and was sentenced to three months hard labour. As he was led away he said that, while it was true he had told that woman he had fasted for 5 years and 6 months he had omitted to say that he now ate and drank like any normal man. In the days following, there was some debate as to the manner of his conviction. Although Bernard had admitted purchasing the food no one had actually seen him consume it and, while he claimed to be able to abstain for extended periods he had not actually claimed to be currently abstaining.

In prison Bernard refused to take the daily food and drink rations provided. Prison officials began to carefully weigh the food before placing it in Bernard’s cell. When they removed the food it was again weighed and on each occasion no discrepancy could be found; the weights always tallied exactly. After three days without rations the prison surgeon, a Mr. Bulley, excused Bernard from hard labour. The prison governor and some visiting magistrates overturned the decision however, and Bernard was back on hard labour Monday morning. Events turned a little comical when, in the afternoon, the mayor overturned the decision once more and Bernard was again excused hard labour.

After eight days Bernard received a visit from a correspondent of the London Times who found him “in excellent health and very good spirits (not at all “down” at his present situation), but there was colour upon his cheeks, clearly indicating (that) there were no symptoms of starvation visible.” The prison surgeon handed a written statement to the correspondent that added weight to Bernard’s claim:

“Bernard Cavanagh, at this date, completed his 9th day of entire abstinence from food and drink.

After the closest watching and the strictest care on the part of myself and the turnkeys of the prison to prevent the possibility of his clandestinely taking food, I feel satisfied and convinced, in my own mind, that Bernard Cavanagh has not tasted food or drink during the nine days he has been an inmate of the gaol. He remains, notwithstanding the privations he has voluntarily endured, in a state of perfect bodily health, and I cannot detect the slightest alteration in his appearance or spirits.”

Bernard was again demonstrating his extraordinary powers but within two days matters had taken a dramatic turn for the worse as he began to show adverse reactions. His pulse was weak, he could barely walk and generally he had the appearance of a very sick man. On the Saturday morning he admitted defeat. When prison officials measured his daily ration they discovered that a small amount of the gruel was missing. The prison surgeon Mr. Bulley was immediately called and when he saw Bernard’s state sent for more gruel and a glass of port wine.

Following his release from prison Bernard continued to tour England, advertising himself as the Fasting Man. Eventually he settled down and opened a shop. It is difficult to know whether he was a crank, a conman or if he genuinely believed he had a gift from god. In his description of Bernard the prison governor stated that he was a reasonable man in most things except when it came to religion. Bernard’s repeated offers to submit him self to scientific examination would seem to indicate that he was not a normal run of the mill confidence trickster.

The following notice* appeared in The Armagh Guardian on August 19th, 1845:

DEATH OF BERNARD CAVANAGH, THE FASTING MAN.—This individual, who three or four years since excited some attention in the metropolis, by professing to exist without sustenance, liquid or solid, expired on Sabbath last, in rucoat’s-lane, in his 32d year. He had recently kept a huckster’s shop, in which he had failed. He had gone by an assumed name, and his right one did not transpire till shortly before his death. His brother, who was with him when he exhibited in London, was present. The deceased was of parsimonious habits, and often reduced to great extremities, but has left money in bank.— Dublin paper


Copyright © Jimmy Kavanagh.


* Death notice transcribed by Alison Causton, Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia, Canada, by permission of The British Library. Read more at