Political priests: the Parnell split in Meath

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2010), Parnell & his Party, Volume 18

‘Unsuitable suitors’—Parnellite candidates ‘Brian Boru’ Dalton and ‘Robert Emmet’ Mahony try (unsuccessfully, as it transpired) to woo the Meath sisters, ‘North’ and ‘South’, in the by-elections of 1893, occasioned by their successful petition to annul the previous elections of July 1892 on the grounds of ‘undue clerical influence’. (Supplement to the Weekly Freeman and National Press, 28 January 1893)

‘Unsuitable suitors’—Parnellite candidates ‘Brian Boru’ Dalton and ‘Robert Emmet’ Mahony try (unsuccessfully, as it transpired) to woo the Meath sisters, ‘North’ and ‘South’, in the by-elections of 1893, occasioned by their successful petition to annul the previous elections of July 1892 on the grounds of ‘undue clerical influence’. (Supplement to the Weekly Freeman and National Press, 28 January 1893)

The ‘quiet and insidious’ methods of political influence and control used by the Catholic clergy in Meath ‘leave life not worth living in small country towns and villages’, Navan’s town clerk, James Lawlor, complained despondently to the Irish Independent in February 1893, after the Parnellite former MP Pierce Mahony had again been defeated in a by-election in North Meath (as was his colleague in South Meath, James Dalton, John Redmond’s Australian brother-in-law). A general air of political despair defined the immediate post-Parnell era.
The fresh elections had followed the Parnellites’ success in petitioning the courts to annul the Meath results in the bitter general election of July 1892 on the grounds of ‘undue clerical influence’. This resulted in the unseating of the anti-Parnellite founder of the Land League, Michael Davitt, and his local colleague in South Meath, Patrick Fulham. Both were bankrupted by the costs of the petitions—against elections which need not have taken place if both sides could have agreed not to contest each other’s ‘safe’ seats as a means of reducing animosity. What had particularly incensed the judges was the pastoral delivered by the bishop of Meath, Thomas Nulty, on the eve of the general election, declaring that no Parnellite voter could ‘remain a Catholic’.
The pastoral was but the culmination of a vigorous anti-Parnellite campaign by Bishop Nulty and his clergy, who ironically had ensured that Charles Stewart Parnell first entered Westminster as MP for Meath in 1875. This probably accounts equally for the Meathmen’s continuing loyalty to their fallen leader and for the vehemence of the bishop’s opposition after the scandal of the O’Shea divorce revelation in November 1890 of his former protégé’s adultery. Now Dr Nulty, who had long assumed a ‘divine right’ to nominate candidates in both parliamentary and local elections, availed of the divisions caused by the split to consolidate his hold on political power.

Nun for Navan workhouse

 

Bishop Thomas Nulty—had long assumed a ‘divine right’ to nominate candidates in both parliamentary and local elections. (St Finian’s College, Mullingar)

Bishop Thomas Nulty—had long assumed a ‘divine right’ to nominate candidates in both parliamentary and local elections. (St Finian’s College, Mullingar)

After some initial confusion, Bishop Nulty by the end of 1891 had cleverly broken the power of local Parnellites. They were outmanoeuvred after aligning themselves with the Protestant landlord element of Navan Poor Law guardians—dubbed ‘exterminators’ by Dr Nulty. This was in a vote against a successful proposal by the clergy to appoint a nun as matron of the local workhouse, which was supported by anti-Parnellite members as well as by Catholic landlords. (Even when the workhouse was abolished by the new Irish state and its buildings became Our Lady’s Hospital, the matron continued for many years to be a Sister of Mercy.)
Bishop Nulty built on his victory over this issue of the nun to consolidate his ‘divine right’. He and his priests went on to instruct their congregations how to vote. They preached that the issues in the split were religious or moral questions, on which their teachings must be obeyed, but then claimed election results as political victories. For political advantage, they fudged the undoubted anti-clericalism of many of the Parnellites into anti-Catholicism, which it never was. When Parnellites complained bitterly about such clerical interference in politics, Bishop Nulty merely pledged to ‘beat them again and again’. That he could do so challenges the trusim that the Irish Catholic clergy could lead their people only in the political direction that they wished to go. With his and his priests’ conduct being seized upon by unionists and Tories as proof that Home Rule would mean ‘Rome rule’, former Parnellite MP Patrick O’Brien could only remark ruefully that the priests had ‘done more to defeat Home Rule than all the bluster and drumming of the Ulster Orangemen’.
Parnellite resistance to clerical usurpation of control of their political affairs took violent  forms, including several epsiodes of serious rioting in Navan, in which one man died and many were injured. Even policemen were attacked as they tried in vain to take rioters into custody, and the deployment of a firing party of militia was once seriously contemplated by the resident magistrate after he had read the Riot Act to no avail. Smashing the windows of the Navan parochial house in which the bishop resided, screaming abuse under his window as he slept at night, assaults upon priests, walk-outs from Mass and the public burning of an effigy of Davitt—complete with one arm—were among other forms of protest. When Davitt was sensationally felled to the ground by a stone thrown by a local shop-boy after his selection convention in Navan, it was momentarily thought that he had been assassinated. Pierce Mahony’s punching of barrister MP Matt Kenny in the round hall of the Four Courts for referring in a speech to his mother as a ‘Hindoo’ gave the defeated MP’s by-election campaign a shot in the arm.

 

Parnellite cartoon contrasting anti-Parnellite Meath MP Michael Davitt’s oath of fidelity to the queen in 1892 (in his hand, and note the Fenian oath trodden underfoot) with his 1885 ‘letter to the radical electors of Sheffield’ (text at bottom) condemning the same oath. (Supplement to United Ireland, 13 August 1892)

Parnellite cartoon contrasting anti-Parnellite Meath MP Michael Davitt’s oath of fidelity to the queen in 1892 (in his hand, and note the Fenian oath trodden underfoot) with his 1885 ‘letter to the radical electors of Sheffield’ (text at bottom) condemning the same oath. (Supplement to United Ireland, 13 August 1892)

Violence was not confined to the Parnellite side: there was plenty of evidence at the petition hearings of priests assaulting their parishioners. Two Meath priests were later prosecuted for assault and one was jailed for contempt of court. But invective was preferred: Davitt dubbed Mahony ‘the grandson of a Kerry souper’, which was untrue but really hurt in a time when people could personally remember the horrors of the Famine. The insult was even repeated by Dr Nulty, who never withdrew it or apologised. The bishop also had no hesitation in returning the church offerings of those with whom he disagreed, such as that of the Navan Parnellite leader Luke Smyth. He branded Parnellite women as prostitutes in a sermon in Trim on the eve of the 1892 general election, although he later denied this. But he was criticised even by his friend Davitt for regarding all Parnellites as being guilty of Parnell’s sin of adultery. Mr Justice O’Brien, blaming chiefly his pastoral for invalidating the Meath results in the 1892 general election, said that its purpose was ‘to raise the lid of the tomb and again uncover the poor remains of human frailty in order to array a political party in the shroud of departed sin’.
In the face of such seemingly invincible clerical power, the vanquished Meath Parnellites retreated into the type of political apathy exemplified by James Lawlor’s complaint, quoted at the outset. The only practical reaction they could muster was to withhold financial support from the clergy. The most striking effect of this was the cessation of building work on a new parish church in Trim, which Bishop Nulty could only lament bitterly. But such political apathy was not confined to Parnellites, nor to Meath, but was shared by their opponents country-wide in the majority party, which was increasingly divided into support for the moderation of John Dillon or the Catholic nationalism of Tim Healy. Loss of interest in parliamentary politics was exacerbated by the removal of Home Rule from the political agenda after Gladstone’s second bill was vetoed by the House of Lords in 1893.

Sterile wrangling

The sterility of political wrangling contrasted so much with the excitment and promise of the Parnell days that even Bishop Nulty by 1895 was bemoaning the negative outcome of the split, which had created the political vacuum that enabled himself and fellow churchmen to tighten their grip on political power. ‘People lost hope in politics’, he said, and therefore refused to vote, so that he feared that the country ‘will return to the old ways of arson, outrage and murder to redress their wrongs’. By 1906 even a local priest was writing to the Meath Chronicle complaining about ‘the universal torpor and lack of intelligent interest in politics’ in Navan and in Meath generally. ‘A deadly creeping paralysis’ had followed the ‘awful split’ of the early 1890s, he wrote, as a result of which ‘the people have sunk into a state of hapless apathy and despair’.
But this created the necessary space for a new form of Irish nationalism, which emphasised its distinctly Gaelic nature and incorporated Catholicism as an essential element. What began in the Gaelic League as a cultural movement, with Irish language classes and feiseanna of Irish dancing and music, grew to form the basis of Sinn Féin’s political demand not for Home Rule but for separation from Britain. The League’s activities in Meath first appeared in print in 1902 and gained extensive coverage thereafter, St Patrick’s Day of the following year being observed for the first time as a general holiday, with a parade through Navan ‘of all national and religious’ organisations.
One positive local effect of the split in Meath was the bequest by Navan Parnellite leader Luke Smyth of an extensive portion of land at Ardmulchan for a new cemetery. Such a generous donation may, however, have been motivated by Bishop Nulty’s threat—after he had been called a liar by town clerk James Lawlor while inveighing against local Parnellites in Navan cathedral—that on the Last Day he would stand at the bar of justice to condemn those Parnellite leaders for the loss of the souls they had led into sin. But the aftermath of the split in Meath was largely negative.

Diocesan college removed from Navan

 

Bishop Matthew Gaffney, Dr Nulty’s successor—resigned in 1905, ostensibly on grounds of ill health, amid unfounded allegations of an improper relationship with a nun who was his nurse. (St Finian’s College, Mullingar)

Bishop Matthew Gaffney, Dr Nulty’s successor—resigned in 1905, ostensibly on grounds of ill health, amid unfounded allegations of an improper relationship with a nun who was his nurse. (St Finian’s College, Mullingar)

Before his death in 1898, Bishop Nulty had collected funds and commissioned plans for a new St Finian’s diocesan seminary in Navan to replace the original opened in 1802 by Bishop Patrick Plunkett. However, his successor, Bishop Matthew Gaffney, decided in 1900 to close St Finian’s in Navan and to build a new college in Mullingar. He also announced his intention to build a new cathedral in Mullingar, where he had opted to live full-time. Rivalry had always simmered between the two towns, of each of which the bishop was and is parish priest and between which Bishop Nulty had divided his residency.
Bishop Gaffney’s stated reason for transferring the college was that the diocesan priests who would fund its cost had voted by 73 to 31 for it. He further explained that they felt that the college should be attached to the cathedral. This was despite the fact that St Mary’s Church in Navan was frequently referred to at the time as a cathedral and that, as the bishop himself acknowledged, the existing church in Mullingar was not even as suitable for a cathedral as ‘some of the diocesan churches’, including, presumably, Navan’s. Dr Gaffney also later noted that the Catholic bishop of Meath’s see had never been fixed or determined and that there was no proper cathedral in Meath, which was unbefitting ‘not only a diocese but an historic kingdom’.
This form of reasoning could have been adopted to avoid the implication that Navan was deemed by Bishop Gaffney and most of his priests to be an unsuitable location for major church infrastructure or as the centre of the diocese because of the townspeople’s staunchly anti-clerical stance since the beginning of the split a decade previously. Was there possibly even an element of punishment involved in the two major, simultaneous announcements, to which, strangely, there is no record of any opposition, merely sullen acceptance? The Drogheda Independent, which Parnellites justifiably termed a ‘clerical organ’, had earlier stated that the purpose of a celebration in Mullingar of the Meath anti-Parnellite victories in the 1892 general election was to demonstrate ‘people’s anger against the Navan mob and their more miserable prompters’ who had dared to insult Bishop Nulty.
The newspaper had added rather ominously that these ‘new-blown patriots’ had made the name of Navan ‘odious to Irish Catholic ears’. Unfortunately we will never know for sure why the college was moved to Mullingar and a new cathedral built. Meath’s diocesan archive was destroyed by Bishop Gaffney’s successor, Dr Laurence Gaughran, in 1909 for fear of the exposure of a scandal over the resignation of Bishop Gaffney in 1905, ostensibly on grounds of ill health. The real reason for the bishop’s resignation appears to have centred on unfounded allegations of an improper relationship with a nun who was his nurse.

Epilogue
After the new St Finian’s opened in Mullingar in 1908, Navan was without a boys’ secondary school until 1930, when Bishop Thomas Mulvany resolved what he termed Navan people’s ‘grievance’ by opening St Patrick’s classical school in the study hall of the old St Finian’s, the buildings of which had been sold off after the college’s closure in 1908. It was only in 1936 that Dr Mulvany finally dedicated to Christ the King the new cathedral in Mullingar, which has been described as ‘stylishly triumphant’ by one expert and as ‘grandiose’ and ‘triumphalist’ by others, who also ascribe ‘the sheer scale’ of St Finian’s College in Mullingar to ‘the confidence of the Catholic Church at the turn of the [nineteenth] century’. HI


David Lawlor is a former public relations manager of An Post.

Further reading:

 

E. Larkin, The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and the fall of Parnell, 1888–91(Liverpool, 1979).

D. Lawlor, Divine right? The Parnell split in Meath (Cork, 2007).

F.S.L. Lyons, The fall of Parnell, 1890–91 (London, 1960).

C. Cruise O’Brien, Parnell and his party, 1880–90 (Oxford, 1957).

 

 

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