Radical Irish Priests 1660-1970, Gerard Moran (ed.). (Four Courts Press, £30) ISBN 1851822496

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (Autumn 1999), Reviews, Volume 7

The Catholic priesthood can be seen as exemplifying ‘traditional’ leadership where authority derives from a social role irrespective of the individual involved; but there have always been priests who developed a more individualistic approach, even if this precipitated conflict with church or state authorities. These essays describe nine Irish Catholic priests, each marked out by unusual attitudes or experiences; Donal Kerr prefaces them by discussing the need to relate different forms of ‘radicalism’ to specific contexts
Éamon Ó Ciardha uses the Gaelic poetry of the friar Liam Inglis (1709-78) to explore the survival of Jacobite hopes among the Catholic population and residual Gaelic intelligentsia until 1763. James Kelly profiles the Catholic controversialist Friar Arthur O’Leary (1729-1802). Inglis looked for a French army to destroy ‘the clergy of Calvin’; O’Leary saw this prospect as calamitous and preached freedom of conscience and Catholic-Anglican co-operation against unbelief. O’Leary’s reputation suffered because he accepted government money, but this relationship was short-lived due to O’Leary’s uneasiness with an administration which would not grant complete religious toleration. When O’Leary called on Munster Rightboys to abandon violence in the late 1780s Ascendancy hard-liners used his denunciations of oppression to accuse him of fomenting the violence he condemned; he left Ireland in 1789 for pastoral work in England (Kelly unfortunately passes over some aspects of O’Leary’s career as ‘too well known to need reiteration here’). Thomas Power outlines the judicial murder and subsequent reputation of the Tipperary priest Fr. Nicholas Sheehy (c. 1728-66), while Sheila Mulloy describes how Fr. Manus Sweeny (1763-99) was hunted down after assisting the French at Killala in 1798. In neither case can we reconstruct the attitudes of the priests themselves; the importance of these pieces rests on the use of their careers to illuminate the society around them.
Gerard Moran’s account of the ‘Fenian priest’ Fr. Patrick Lavelle (1825-86) and Fergus D’Arcy’s study of the Christian Socialist and ‘father of Home Rule’ Thaddeus O’Malley (1798-1877) draw on published work. O’Malley, like O’Leary, was led into equivocal relations with the British government by his commitment to non-sectarianism; under the more exclusivist Church leadership of the mid-nineteenth century he was banished to the poverty-stricken margins of clerical society. O’Malley’s belief in non-sectarian education and Anglo-Irish reconciliation through social reform strikingly anticipate Michael Davitt; a fuller biography is eagerly awaited. Incidentally, O’Malley’s Christian Social Economist (1851) was not the only Christian Socialist journal in nineteenth-century Ireland (p.106); in the late 1880s and early 1890s the Congregationalist Revd. John Bruce Wallace published one in Limavady and Belfast.
Lawrence MacBride usefully explores Canon Sheehan’s critique of modernity but underestimates his conservatism (seen in his relations with the reforming landlord Lord Castletown—comparable to Lavelle’s friendship with the benevolent Lord Ardilaun at Cong). Perhaps the finest chapter is Breandán Mac Suibhne’s account of Canon James MacFadden (1842-1917) which resolves its subject’s dual image—heroic Land Leaguer in Gaoth Dobhair, ‘gombeen-priest’ in Inis Caoil/Na Gleanntaí—by situating him in the social, economic, political and clerical networks of Raphoe. The arrogance and comfortable lifestyle of his later career were already present in earlier years, and the older self-serving autocrat retained much of his earlier social concern; but while the relatively united society of Gaoth Dobhair admired his lifestyle, in the more socially differentiated Inis Caol it identified him with the ‘genteel’ urban Catholic commercial bourgeoisie against the poor of the ‘pagan’ hill-areas.
The last essay maintains this high standard, as Brian Murphy reconstructs the career of Fr. John Fahey (1894-1969). Fahey’s lifelong republicanism and agrarian radicalism (he was a friend of Peadar O’Donnell) co-existed with a sense of priestly authority (when arrested for resisting a bailiff during the land annuities campaign he claimed clerical immunity from prosecution). By the 1950s despair at the plight of smallholders led him to found Lia Fáil, which combined fear of Protestant-masonic conspiracies led by Erskine Childers with dreams of a future where ‘parasitic’ state employees were sent to dig turf, partition was ended by nuclear weapons (!) and de Valera’s cabinet adorned lampposts. Fahey’s plans for a national uprising ended in small-scale disturbances around Lusmagh, County Offaly; he voiced the anger of some of the losers in Lemass’s Ireland by means reminiscent of pre-Famine Whiteboys or ‘primitive rebels’ in nineteenth-century Latin America. He was also a keen fox hunter.
Despite the quality of individual chapters the book lacks cohesion, perhaps because it takes ‘conservatism’ for granted; a preliminary discussion of priests as local and national power-brokers, the enduring tension between the leadership claims of priests and Catholic/nationalist lay elites, and the Weberian distinction between bureaucratic and devotional Catholicism would have helped. Nonetheless this book helps to place Catholic Ireland in historical perspective.
Patrick Maume


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