Clergy and Politics

By the end of the eighteenth century the worst of the Penal Laws had been repealed. But at parish and county level, not to look further, power was firmly in the hands of the landlord. He had the giving of a site for the chapel and of a lease to the priest of the farm he lived on. He was almost certain to be of the Established Church and quite likely a member of the Grand Jury, the landlord’s club that governed the county. But the priest too was important because of his influence with his flock; he was firmly against secret societies and organised violence, and he was well educated. The situation made for peaceful co-existence, even good relations, between priest and landlord; and it is not surprising to find a landlord on good terms with the priest, and even taking an interest in the appointment of a bishop. Landlords were not always ‘bad’; some were generous and liberal according to circumstances, within limits. But the ‘agent’ who managed the county estate and collected the rents or arranged leases – a man like Trench in Farney or Lloyd in Monaghan – was more likely to be resented by the tenants because he was the power they had to deal with.

Catholics, properly qualified, could vote in an election for parliament; but their landlord expected them to vote for his candidate, and to ignore his direction could have serious consequences – under open voting. But no Catholic could sit in parliament. This reminder of second-class status was not removed, as had been hoped, after the Act of Union in 1801. Daniel O’Connell, ‘king of the beggars’, set himself to remove the humiliation and successfully organised the parish priests of the country to support a mass campaign for Emancipation. Meetings were held, sometimes in the chapels, sometimes chaired by the bishop, Dr Kernan. The best speeches were made by the clergy – Fathers James Duffy of Clones, Thomas Bogue of Roslea, John McCusker of Ballybay, Charles McDermott of Truagh. Randal Kernan, the barrister, and Alexander Maguire of Kinawley and James McKenna of Willville, Monaghan, were the foremost laymen. Westminster, under great pressure, conceded Emancipation in 1829. While it removed the humiliation it brought no practical improvement in the day-to-day life of Catholics: it was many years before a Catholic would sit in Westminster for Monaghan or Fermanagh or Tyrone.

Tithes for the minister were an immediate issue and often resisted with violence. But O’Connell’s campaign had showed Catholics – and all Europe – the power of the vote, the power of the people. And, for good or evil, it had set the role of priests in politics as dominant at grass roots for nearly a century.

In his last years O’Connell revived the campaign for Repeal of the Union. This was not a Catholic issue in the way that Emancipation had been. But O’Connell, the ‘Liberator’, was strongly and warmly supported by Bishop Charles MacNally and his clergy, particularly James Duffy of Tydavnet, a close relative of Charles Gavan Duffy and Thomas Tierney of Clontibret. Bishop James Donnelly, who succeeded MacNally in 1865, found himself before long in conflict with the local ascendancy, still in control, because of its bigoted abuse of power over local institutions – the Board of Guardians, local hospitals, national schools. The conflict lasted until Donnelly’s death in 1893. Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and the Land Acts dismantled the ascendancy as a power structure. As part of it Donnelly brought Dan McAleese from Belfast to Monaghan to set up the People’s Advocate newspaper.

At the time of Dr Donnelly’s death in 1893 one could say that the diocese was complete in that it had all the structures and institutions required by canon law for the preaching of the word of God and the administration of the sacraments. Under Dr Owens it was further enriched by the addition of an imposing episcopal palace and an orphanage in Bundoran. The Palace replaced a house, which Revd Patrick McGinn had built for the parish priest at the start of the nineteenth century. Concurrently important additions were erected at the Seminary under Presidents Mulhern and O’Doherty.

Under Dr Owens one gets the impression of the diocese working smoothly like a well-tended machine with the momentum built up under Dr Donnelly and operated with the minimum of episcopal intervention by an able body of clergy – Thomas Smollen, Peter McGlone, Peter Bermingham, among the senior clergy and among the younger Laurence O’Neill, Daniel O’Connor and James E. McKenna. The two last-named must ever be honoured for their writings on the history and antiquities of the diocese.

Bishop McKenna succeeded Bishop Owens in 1909. As professor in Maynooth he had been nicknamed ‘the fear’ – ‘the man’ par excellence. Gaelic ‘fear’ means ‘man’. The name was awarded to him as a compliment to his humanity. He ruled by praise – fulsome, perhaps, at times: his clerical ‘changes’ were always referred to as ‘promotions’, and in an end–of–term speech he referred to the Seminary staff as the finest in Europe! Those who remember his patience and placidity in his last years, when he was so loved by his flock, would confirm the judgement of ‘humanity’ which his students passed on him as a young priest. The diocesan engine took some hard knocks in Dr McKenna’s early years as Bishop. Dean Smollen of Enniskillen died in 1909 and was replaced by Patrick Keown there as P.P. and V.G. Keown had been an Administrator in Monaghan and in the ‘corridors of power’ under Dr Owens was second choice of the parish priests for Bishop when Owens died in 1909. Peter McGlone, P.P., of Carrickmacross died in 1910 and was succeeded by Eugene McKenna. Father Thomas O’Doherty, of a famous family, had been replaced as President of the Seminary by Fr Eugene McAdam in 1910. Keown was already Prior of Lough Derg and one might single out the development of the pilgrimage under his long priorate which included the erection of the Basilica (1926-31) as the most important diocesan development of Dr McKenna’s episcopate.

At the turn of the century some of the younger clergy, as one would expect, were active in the movements of national revival—the G.A.A., Connradh na Gaeilge and co?operative societies, even the Volunteers. This ‘new wave’ of clergy showed a lack of docility that Donnelly would have found incredible. Among the foremost were Matt Maguire, John Tierney, James O’Daly and Eugene Coyle.

Since before 1800 the Church’s political ‘constant’ had been the condemnation, repeated regularly, of secret societies and organised violence. It has not changed. Early in this century some younger priests were involved in the Volunteer movement, especially in the aftermath of the rising of 1916. Since 1921 priests have had a diminishing role in politics.
Previous articleAfter 1800
Next articleInstitution