It was William Patrick Ryan (1) who described the events of Portarlington in 1906 as a battle in chapter 8 of The Pope’s Green Island published six years later. There was no battle of Portarlington in the usual sense of physical combat; rather it was a struggle of authority and outrage following words spoken, or claimed to have been spoken publicly, by Portarlington’s Catholic priest Father Edward O’ Leary(2) , and defended by his curate, Father Martin Brophy (3) to the local Gaelic League.
The cause was the Gaelic League’s holding of mixed classes for men and women in the town. A branch had been established in Portarlington in 1904, and called itself the Ruairi O’More (4) branch. According to its own statement the branch was conceived at a feis held at Bishopswood for the benefit of the Catholic Young Men’s Society. P.T. MacGinley of the Gaelic League Executive and Mr Campbell, the national schoolteacher at Killenard, began the establishment, though Campbell soon withdrew from meetings. MacGinley and an active colleague in the ‘battle’, Stephen B Roche, were on a sense blow-ins. MacGinley had been born in Donegal, amid the Irish language traditions. A large man, physically as well as in mental powers, he had managed to start up the Gaelic League in Belfast and was treasurer of the Maryborough (Portlaoise) branch; in Ryan’s words he was, “a teacher, a fighter, a humorist, a seanchai, a poet and a politician”.
At first, relations with the local clergy were amicable; both priest and curate advocated the learning of Irish, and at the first meeting, which the priests attended, it was suggested that the vacant Methodist Hall would be suitable for classes. The relationship soon cooled, and MacGinley found himself kicking his heels, while soundings were taken for teachers and branch officials. Father O’Leary was offered the presidency of the meetings. The Methodist Hall did not materialise for classes, and the branch applied for use of the Christian Brother’s School or the Catholic Club.
Mr Roche applied for the “Town Hall Catholic Club”. Father O’Leary amended this by suggesting that there should be two classes, one for boys and men at the school, and another for girls and women at the Convent. He believed this would be beneficial for language study and render the movement “wedded to the church”. Roche opposed this, arguing that as no students had yet arrived, divided classes could cost time and money to little purpose, and MacGinley wished to pursue the branch’s life without clerical authority. Father O’Leary reacted badly to this, and neither priests nor local figures under their influence, including the schoolteacher Campbell, attended again.
Eventually a hall was found in Kilmalogue (5) for the Gaelic League, classes began (6), with dances and talks. One visiting speaker was Patrick Pearse who talked on the philosophy of national education. Father O’Leary grew concerned about mixed classes, and decided to promote rival Irish classes with girls under the charge of nuns, their “natural guardians” he commended. On August 27th, Father O’Leary spoke from the pulpit of St. Michael’s Church from notes, and members of the Gaelic League attending the mass believed they heard the following words; “… the men who are in charge of the class here are very respectable men, no doubt, but it would be much to expect that they could be responsible for the youth of the town, so that when the class opens in the Convent there will be no necessity for young women to attend mixed Gaelic classes, unless they want something else besides Gaelic. We are now in the month of September, the town has not yet been lighted, and perhaps if it were lighted they wouldn’t want to go there at all…..” (7)
The implied slur on the morals of the laity, of women and girls, and of the League’s responsibilities, caused outrage. In retrospect it appears to confirm that obsession with sex of all the sins, which has seemed to occupy the minds of clergy. This was the battle, as MacGinley and Roche took up to fight and demanded Bishop Foley investigate: this was the fight which caused the Ruairi O’More branch to print its own autobiography barely two years after its founding to justify its position. Were the words accurately reported? Did Father O’Leary (8) intend a deliberate assault, with the curate taking up his master’s voice; or was it one of those verbal disasters, unplanned, from which no one ever has been immune? In the sum of the Gaelic renaissance in Ireland at the century’s edge, the Ruairi O’Moore branch was one small drop, but in local terms the row was bold and unforseen. A century later, and it is more than a local story, but one of those examples set in a wider world over authority boundaries, of pulpit and clergy influence; a struggle in much the same way as tenants engaged in with landlords; of the social view of women, and who controlled that powerful force of education.
According to W P Ryan, the consequences of this event in Portarlington “was long and devious”. Legal action on the printing of the autobiography (sold for 6 pence per copy) did not materialise, but an alternative branch to the Gaelic League under the clerical leadership was established in Bishopswood by the name of St. Broghan’s League (9) , with Father O’Leary as chairman. The next move was to hold a Feis for this League and gain access to the annual congress in Dublin. The Gaelic League refused to recognise the St. Broghan’s League and, Ryan, in his role as editor of the Irish Peasant, together with the editor of Sinn Fein, obtained copies of the circular letter addresses by Father O’Leary to his fellow priests. In the letter he gave his own version of events, and accused the Gaelic League executive of being anti-clerical in its behaviour and in refusing recognition of his own created branch.
“… Is the executive representative of the Gaelic League of the country? I am inclined to think it is not; and this brings me to the motive underlying this letter. The bishops and priests of the country have made the Gaelic League the great power that it is now universally acknowledged to be in the land. The present executive has shown by its toleration of, and sympathy with, the Rory O’More branch and its refusal to affiliate the other branch formed in this parish, that it has decided anti-clerical proclivities…..The remedy for this unfortunate state of affairs is to have the objectionable elements removed from the executive, or rendered harmless; and a number of good Catholic laymen, with a fair representation of the priests, placed on the executive committee. The priests have it quite in their power to do this…..” (10)
This was a faith and morality argument, and was well received by many outside the Gaelic League, an institution under the presidency of Douglas Hyde (11) , who struggled so hard to maintain a non-sectarian and non-political society. Mixed classes as an issue became merged with others. It was noted, however, that Gaelic classes in Bishop Foley’s Carlow were mixed as they were in Monasterevin, despite the Bishop reporting that, “I could not approve of them”.
Father O’Leary was, however, reacting to local events, within a much wider world view, or rather European view, and it is important in local history studies not to under-estimate the consequences of wider events in a locality. Mary Kenny in Goodbye to Catholic Ireland, (1997) has shown the wide coverage in the Catholic press and periodicals at the time of events in the European church. Father O’Leary could hardly have avoided the news of attacks on church influence and property in France which resulted in the wide-sweeping secularization law of 1904, and supported by Sinn Fein, only one year before he had to face the bud of secularism in his own parish with the Gaelic League.
Events in France were condemned at the County Council in Maryborough, (12) and comparisons were made with past persecutions of Catholicism in Ireland, and that they were witnesses in France to a new series of Penal Laws. Neither could he have been unaware of the fate of George Tyrrell (1861-1909), whose childhood had been spent at Dangans and Portarlington; a convert and a Jesuit theologian, whose theology drew him to challenge “living faith with dead theology”(13) again during these very two years. The Pope himself, Pius X, (14) set the tone from Rome for Father O’Leary’s intransigence. He utterly condemned the French law of secularisation and also condemned anyone who would compromise in any such settlement. Furthermore the Pope’s encyclical Pascendi in 1907 produced a reaction from Tyrrell which resulted in his excommunication.
Not just on the wider issues did Father O’Leary react; for him faith and loyalty to the Catholic church, outside of which there was no salvation, was not just a Sunday Mass faith, but an all consuming loyalty and pastoral duty. Secular societies were a challenge to that role, an open door to indifferentism and socialism. Courtship, young men and women, were problems for Father O’Leary. Tales are still recalled in Portarlington of him touring the streets to catch courting couples, to pick up people for not attending Mass. The Puritanism of Irish Catholicism in the late nineteenth century has been covered by many writers. Priests “saw moral danger in the most innocent meetings of young folk for whom they had the spiritual training and who were part of what they declared in glowing sermons and speeches to be the most virtuous and spiritual race under the sun.” (15)
Ryan was anti-clerical but he expressed a truth here of which Father O’Leary was a part. The position, the categorisation, of women were important to Father O’Leary, and the Gaelic League offered women a space and function unavailable elsewhere, just as it offered Protestants a way of being Irish without being Catholic. This threat of “hanky-panky between boys and girls” (16) and the challenge to a “does it serve the faith?” mentality came very hard on many priests. “Eve is the eternal shadow of the Irish ecclesiastical landscape”, (17) wrote Ryan, with as much prescience for later generations as his own.
In July 1906 the St Broghan’s League held a Feis in grounds near Portarlington’s railway station. A reporter from the Leinster Express attended the big gathering, which he estimated at being 6,000 people and heard Father O’Leary attack the Ruairi O’More branch and the reputation of Douglas Hyde. The mention of special trains hired to bring in visitors hinted at a managed raise-an-audience display for more than local notice. “Two commodious platforms, gaily decorated, were provided for competitors. Special trains brought in a considerable crowd. Bands were in attendance from Maryborough, Bishopswood, Ballybrittas and Killenard.
The Rev. O’Leary, P.P. in opening the Feis said, ‘I am glad to see that the words on your banner have the right ring, – Rome and Ireland – Faith and Fatherland (18) – and our fatherland includes our mother tongue. But faith comes first. For this our fathers bled and died. This is our great glory, our holy religion. It comes first, before fatherland, before the Irish language, before the Gaelic League. We had a very puny branch of the Gaelic League established here twelve months ago calling themselves the Rory O’Mores. I find that they met Douglas Hyde at the railway station here on his return from America. Dr. Hyde complimented the branch on its notable efforts that won the approval of the Gaelic Leaguers far and wide.
Now I want to tell you what these notable efforts were. The Rory’s are Catholics and their first notable effort was to commit an outrage in our church and during Holy Mass, an outrage so disgraceful that the like never happened since the church was built. (19) That was ten months ago. Then they printed a book which they called their autobiography, or rather the Gaelic League printed it for them. This contained such scurrilous libels on their own clergy that no Catholic and only one Protestant shop would sell it for them in the town. Their next notable effort was to endeavour to stop this Feis, and they printed posters in which they called you all ‘Knaves and traitors’. As I said, they met Dr. Hyde a few days ago at the railway station. Douglas Hyde is a Protestant, but he bears the reputation of being a decent honourable man. He has done great work for the Irish language, and has just returned from America with a large sum of money to further this great work.
But all the same Dr. Hyde, the Protestant, compliments the Catholic Rorys on the scandalous outrage they committed on our church during Holy Mass. Dr. Hyde, the Protestant, compliments the Rorys in refusing to apologise for their outrageous conduct in church. Dr. Hyde compliments the Catholic Rorys for publishing such scurrilous libels on their clergy, which no Catholic and only one Protestant in this town would sell for them. There is Douglas Hyde for you! But how could he reprove them when it was the Gaelic League that printed the libels for the Rorys? And there is the Gaelic League for you! You are here today in your thousands to enter your solemn protest against this. We are here today with our friends at our back. We have the men of Kildare, the King’s County and the Queen’s. We are here to testify that we will work successfully and well for the dear old Irish tongue, but we will take no domination from outside.
We offered to become a branch of the Gaelic League. They refused us affiliation through the intrigues of the Rorys. Now we call ourselves the St Broghan’s League and will work well for the language without any outside interference. Now I want to inculcate a short and practical lesson. With the revival of the Irish tongue, also begin to revive again the old Irish prayers and salutations and blessings, which I am sorry to say are dying out very fast. There is nothing protestant about the Irish tongue. (20) Its prayers, its blessings, its salutations are all Catholic. There is nothing irreligious about the Irish tongue or the Irish revival except the Dublin League. We have no objections to having decent Protestants on the executive of the League, but we will not have any Protestants, even Douglas Hyde, insult our religion….”
Father O’Leary knew how to work his audience; he identified a besieged idea and an outside enemy, outsiders in all ways. He avoided all reference to his own reported words on mixed classes, turned an injured party into the injurers; rendered his opponents as sacrilegious enemies lead by outsiders and Protestants, implying Protestants may be decent despite their faith. The notion or outsiders (21) arriving to disturb his peaceful parish was a favourite of his; “strangers setting themselves up as leaders of the people” (22); they thought it was a brave action to stand out at Mass. He denied his opponents their own name, begrudging them as the Rorys, or ‘pleased to call themselves’ (23) and implied that their actions were out of choice, malicious will, for no cause; he made no mention of his own part of that Bishop Foley considered that he could have acted more prudently. (24) God was obviously partisan: “if the congregation did not reverence their P.P., they would not reverence their God”, said Father Brophy, the curate. (25)
The proximity to the divine and the sure clout of a priest in a small town would have ensured public circumspection. This mood can be seen in Roche’s letter to his bishop on 2nd October, where he wrote that both Sergeant McMahon of the R.I.C. (Queen’s County barracks) and Mrs. Rabbett, who had a grocer’s shop on main street, would vouch for the accuracy of Father O’Leary’s pulpit words, but were reluctant to sign any statement before any inquiry. (26) A nasty aspect which the Gaelic League made much of was the dismissal of Joseph MacManus’s son from employment at D.E. Williams Ltd of Tullamore, “Mr Williams (27) stopped me on the street and informed me that unless my son apologises to Father O’Leary he would be obliged to dismiss him,” said Joseph MacManus, the then secretary of the Gaelic League and member of the Portarlington Catholic Young Men’s Society.
The last page of the autobiography bears a testimonial and an appeal for funds to assist MacManus junior, the sums to be lodged with Portarlington’s photographer and post-card maker, C.F. Wynn. The priest’s sally into the history of the language at his open-air meeting reflected another much wider issue which had passed into his hearers’ general sectarian knowledge. Since the early days of the Gaelic revival Irish Roman Catholicism and the Church of Ireland had each made claims on the language and early Celtic Church in terms of lineage and inheritance. In 1999 Ian Bradley wrote a book which explored this feature through the ages. (28) Catholics claimed the Celtic Church as essentially Irish, as apostolic, as spiritual and loyal to the Papacy, essentially as native. The Church of Ireland argued the Celtic Church was distant from Rome in loyalty and doctrines, the Papal writ did not run until the Norman invasion and Pope Adrian IV, and that it was the Catholic Church which was planted in, and not native. An example of this can be found in the schoolbook History of the Church of Ireland for use in schools, by H.E. Patton (29), and published in 1907 by the A.P.C.K. in Dublin. The author wrote of “how independent the Irish church was in the early ages”, and at the Reformation, “the Irish church became free again as in the early days.” This was a profoundly negative issue in the Irish revival, each side trying to lay claim on an inheritance. Was it asked if Saint Patrick was really a Protestant? By some of the literature of the time, this was the level of argument at times, and had a powerful say in society where church loyalties were very strong. Father O’Leary must have seen in the Ruairi O’More branch of the Gaelic League something more widely subversive.
Father O’Leary’s nationalism was also questioned after the event. Not only had his reactions provoked a covert sympathy with the Gaelic League in the town, it appears his next Christmas offerings were reduced; but League sympathisers made ridicule of his own commissioning of an English made memorial to his predecessor Father Richard Burke. He was wrong-footed by the League also when charged with leaving “Leix to Anglicisation”, despite the priest’s verbal support of the Irish language. The Ruairi O’More branch was the first and only G.L. branch in the county at the time, so it claimed, but failed to acknowledge the wider contribution made by Father O’Leary in historical researches.
Father O’Leary aimed for the Ard-Fheis, 6th August, 1906, in Dublin. He looked to the country branches to moderate the centre in the voting for a new executive. He put forward his own name as candidate but while MacGinley headed the poll with “joyous demonstration”, as Ryan expressed, Father O’Leary failed to be elected. The St. Broghan’s League was classified as being bogus Feiseanna, and the partisan Ryan ended his chapter on the battle of Portarlington with the words “The determined stand and struggle of laymen at Portarlington…the responsive chords they struck throughout Ireland…showed that the new force in the land could teach in more ways than one. Portarlington had become symbolic and historic.”
A century later, and Ireland, its social network and all its churches have changed so much that this local issue may seem purely historical, dead, and wrapped in the print of dead names; yet so many of the issues disputed in 1905-06 ricocheted along decades, and some are still with us.
(1) William Patrick Ryan (1867-1942) born Templemore Co. Tipperary; trained as a journalist, first in London, in 1906 he returned to Ireland to edit John McCann’s Irish Peasant at Navan; when the paper was suppressed by Cardinal Logue, Ryan took it to Dublin and restarted it as the Peasant, in 1909 it became the Peasant Irish Nation, but in 1910 he returned to London where he worked in labour journalism for the rest of his life; between 1911-13 he edited An t-Eireannach for the Gaelic League. In 1893 he published The Heart of Tipperary; 1894 The Irish Literary Revival; 1904 Revival Plays for People; 1912 The Pope’s Green island, 1913 The Labour Revolt and Larkinism, 1919 The Irish Labour movement. He died in London.
(2) Edward O’Leary, born in Clonegal in 1844; educated at Carlow College 1862-64 and Maynooth 1864-68; ordained 1868, curate in Philipstown 1868-72, Carlow 1872-79, Rathangan 1879-86, parish priest of Balyna, Co. Kildare 1886-1903, of Portarlington 1903 until his death in 1924. He was active in many local areas, from the Barrow Drainage Scheme to extending St. Michael’s Church in Portarlington, and the refronting of Killenard Church. He was a member of the Irish Archaeological Society, Royal Irish Academy from 1892, and the Kildare Archaeological Association from its first gathering (as was Portarlington’s Church of Ireland Rector John Francis Cole). A great achievement was in completing Canon John O’Hanlon’s The History of the Queen’s County, the first vol. of which appeared in 1905, two years after O’Hanlon’s death; the second vol., Father O’Leary’s work and revision, appeared in print in 1914.
(3) Martin Brophy, born in Paulstown, Co. Kilkenny; educated at Maynooth and ordained in 1901; curate Mountmellick 1901-02, Portarlington 1902-08, Abbeyleix 1909-14, Baltinglass 1914-23, Killeigh 1923-29, Daingean 1929-32, parish priest at Suncroft Co. Kildare from 1932 until his death in 1949.
(4) Rory Oge O’More, son of Rori Caech, chief of Leix, harried the early planters of the Queen’s County, taking several important figures prisoner, and severely pressed English officialdom and soldiers. He was killed in 1578 by Brian Oge MacGillapatrick.
(5) Portarlington straddles Cos. Laois and Offaly; Kilmalogue is in the Offaly portion.
(6) The 1911 census showed a dramatic increase in the number of people claiming to speak Irish and English compared with the 1901 census. In the Mountmellick district which included the larger part of Portarlington, there were 482 10 to 18 year olds claiming to be bilingual, compared with 58 in 1901; this was the highest age group, the number of females greater in both census
(7) Autobiography of the Ruairi O More Branch of the Gaelic League, Portarlington,p.21
(8) Patrick Foley (1858-1926) born Leighlinbridge, educated at Carlow College, ordained 1881; professor of moral theology, bishop of Kildare and Leighlin from 1896 until his death in 1926.
(9) Saint Broughan/Brogan, &c. seventh century abbot from Ross Tuirc, Ossory; reputed writer of the hymn to Saint Bridgit, Catholic online Saints index<http://www.catholic.org/saints/stsindex.html>
(10) Quoted, The Pope’s Green Island, pp 107-08
(11) Douglas Hyde (1860-1949) son of a Church of Ireland clergyman; helped found Gaelic League 1893; toured USA in 1905; insisted G.L. be non-sectarian and non-political; resigned 1915; first President of Ireland 1937-1945, &c.
(12) Leinster Express Maryborough Town Commissioners passed on a resolution to Bishop Foley, condemning the French government. “Such resolutions will do much to console the Supreme Pontiff and his afflicted children in France….The penal laws from which our forefathers suffered were hardly worse…..”
(13) First published in Corriere della sera,1905, pubd in English as A much abused letter in 1906
(14) Guiseppe Melchiore Sarto (1835, Pope 1903-14); canonised 29 May 1954..
(15) The Pope’s Green Island, p.78
(16) Mary Kenny’s words on the Portarlington incident, p. 15
(17) The Pope’s Green Island, p.101 Island
(18) It seems unusual for Ireland to be portrayed as male; most countries have a gender, and Ireland like France appears as a woman, Hibernia, Erin, Sean Bhan Bhocht, the Countess and her four green fields. Within a sentence however Fr. O’Leary changed its gender and referred to ‘our mother tongue’.
(19) This was a walk-out by people on hearing father O’Leary’s comments from the pulpit.
(20) Ryan came across Fr. O’Leary’s speech and retorted in his book that the Protestant Douglas Hyde had “rescued the religious songs of Connaught from oblivion” Op. Cit. P.112
(21) That P.T. MacGinley and S.B. Roche were excise officers in the area because of work, cannot have helped their image.
(22) Autobiography, p.22
(23) A feature met elsewhere in Portarlington’s earlier history where the Huguenots of the C17th had been forced to call themselves in France of La religion pretendue reformēe.
(25) Autobiography, p.23 The consequence being that the Ruairi O’More branch expelled the Autobiography priest from the Vice-presidency “because of his unwarrantable language”
(26) Autobiography, p.41
(27) Described as Father O’Leary or his cat’s paw Mr. Williams of Tullamore Autobiography p.55
(28) Ian Bradley: Celtic Christianity, making myths and chasing dreams: Edinburgh University Press, 0748610472
(29) The copy of this which I found in an English clearance sale had been a prize for V. Shannon of Tipperary Grammar School.