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Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Date Posted:

Father Kavanagh

How Rome First Opposed The Irish Republicans And Then Took The Credit For Their Success

Rome and Irish Patriotism – Part 3
Dr Clive Gillis

MEMORIALS evoke powerful feelings, As Professor Whelan of Boston correctly states, “The 1790’s is arguably the pivotal decade in the evolution of modern Ireland ... and culminated in the 1798 Rebellion”.

Therefore those people named on Irish memorials of 1798 are rightly called early founders of the Irish Republic. It was a countrywide rebellion but it collapsed quickly except in the rural Roman Catholic area around Wexford: Here it was more robust and sectarian: So, understandably, memorials recording re­publican heroism are widespread in this area.

History hijacked

Protestants know that their monuments record genuine, attested history. But memorials can also manipulate history. Sadly, not least for Republicans themselves, some of these Irish memorials have been hijacked by Rome. They perpetuate the notion that 1798 consisted of Rome and her people sweetly cooperating together in the early republican strug­gle.

The most blatant example is the Oliver Sheppard bronze in the market square of Enniscorthy.  This depicts fighting priest Fr John Murphy, rosary dangling, towering over a young patriot boy who has a pike in one hand and sword in the other.  Fr Murphy is portrayed as being in early middle age, with handsome features and fine shoulder length hair.  One patronisg arm is upon the boy's shoulder and the other is raised with fingers pointing forward, exhorting the boy to go on.

In reality, Murphy was an ugly, balding, podgy faced, whiskey priest, grown prematurely old.  Interestingly, a contributor to The Irish Arts Review 1990‑1991 comments that the bronze suggests, “a morally righteous insurrection by a devout Catholic people, led by the Catholic clergy fighting for their rights against an alien oppressor”.  The writer goes on to point out that this might be a description of the alliance of the Roman Catholic church and the Irish Parliamentary party 100 years later in the battle for Home Rule, when the statue was erected, but it was simply not true of 1798.

History falsified

What the Enniscorthy ‘98 memorial actually commemorates is Rome’s hugely successful campaign to falsify history in the 130 years after ‘98. Regular readers will recall that the 1798 rebellion was more in the spirit of the French Revolution.  The United Irish rebels who opposed British rule were actually, primarily Presbyterians.  They were intellectuals and deists in the mould of the 18th Century so‑called ‘enlightenment’. Through Masonic Lodges and secret societies they contacted the RC middle class for the first time since the Boyne and were thus able to recruit lowly Roman Catholics.  The rebels were united by the republican, godless, anticlerical, ideology of the age of revolutions rather than by religious conviction.

The Ireland of 1870

We now move forward nearly a century.  It is 1870.  The Irish Roman  Catholic hierarchy at this time was mostly loyal to Britain in line with the Vatican’s policy of seeking to convert Queen Victoria to Roman Catholicism, hoping thereby to grab the empire wholesale.

In this year the pope anathematised any Roman Catholics taking the oaths of secret societies, Rome had forgotten that the United Irishmen were a secret society requiring the taking of an oath.  The priests panicked realising that the Vatican’s anathema had posthumously damned thousands of her now highly regarded 1798 “freedom fighters”.  For, as we have already said, Rome was, by 1870, the beneficiary of the rewriting of the history of 1798 and the rebels were now revered by the ordinary priests and people.

What is more, by 1870 the apostate Presbyterians had done their best to hide their complicity in the ‘98 rebellion, representing it instead as an unruly, Roman Catholic, peasant uprising.  United Irish leaders wrote up their history to conceal their part in a failed uprising. As a result, the Roman Catholic myth of brave priest and downtrodden RC peasant united in noble struggle against the protestant tyranny of the British government went unchallenged.

The Fenians

But then there was a fresh complication. The Fenian Republicans who arose in the mid nineteenth century were vehemently anti Roman Catholic.  Their writers began to resurrect the crucial role, of the United Irishmen as republicans, revolutionaries and architects of 1798.  This gave the republican struggle of their day historical roots.

Thus, Myles Byrne, who fought in the 1798 rebellion gives us an eyewitness account of it in his Memoirs  published in Paris in 1863.  They were eagerly read.  Byrne plainly records that the Wexford rebellion of 1798, far from    being a spontaneous RC peasant uprising in which the priests bravely led their people, had in fact been carefully planned by the United       Irishmen for over a year.  To Rome’s embarrassment, Byrne specifically states that, “the   priests did everything in their power to stop the progress of the united irishmen”.  Indeed modern research has shown that, “of the 85 priests in (Wexford) county in 1798 only 11 played an active role in the insurrection and  many of the remaining 74 were either active loyalists or kept a very low profile”.   Worse still, their bishop, James Caulfield, is on record as describing Murphy and the few other         rebel priests as “the faeces of the church”.

Arrival of Kavanagh

But, happily for Rome, a Franciscan monk arrived on the scene at this point to salvage the heroic priest legend.  He it was who ensured that Rome had a place in the annals of the Republic when the Vatican finally abandoned for Britain and went along with Republicanism.

The monk’s name was Fr Patrick F. Kavanagh.  He was born in Wexford in 1838 and trained in the papal states where he was acquainted with the Carbonari, the early Italian patriots.  Although the Fenian rising of 1867 was a failure, Home Rule and Republicanism never again left the agenda. Fr Kavanagh as vice chairman of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (RC equivalent of the Orange Order) saw more clearly than his Vatican masters the need for further urgent falsi­fication of history.

Prof Whelan confirms that, “Byrnes candid, forceful account, of the United Irishmen in Wexford became a revered Fenian text and a problem for the institutional Catholic Church”. So, “Kavanagh developed a Catholic version of the Wexford rebellion as a crusade for faith and fatherland devoid of United Irish influence”.

“The rebellion itself was provoked, not organised,” so Kavanagh said.  “It spread spontaneously, and its most important feature was clerical leadership ‑ notably the heroic role of Fr John Murphy” Kavanagh dismissed the United Irishmen as irrelevant and insisted that oath bound secret societies were a liability. In Kavanagh’s history only Catholic, priests could lead a genuine nationalist movement. They alone could provide selfless dedicated leadership for the Irish, people.

Kavanagh’s Popular history

Kavanagh’s deliberately published his Popular History in 1870 just as RC Archbishop Cullen personally intervened to get the fiercely anti‑RC Fenians specifically condemned in the papal bull issued that year. The bull anathematised secret societies, loudly proclaiming that the Fenians were “men without principle or religion”.

Kavanagh cleverly published his material again in 1874, expanded by little more than rhetoric; as an authoritative pan‑Irish history of 1798, to coincide with the “return to parliament of 59 Irish Home Rulers”.  He castigated the new accounts, especially Byrne’s, as “inadequate”, wrote out the United Irishmen, and praised the selfless bravery of the priests to the skies.

One edition would not save Rome but several generations imbibing Kavanagh over 60 years certainly did.  Major republican advances were generally marked by a new edition of Kavanagh as in 1884,1898,1913,1916 (obviously to accompany the Easter Rising see illustration) 1918, 1920, 1923 and 1928. By chipping away, through skilful editing, Fr Kavanagh obliterated the role of the United Irishmen. They became simply “brave men” when accounts required their mention. The dreaded word “presbyterian” does not appear.

Emergence of the Free State

When the Free State emerged, Kavanagh’s assurances that humble priests were co‑partners in its creation went unquestioned. And Kavanagh himself became a powerful national pundit on Roman Catholic style patriotism, that is “Faith and Fatherland” as he called it.  His pamphlet on the subject dedicated to “all Irishmen who love their native land” appeared on the eve of World War 1.

Fr Kavanagh died on 18th December 1918. His myth of priest‑led patriotism in the genesis of the Irish republican movement continued to veil the fact that the Vatican had opposed O’Connell, had done numerous secret deals with the British Government deeply detrimental to the republicans and their priestly associates, and had endlessly persecuted troublesome pro‑republican priests not least during the terrible tenant evictions of the 1880’s.  So, despite all this, Rome was able to bask in the heroic glory of those she had actually condemned as “the faeces of the church”.  By 1918, thanks in large measure to Fr Kavanagh, Rome’s laurels in the genesis of the Irish Republican struggle were secure.  Her priests were the people’s priests.  The generations fed on Kavanagh’s version of history would hear of nought else.

1918 and Kavanagh’s death

That day, the day of his death, the 18th December 1918, was also a polling day.  A local Wexford historian says, “the eighty year old priest had visited the poll­ing‑booths several occasions.  That night he died in Wexford Priory. He was not to learn that out of 106 members returned for Irish constituencies 73 were Sinn Fein candidates, pledged to the claim of Irish independence and abstention from the English Parliament.  He would have found it fitting that his last day on earth was spent assisting at the birth of what he would prefer to call a Catholic Nation.”  The Wexford Independent subsequently confirmed that Fr Kavanagh “had done more than any other man to perpetuate the spirit of the men of ‘98”.

The Provisional IRA training manual, the Green Book, looks specifically to this election. “Commitment to the Republican Movement is the firm belief that its struggle both military and political is morally justified ... and that the Army is the direct representatives of the 1918 Dial Eireann Parliament (not convened till 1919) ... the legal and lawful government ... over the whole geographical fragment of Ireland”. Roma vincit. Finis.*

* ‘Rome conquers. The end.’

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