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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
* ‘Rome conquers. The end.’