If the building of a new church is generally regarded as an expression of community solidarity and unity of purpose, such was far from the case in the Castlebar of the late 19th century. And rarely has an undertaking been as fractious and divisive as that which attended the building of the Church of the Holy Rosary, dedicated in 1901.
Public protests, libel actions, abusive letters to the newspapers, RIC protection for the clergy, verbal altercations in the street, the drafting in of extra police to help maintain order – all became regular features of an acrimonious dispute that left its scars for years afterwards.
It had started in co-operation and harmony when at a public meeting in 1872 it was agreed to build a new church to replace the old ‘Barn’ church which, having served the parish for over 70 years, was now in a dilapidated condition. The new church would be built on a site across from where the present church now stands, on a site donated by Michael Quinn, a wealthy landowner and businessman.
The then parish priest, Canon James Magee, opened a subscription fund and travelled to America in search of donations, and in 1877 the foundation stone of the new church was laid by the Archbishop of Tuam, John MacHale.
Work commenced, but when the walls had reached roof height, funds ran out, work stopped, and the building was left abandoned, half completed. The near-famine conditions of the following years made it impossible to raise funds from the impoverished parishioners to enable the work to start again.
For 15 years, the structure lay derelict, open to wind and weather, until in 1891 a renewed effort was made to revive the project. By then, a new, energetic parish priest, Canon Patrick Lyons, had been appointed, while – crucially to later events – Archbishop MacHale had been succeeded by Dr John McEvilly. The two men had frequently clashed, and it was an open secret that the new incumbent had a deep-seated residual resentment of his predecessor.
When Canon Lyons sought the advice of a number of architects on the feasibility of completing the unfinished church, he reported back that the cost would be prohibitive. The walls of the half-built church were no longer suitable to build on, due to long exposure to the elements. He suggested instead an entirely new church on a site sloping down to the river and which Lord Lucan had agreed to donate.
This proposal led to massive protests which continued for several years, led in the main by Michael Quinn, the donor of the original site. Feelings ran high, as those who had supported the original church and had contributed in hard times became aggrieved at the notion of their work being undone.
But there were other factors at play, as Tom Higgins, in his detailed history of the parish, ‘Through Fagan’s Gates’, points out. There was, above and beyond all else, the feeling that the revered Dr MacHale was being denied his ‘monument’, at the behest of his successor, and that this was an insult to the memory of the man who had been described by Daniel O’Connell as ‘The Lion of the Fold of Judah’.
The protestors charged that Canon Lyons was under orders from Archbishop McEvilly not to complete what had become known as the MacHale church, mainly out of vindictiveness towards the highly respected nationalist, John MacHale.
In the end, Canon Lyons got his way. The MacHale church was dismantled stone by stone and carried across the road to be incorporated into the new church. Just one stone remained and can be seen to this day at the roadside edge of the front lawn of the Parochial House.