The fighting Fr Lavelle of south Mayo

County View

County View
John Healy

MANY a good story, it is said, can be spoiled by over verification, and whether the colourful exploits of Fr Pat Lavelle stand up to scrutiny, they lose nothing in the telling.
It is 150 years since the pugnacious Parish Priest of Cong, in order as he put it, to right a wrong, travelled to Dublin and made his way to the National Museum. There he asked to be shown where the Cross of Cong was kept. Given a quiet moment, he broke the protective glass and, with the Cross hidden under his greatcoat, made to get away with the intention of returning the treasured piece to Mayo.
Although historians and researchers are dubious about the story, it has gone down in legend as being typical of the feisty, rebellious cleric who more than made up for what he lacked in physical stature by a readiness to do battle with anyone who crossed him.
Pat Lavelle was born near Lecanvey and, following his ordination in Maynooth, was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the Irish College in Paris. Before long, his abrasive nature had him at loggerheads with the rector, Fr Miley, who disapproved strongly of the Mayoman’s support for militant Irish nationalism. There soon came the parting of the ways - there is evidence that Fr Lavelle was expelled by the French authorities - and he returned home. By then, he was well known as a difficult man to handle, but to Archbishop John MacHale, who shared his political views, he was the right man at the right time.
Dr MacHale was at the time deeply worried about the influence being wielded by the Protestant Archbishop Plunkett, who lived in Tourmakeady, and who was an extensive landowner with little sympathy for his Catholic tenants. Evictions were commonplace, and a tenant’s only hope of clemency was if he would send his children to Plunkett’s national schools.
But Dr MacHale had found the right man to give Plunkett more than he bargained for. He appointed Fr Lavelle as parish priest of Partry, with instructions to bring a halt to Plunkett’s activities. Pat Lavelle wasted no time in getting down to the task. Ever fond of litigation, he took on his adversary through the courts system, emerging victorious in a string of tenant versus landlord actions, and becoming a hero to his flock. In addition, he was an articulate and persuasive letter writer, a master of evoking reader sympathy, and his steady flow of letters to the national papers began to swing public opinion against Plunkett. Even the London Times, no lover of the Irish peasantry, felt moved to condemn Plunkett’s excesses in ridding himself of his Catholic tenants.
Plunkett realised that he had met his match in the doughty Fr Lavelle. He sold out his properties and retired to Tuam, where he lived out the rest of his life. After his death, his remains were returned to Tourmakeady for burial, and it is said that his funeral was attended by Fr Lavelle.
The costs of litigation had, however, impoverished Fr Lavelle who by now was deeply in debt. Worried by the situation, Dr MacHale had him transferred to Cong where, he hoped, the generosity of the local landed gentry might do wonders for his financial standing.
The plan must have worked. Fr Lavelle struck up a social friendship with Lord Ardilaun of Ashford Castle and, to the surprise of many, the firebrand priest, once such a thorn in the side of the landlords, began to mellow.
Maybe, in the end, he and the landlord class had reached an understanding.