Turbulent years in the Diocese of Killala

Second Reading
Turbulent years in the Diocese of Killala

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

My colleague, Fr Brendan Hoban, is a one-man publishing industry. Since 1979 he has written weekly for The Western People. Though his tenure is not yet of Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin dimesions, he is one of the longest serving columnists in Irish journalism.
Since 1995 he has produced nine books, mainly on the decline of the authority of the Catholic Church in Ireland. His most personal one is his poignant memoir of the life and death of his mother, ‘A Touch of the Heart’. He also co-presents, with Monica Morley, a weekly religious affairs programme on Mid-West Radio.
What makes his output even more remarkable is that journalism is not his day job. Since 1973 he has served as a priest in the diocese of Killala. He is now parish priest of Ballina.
He is passionate in his commitment to the ideals of the Second Vatican Council. As the Vatican has resiled from the Council’s vision of a Church in productive dialogue with the secular world, I often wonder how he maintains his enthusiasm. Anthony de Mello’s story comes to mind:
“A prophet once came to a city to convert its inhabitants. At first the people listened to his sermons, but they gradually drifted away till there was not a single soul to hear the prophet when he spoke. One day a traveller said to him, “Why do you go on preaching?” Said the prophet, “In the beginning I hoped to change these people. If I still shout it is only to prevent them from changing me.”
Perhaps weary of the present dreary church landscape, Fr Brendan has, in recent years, turned his attention to history. Three years ago he published a biography of Fr Charles Bourke, the curious tale of an 18th century clerical troubadour whose ministry ranged from the hamlets of Mayo and Sligo to Baton Rouge in Louisiana.
Last month he issued his latest work, a mammoth volume of 541 pages, entitled ‘Turbulent Diocese’, the story of the diocese of Killala between the 1798 Rising and the Great Famine.
The centrepiece of this volume is the crisis which engulfed the diocese in the 1830’s during the episcopate of Francis O’Finan.
The main protagonists in this dispute were two of the most controversial clerics in 19th century Ireland, Archbishop John MacHale and Dean John Patrick Lyons. 
MacHale was the first Catholic bishop to have been fully educated in Ireland since the Reformation. His episcopacy stretched over 55 years, first as bishop of Killala and for 47 years as Archbishop of Tuam. Implacable in his opposition to British rule and suspicious of Vatican interference in the Irish Church, he inspired strong reactions from those who admired his doughty independence and those who were disturbed by his intransigence.
He merits a mention in James Joyce’s short story, ‘Grace’, where Mr Kernan proclaims, “I once saw John MacHale and I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
Fondly called, the Lion of Tuam, by his friend, Daniel O’Connell, anyone who opposed him could expect to be mauled. However, to the ordinary people of the west, he was a folk hero. Many legends are associated with him. In the Irish Folklore Commission records he is accorded quasi-divine status by the story that a star settled over the house in Tubbernavine, near Lahardane, on the night he was born in 1791.
John Patrick Lyons, a native of Bekan, was ordained for the diocese of Killala in 1821 and spent most of his ministry in the Erris peninsula as parish priest of Kilmore, one of the most impoverished places in pre-famine Ireland. An accomplished intellectual, possessed of a fiery temper, he was a religious and social reformer. He also established schools throughout his parish. As his parishioners lived on the abyss between starvation and destitution, he was often involved in the provision of relief.
MacHale and Lyons disliked each other intensely. Both were able and ambitious and wanted power. The diocese of Killala was too small for two big egos. As an old priest wryly told me once, God has created enough of everything except limelight.
In 1834 when MacHale was transferred to Tuam as Archbishop, he wanted to remain a power-broker in Killala. He especially wanted to ensure that Lyons did not succeed him. He prevailed upon the Vatican to have an Irish Dominican, Frances O’Finan to be appointed as Bishop of Killala, believing that he would be amenable to his dictates.
It was a huge miscalculation. Lyons, befriended O’Finan who appointed him as Vicar-General. The clergy divided into pro and anti MacHale camps. Internal disagreement soon exploded into public dissension that continued until the Vatican recalled O’Finan to Rome and appointed a Tuam priest, Thomas Feeny, as administrator of the diocese.
Brendan Hoban has combed the archives in Ireland and Rome to present a comprehensive account of those turbulent years in the diocese of Killala. Anyone interested in the history of Ireland in the 19th century will, I reckon, find it a fascinating read. Costing €25 it is available in all good bookshops. As Con Houlihan is wont to say, are there any other kind?