Fr Kevin Hegarty
Approximately, in terms of liturgical season, the Cross of Cong returned to Mayo in Holy Week. Among the interesting snippets of information in the newspapers about the event was that Fr Patrick Lavelle stole the cross from the National Museum in 1870. He was apprehended before he reached the train for Mayo.
Patrick Lavelle was one of the most controversial priests in 19th century Ireland. For most of his life he was attracted to turmoil as summer flies are to an open pot of jam.
He was born in Mullagh, a townland between Westport and Louisburgh in 1825, the eldest son of Francis and Mary Lavelle. In the context of the time, the Lavelle family were quite comfortable.
Francis rented a 25 acre farm. His brother, Patrick, was considerably wealthier. He was the owner of the ‘Freeman’s Journal’, then the biggest selling nationalist paper in Ireland. He helped to educate his brother’s family.
After education in a local hedge school, young Patrick went to St Jarlath’s College. In 1844 he transferred to Maynooth College where he was ordained priest in 1853. A brilliant, though difficult student, he completed his education at the elite Dunboyne Establishment in Maynooth.
In 1854 he was appointed professor of philosophy at the Irish College in Paris. The college was then a deeply unhappy place. The furies that often underlie the seemingly placid surface of academic life had flared out of control.
The Rector of the college, Fr John Miley, opposed the appointment of Lavelle. He was forced to accept it only by order of the Irish bishops.
Verbal violence between the two was the order of the day. It even descended into physical conflict when Lavelle, who had a violent temper, punched Miley on the chin. Eventually, Miley used his contacts with the French authorities to have his enemy expelled from France.
Patrick moved from the opulence of Paris to the poverty of Partry, where he was appointed parish priest in 1858. A man of radical social conscience, he worked tenaciously to alleviate the misery of his people. One of the first priests to realise the potential of newspapers to advance causes, he wrote articles and letters that starkly illuminated their plight.
The misery in Partry was not merely material. From the 1820s to the 1850s, extreme Protestant evangelicals tried to convert impoverished Irish Catholics, along the western seaboard, to their ways, in a movement known as the ‘Second Reformation’.
Partry in the 1850s was a cauldron of the conflict that ensued. One of the main tools of prozelytism was the provision of schools by the Society for Irish Church Missions. The local landlord, Thomas Plunket, double jobbed as the Protestant bishop of Tuam. He insisted that the children of his tenants attend these schools. If they refused to do so they faced the prospect and sometimes the reality of eviction.
Lavelle ruthlessly opposed this diktat. He publicised the pain of those who were evicted. The conflict descended into lawlessness. He personally intimidated members of the Society for Irish Church Missions. An innocent Protestant, Alexander Harvison, was murdered.
Patrick Lavelle won the propaganda battle. Fellow landlords condemned Plunket and even the London ‘Times’, rarely a friend of Irish Catholics in the 19th century, asserted that his actions were inappropriate for a Christian bishop. The historian, Gerard Moran, concludes that Patrick Lavelle’s “contribution to the downfall of the ‘Second Reformation’ must not be underestimated, for the events in Partry were the last major confrontation between Catholics and Protestants.”
The events in Partry made Lavelle a national figure. Not surprisingly then in the 1860s he turned his attention to national affairs. He supported the Fenian movement, arguing in a series of articles and letters, throughout the decade, that there was a Catholic right of revolt against tyrannical governments.
This led him into conflict with Cardinal Cullen who had a horror of revolutionary movements. Cullen, a morose and competent cleric, had been appointed Archbishop, with the specific brief of reforming the Irish Church on the Roman model.
Cullen found it impossible to silence Lavelle as the revolutionary cleric had the tacit support of his bishop, John McHale, ‘The Lion of Tuam’, who opposed the Roman reforms. Eventually the Vatican, in 1870, condemned the Fenians. It did not matter much by then as the movement disintegrated after the failure of its rising in 1867.
By 1870 Lavelle had become parish priest of Cong, where he took little part in national affairs, though he gave some support to the Home Rule movement.
Cong was a more prosperous parish. Sir Arthur Guinness, the local landlord, was benign and liked by his tenants. Lavelle became friendly with him and accepted a house from him. In the words of the historian, CJ Woods, he was transformed from “a violent agitator to inoffensive country priest.” The tiger of the 1850s and 1860s became the pussycat of the 1870s and 1880s.