A tale of four radical priests

Notes from the Western Periphery

John Bradley

When society is inward looking and unwilling or unable to change, it requires radical thinking and action to break free. At the national level, such a break occurred with the programme initiated by Dr Kenneth Whitaker in 1956 to open up the stagnant, heavily protected Irish economy to international competition and inward investment.
At the regional level, Dr Brendan O’Regan innovated and set up an enterprise zone around Shannon Airport in 1961 that revitalised the Limerick region.
The ‘free’ education initiative of Donagh O’Malley in 1967 was a radical political action whose social and economic benefits have cascaded down the years. No doubt, had he lived longer, our universities would have been competing to give him an honorary doctorate.
In peripheral regions, the challenge becomes more difficult. The static certainty of the status quo often looks safer when resources are limited and the way forward is daunting.
Albert Hirschman characterised attitudes to the need for change as follows: You can leave (‘exit’). If you remain, you still have the options of either speaking out and acting (‘voice’) or remaining silent and passive. Until recent decades the ‘exit’ option was dominant in Irish society and syphoned off ‘voices’ advocating change. What remained was passivity.
Four of those who used their ‘voice’ here in the west were priests: Fr James McDyer of Glencolumbkille; Fr Diarmuid Ó Peicín of Tory Island; Msgr James Horan of Partry and Knock; and Fr Micheál Mac Gréil of this parish.
There were two dominant themes in the frank accounts that they wrote about their activities. One of these themes was the official opposition to their proposals that they so often had to confront. The other was the challenge of building internal community consensus prior to facing down external opposition. The four priests are inspirational people not only because they were on the right side of history, but because they were focused and tough fighters who were not afraid to speak truth to power.

Speaking their truth
In 1950s Donegal, Fr McDyer faced challenges that persist today: isolation, relative poverty, emigration, lack of industry, and government neglect. I recently happened on a pamphlet written by him entitled ‘The Glencolumbkille Story: An Epic of the Small Farm To-day’. It was drafted in the early stages of his struggle to re-energise the economy of his parish and its wider region.
Fr McDyer’s efforts to modernise agriculture, food production and textiles were detailed, impressive and quite successful. But the underlying message is sobering: “Our native Governments are well intentioned, but like the physician, they cannot cure a patient who does not want to help himself.”
In the early 1980s, Fr Ó Peicín worked to halt national and local government’s plans for the abandonment of Tory Island and the resettling of its people on mainland Donegal.
Abandonment of all of the western offshore islands was official policy. In reversing this, the support of the European Committee of the Regions was crucial, and Fr O Peicín’s account of his amicable meeting in the European Parliament with the Reverend Ian Paisley is an example of how common challenges (Tory and Rathlin islands) could make friends out of enemies.
To a Mayo audience, the story of Monsignor Horan, his airport and the transformation of Knock village into a modern pilgrimage centre visited by two Popes, are the stuff of legends. The challenges he faced and overcame are well known: a David taking on a Goliath. In light of the thriving IWAK today, the contempt expressed by Dublin-based policymakers in the 1980s for the very idea of building an airport in Connacht has a humorous side. An action regarded as Quixotic when proposed now spreads benefits to the whole NW region and is a linchpin of NW regional development.

Lieutenants, principles and status  
Following in the tradition of radical priests, Fr Micheál Mac Gréil was decades in advance of the tolerance on which we pride ourselves in Ireland today. He examined prejudice based on nationality and culture, racism, anti-Semitism, gender, social status and homophobia. He also supported and directed a wide range of community initiatives, including the restoration of the Western Rail Corridor; research on tourism initiatives in Westport; the championing of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association; a pastoral audit of the needs and resources of the Tuam and of the Meath Archdioceses; the revival of the ancient Máméan Patrician shrine and pilgrimage, and many other contributions. His energy seems inexhaustible.
Fr Mac Gréil has reflected wryly on the consequences of his ‘voice’ stance, in words that could apply to all four priests. Drawing on his experience in the army, it is clear that he understood the price to be paid:
“You cannot be a radical above the rank of lieutenant! It was a real skill to be active within the establishment, without compromise of one’s principles. It was necessary to be in at the ‘lieutenant rank’ in order to have sufficient influence and credibility (in respect of criticism) to promote necessary change. If a person of this ‘left wing’ were to be promoted, there would always be a danger of his or her becoming a defender of the status quo, thus dampening the desire to work for necessary change of it.”
On the national stage, it seems that high status is necessary in order to achieve change. At a regional level, it seems that high status involves ‘compromise of one’s principles’.
None of these men was ever going to get high promotion, but one asks oneself whether they could have achieved so much were it not for their ‘establishment’ status as priests.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.