01
Wed, Feb
4 New Articles

A churchman remembered

County View
1501_mayo-county-library
PLACE OF HISTORY Mayo County Library, where next week’s talk by Fr Kieran Waldron will be given. Pic: Michael Donnelly

A churchman remembered


County View
John Healy


Author and historian, Fr Kieran Waldron, will deliver what should be a most interesting talk on Wednesday next (January 23) at Castlebar Public Library at 8pm.
The lecture will be on the life and times  of Dr Thomas Gilmartin, the Castlebar-born Archbishop of Tuam who served during the turbulent years of 1918 to 1939.
Although he wished for no more than a quiet, low-profile tenure as archbishop, Dr Gilmartin had the fortune – or misfortune – to have been born in interesting times. Inevitably, he was forced to become involved in many of the stirring controversies of the time – the War of Independence, the civil war and, most famously, the controversy over the appointment of Letitia Dunbar to the County Mayo librarianship in 1931.
It is somewhat ironic, because of the last-named controversy, that the venue for Fr Waldron’s lecture is the County Library, given the deep-seated hostility evoked by the appointment of a protestant lady – and a Trinity graduate at that – to be head of Mayo County Library Service. It was a case which made national headlines for months on end and which placed both the Catholic hierarchy and the elected members of Mayo County Council exposed to an avalanche of criticism from Dublin.
Dr Gilmartin was also involved in a desperate attempt to stave off a bloodbath towards the end of the civil war when eleven members of the west Mayo IRA Brigade, headed by General Michael Kilroy, were captured and taken to Dublin where a sentence of execution was passed on them. The late historian Willie Sammon, writing about the incident several years later, recorded that 60 known pro-treaty people in Newport were approached individually and warned of the most dire consequences to them and their property should this threat of execution on Kilroy and his men be carried out.
Gilmartin instructed Dean Dalton to travel to Furnace, outside Newport, and there to consult with the ‘irrregulars’ as to how serious that threat was meant to be. On being assured that the threat could not be more serious, Dean Dalton hurried back to his alarmed archbishop with the news. Whether Dr Gilmartin had any influence on what happened next, we shall hopefully learn next week.
However, a short time later, a truce was agreed. The lives  of the Newport prisoners were spared, and the dreaded retribution  against the Free State was withdrawn.
Wednesday night’s speaker, Fr Waldron, is a respected and acknowledged expert on the Church in the diocese down through the years. Already the author of two highly-acclaimed works, his forthcoming book, ‘Pastors in their time – Tuam’s Catholic Archbishops, 1700 - 2000’, covers the lives of 16 archbishops down to the present day.
The history of the diocese, and of its clergy, is far more colourful and turbulent than many would believe. Hopefully, in due course, Fr Waldron might give a talk on the most colourful of all –  Fr Pat Lavelle – who was the best known Irish priest in the mid years of the last century.
Of fiery temper, intellectual capacity, incorrigible stubborness and a readiness to do battle with any foe at the drop of a hat, he was known far and wide. Born in Mullagh, Murrisk in 1825, he attended St Jarlath’s and Maynooth and by the age of 29 had been appointed Professor of Philosophy at the Irish College in Paris. His abrasive nature soon had him in trouble with the college authorities, and soon he was back home in Partry to lead his people in resistance to the excesses of landlordism. It helped that the local landlord was the Protestant Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, Thomas Plunkett, who lived in Tourmakeady on the estate which he bought after the famine from George Henry Moore.
Plunkett was at the time engaged in large-scale evictions of his impoverished Catholic tenants – their only hope of relief being  to send their children to Church of Ireland schools to be turned into loyal little protestants.
Fr Lavelle took him on in the courts, and through the medium of the national and British press, brought world attention to the underhand means Plunkett was using to co-erce his tenants into the protestant faith. And when that bastion of unionism and protestantism, the London Times (which hated everything Irish), turned on Plunkett and condemned him, the battle was truly won.
Plunkett and his sister Catherine, who had led the proselyters, left in disgrace and never returned to Tourmakeady.