A turbulent priest

A turbulent priest The funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa at Glasnevin Cemetery
100 Years On…
Domestic disputes caught the eye of The Irish Catholic against the background of a U-boat atrocity, writes Gabriel Doherty


If in early October 1918 there was any doubt about the Great War’s capacity to visit unimaginable levels of pain on the people of Ireland and beyond, a glance at the front page of The Irish Catholic of Saturday, October 12 would have dispelled any such illusions.

Sketched therein were the bare details of the horror that had been played out on the Irish Sea two days before, when the MV Leinster, a mailboat that had been plying the route between Dublin and Holyhead, had been sunk by a German U-Boat, with a reported loss of over 400 lives (in fact the final figure was closer to 500). The trauma associated with such a huge loss of life was, of course, accentuated by the knowledge that the wider conflict was entering its terminal phase at a speed that had been unimaginable only a month before.

These latest developments were analysed in the edition’s editorial, which noted the verbal acceptance by the Kaiser of a raft of putative democratic changes in the structure of the government of Germany, as well as the appointment of a new Ministry in that country. The paper was sceptical of the moves, however, and suggested that the supposed reforms were nothing of the sort but merely an attempt by the discredited militarists of the old regime “to throw dust in the eyes of the German people…at the same time that it seeks to hoodwink the Allied democracies”.

The editorial repudiated any talk of armistice, which was dismissed as a tactical ruse by which the German armed forces were seeking to evade the total defeat then staring them full in the face. The fabled ‘Peace by Christmas’, which had been on the lips of so many in the fateful Autumn of 1914, now seemed to be practical politics.


Sensational, and welcome, developments, then, in western Europe, but at the same time the paper discerned the advent in the country, indeed into the very fabric of the Irish Church itself, of altogether less wholesome influences coming from the east of the continent.

In an article entitled ‘Religious Bolshevism’, it discussed the latest developments in a long-running dispute between the Bishop of Elphin, Dr Bernard Coyne, and one of his clergy, Fr Michael O’Flanagan.

The dispute, which had been public knowledge for some time, had several dimensions but at the core of the disagreement was Fr O’Flanagan’s extraordinary degree of social, cultural and political engagement, at both local and national level. A native of north Roscommon, from a young age his religious and political outlook had been informed by the deprived circumstances of that part of Ireland, and was translated into a life of activism that inevitably generated hostility from a variety of opponents.

Intellectually capable, and a passionate cultural nationalist, he might best be described as a ‘social republican’, his philosophy framed by the fusion of Fenian and Whiteboy traditions embodied in the life’s work of an IRB man from his native locale, Edward (‘Ned’) Duffy.

On the basis of his impeccable credentials Fr O’Flanagan had been chosen by the Fenians in August 1915 to oversee the religious element of the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (Duffy’s close associate), and stood by Pearse’s side that day in Glasnevin cemetery when the latter delivered his graveside oration that culminated in the famous phrase that “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”.

Subsequently elected a Vice President of Sinn Féin he had become one of the most recognisable ‘faces’ of the party. A near-constant presence in the numerous by-elections contested (and generally won) by Sinn Féin since the victory of Count Plunkett in his native county in January 1917, the wide extent of his public profile may well have been one of the factors in his very public showdown with Bishop Coyne.

Certainly that is the view of Denis Carroll, author of a stimulating biography of Fr O’Flanagan, although it would be useful to have an equally detailed study of Bishop Coyne’s background and thinking before coming to a final adjudication on the rights and wrongs of the situation.

Earlier in the Summer Bishop Coyne had imposed the penalty Suspensio a Divinis on Fr O’Flanagan, for having, in the course of his recent political activities, addressed public meetings in several parishes without obtaining the prior permission of the local parish priest.

While this was by no means his ‘first offence’, it was, nonetheless, a very harsh penalty, certainly out of all proportion to a relatively minor infraction of church law. The laity in his parish of Crossna had responded to the Bishop’s sanction in effect with a lock-out – quite literally locking the doors to the parish church and for a time denying entrance to Fr O’Flanagan’s replacement, a Fr Clyne (who it seems sympathised with his predecessor’s actions).

The occasion of the article in The Irish Catholic was a remonstrance addressed to Bishop Coyne, which, it was claimed, had been signed by all parishioners in Crossna parish. This had recently been published in the Roscommon Herald and had requested the Bishop reverse his decision lest it give rise to “turmoil the like of which never before in Ireland occurred between a bishop and his flock”.

The Irish Catholic saw in this action an example of ‘religious Bolshevism’, a “misguided, ignorant, rebellious” challenge to the established rights and duties of Bishop Coyne that could end only in “repentance or spiritual disaster”. Brooking no compromise, the article clearly favoured the former option, suggesting that by their actions the parishioners had placed themselves in the position of schismatics, and could only redeem themselves by ‘due submission’ to Bishop Coyne.

As things turned out this latest phase in the career of this most turbulent priest was resolved by Fr O’Flanagan himself, who quietly complied with his Ordinary’s decree, while at the same time letting it be known that Fr Clyne should not be obstructed in the discharge of his priestly duties. But sanctioned or not, this was not to be the last occasion on which the readers on The Irish Catholic would hear of him, or the causes he championed.

The episode, while minor in certain respects, is extraordinarily interesting and enlightening in others. At one and the same time, it was a manifestation of the paper’s politics, which remained hostile to the republicanism with which Fr O’Flanagan had become identified; an indication of the strictly hierarchical structure, and quasi-military ethos, of The Irish Catholic church at that time, with its emphasis on the giving of, and unquestioning obedience to, orders; and of the courage and fierce determination of this most ordinary, and thus most representative, rural Irish parish and the vibrantly passionate attachment of the local community to ‘their’ priest. It was, in other words, Irish Catholicism in microcosm.

Gabriel Doherty teaches in the Department of History, UCC, and is a member of the Government’s expert advisory group on the Decade of Commemorations.