The bishop and the editor

The bishop and the editor
The Parnell Split in Westmeath: the bishop and the newspaper editor

by Michael Nolan (Four Courts Press, €9.95)

Felix M. Larkin


John Patrick Hayden established the Westmeath Examiner in Mullingar in 1882, and was its editor and proprietor for a record 72 years – until his death in 1954, aged 91. His father, and later his brother, owned the Roscommon Messenger, and the fact that he was not a native of Westmeath may have contributed to the problems he had with the local bishop, Thomas Nulty, in his early years in Mullingar.

Nulty, bishop of Meath from 1866 to 1898, was active in the land reform movement and was, in fact, the first Catholic bishop to endorse Parnell. Parnell, with the bishop’s support, was MP for the Meath constituency from 1875 to 1880. The bishop expected his flock to respect his wishes in all matters – both spiritual and temporal – and was accustomed to receiving such deference.


Hayden, however, used his editorship of the Examiner from the very start to challenge Bishop Nulty’s control of local politics. He thus wrote in the Examiner in 1888 that “no man or class of men are by virtue of their office and position constituted by that one fact alone leaders of the people in affairs not connected with the office”.

Hayden remained loyal to Parnell in the split in the Irish Party following the O’Shea divorce case. That copper-fastened Nulty’s enmity, and led ultimately to the Examiner being condemned by the bishop as “sinful”. Hayden appealed this condemnation to Cardinal Logue – the metropolitan of the diocese of Meath – and to Propaganda Fide in Rome, but both upheld Bishop Nulty’s action.

The twists and turns of the rivalry between bishop and editor are fascinating, and the tale is told with verve and authority in this volume – one of the latest in the admirable series of “Maynooth studies in local history”.

The author, Michael Nolan, sees the rivalry of the two men as part of a wider struggle between an emergent class of educated lay leaders in Ireland and the Catholic clergy who, in Nolan’s words, “had long regarded themselves as leaders of the Catholic community…and were not prepared to cede their powerful position to a lay leadership”.

Bishop Nulty triumphed in the short term. However, as Nolan points out, Hayden “had one crucial advantage over the bishop; he was still a young man and could afford to bide his time”.

When Nulty died in 1898, Hayden – still only in his 30s – was able to advance his career without hindrance. He had succeeded his brother as MP for Roscommon South in 1897, and he went on to become one of the leading members of the Irish Party at Westminster  and a close associate and confidant  of John Redmond, a fellow Parnellite.

He held his parliamentary seat until 1918, when the rise of Sinn Féin – ultimately a more potent adversary than Bishop Nulty – deprived him of the political power and influence that he had fought for in the 1880s and 1890s.