Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Archbishop McHale in Árainn in 1868

John McHale’s 1868 tour of Connemara and Árainn and his firebrand preacher, Patrick Lavelle. 
John McHale, who visited Árainn in July 1868

On Sunday the 26th of July, 1868, the 79 year old John McHale (1789-1881), described by the newspapers as “The Illustrious Archbishop of Tuam”, climbed into a boat in Greatmans Bay in Connemara and set sail for the Isles of Arran.

The Archbishop and a large entourage had just completed an inspection of the nearby parish of Killeen and it’s PP, Austin O’Dwyer.




Killeen in those days covered most  of An Cheathrú Rua peninsula including the islands of Gorumna and Lettermullen.

Complete with a travelling correspondent, the tour was more than just a religious occasion and its gravity and ceremony were designed to counteract the proselytising efforts of Alexander Dallas and his ‘Protestant Irish Church Missions To The Roman Catholics’, which operated since the 1840s, in Connemara and parts of Mayo.



Extent of the Protestant Irish Church Missions in 1858. (National Library of Ireland)
First church had been opened just ten years previously, in 1848

John McHale was a complex character and his battles with his Protestant opponents and the Government, were matched and perhaps even surpassed, by his battles with Rome and with his nemesis, Cardinal Paul Cullen (1803-1878), Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin.


Paul Cullen, John McHale’s great rival on many issues.

At the time of Archbishop McHale’s visit to Connemara and Árainn in July 1868, the 1st Vatican Council had just started and Archbishop McHale opposed strongly the introduction of the concept of Papal infallibility, with Cardinal Paul Cullen vigorously supporting it. When it was eventually passed in 1870, John McHale accepted the vote and conceded that he had been wrong.

The battle for souls in both Connemara and Árainn would eventually be won by Archbishop McHale, but not before some great controversies, some humorous and some extremely vicious.

Archbishop McHale had been a strong supporter of Daniel O’Connell in his battle for Repeal of the Union and earlier, for Catholic Emancipation from the old Penal laws. 

For his ferocious attitude, Dan had given McHale the title “ Lion of St Jarlath’s” which in later years became “Lion of the West”

John McHale was accompanied that summer day in 1868, by some of the most powerful clerics in his Archdiocese. The most famous of these were his cousin, the Irish scholar and newspaper owner, Ulick Bourke (1829-1887), president of St Jarlath’s College in Tuam and the Archbishop’s nephew, Thomas McHale, of the Irish college in Paris.

In the upcoming nominations for a successor to the elderly McHale, to be forwarded to Rome, about  32 Parish Priests of the Archdiocese would have one vote and the confirmation circuit was in many ways a canvassing exercise.

The list of clerics who sailed from Connemara is extensive and John McHale was determined that his nephew would succeed him as Archbishop. This would give rise to much controversy and scandal as Thomas McHale was eventually to be sidelined in favour of another of his adversaries, Bishop McAvilly of Galway.

This succession battle would cause serious division in ecclesiastical circles, with some denouncing McHale while others inclined to believe that he could walk across the North Sound to Árainn, if he so desired.




At the head of Greatmans Bay, the Archbishop’s boat was met by a flotilla of twenty brightly decorated sailing boats, headed by the Parish Priest of the Aran Islands, Daniel Lydon (1820-1870). These boats fell back and allowed the Archbishop’s boat lead the way to Cill Rónáin.




On board Daniel Lydon’s boat was one of the most famous priests of those times, Patrick Lavelle (1825-1886), parish priest of Partry, Co. Mayo.
Patrick was a firebrand preacher and would preach the sermon at Eochaill chapel next day.

As the Archbishop’s boat approached Cill Éinne Bay, it was met by over sixty currachs, their crews wearing bright white vests as they and the men in the sailing boats gave a massive cheer for the Archbishop.


The descendants of  the currach men of 1868, still  facilitating their priest, many years later.


A vast crowd of islanders thronged the pier and all along the nearby shores, and they too gave another mighty cheer as John McHale stepped ashore.

Archbishop McHale had fond memories of spending time on the island about fifty years earlier. He had enjoyed the peace and quiet of Árainn while writing one of the many pieces he became famous for.

On Monday the Archbishop administered confirmation to over 100 islanders in the thatched parish chapel at Eochaill. Many had travelled from the two smaller islands.

Built in 1830s and thatched until 1900s.


The man chosen to deliver the ceremony, Patrick Lavelle is worthy of a long article but for now, a few pieces of background will have to do.


Eochaill Chapel today. Built by Fr Gibbons in 1833, it had a thatched roof until the early 1900s. Updated again in the 1920s by the PP, Stephen Walsh.




A controversial figure, who had battled with authority, both civil and religious, Fr Lavelle had been sent by McHale to Partry to do battle with Bishop Plunkett’s agent Proudfoot, on the Bishop’s estate.


One of John McHale’s many opponents, the Anglican Bishop of Tuam, Thomas Plunkett.

Fr Lavelle was a small man but quick to get exited and his combative style would see Bishop Plunkett and his land agent, eventually concede defeat and sell off their estate.

The reports of the many court cases during this dispute, paint a very colourful picture of Patrick Lavelle and his unorthodox ways. 

Patrick ruled his own flock in Partry, with an iron fist and was once brought to court for assaulting a parishioner named Horan, in the man’s own house. Horan had lifted the tongs when his brother told him not to allow the priest strike him again.

We wonder if this parishioner could be a relation of one of Partry’s most famous sons, Canon James Horan (1911-1986), who is credited by many with bringing the Pope to Knock in 1979 and the devil to Tooreen Ballroom, in 1954.

As is often the case, it’s a silly and unimportant piece of evidence from one of  Fr Lavelle’s many court cases, that remains forever in our minds.

In the course of her evidence during an action by Fr Lavelle against land agent Proudfoot, Mary Gibbons felt her rent was too high and claimed that her land was so boggy and badly drained that when her dying husband needed the last rites, she had to carry the priest on her back in order to get him to and from the house.

Just as well that Patrick was a small man but it’s an image that will stay with us for many a year. A tribute to the strength and determination of Mary Gibbons and the women of Mayo. A whole new meaning to the old Protestant claim that Ireland was a priest ridden country.

We wonder if Mary could be a relation of the famous American Cardinal, James Gibbons (1834-1921) whose people also came from Partry in Co. Mayo.

Rev Patrick Lavell and his greyhound at Cong Abbey.


Patrick would end up in Cong and many felt that he had compromised his radicalism when he accepted assistance from Lord Ardilaun at Ashfort Castle. Unlike many of his fellow priests, he became much less radical in his later years and less than supportive of the Land League.




Patrick Lavelle was a master publicist and he promoted a slightly dubious story about trying in 1870, to rescue the cross of Cong from the Museum at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. This was accompanied by an unfair implication of dishonesty against the previous parish priest of Cong


Cross of Cong at the National Museum of Ireland

At the time of McHale’s visit, there must have been much discussion about the growing sectarian  tension on the island. 
This involved the placing in Protestant foster care, of four children of an Aran widow, Catherine Clancy, who had come back to Aran after her second husband, a Claddagh fisherman, had been drowned in Ardfry Bay.


Episcopalian church of St Thomas in Cill Rónáin. The opposition in bygone days. Built in 1846

Catherine had gone to America to try and set up a new home for her family. However, her two brothers in Cill Éinne, found they couldn’t manage, after their father died and their mother was too feeble to care for the young children. 

This would in turn lead to a shop boycott and bread war, which we will return to at a later date. The arrival of Fr. James Corbett, uncle to the great “Gentleman Jim”, as curate in 1868 would be the key moment in the escalation of this inter church  dispute with the local Protestant rector, antiquarian and Irish scholar, William Kilbride.

The disestablishment of the Episcopalian Church in 1869 as the State Church in Ireland, would herald the end of the massive state support, which it had enjoyed for decades. Opposed by many Protestant clergymen but welcomed by some.


Rev Kilbride with his niece, Ethel Emma Kilbride, (later Mrs Steele) in 1890s  from the Jane Shackleton book of photos by Christiaan Corlett. (Collins Press)

The Archbishop and his entourage would remain exploring the many religious sites on Árainn until the evening of Wednesday July 29th 1868, when they sailed to their next engagement with Fr Patrick Lyons at An Spidéil (Spiddal) for another inspection and confirmation ceremony.




From there they crossed the mountain to Killanin for another confirmation Ceremony and it’s interesting that in 1868, as they waited for a boat at Knockferry, to get them back to the east side of the lake and their next engagement with Fr Peter Conway at St Mary’s near Headford, there was much talk about the dire need of a bridge across Lough Corrib, linking east and west Connacht.

 A bridge that never came to be built. Another example of the old adage that when all is said and done, there is usually a lot more said than done. It was recorded also, that the lake level was the lowest in living memory.


Following in the footsteps of John McHale, Archbishop Walsh  visiting Árainn in the 1940s


We hope to do a piece sometime, on the Aran bread war and boycott, which lasted from November 1868 until January 1869. The mother of the four children eventually returned from America and brought her children back to Portland with her. Any information on this incident, is more than welcome.

Michael Muldoon June 2020





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