The island priests: piety and poitín on the edge of Ireland

Nowhere was the relationship between the clergy and parishoners more sharply observed than on offshore islands

Aran Islands, 1922: Burning seaweed for kelp. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty

Aran Islands, 1922: Burning seaweed for kelp. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty


In September 1931, novelist Liam O’Flaherty wrote to his agent AD Peters from his native Aran Islands: “All the material I have dug up here I am incorporating into a novel in which the main characters are a schoolmaster and a priest. It’s called Skerrett. I am anxious to get away from here to Dublin as soon as possible so as to read up the account of a lawsuit in the National Library files.”

Skerrett was published the following year and was widely acclaimed. O’Flaherty’s writing was honed from the landscape and lifestyle of his island upbringing and his elemental prose unpacked the complexities of the human condition and the viciousness of island feuds.

The lawsuit O’Flaherty referred to achieved national prominence in 1912 as a result of a dispute between Aran Island teacher David O’Callaghan and Fr Murtagh Farragher, the parish priest of the Aran Islands. O’Callaghan sued Farragher for damages arising out of what he alleged was Farragher’s slandering of him.

O’Callaghan had been teaching at Inis Mór’s Oatquarter School since 1885 and, like Farragher, was committed to the idea of improving the lot of the islanders, but he had repeatedly clashed with Farragher over social and economic issues.

Farragher had questioned O’Callaghan’s morality, lifestyle and commitment to religion, but was undoubtedly most irked by O’Callaghan’s independent spirit and lack of deference towards him.

Man of Aran: Liam O'Flaherty in 1930. Photograph: Armstrong Roberts/Ullstein Bild/Getty
Man of Aran: Liam O'Flaherty in 1930. Photograph: Armstrong Roberts/Ullstein Bild/Getty

Denounced from the altar

In January 1911, Farragher denounced O’Callaghan from the altar and a boycott of his school began. Farragher had told his parishioners: “I’m not telling you not to send them to the school but if you take my advice you won’t.” During the slander trial, counsel for O’Callaghan suggested Farragher “undoubtedly claimed an absolute right to rule the island. He did not suppose that the Tsar of Russia in his own dominions was more powerful or autocratic a person than Rev Farragher in the island of Aran.”

Opposing counsel suggested O’Callaghan was “so full of law and of his own importance …there was no greater autocrat than the village schoolmaster”.

The jury found that the words complained of were spoken “in good faith and without malice” and O’Callaghan lost the case. The recovery of the legal expenses ruined him. The Freeman’s Journal reported that the result of the case had created “great satisfaction” on the island; on the arrival of the priest back to Inis Mór after the trial, “all the houses were illuminated and bonfires blazed…immense crowds were on the pier with torches and as the boat neared the quay, cheer after cheer rang out”.

A pious Farragher thanked his faithful; he had always, he insisted, “been the poor man’s friend”. There was no future for O’Callaghan on the island; he left in 1914 having lost his school, and the divisions caused by this dispute went deep.

Fr Farragher also despised O’Callaghan because of O’Callaghan’s support for islander Roger Dirrane who had been at the centre of another ferocious dispute with Farragher in 1908. Dirrane had been bailiff to the Digby estate that owned the island.

In the division of land, Farragher had accused Dirrane of favouring himself and his friends while maintaining as parish priest he wanted the land to go to “the poor”. Dirrane had desired possession of Killeney Lodge on Inis Mór of which he was caretaker, and the land around it, which Farragher wanted for the parishioners for a school.

On June 1st, Fr Farragher’s sister went to bed at 11 o’clock and after half an hour was awakened by a “great crash…she thought the house had been struck by lightning”. She went to the bedroom of the servant, Mary Flaherty, and they went downstairs to discover all the windows had been broken and some of the ceiling had fallen in.

Home-made bomb

A broken saucepan and bits of fuse were found at the scene, fragments of Dirrane’s home-made bomb, hurled in when Farragher was away from the island.

Evidence of the bomb-making materials was found at Dirrane’s house. He was convicted and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. Justice Kenny presiding “denounced the outrage and said he would have given Dirrane 14 years”.

I did strike her with a stick, but I didn’t get money out of her,” he told the judge

Fr Farragher was also quizzed about other island rows including that with Mrs Griffin, to whom he had lent money: “I did strike her with a stick, but I didn’t get money out of her,” he told the judge, which prompted laughter in court.

The judge’s summing-up in the Dirrane case was instructive about the power of the priest, tolerance of violence and the perception of the Aran islanders by mainlanders. He said the inquiry was unprecedented in his experience. “They were inquiring into the circumstances under which the house of a Catholic clergyman in this country, living in the midst of a Catholic population, was attempted to be blown up by some of his own congregation…the Rev Farragher had admitted there was friction between him and some of his parishioners. A clergyman who had to live in a rough community like Aran was not to be too hardly judged, if, with a view of controlling his parishioners, he did take the law a little into his own hands.” The relatives of Dirrane were subsequently boycotted at the behest of Farragher.

Island priests could also in private be very frank about what they regarded as the moral shortcomings of the islanders. A film about life on the Aran Islands that was produced by the Catholic Film Society of London in 1932. Aran of the Saints depicted an island completely dominated by Catholicism with the islanders seen going to Mass, reciting the rosary and attending Communion services.

Island religiosity

But Aran of the Saints gave a lop-sided impression of island religiosity and, in truth, there was no shortage of battles by priests to instil discipline. Fr Martin O’Donnell was a curate on the Aran Islands in the 1930s; his archbishop, Thomas Gilmartin, asked him “if I am leaving you too long on Aran?” O’Donnell’s reply was that he would stay “as long as Your Grace pleases, yet I must say that I shall have few regrets however soon I may leave it”.

He then recounted the details of a temperance mission conducted by a Redemptorist a year after Aran of the Saints was filmed, during which it was discovered there were “10 houses engaged in this accursed poitín traffic. One man gave him to understand that he had only a gallon or 2 of poitín and spilled it out. I learned afterwards that it was only a portion of 16 gallons he had.”

Two sons of an island teacher had got drunk on poitín and “the eldest of these is not more than 12 years”. O’Donnell also complained “there are many things that are too painful for me to put on paper… Should Your Grace deem it necessary to change me from Aran I only ask that I may not be next or near a poitín district.”

Some porter came ashore and led to orgies of sin

The following decade, in 1947, Fr Thomas Killea was a horrified spectator on the Aran Islands when the Dún Aengus steamer that sailed to the islands was involved in an accident and temporarily became a stranded wreck. What transpired left Killea incensed, as he explained to Archbishop Walsh:

“The old steamer is wrecked but the aftermath is worse than any wreck. The Inishmaan people, acting on the assumption that anything wrecked is for the first who can grab it, have looted the cargo of the boat and even the boat itself. Some porter came ashore and led to orgies of sin. The guards are there but there is very little respect for them because the people know they will not be persecuted because the District Justice will not come out to hold a court. We must do something to bring home to the criminals that they cannot steal with impunity. I would suggest that Your Grace give me permission to remove the Blessed Sacrament from the island and that no mass be celebrated there until restitution be made…something drastic is required.” Walsh subsequently arranged for the boat to be brought off the rocks and repaired.

Rebellious tendencies

Island communities could also become remarkably attached to their priests, especially priests who displayed rebellious tendencies, which sparked commotion in 1942 on Tory Island in Donegal that witnessed the papal nuncio in Ireland, Paschal Robinson, writing to the Bishop of Raphoe, William Mac Neely.

He described the refusal of curate Fr B Duggan “to cede the parochial house” on Tory after his suspension: “Such conduct on the part of any priest must not only give grave scandal to the devout faithful concerned…It is also obvious that the attitude of those who support a priest in his disobedience to the ecclesiastical authorities merits the most severe censure.”

Twice I was prevented by physical force from leaving the spot where I stepped ashore

Not that the islanders seemed remotely concerned about such censure. The parish priest with responsibility for the island, Fr J Cunningham, also wrote to Mac Neely to describe his attempt to land on the island in order to convey the nuncio’s displeasure:

“Yesterday I went to Tory with the intention of remaining there for a couple of weeks at least and of endeavouring in that time to win the islands back to their duty and perhaps of influencing Fr Duggan also, but my stay there was short. On landing after very rough passage I was accosted by Fr Duggan and told I was to return to the mainland at once by the same boat which brought me to Tory. I got my bags ashore. No one would carry them to my lodgings. Twice I was prevented by physical force from leaving the spot where I stepped ashore. Fr Duggan is master there, the poor islanders are maligned, misled by him and there will be no peace nor grace there while he is allowed to remain on the island…I told them the object of my mission; they laughed me to scorn; no priest for them but Fr Duggan. With heavy heart I had to return home through a raging sea.”

A few years later, Fr James McDyer, a native of Donegal who had worked in England for seven years, returned to his native county as curate for Tory island. Deeply unhappy there, McDyer requested to be moved from Tory to return to England but instead was appointed to Glencolumbkille on the mainland in 1951, and he went on to achieve renown as an organiser of industrial and agricultural co-operatives, bringing electricity and tourist initiatives to the area.

‘A hard life’

An appreciation of him after he died gives some indication of how the priestly postings to islands were viewed in the overall scheme of church ministry: “He had a hard life. His clerical postings were never favoured ones – an urban slum in Britain; the wind-lashed deprivation of Tory Island; the remote district of Glencolmkille – moving, it seemed, from one situation of human hopelessness to the next. It was in the Glen that his ‘savage indignation’, as he called it, really cut loose.”

McDyer was not a remotely contented island priest and was honest about why in his autobiography: “On an island I could find very few people who were willing to have a good discussion on international affairs or current events.” The islanders were friendly and “even too courteous” but he was lonely.

McDyer was generous about the islanders’ abilities – they had a perception and sharpness above that of mainlanders because of their battles with the sea and arising out of the need and practice of self-sufficiency. “Their minds and their deftness were honed to a remarkable degree.”

But he felt the island was a waste of his youth. “Some of the best years of my life were being frittered away when there was so much work to be done elsewhere…I resolved that whenever my transfer came I would release such a burst of energy that others would be amazed.”

In that sense, at least, the island was the making of him.

On the Edge: Ireland’s Off-Shore Islands: A Modern History by Diarmaid Ferriter is published by Profile Books

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