Sixty years before delays in extraditing suspected IRA priest Patrick Ryan provoked a furious row between Margaret Thatcher and Charles Haughey there was another renegade IRA priest causing consternation at the highest level of government.
Haughey described Ryan, an IRA member who admitted obtaining money and bomb components for the organisation, as a “mad priest careering around Europe”.
Fr John Fahy could be described as a mad priest careering around the Diocese of Clonfert in south and east Galway from the mid-1920s until his death in 1969.
A local sergeant wrote of him in a secret memo in 1931: “I am inclined to think that Father Fahy is not normal, but the fact remains that he is in a position to do serious damage and is constantly going around on a motorcycle with a civilian cap and overcoat and apparently organising for the IRA [or the Irregulars as they were known] and other illegal movements.
“He is also going outside the diocese and I received information recently that a parish priest in Oranmore objected to him coming into his parish dressed as a civilian for an illegal purpose.
“I consider Father Fahy a danger in so much as he is functioning as a Roman Catholic priest and the fact he is one of the local leaders of the Irregulars may be regarded by youths as sufficient moral sanction to continue in the movement.”
His arrest for seizing cattle in 1929 as a protest against land annuities became a national controversy.
The question of proceeding with a potentially embarrassing court case against Fahy was discussed extensively by the cabinet of the Free State government. There was a stand-off between the state and Fahy’s local bishop over who held authority over him.
Fahy was the 36-year-old curate in the Bullaun parish close to Loughrea when in February 1929 he stopped a sheriff seizing cattle owned by Bridget Nevin, who had failed to pay land annuities. The priest had campaigned with the radical republican Peadar O’Donnell for the abolition of annuities. Fahy released the cattle and they were never recovered.
Department of Justice documents dating from 1929 to 1931, released to the National Archive, give an intriguing account of this case, Fahy’s clandestine activities during those years and concerns they caused at the highest levels of government.
A statement made by the arresting sergeant noted Fahy said he was proud of his actions. “He said that he was out to prevent the robbers from seizing stock to send over money to ‘robber Winston Churchill’,” said the sergeant.
“Fr Fahy said it was well known that the Clanricardes, and the Persses (Lady Gregory’s family), of Galway, got the land in the time of (King) William by robbery and murder. He pointed out that the Irish people were under no obligation to pay rent to those people,” the sergeant said.
Before the arrest, the cabinet in Dublin had tried to avert the embarrassment of a priest being tried in a court of law. Secretary of the department of justice Henry Friel was dispatched to Loughrea to speak to Fahy’s superior, Bishop of Clonfert John Dignam.
However, Friel was given short shrift by the bishop, who berated the government for taking proceedings without first consulting him. He also expressed the view the government would be best advised to drop the charges. Dignam said if the charges were dropped, he would then “act as Bishop” but would not specify what he meant by that.
The bishop also invoked canon law, suggesting he rather than the state had authority over Fahy.
Friel, and the local gardaí, suspected that the bishop held similar republican views to Fahy. The same sergeant wrote in 1931: “It is difficult to believe that his activities are unknown to his bishop but the latter may not desire to hear anything unfavourable about him in view of his own political outlook.”
With no prospect of an apology, the authorities arrested Fahy who refused bail and spent six weeks in Galway Gaol.
The case was heard in the Circuit Court in Loughrea and Fahy was sentenced to six weeks imprisonment. However, he was released from custody as he had spent six weeks on remand. On the instructions of his bishop, he also made a public apology.
However, the priest continued with his IRA activities in the succeeding years, despite being moved from parish to parish.
In 1931, the gardaí gathered statements and intelligence from young men from Craughwell and Kiltulla, who had been recruited into the IRA by Fahy. It was thought that up to 30 men were active in the local IRA.
A former reservist with the Irish army was also induced by Fahy in 1931 to obtain machine guns for the IRA. Michel Tierney, a mechanic, was putting a tyre on a car in King’s Garage in Loughrea when Fahy walked in with another priest. Fahy came over to Tierney and asked could he get a couple of machine guns for him.
Tierney said it would be impossible as they were kept under proper control.
Fahy replied: “We have not much money in the funds, but wouldn’t it be worth your while for £20?”
Tierney told him: “Sure ye have no machine gunners.”
To which Fahy replied: “We have the best machine gunners in Ireland today and it won’t be long until we have a Republic.”
The exchange prompted the sergeant who wrote the note to describe Fahy as an “extremist”.
Fr Fahy remained a radical and renegade republican until his death in 1969. He founded an organisation called Lia Fáil and a newspaper of the same name which espoused radical republican and xenophobic views
- National Archive file: 2022/24/30.