Priest who fought for rights of exploited Irish potato pickers

Canon Michael Cassidy: August 26th, 1929 – April 8th, 2014


Canon Michael Cassidy, the priest who spearheaded a human rights campaign for Irish migrant workers in the potato fields of Scotland in the early 1970s, has died, aged 84.

His was like an Old Testament voice in the wilderness for the seasonal potato pickers, “tattie hokers” of East Lothian who came over to Scotland each year, mainly from Mayo and Donegal, for the harvest.

As a young curate, ordained in 1954 in St Peter’s, Wexford, for the Diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Michael Cassidy took a special interest in Irish families in Scotland in the various parishes he served and became acutely aware of the hardships faced by the seasonal workers. He lived with them among the bothies for more than two years.

The introduction of free secondary education in Ireland in 1967 gradually gave rise to a dwindling number of migrant potato pickers from the traditional counties. Irish recruiting agents sought to fill their work quotas among young unemployed in the towns and villages across Ireland, most of whom could not fall back on the strong familial or community links shared by earlier migrants.

Many of these marginalised workers were badly treated, forced to work long hours and locked in at night by a single family of agents, five brothers from his native Mayo. Fr Cassidy compiled a detailed report for his diocesan superior, Cardinal Gordon Gray, which was referred to both Westminster and Dublin governments.

Senior civil servants from the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health and Social Security met him to flesh out the report. It was a case of “the Irish exploiting the Irish”, he said and referred to floggings and “concentration camp conditions” for vulnerable migrants. The police, too, began to investigate.

The Dublin government, while not wanting to interfere in Britain’s internal affairs, found itself being charged with not taking enough interest in the welfare of underprivileged migrants. When the details of an escape back to Ireland by two workers, aided and abetted by Fr Cassidy, reached the newspapers there was a public outcry, with the press referring to conditions in the bothies as “slave camps”.

Cassidy’s parents, Franny and Mary Kate, were both teachers in Brackloon, Swinford, in the national school where his paternal grandfather had been the first principal. The young Cassidy attended St Nathy’s diocesan college, Ballaghadereen, earning distinction as a sprinter and on the football field. He played in goal for Mayo as a minor and, in a memorable provincial colleges final between the Connacht and Leinster, stopped three penalties.

A fellow Nathy’s student, John Healy, later a distinguished political correspondent, was on the sideline. Healy was to prove invaluable as an adviser later on when the activist priest was trying to awaken media interest in the plight of the potato workers.

In the event, the investigating prosecutor fiscal’s office in Scotland did not recommend that prosecutions be brought against the family of agents owing to lack of police evidence, despite the Scottish Office admitting to MPs that there were foundations to the charges.

There was a positive outcome, nonetheless, with the DHSS insisting all Irish workers from then must enjoy the benefits of class one employed persons, effectively putting an end to the tyranny of the past. Cassidy was vindicated.

The State formally recognised Canon Cassidy’s achievements, on his retirement as parish priest at St Margaret Mary’s, Granton, in 2004, in a letter signed by then taoiseach Bertie Ahern, which concluded: “His commitment to the care and well- being of his fellow countrymen and women has rightly earned him the title, ‘Unofficial chaplin to the Irish’.”

Canon Cassidy was buried this week in his beloved Brackloon and is survived by his sister, Sadie, (Sr Justin), and brothers Dr Ciarán and Msgr Martin James Cassidy.