Woman at centre of infamous Fethard-on-Sea boycott dies


Sheila Cloney was involved in a bitter dispute over Catholic education in 1957, writes MICHAEL PARSONS

THE DEATH has taken place in Co Wexford of Sheila Cloney, the woman at the centre of the infamous 1957 Fethard-on-Sea boycott of Protestants. Ms Cloney, who was 83, died in hospital on Sunday.

A member of the Church of Ireland, her decision 52 years ago to flee her Catholic husband and the State rather than allow her children to be educated at the local Catholic national school led to a boycott of Protestant businesses in the south Co Wexford village. The case attracted considerable national and international media attention with Timemagazine coining the word “fethardism” which it claimed meant: “to practise boycott along religious lines”.

The dispute was eventually resolved when Ms Cloney was reconciled with her husband, returned to Ireland, and educated her daughters at home.

Sheila (née Kelly) and Seán Cloney, a Catholic, had both grown up in Fethard-on-Sea near Hook Head. They were married in London in 1949 at an Augustinian Church in Hammersmith followed by a blessing in an Anglican Church. She apparently undertook to accept a Catholic rule – based on the 1908 papal decree “Ne Temere” – which stipulated that children of mixed marriages should be raised as Catholics.

However, she later changed her mind after being pressurised by a local curate, Fr William Stafford. She left Fethard-on-Sea on April 27th with two daughters and travelled, first to Northern Ireland where she allegedly received support from associates of the Rev Ian Paisley and, then to the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Meanwhile, Fr Stafford called for a boycott of Protestant-owned local businesses.

The issue was debated in the Dáil where the boycott was condemned by Eamon de Valera who was taoiseach at the time. The boycott was also widely denounced by Northern Protestants during Orange marches in 1957. Later that year Seán Cloney travelled to Scotland and was reunited with his wife. The family lived for brief spells in Somerset and Wales before eventually returning to Ireland permanently the following year. Their daughters were educated at home.

Speaking in Wexford in May 1998, the then bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey, referred to the boycott as “a very painful episode in our history” and asked for “forgiveness and healing from God, from all within the Church of Ireland community, and from all who have suffered in any way then or since”. A film about the case called A Love Divided, starring Orla Brady and Liam Cunningham as the couple, was released in 1999.

Ms Cloney, whose funeral takes place at noon today in Fethard-on-Sea, is survived by her daughters Eileen and Hazel and predeceased by her daughter Mary. Her husband Seán, a farmer, died in 1999.   Although Ms Cloney herself shunned publicity, two years before his death, Mr Cloney spoke about the events of 1957 to The Irish Times.He recalled that his wife had resented being pressurised by the Catholic priest who had told her: “Eileen’s going to the local Catholic school and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

He said: “Sheila didn’t fancy being ordered. She developed the frame of mind, ‘we’ll see what could be done about it’.” He explained the couple’s eventual resolution of the controversy: “Whether they went to a Protestant or a Catholic school would be seen as a victory for one side or the other and we could not sanction that. So they never went to school and we educated them ourselves.” Commenting on the boycott of Protestants, Mr Cloney said: “I totally rejected the boycott. It caused a lot of trouble for me. My main support in breaking the boycott came from Old IRA men who themselves had fallen out with the clergy during the War of Independence.”

Writing about the controversy in 1977, the late essayist, commentator and Church of Ireland member Hubert Butler deplored the social mindset which had pressurised Sheila Cloney and said: “A great common gesture would have given us courage and confidence and arrested the sad slow Protestant decline. It would have reminded the Northern Protestants that we belong together and that they belong to Ireland.”

Two years ago, Violet Grant of Sandymount Dublin, whose late husband, canon Edward Grant, was the Protestant rector in Fethard-on-Sea when Sheila and Seán Cloney were married wrote to The Irish Timesto say she was “glad to have lived to see times changing for the better”.