An Irishman's Diary

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Fr Fahy set up an organisation called Lia Fáil which had among its aims ‘to make it illegal for any alien to purchase any land, property or source of wealth in Ireland’.

John McEntee’s delightful evocation of the glory days of the carnivals during the 1950s and 1960s in his native Cavan (An Irishman’s Diary, November 12th) brings to mind our own Banagher Carnival of 1959. If Fr John Fahy in the neighbouring rural parish of Lusmagh – the only Offaly parish in the diocese of Clonfert – had his way, our much anticipated dancing to the music of Earl Gill, Donie Collins, Ralph Sylvester, Ciarán Kelly and others would not have taken place. And when it did, it had the potential to erupt into serious local unrest. The carnival was to run from Sunday May 24th to Sunday June 7th to raise funds for a swimming pool.

Fr Fahy had set up an organisation called Lia Fáil in November 1957 which had among its aims “to secure that all the lands and sources of wealth in Ireland be preserved for the Irish people” and “to make it illegal for any alien to purchase any land, property or source of wealth in Ireland”. He had launched a highly inflammatory monthly newspaper also called Lia Fáil in August 1958, the 10 issues of which he almost single-handedly wrote.

Themes varied only in minor ways from one issue of Lia Fáil to the next. The inactivity or inability of the Irish Land Commission to take over large farms and estates for division among small farmers and the duplicity of politicians with special venom being directed at de Valera, Lemass and Childers were recurrent topics. Jews, Freemasons, foreigners, Protestants and particularly their Representative Church Body were all savagely denounced.

Apart from widespread economic stagnation and the haemorrhage of emigration, the big political issues of early 1959 were the forthcoming referendum promoted by Fianna Fáil to abolish proportional representation (PR) in favour of a “first past the post” election system and the presidential election between Éamon de Valera and General Seán MacEoin (“the Blacksmith of Ballinalee“).

In the February 1959 issue of Lia Fáil Fr Fahy listed 25 reasons why de Valera should not be President, stating firstly that “He is an alien” and secondly “He is of doubtful legitimacy”.

Some of the most prominent members of the carnival committee were Fianna Fáil activists and by spring 1959 a deep animosity had developed between them and Fr Fahy.

Tension heightened further when some Lia Fáil members were arrested on May 1st following controversial land agitation activities and were taken to Banagher Garda Barracks where they were charged with obstructing the gardaí in the execution of their duty. They were remanded in custody but while awaiting transport to Mountjoy later that night were rescued by a large crowd of Lusmagh supporters despite a strong Garda presence. The Midland Tribune reported “that after the rescue there was a parade through the town in which a banner representing Lia Fáil was carried”.

The subsequent searches for the escapees, including a dramatic dawn raid by more than 50 detectives from the Phoenix Park depot on Fr Fahy’s house, made national headlines and were debated in Dáil Éireann.

When word filtered through in mid May that the Minister for Lands, Erskine Childers had been invited to perform the official opening of Banagher Carnival on Sunday May 24th, matters took another serious turn.

Fr Fahy was furious. He drafted the following leaflet for distribution in Banagher and the wider locality:

“FREEMASON CARNIVAL

Childers – a Freemason

– a Heretic

– Chairman of the Protestant Church Body

Invited to open Banagher Carnival

An insult to Catholics and Irishman of Offaly.

BOYCOTT THE CARNIVAL”.

The boycott initially met with some support, but the carnival committee responded by issuing complimentary tickets to many young people for various dancing attractions and by the end of the first week resistance began to crumble among the full-blooded Romeos and Juliets of the area.

These and subsequent events would shortly result in Fr Fahy’s transfer and demotion to a curacy in Abbey, Loughrea where he would spend the final 10 years of his life. Fr Fahy had a life-long involvement in the Republican movement, going back to gun-running during the War of Independence and his anti-annuities campaign with Peadar O’Donnell which led to his imprisonment in Galway Jail in 1929.

* Fr John Fahy, Radical Republican and Agrarian Activist, 1893 -1969,by Jim Madden, with a foreword by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, is published by Columba Press

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