"The fighting priest of Gweedore," Canon James McFadden, died 100 years ago today. "He was not averse to fisticuffs or to using his blackthorn stick in encounters with transgressors and once made a group of children walk barefoot to school for a week in winter," Henry Boylan wrote of him in his Dictionary of Irish Biography.
The clergy had a lot of power in his time and he would hardly be remembered had it been purely for his pugilistic prowess; his championing of smallholders in his native Donegal against rack-renting landlords and evictions, and one notorious incident in particular involving that struggle, have caused his name to live on.
He was born in 1842 and reared at Claggan, Carrigart. After attending Maynooth seminary and being ordained, he served as a curate in Lettermacward in the Rosses and in Doochary, near Dungloe before moving to Gweedore in 1873 and becoming parish priest there two years later.
Although he built schools and selected good teachers, he had a particular aversion to poteen-drinking and tried to prevent dancing and other merrymaking events at which it might be consumed. He frequently visited “shebeens” and chased out any parishioners he found there, using his blackthorn stick and his fists liberally in the process.
This strict attitude probably wouldn’t have enamoured him to too many people, but his support for the land campaign organised by the Land League in the late 1870s and the “Plan of Campaign” run by its successor, the Irish National League, in the second half of the 1880s, earned him the nickname “An Sagart Mór” among the people of Gweedore.
He was determined to fight the injustices and cruel treatment inflicted on the small tenant farmers by rack-renting landlords intent on clearing smallholders off their estates and replacing them with animals, which they regarded as more profitable. When landlords’ agents, bailiffs and police arrived to evict people or seize their goods or cattle, Canon McFadden and many of his parishioners, who had been alerted to their arrival by the blowing of horns from house to house across the hills and valleys, confronted and harassed them and often prevented them from carrying out their dirty work. For his activities, he served up to nine months in prison on charges of “conspiracy”.
He was saying Mass in Derrybeg in February 1899 when a force of RIC men, under district inspector Martin, arrived to arrest him. His parishioners resisted the police and in the scuffle that followed, Martin was accidentally killed, probably by falling to the ground and hitting his head against a stone. Some of the men involved escaped to the mountains and bogs and managed to avoid the police; others fled to Derry and took ship to America. But Canon McFadden and about 40 other men were eventually arrested and lodged in Maryborough Gaol (now Portlaoise Prison).
Canon McFadden and 12 others were tried for the “murder” of Insp Martin in October 1899. Attorney general Peter O’Brien (known as “Peter the Packer”) led the prosecution and the jury consisted of rich landowners and merchants, all Protestant bar one Catholic, who was a landlord. Tim Healy MP was counsel for the defence. In a surprising development in the trial, after two weeks an agreement was reached between Healy and O’Brien whereby all would plead guilty, none would be condemned to death, Canon McFadden would be released and the others would share 30 years among them. The nationalist
condemned Healy for the deal and accused the priest of abandoning his parishioners.
He was never to get on the wrong side of the law again during the remaining 17 years of his life, which he spent as parish priest in Iniskeel, Glenties, where he died. The man the Glenties novelist Patrick McGill would have known was much more cautious and conservative than he had been as parish priest of Gweedore. McGill's 1914 novel, Children of the Dead End, has a damning portrait of a parish priest, Fr Devaney, who is based on Canon McFadden.
The novel condemned the exploitation of the poor by landlords and their agents, by gombeen men and by the police. But it also attacked the Catholic clergy for their ruthless control over their flock and for charges that they exacted from them, such as “funeral offerings”.
McGill’s socialist politics would have affected his view of the parish priest who is still remembered in Gweedore as “An Sagart Mór” because he fearlessly defended the rights of the smallholders in the area.