The fighting priest of Gweedore

An eviction on the land of the Marquis of Clanricarde at Woodford, County Galway, 1888 (public domain image, Wikipedia)

Period newspapers can provide some very interesting reading as historical backgrounds for family research. My husband’s great-great-grandmother, Lillian Gracey Macauley (abt. 1836-1920) was a comfortably situated, upper middle class, Irish Catholic housewife living in Belfast in the 19th century. I found an article from the Belfast Morning News from November of 1886 that mentions her at a meeting of the Ladies’ Committee for the Relief of Evicted Tenants. Lillian seconded a resolution intended to aid struggling families in Sligo. The proposal was to employ impoverished Sligo women to sew clothing that would in turn be distributed to locals who had been evicted from their homes.

Related charitable activities were described in the article:

“… the Committee sent forward to Father M’Fadden, PP, Gweedore, seven parcels of clothing intended for the use of six families of over thirty individuals, whom he had written about. A further consignment will be sent forward on Friday, and next week the Committee intends to prepare parcels for the people of Sligo.”

Out of curiosity, I googled McFadden and Gweedore, and found quite an unusual story involving agitation for tenants’ rights, large scale evictions, and a priest sent to jail for murder.

Gweedore is a small village in County Donegal, which happens to be the largest Irish Gaelic speaking parish in the republic. In the 1870s and 1880s, the area was harshly affected by the actions of wealthy landlords who forcibly evicted numerous families from their homes for overdue rents. Lingering economic troubles from the potato famine, combined with recent crop failures due to violent weather, had led to poverty that landlords took advantage of. They moved to clear land farmed by locals and replace them with wide open areas for grazing livestock. Evicted farmers joined with tenants’ rights advocates to push for more equitable redistribution of land.

These conditions came to a head in Gweedore in 1889. Their Catholic parish priest, James McFadden (1842-1917), had been very vocal and supportive of the struggling families of Gweedore. He had already spent several months in prison in 1888 for encouraging a “criminal conspiracy” of tenants refusing to pay rents. Not daunted by his recent jail time, McFadden continued to agitate against the local landlords, which led to another order for his arrest. The Royal Irish Constabulary, after several attempts to arrest him failed, showed up outside the parish church in February of 1889, as Father McFadden was celebrating mass with his congregation.

As can be imagined, the authorities were met with outrage. District Inspector William Martin went for the priest, with his sword drawn. Angry parishioners fell on Martin and beat him severely. A battle ensued between congregants and the 40-odd constables, resulting in serious injuries to several of the officers. The violence was finally stopped by the entreaties of Father McFadden. He had William Martin brought into the rectory for medical attention, where he died of his injuries.

McFadden was charged with rioting and murder, along with 35 of his parishioners. The case received international news coverage, and it was clear to Irish prosecutors that there was widespread support for Father McFadden. The authorities decided the most prudent path under the circumstances was to offer plea bargains to all involved. In exchange for guilty pleas, the priest would receive no jail time, and a 30 year sentence would be divided up among the parishioners facing trial.

For several years after the Gweedore incident, McFadden toured the United States, raising money for the construction of a new cathedral in Letterkenny, Ireland. Viewed as a hero of the downtrodden in the US, large sums were raised. He returned to his homeland to spend his final years, still a parish priest, pursuing another of his passions, education, founding three national schools in Ireland. He was known as the “fighting priest of Gweedore” for his tireless, and sometimes dangerous, efforts to stand with his parishioners.

Sources

  1. The Morning News, November 17 1886, Belfast
  2. The Irish Story, Canon James McFadden – The fighting priest of Gweedore, 2020
  3. RTÉ.ie, Ireland National Public Service Media, Father McFadden of Gweedon podcast, 1975
  4. IrishCentral.com, Ancient Order of Hibernians, How a Donegal “fighting” priest took on his parishioner’s landlords, 2020

One Comment

  1. Ева said:

    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”.

    July 20, 2021
    Reply

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