Turbulent Diocese

The Killala Troubles, 1798 – 1848

Brendan Hoban

Chapter 18  Kilfian Investigation

Turbulent Conduct

On proceeding to say Mass on 21st, Rev. Mr Duffy with Lynch and a few other co-operators dragged me off the altar . . . nothing but outrage and insult until the congregation was nearly assembled when they would have vindictively retaliated if I had not interposed and besought them to follow me to a few perches distance where I celebrated Mass. Rev. Mr Duffy’s only instruction was that my Mass was worse than Satan’s . . . that all my hearers were damned and that all baptised by me should be rebaptised.1

Fr Patrick Conway, parish priest, Kilfian

There were problems in Kilfian parish, with complaints arriving in Ballina about the conduct of Fr Michael Conway, one of the supporters of the pro-MacHale faction. Shortly after the Sligo trial, O’Finan decided to visit Kilfian to enquire into the conduct of the PP.2 Conway had been accused of neglecting his duties, allowing people to die without the sacraments and failing to baptise children and to ‘church’ women and O’Finan had indicated for some time that he intended to investigate Kilfian.

Conway, called An Sagart Bán to distinguish him from the other Fr Michael Conways who were his contemporaries, was a native of Ballycroy and was ordained circa 1817.3  He had a lively history of conflict with his parishioners. In his first appointment to his native Ballycroy, he ran into some difficulty with his own relations over the confiscation of a poteen still when his uncle, John Conway of Fahy, wrote a letter of complaint to Bishop Peter Waldron on  May 29,1820. The Conways – uncle and priest-nephew – had fallen out.4

Conway’s next appointment was to Cross in Kilmore Erris where he succeeded Thomas William Dixon5 who had conformed to the Established Church. A letter from Dixon about the level of priests’ dues in Kilmore Erris had elicited a response from Conway, who contradicted some of Dixon’s figures and allegations.6 Conway then served for a time in Ballina as curate to John Patrick Lyons and it is possible to surmise that the tension between the two men originated during their Ballina years.

In September 1826, Conway was appointed PP of Kilfian and almost immediately ran into difficulty with some of the Kilfian parishioners and had to report their ‘conduct’ to Bishop Waldron and Bishop MacHale.7 A few years later, in 1834, Conway, apparently a strict disciplinarian, took exception to the level of unnecessary servile work on Sundays in Kilfian and decided to exact redress by appealing to the Lord’s Day Observance Act which required that police should enforce it. On August 15, 1834, at the Killala Petty Sessions, Conway charged the police with failing to implement the particular statute.

A few months later Conway was back in court. Earlier in that year, 1834, Conway had successfully sued a parishioner named Hughes over the theft of his clover and was awarded 2s-6d damages. As a reprisal Mrs Hughes alleged, at a sitting of the Killala Petty Sessions in July, that Conway had assaulted her in attempting to prevent her from crossing a tilled field to draw water from a well and forcing her to take another longer route. Later Mrs Hughes withdrew the allegations and the case was reported in the Castlebar Telegraph8 as well as in The Ballina Impartial and The Mayo Constitution:

I hereby freely declare, as my dying declaration, to which I also swear, that my several allegations at Killala Petty Sessions by which indictments were granted against the Rev. Michael Conway, were all false except his throwing the piggin or small can and noggin outside the ditch, which are still safe and unbroken, as I took water home in the piggin or can at the moment of the alleged assault; and that I was influenced to do and swear what I did to be revenged on him, the Reverend Michael Conway, for prosecuting my husband for theft of his, the priest’s clover.’9

Two years later, in 1836, after evictions had taken place in Kilfian, on behalf of Mrs Rodgers, a local landlord, a letter to The Mayo Constitution accused Conway ‘of evincing hostility to Mrs Rodgers by every means in his power.’10 An anonymous letter had been published in the press about the depopulation of Kilfian and it had been suggested that Conway was the author. Reprisals followed and Mrs Rodgers made a claim in a Ballina court for malicious damage done to her property.

Problems with his parishioners continued and there is little doubt but that letters of protest were written to Bishop O’Finan in Ballina. Yet it seems unusual and unnecessary that O’Finan should decide to submit Conway’s years in Kilfian to an official investigation that would eventually result in his suspension as parish priest. It is not difficult to see the influence of Dean Lyons in the decision to investigate Conway.11

Conway contended that, after Bishop O’Finan’s arrival, his difficulties with parishioners were exacerbated by O’Finan’s hostility to him, as one of the pro-MacHale ‘appellant’ clergy. Conway instances his struggles with parishioner, John Lynch, who though ‘nominally a Roman Catholic did not comply with the parochial precepts for many years’ and to whose ‘calumnies’ O’Finan offered ‘a willing ear’. Lynch, a bailiff, had (according to Conway) used his influence to encourage his tenants to protest against Conway to Archbishop Crolly of Armagh during his visit as apostolic delegate to investigate the troubles in the diocese. Conway interpreted this as an effort to ‘divert His Grace’s attention from the complaints against Rev. J.P. Lyons’. Conway contended that on investigation it emerged that the individuals acknowledged that ‘they had no cause of complaint but were obliged under threats of ejectments and dispossession’ to make the allegations. And, Conway wrote, he had affidavits to prove it.

Conway then demanded of O’Finan ‘the names of the complainants in order to refute them’. O’Finan replied, on August 26, 1936, that he was occupied with the Roman investigation and would inform Conway ‘in due and full time of all the charges preferred’ against him when he (O’Finan) instituted an enquiry into them.

On Sunday, April 16, 1837, in the chapel in Kincon, Fr Patrick Duffy of Castleconnor, speaking on behalf of Bishop O’Finan, informed the Kilfian parishioners at Mass that on the following Sunday, April 23, the bishop would open an investigation of Conway in Kilfian chapel on the following charges: (i) exactions in the parochial fees; (ii) neglect in administering sacraments to different persons in their dying moments; (iii) profaning the chapel with abusive language against the bishop from the altar; and (iv) condemning second marriages.12

Conway reacted to Duffy’s announcement by calling on the people to witness that he was appealing to the Primate, Archbishop Crolly and the other members of the Commission investigating the affairs of Killala diocese, to intervene. Conway complained that O’Finan had not disclosed the names of his accusers; that Frs McNulty, Duffy and Murray, ‘priests of Dr O’Finan’s faction’, had ‘married, baptised and churched persons from and within my parish without deigning to call on me for a writing or consulting me’; that Duffy had married, baptised, churched,13 heard confessions and ‘largely subtracted from my fees and emoluments and that, on April 15, 1837, Duffy had dined ‘in the house of a notorious fornicator of 35 years standing and ‘tis believed in the company of his concubine;’ that O’Finan had sent Fr Peter Quinn – ‘noted for every species of disorder’ – to Kilfian to assist him; that O’Finan had sent Fr George McNamara to tend to John Lynch’s pastoral needs without consulting him or requiring of Lynch, an adulterer and a drunkard, a public expression of remorse for ‘his bad example and habit of sin.’ 

On Friday, April 21, O’Finan replied to Conway, dismissed his ‘frivolous appeal to Dr Crolly’ and clarified the grounds of investigation: that he charged O’Finan with simony and ‘excommunication by Rome’; that he called O’Finan’s supporters among the clergy ‘devilish priests’; that such priests would be ‘soon stripped of their robes by the Holy See;’ that Conway had allowed five people to die without the sacraments, even though he was asked to attend them, and other pastoral failures.14

Conway received the letter the following day, Saturday, April  22, but had little time to prepare a defence as O’Finan arrived the following day again, Sunday April 23, in Kilfian.

The hearings continued for nineteen days –  seventeen of which, according to Conway, were spent trying to establish whether Conway had accused O’Finan of simony15 – and ending on May 15, 1837. Fr Anthony Corcoran of Killala was called upon to keep a record of the evidence but he later absented himself because he regarded some of the allegations against Conway as frivolous16 and because of the extended nature of the proceedings. With Corcoran retiring to the sideline, Patrick Duffy of Castleconnor, took over the recording duties. Also present at the proceeding was the vicar general, Patrick Gildea.

The investigation proceeded as follows:17

April 23, 1837

Michael Ruane, Annagh, gave evidence that he was refused Confession and Communion because he would not promise not to speak to his sister-in-law, Mary Cooper, who was a concubine of Mr Ormsby’s, and therefore excommunicated. He was cross-examined by Father Conway.

Thomas Langan, Annagh, gave evidence that he was charged £1-16s-6d at his marriage. He was refused Confession because his wife visited Nancy Barrett’s occasionally;18 Nancy was her aunt. Conway refused to baptise his child because he wanted John Lynch and his wife as sponsors. (Child was baptised in Ballycastle by Fr Martin Harte on the orders of the bishop. Baptism money was 3s-4d for the clerk and 1s dues).

Conway cross-examined Langan and indicated that Langan wanted him to do the baptism in the house and that he said he would if he was convinced that the child was ‘genuinely weakly’.

April 28, 183719

Conway wanted the question of dues dealt with first as per the Bishop’s letter of visitation but was over-ruled.

John Lynch, Kincun, gave evidence and there was some verbal sparring between Conway and himself.

April 29, 1837

Lynch continued his evidence and Conway complained that the Bishop O’Finan was preventing him from asking questions. O’Finan appealed to Frs Duffy and Gildea who agreed with the bishop. An argument followed as to the nature of simony.

May 1, 1837

Lynch continued his evidence.

May 2, 1837

Joseph Williams gave evidence and was cross-examined by Conway. Patrick Healy gave evidence and bishop intervened to allow Conway to cross-examine. Catherine O’Boyle (Hunt) Rathome, Ballysakeery also gave evidence.

May 5, 1837

Catherine O’Boyle continued her evidence during which she said she was intimidated by her brother-in-law, Ned Judge.

Patrick Gilbert Fergus, who lived at Kilbride and was a native of Kilcommon East gave evidence.

May 6, 1837

Evidence of Pat Athy, relating to request for a sick call. Evidence of John Lynch. Evidence of Joseph Williams, a native of Wexford who has lived in Kilfian for five years.

May 7, 1837

Evidence continued

May 8, 1837

Evidence of Thomas Lynch, Kincun.

May 9, 1837

Patrick Higgins, Ballykinletrach, gave evidence. His father had cancer around five years ago and was sent to the Infirmary by Major Gardiner and the late Mr Higgins, Kincun, but returned home not cured. He was evicted and went around begging. Match made for witness who married four days later and was charged £1-2s-0d, and also 15s and 6s more making it £2-3s-0d in all.20 Both he and his wife were at hire in Mr Fawcett’s. Fr Conway sent him to the bishop to remit ‘Advent money’ but told him not to tell how much he was charged. Would be charged more if it was a run-away marriage. His father was buried without Mass or consecrated earth because he did not ask for them.

Conway protested that he was not getting fair play but bishop and Frs Gildea and Duffy denied this. Conway gave evidence that he got 15s marriage money and paid the £1 as dues previously.

May 10, 1837

Patrick Copper, Annagh, stated that he had asked permission of Bishop MacHale to speak occasionally to his sister, Mary, who lives with William Ormsby, Rathmeel, Ballina. Not granted. Fr Conway refused him permission until he would promise.

A list of women who were unchurched.21

Owen Gallagher gave evidence. Has no fixed residence at present. Had a fixed place of residence at Shanetra in the parish of Moygownagh until the last five weeks. Resided in the parish of Kilfian before he went to Shanetra. Was living in the parish for nine months before Mr Conway came to the parish of Kilfian and continued there until March 1, 1835.

May 15, 1837

James Mullowney and Anne Perkins, Ballybeg were married by the parson last Easter three years, having been refused by Fr Conway without a letter of freedom from Kilgarvin. Had been three years in Kilfian then. Had son baptised later by parson.22

The result of the enquiry was that Conway was suspended ab ordine, ab officio, et a Beneficio which meant that he could not exercise any of the functions of a parish priest or say Mass or administer the sacraments. The decree, formally issued on May 17, 1837, gave six reasons for the decision to suspend: (i) previous to Bishop O’Finan’s visitation Conway had written several insolent and irreverent letters and during the actual visitation he had frequently been insolent; for not knowing how many of his adult parishioners had made their Easter duties the previous year; for unjustly and inhumanly demanding money from a poor servant, Patrick Higgins, and ordering him not to tell the bishop about it; for neglecting to baptise four infants, (who were baptised during the visitation at the Bishop’s orders by Father Patrick  Duffy); for imposing grave excommunications, without asking or receiving the bishop’s permission, on a number of parishioners; for allowing George O’Brien of Clydagh to die without the sacraments, even though given timely notice by his relative, William Weir.23

During the enquiry, instead of staying with Conway, O’Finan stayed in Killala and sent a bill for £45 to Conway, for his keep.24 Conway refused to pay it and contended that once he said to O’Finan that he wouldn’t pay the bill, O’Finan replied ‘I suspend you.’ Conway replied that he would appeal to his metropolitan (Archbishop MacHale) whereupon O’Finan indicated that he would be consulting McNulty, Corcoran, Gildea and Duffy25 before making his final decision.

When the suspension was pronounced Conway immediately lodged an appeal against it with MacHale, including ‘seven or eight affidavits’, and MacHale promptly lifted the suspension. Later John Patrick Lyons, O’Finan’s foremost supporter, wrote to Archbishop Murray of Dublin saying that MacHale had ‘raised the suspension without giving himself the trouble to communicate with Dr O’Finan or to enquire further into the case than the mere report of Mr Conway himself. The consequence was an open schism among the parishioners.’26

Writing to Cullen, MacHale criticised O’Finan’s public enquiry. Conway, according to MacHale, was ‘one of the most zealous and immaculate priests in any diocese’ and the complaints against him were ‘frivolous and confused’. MacHale contended that he could substantiate the frivolity of the charges from ‘evidence of respectable clergymen who attended as well as the sworn affidavits of lay persons of character’.25

MacHale recommended to Conway that he refer his case to Rome. In the meantime the Archbishop had removed the suspension and restored him fully to office ad interim pending the hearing of his case in Rome and allowing him ‘to resume his clerical functions in the parish.’28 However, O’Finan ignored MacHale’s restoration of Conway and appointed Father Patrick Duffy of Castleconnor as administrator of Kilfian.

When Duffy arrived to take possession of the parish he was accompanied by the local magistrate, Robert Kirkwood, and a number of policemen. A disagreement arose as both priests wanted to say Mass at the same time in the church and a compromise was reached whereby Conway said Mass at a table at the end of the church, while Duffy said Mass at the altar. After Mass both priests addressed the people outside the chapel.

A letter written to the Dublin authorities by a parishioner, Richard Fleming, gives one version of events:

On  May 21, 1837, there was a riot in Kilfian Church when Conway was dragged from the altar by a bailiff, John Lynch and five or six partisans.

Your Excellency’s petitioner (Fleming) seeing his parish priest so dragged, torn and bleeding did without violence attempt to release the said priest from their grasp. That a policeman Robert Quilty of the Kincon Station . . . did instantly seize and handcuff me and kept me so confined near four hours. That a magistrate, John Gardiner Esq. of Courthill showed great reluctance to release (me) though neither threat nor crime could be preferred against me . . . that several other acts of violence were committed on that day . . . in the presence of the police party . . . who neither checked or interfered with the perpetrators of the several outrages committed on that day.29

Fleming requested that the magistrate and the police be disciplined and replaced. On May 29, 1837, the chief constable in Ballina, William Caldwell, was directed to enquire into the conduct of Mr Quilty.30

Another version is given by Conway himself in a letter to Cullen:

On proceeding to say Mass on 21st, Rev. Mr Duffy with Lynch and a few other co-operators dragged me off the altar . . . nothing but outrage and insult until the congregation was nearly assembled when they would have vindictively retaliated if I had not interposed and besought them to follow me to a few perches distance where I celebrated Mass. Rev. Mr Duffy’s only instruction was that my Mass was worse than Satan’s . . . that all my hearers were damned and that all baptised by me should be rebaptised.31

Conway contended that Duffy’s party had violently attacked his supporters.32  However, the Mayo Constitution, not known for its support for the Catholic Church, delighted in giving a different version. Conway, asserting his right by virtue of Archbishop MacHale’s confirmation of him as PP of Kilfian, was prepared to obstruct Duffy in the celebration of Mass. Even though the police ‘held a consultation with the two clergymen’ and ‘remonstrated with them on the impropriety of persevering in their then conduct . . . the Rev. gentlemen were inexorable.’ Conway produced his diploma from Tuam; Duffy insisted he was the rightful pastor. Duffy entered the chapel first, followed by his parishioners. Conway them entered accompanied by his supporters. The chapel was ‘thronged to suffocation and when Mr Conway attempted to gain the altar which Mr Duffy had already taken possession of, the scene which ensued baffled description.’ Both groups set upon each other and the police forced an entrance into the chapel and eventually drove both sets of supporters from the church. Conway, ‘whose physical powers’ were no match for the ‘brawny shoulders and muscular frame of the athletic Duffy,’ thought it prudent to leave him (Duffy) in possession of the altar, and set up a table at the end of the chapel and began to say Mass, surrounded by his faction. When both clergy had finished Mass a riot ensued ‘so that the police had to fire some shots’ over the crowd before they could be dispersed. Thus ended, in the words of the Constitution correspondent, one of the most ‘extraordinary and disgraceful scenes ever witnessed in a house of worship.’33

There are a number of versions of what actually happened on that famous or infamous Sunday in Kincon chapel. Desmond Bowen’s summary in Souperism: Myth or Reality34  is based on the account in the Mayo Constitution which delighted in re-telling yet another of ‘the disgraceful scenes enacted in the (Catholic) houses dedicated to the worship of God.’35 The Constitution’s pronounced anti-Catholic and anti-MacHale faction milked the conflict between ‘the discontented and impious priests’ and the bishop to whom they were ‘opposed’, a conflict that the Constitution believed scandalised ‘the respectable Roman Catholics’ who were ashamed of the turbulent conduct’ of the ‘Reverend Rebels’ as a Roman Catholic barrister was to call them.36

The following Sunday, June 4, 1837, the dispute entered a second phase. Caldwell, the chief constable in Ballina, had been directed by the Lord Lieutenant to proceed to Kincon with a large force of police. Caldwell addressed the crowd, telling them he was adamant that he would carry out his orders and that the chapel at Kincon would be closed and the different factions could attend the respective Masses of Frs Conway and Duffy. After Masses had been celebrated at either end of Kincon Chapel, Fr Patrick Gildea, the Vicar-General, told the crowd that he was there on Bishop O’Finan’s behalf and detailed the bishop’s experiences in Killala diocese to date:

Brethern and friends, I tell you that any person receiving the Sacrament or any other rites of the Church from Mr Conway while he lies under that suspension, that person, whoever he may be, returns to his house with eternal damnation on his head.37

Conway then demanded to be heard but he was shouted down though not before promising to rebut every calumny uttered against himself and Archbishop MacHale by Patrick Gildea. The key of the church was handed to Mr Gardiner who, it was agreed, would retain it until Rome had decided on the Kilfian case.38

Such was the division in Kilfian – more people, according to Lyons, supported Duffy rather than Conway – that Conway himself concluded a verdict on the diocese of Killala that could just as well have applied to Kilfian: ‘I candidly declare my conviction that in forty years religion will not be re-established such as I believe was there years ago in this diocese.’39

The case was eventually decided by Rome in favour of Conway, who was freed of all blame for the altercation.40 Meanwhile Duffy returned to Castleconnor, no doubt chastened by the experience, where he remained until his death.  Michael Conway later moved to Kilcommon to make way for Edward Murray who would have his own difficulties in Kilfian.41