Saturday 19 August 2017

The priests of 1916 - the roles they played in the Rising

From hearing the confessions of rebels to saying Mass with a gunshot wound, the clergy played a vital - albeit often secretive - role in the Rising

Correspondence: Dublin diocesan archivist Noelle Dowling with 1916 documents. Photo: Colin O'Riordan.
Correspondence: Dublin diocesan archivist Noelle Dowling with 1916 documents. Photo: Colin O'Riordan.

Celine Naughton

Amid the crossfire and inferno on the streets of Dublin during the 1916 Rising, priests throughout the city found themselves thrown into a role for which few were prepared - that of providing comfort in battle.

Based in Church Street, the Capuchins were caught up in the action, and while civilians took refuge in the Pro Cathedral across from the GPO, priests there came and went, dodging bullets to tend to the wounded and dying. It was a mission few had ever expected to experience, but according to Dublin diocesan archivist Noelle Dowling, they rose to the challenge even at great personal cost.

The most senior figure in the church at the time, Archbishop William Walsh, relied heavily on his secretary, Monsignor Michael Curran, to keep him informed on what was happening on the ground.

"Archbishop Walsh was very ill in 1916," says Noelle. "He'd developed such severe eczema, he was bandaged from head to toe and didn't leave his bedroom from April 1 till the 26. For somebody who was so active - he used to cycle regularly to Maynooth and back - being housebound must have been very difficult."

Monsignor Curran was his eyes and ears from Easter Monday, when he cycled into town and met Padraig Pearse whom he described as 'flushed, but calm and authoritative' and asked if there was anything he could do. Pearse replied, 'No, we're going to see it out.'

However, some Volunteers wanted to go to confession, he said, so the Monsignor arranged this with the priests from the Pro Cathedral. By two o'clock that afternoon, he noted that looting had begun, started by women and children helping themselves to the contents of Noblett's sweetshop.

On Thursday 27 the Archbishop's house in Drumcondra came under fire. Monsignor Curran arranged for the Archbishop to sleep on the north side of the house and barricaded the windows with mattresses. The priest secretaries slept on the ground floor corridor.

The following day, Fr Patrick Kennedy, a curate in Halston Street, was shot in the hand as he celebrated Mass when a stray bullet smashed through a stained glass window of St Michan's Church. Fr Kennedy continued with the service as if nothing had happened.

On Saturday, when word of the Volunteers' unconditional surrender came out, the Archbishop decreed that there was no obligation to say Mass the following day, and no bells were to be rung.

"Archbishop Walsh was known for his nationalist sympathies," says Noelle. "He didn't allow WW1 recruitment posters to be placed on the railings of church property and he stopped war hospital and Red Cross collections as he believed these were being used for recruitment by the government."

But while he didn't condemn the Rising as other clerical figures did, neither did he publicly support it.

"He worked quietly in the background and had to be very careful about what he said in exchanges with senior British government figures."

One of those was General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell, who arrived in Dublin on April 28 on the orders of Lord Kitchener, Minister for War, to quell the rising and pacify the Irish people.

Fr Francis Farrington, chaplain to Arbour Hill, was to preside over the funerals of the first men to be killed - Padraig Pearse, Tomas McDonagh and Tom Clarke.

"He described hearing the volley of shots at Kilmainham and the arrival of the remains in pools of blood, still warm and limp, eyes bandaged and mouths open," says Noelle. "That's such a powerful image, it brings home to me the horror of these executions.

"The priests anointed the men where they fell. Fr Eugene McCarthy, chaplain of Kilmainham Jail, did so with Joseph Plunkett, just hours after he'd performed his marriage ceremony with Grace Gifford.

"He was also deeply troubled by James Connolly's execution. He described Connolly trying to stand like the others, but he was so badly wounded, he was unable to do so. Soldiers tied him to a chair, but he slumped so badly he overbalanced. Finally, he was strapped to a stretcher and placed in a reclining position against the wall and shot. The sight left an indelible mark on Fr McCarthy."

The Dublin Archdiocese is planning an exhibition on the role of priests and religious in 1916 to be held in May.

Irish Independent

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