Entertainment Radio

Tuesday 22 October 2019

In Listowel, the pen is our weapon of choice

When Canon Patrick Brennan refused to bury an unmarried mother, he sparked a revolt, writes Conor Keane

Listowel Cemetery, where the refusal to bury single mother Peggy McCarthy led to an uprising by the locals
Listowel Cemetery, where the refusal to bury single mother Peggy McCarthy led to an uprising by the locals

Conor Keane

Never cross the Listowel crowd - they are tough. They'll write books, plays, songs, and even make documentaries and films about you to show the world who you really are.

In 1946, Canon Patrick Brennan crossed us. Nothing unusual in a cleric in the 1940s chastising his flock, but what was unprecedented was that the townspeople of Listowel fought back.

This is at the centre of the documentary In Shame, Love, In Shame which I made for the RTE Radio 1 series, the Documentary On One.

The story of the appalling treatment of three generations of the McCarthy clan by church and State just had to be told.

Young Peggy McCarthy died in childbirth in 1946. Local clergy refused her a Christian funeral and burial in consecrated ground as her baby had been conceived out of wedlock. A group of people in Listowel, led by John Guerin, rammed the locked gates of the parish church - sealed against the mortal remains of the single mother, her bereaved family, and other mourners. Those were great people and I felt they should be remembered.

This mighty act of defiance of the church by the townspeople of Listowel never made it into the newspapers, nor is it recorded anywhere else at the time.

On death's door as a result of a difficult birth, Peggy McCarthy was refused admission to hospitals in Listowel and Tralee because she was a single mother, before being brought to Killarney hospital by hackney man John Guerin, where she died.

In Listowel, the pen is our weapon of choice, and the clergy were not spared. Bryan MacMahon, my former teacher, was first into the fray.

MacMahon devotes an insightful chapter of his 1952 novel, Children of the Rainbow, to a rural community faced with a similar situation. He delivers a beautifully crafted and compelling exposition of the issues. Put his book your reading list - it's a great novel.

Next up was Peggy's brother Sean, a famed balladeer, with a festival in his honour each August in Finuge, just outside Listowel. His ballad In Shame, Love, In Shame, captures the family's heartache at the loss of his sister.

Playwright Tony Guerin, whose father John led the revolt against Canon Brennan, is next to take up the cudgel. His play Solo Run takes its inspiration from the day Canon Brennan refused Peggy McCarthy a Christian burial.

I'm next with the documentary In Shame, Love, In Shame which endeavours to trace the ramifications of the events of 1946 on members of three generations of the McCarthy family, affecting Peggy's daughter, Breda, to the present day.

Finally, and on a personal note, this documentary is a thank-you to playwright Tony Guerin. He was a great friend to my late father John B Keane. When dad was battling prostate cancer, Tony was his loyal charioteer.

Over the long weeks of treatment in the Radiation Oncology Department of Cork University Hospital, it was Tony who drove John B from Listowel to Cork for his appointments.

John B wanted to come home to Listowel after each session, and it was Tony who ferried him up and down.

They shortened the road by reminiscing, singing, chatting and spinning yarns - no better men.

Two townies, but country boys at heart, they regularly stopped near Rockchapel where they had they had tea and sandwiches, taking in the goodness of the bog air in the hills bordering Cork and Kerry.

Tony was the man John B wanted by his side in his toughest hours.

The Documentary On One production from RTE Radio 1 won first prize in the International Radio Award (across all genres of radio). It has also won a Premios Ondas Awards, the Spanish speaking world the Baftas. 'In Shame, Love, In Shame', was produced by Conor Keane and Liam O'Brien, and narrated by Conor Keane. It's available on RTE's website

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