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Tuesday 20 August 2019

Obituary: Betty Cooper - Modest, jolly shopkeeper cast into sectarian boycott of 1957

Betty Cooper
Betty Cooper


An announcement of the death of Betty Cooper last week described her as "the life and soul of (the Wexford village of) Fethard".

Ms Cooper, who died last week at the age of 86, is remembered by many for her part in in the Fethard-on-Sea boycott of 1957, which was organised by Catholic priests against the local Protestant community at the time.

The announcement goes on to say she was "always full of the joys of life, always happy to see you, always mad to chat and always a good friend".

Yet nowhere in this heartfelt portrait of a jolly character who was buried yesterday, is there any hint of the role Betty Cooper played, or at least found herself cast in the boycott. It was not something Betty liked to talk about.

"She never talked about it and I never liked to push her one it," said friend Eileen Cloney. "At her funeral Reverend Richard Greene praised her for never having become embittered," said Cloney

At the time of the boycott in 1957, Betty owned a shop on Fethard's main street which author Hubert Butler once described as selling "cornflakes, sweets and newspapers." At the service of local shoppers, she suffered when a boycott of Protestant businesses was ordered from the pulpit of the local Catholic Church by priests Father Allen and Father Stafford.

This followed a refusal by Eileen Cloney's mother, Sheila, to send her to the local Catholic school. Sheila, the daughter of a Protestant stockbreeder, was married to Sean Cloney of Dungulph Castle, and a Catholic. At the time, any non-Catholic spouse of Roman Catholics had to agree to raise any children as Catholic as a result of Ne Temere (a decree issued in 1907 regulating the canon law of the Church about marriage for practising Roman Catholics). The year-long boycott saw Betty's shop sales plummet drastically.

"I'd ask Betty, and she'd joke, 'Why, are you going to put it in the paper?' It seems to have been something people in Fethard didn't want to bring up again," said Cloney. The boycott spread in 1957. Éamon de Valera condemned it, and Time magazine coined the term "fethardism" to mean a boycott along religious lines in an article on the events in Wexford. Protestants from miles around travelled to Fethard to buy supplies from Betty – and from Leslie Gardiner's General Stores across the road. Betty continued to work in the shop until her retirement. The 1957 episode came to an end when local priest Father Allen went into Betty's shop and bought cigarettes, thereby signalling a truce which other customers could follow.

Irish Independent

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