BY JOHN FITZGERALD
Continuing the story of the two Callan-based curates who championed the rights of tenants in an era of oppression and widespread cruel evictions. The previous instalment can be read on the Kilkenny Observer website).
At a meeting organised in Callan Father O’Keeffe made a passionate address to the tenant farmers of County Kilkenny.
Over 20,000 people gathered to hear him speak. From a balcony in front of the Town Hall in Green Street, Father O’Keeffe slammed the insatiable greed landlords and urged farmers to set up their own protection groups in every parish. “As you love justice and hate oppression”, he thundered “as you value life and your own existence, do it NOW”.
The Callan Society soon became a model for similar groups throughout Ireland. By June 1850, there were over twenty tenant protection societies, most of them based in the south of the country.
In the same year, the Irish Tenant League was formed. It adopted the principles of the Callan society and committed itself to the same goals.
Naturally, the crusading clerics made powerful enemies in their battle for justice. In 1853, the Solicitor General of Ireland, William Keogh, and Lord of the Treasury, John Sadlier, came into conflict with the curates. They felt that Sadlier and Keogh, leaders of the Irish Independence Party, had betrayed their political principles.
The I.I.P. officers had entered into a Coalition puppet Government under British control. In pre-election pledges, they had sworn to boycott any such assembly. Their decision to participate caused a split in the party.
Like the Irish public, the clergy were deeply divided on the issue. For example, the Bishop of Ferns gave the curate of New Ross, a Father Doyle, a severe dressing-down for denouncing Sadlier and Keogh. He was banished to a remote rural parish.
In Athlone, the Bishop of Elphin had words for praise for Keogh, but the clergy in the same diocese abhorred what they condemned as a political U-turn.
Into this unholy row stepped Fathers O’Keeffe and O’ Shea. They mounted numerous attacks on the “treachery” of the I.I.P. leaders and condemned all who supported them as reprobates and scoundrels.
Archbishop Cullen was horrified by the stance taken by “these Callan rebels” and wrote a letter to Rome complaining about them. He wanted them censured and referred to their “disrespectful” attitude towards other clergy at Tenant Rights meetings.
Having won approval from Rome, the Archbishop issued a decree obliging the men to stay out of politics or face disciplinary action. They responded by lodging an appeal in Rome against the decree.
When the appeal was rejected, the two clerics found themselves effectively muzzled. This made life difficult for them. But they persisted. Though forced to keep a lower profile, they continued to highlight the plight of the oppressed in rural Ireland.
The movement initiated by the curates was significant in that it foreshadowed the Land League of the 1880s and prepared the way for the great innovators, Parnell and Davitt. The formation of the Callan group could be seen as a watershed in Irish history.
Fathers O’Keeffe and O’ Shea began the process of reform and liberation. Both men died in 1887, having lived to see the realisation of their dreams.
(My book Invaders tells the story of how a small band of men and women stood up to the most powerful army on earth. It’s available in all Kilkenny bookshops and from Amazon).