BY JOHN FITZGERALD
Heroes of the Land War
In 1949, two brave clerics, Fathers Tom O’ Shea and Matt O’Keeffe, founded the Callan Tenant Protection Society. This was Ireland’s first pressure group to campaign for fair rents and against the tyranny of landlordism. Though it came to prominence in the 1880s, the tenant rights campaign began three decades earlier in Callan.
Callan’s historic Town Hall, where the first meeting of the Tenant Protection Society took place, was given a face-lift by the County Council in 1999 for the 150th anniversary of the Society’s foundation. The front of the building was power-washed and painted in preparation for the commemorative event. It had since fallen into disrepair and neglect and was badly in need of restoration.
Callan, and indeed Ireland, owes much to the courage of the curates who took a stand against a cruel and uncaring establishment…who gave a voice to the voiceless and downtrodden. They paid a high price for their compassion. The church hierarchy of the time and other clergy shunned them.
Father Matt O’ Keeffe was born in Higginstown, Clara, in 1811. He was ordained in 1836 at Birchfield College where he served as a Professor of Theology. He also studied rhetoric, philosophy, and the humanities. Father O’Keeffe was an eloquent speaker whose gift as a writer ensured that his sermons and orations were stylistic masterpieces.
He was a man of great compassion and sensitivity, but could also be headstrong and determined. Once he embarked on an enterprise, he would see it through to the bitter end. He was appointed curate in Callan in 1843.
Father O’ Shea was born in Cappahayden, near Callan, in 1813. He was ordained in Maynooth in 1840. A Professor at the seminary described him as “idealistic, bright, witty, and captivating”. He came to Callan in 1848.
Both curates were familiar with the plight of tenant farmers. Father O’ Shea witnessed the deaths by starvation of an entire family at Molassy, outside the town, after their cruel eviction by a landlord.
He arrived in a town ravaged by the Great Hunger. His predecessor in Callan had died after catching fever from a famine victim to whom he was ministering.
In his new parish, Father O’ Shea discovered that a powerful landlord had swept whole townlands bare through evictions.
Taking a walk through the landlord’s vast estate, he was appalled by the scene of desolation. Burnt-out cabins abounded. Bits of furniture, broken bedsteads and children’s toys lay scattered where homes once flourished.
Father O’Keeffe, likewise, was aware of heart-rending evictions. He grieved as friends and parishioners were carted off to the workhouse or told him of their plans to emigrate.
He and Father O’ Shea decided that enough was enough. They laid plans for an all-out attack on what they perceived as “a vile and inhumane” rental system.
The curates aimed to ensure that tenants, having survived the horrors of the Great Famine, could look forward to lives of dignity, free from hunger and poverty. They called a meeting for October 14th, 1849, which was held at Callan Town Hall. This led to the formation of the Callan Tenant Protection Society.
Its objectives were:
1. To use every legal and moral means to obtain fair rents. It described existing rents as “exorbitant and utterly intolerable, especially in view of the famine and crop failure from which people are struggling to recover.”
2. To secure the recognition of Tenant Rights.
3. To provide jobs in industry for the impoverished labouring classes.
Later that month, a meeting was organised at which Father O’Keeffe made a passionate address to the tenant farmers of County Kilkenny.
Over 20,000 people from areas around Callan gathered to hear him speak. He was heartened to see a reporter from the Kilkenny Journal among the crowd. Publicity was essential if his message was to reach a wider audience…
To be continued…