The young priest who cried for two days in Carna

Fr Peter Conway: The writer Thackerary was impressed by this ‘young, lively, well-educated young man’.

Fr Peter Conway: The writer Thackerary was impressed by this ‘young, lively, well-educated young man’.

I hope the recent scandals in the Catholic Church will not discourage the noble tradition of the cleric as the social champion of the people. It is time that we had their like to nail their colours to the mast once again. Growing up in the last century, I was familiar with such names as Fr James McDyer and his tireless campaign against the official neglect of Gleann Cholm Cile; and Canon George Quinn and his fight for better social housing. There were several others, who have spilled over into recent years, including Fr Peter McVerry and his fight for homeless people in Dublin, and Fr Harry Bohan and his belief in the staying power of families in rural Ireland. But the champion of them all, the priest with the soft voice and a twinkle in both eyes, was the indefatigable Monsignor James Horan. Not only did he re-design the village of Knock to make it more people friendly, he built schools, clinics, and a convent, and a vast basilica. He organised community water schemes, and forestry plantations, and built an impressive international airport in the bogs of Mayo. 

In the 19th century there were many fearless clerics who bravely stood up for the people, and I include the religious sisters and brothers who came and built schools, and hospitals, looked after our sick, and taught our young people a trade.

Some of the more colourful ones are still remembered. In Galway we had the notorious Fr Peter Daly, an unpopular landlord, but who almost persuaded the British government to build a vast transAtlantic terminal at Furbo. It could have revolutionised passenger traffic crossing the Atlantic. The plan was to bring passengers across Ireland by train, to embark directly onto the ship in Galway Bay. And like the present port plan, which hopes to attract transAtlantic liners to the city, it would have brought  enormous employment to Galway. But the wily merchants of Liverpool soon put a stop to Daly’s gallop.

In Headford, County Galway, Fr Peter Conway was appointd parish priest in 1858, a few years after the Great Famine. He was both a saint and a sinner, but all he did and fought for, he would argue, was for the preservation of the Catholic Church. He was a saint for his tireless work on behalf of the poor of his parish, his belief in education for the children, and expending his energies in raising money to build churches and schools, and famously St Mary’s Church in  Headford town, still regarded as one of the finest rural churches in the country.

He was a sinner in the sense that he did not like Protestants much.

Clash with Protestants

He had a head-on collision with the Protestant community in Headford when Dean Plunkett, rector of the Church of Ireland community in the town, called a public meeting to raise money ‘for the relief of distressed mill-workers in Lancashire’ who were thrown out of work as a result of the American Civil War. There was no American cotton coming to feed  the English mills. The mill workers were destitute. The kindly rector proposed that the meeting subscribe to support them.

Fr Conway rose to his feet. He proposed that ‘while we sympathise with the distressed state of things in Lancashire, we cannot be insensible to the prevailing and far greater distress which exists all over this country, but more especially in the western portion of it, where a series of bad harvests and inclement winters have impoverished the tenantry and exhausted all their means..’ all the money raised should go to local causes.

There was uproar in the hall. The kindly Dean Plunkett refused to put the proposal to the floor. He was removed from the chair. The new chairman, Rev M Ryan, put Fr Conway’s proposal to the floor, which received widespread approval leaving “the Dean and his half dozen Lancashires in dumb bewilderment” (Galway American February 13 1862 )*

Meeting Thackerary.

Pat Conway was born near Westport in 1819, and educated at St Jarlath’s College in Tuam and at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. His first clerical appointment was to a poor parish of Moyrus, Carna. Before his appointment as parish priest in Headford he served as a curate in Partry, Ballinrobe and Claran. He worked in Partry during the Famine. Unable to cope with the catastrophic fallout of the time, he persuaded Archbishop McHale to bring the Franciscians to Tourmakeady to assist in helping the starving, and to fight proselytism. He built a small fever ‘hospital’ on a bog bordering Lough Mask which catered for 30 patients suffering from the effects of starvation. Nearby he built  a cottage for nursing staff.

Surprisingly, one day the young upcoming English writer, William Makepeace Thackeray,  called to see him. The writer, who was to become one of the best English novelists of his time, notably for his books Barry Lyndon and  Vanity Fair, was travelling around Ireland writing short anecdotes, and descriptions of some of the people he met on his travels. He gives an acurate account of the poverty of the countryside and notes, sometimes with bemused eye, the sectarian divide between Catholics and Protestants at the time. He was not very kind to Catholics, but he was impressed by the young, energetic Peter Conway. His account of this journey, undertaken 1842-44, The Irish Sketch Book, was published 19 years later, and became one of the best known travel books of its day. Thackerary describes meeting Conway as a ‘young, lively, well-educated young man’.

Conway told the author that when he first came to Carna, he had cried for two days, but afterwards got to like the place really well; his whole heart being directed towards it, its chapel and his curacy.

‘Who,’ Thackerary writes, having seen the isolation of the place, ‘would not honour such missionaries - the virtues they silently practise, and the doctrines they preach?’

Next week: Fundraising in America, a narrow escape from shipwreck, and an extraordinary coincidence on the battlefield. 

NOTES: *I am taking the story of Fr Peter Conway from Roots of Faith - A Journey of Hope, by Pat Duddy published to mark the 150th anniversary of St Mary’s Church, Headford, on sale from the presbytery, Headford, or from Kennys.ie, at €20.

Eilís Dillon in Russia

A Galway resident, Ludmila Snigireva, wrote to me after reading the recent articles on Eilís Dillon. Ludmila was Ms Dillon’s personal interpreter, when during perestroika, in 1990, the Galway writer went to Russian to see everything with her own eyes.

‘It was absolutely stunning to see such a distinguished lady, and writer at the age of 70 to be so simple, active, and so curious to know as much as possible. She listened to everything she was told. She was all attention, curiosity, and “hungry” for new information. She was fascinated by all that was happening.  There was a trip to Leningrad organised for her (it was still Leningrad, and  renamed St Petersburg a year later ), and she stoically coped with overnighting on board a train and the uncomfortable  long journey from Moscow. It was an unforgettable time. 

‘And now, living in Galway for the last 20 years, I feel connected to its amazing history, arts and many other most meaningful things in life of Ireland...It might sound too pathetic, but that is absolutely true...It makes me not only happy but proud as well that I knew Eilís Dillon in my native Russia.

‘Many thanks for reviving such wonderful reminiscences!’

Clarification to last week’s Diary.

Padhraic Faherty’s story of him and his mischievous friend, who, as boys, were sent by their teacher to get oil to ease a locked school gate, should not have contained the name of the boy who tried to trick the teacher in such an amusing way. Poor Padhraic had sent in a letter to the Diary pleading not to use the names, but some gremlin must have got in the way. His letter was not received. It would be a pity if anyone was embarrassed by that innocent ‘Mark Twain’ story, which I have been told several readers enjoyed.

I apologise that Padhraic’s letter was mislaid.

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