Before Fr Peter Conway was appointed parish priest of Headford, he was a curate in Ballinrobe. His very considerable energies were thrown into building a new church and presbytery. He also succeeded in acquiring a site for the Convent of Mercy and Christian Brothers’ schools in a primary location in the centre of the town. And all may have been well, and the good father praised for his building and organisational skills, and allowed to live in peace, were it not for the Mayo general election of April 6 1857.
Conway became obsessed, going way beyond the bounds of respectability in his use of descriptive language, his threats of hell and damnation, even using intimidating terror gangs and physical force to support the Catholic George Henry Moore who was being seriously challenged by two powerful and wealthy Protestant landlords Rodger W Palmer and George Gore Ouseley Higgins.The outgoing member for parliament was the hard working, but vehemently anti Protestant, George Henry Moore, of Moore Hall, Ballyglass, Co Mayo. He spent a good deal of his first decade as MP for Mayo calling for the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland.
Although Daniel O’Connell had won Catholic Emancipation in 1829, it was slow to penetrate down through society. There were often bitter rows and petty scoring between Catholics and Protestants at the time. When Moore was sent to Cambridge to finish his education, his religion did not allow him to take a degree. Instead he spent his time gambling and playing billiards, travelling, and building up substantial debts.
Following the death of his father, he returned to Moore Hall to take over the estate. He and his brother Augustus became jockeys and successful horse breeders. Their horses won many of the major races of the day, and the brothers won a good deal of money. They enjoyed their success, and debts were paid off. All this was to change during the first year of the Great Famine. Augustus was killed in a fall during the English Grand National; and Moore quickly realised that his tenants, who depended on the potato crop for food, were heading for trouble. As conditions deteriorated, he spent money importing flour. He distributed it among his tenants at little or no cost.
He was elected for Mayo in 1847, and had little sympathy for Protestant causes. Now, 10 years later, as a new general election was called, the knives were out for Moore. The powerful and wealthy Protestant landlord class was determined to oust Moore. They were successful but not in the way they planned. In fact Moore was returned as MP, but only for a brief period, which I will tell in a minute. But it might have been better if both priests had stayed at home.
‘Love and admiration’
Outraged at their blatant interference and threats to ‘imprison’ or physically force voters away from the ballot box, Fr Conway and Ryan were arrested. The authorities believed that no jury could be found that would be impartial to the priests in Mayo, and therefore a trial must be held in Dublin.
It appeared that fathers Conway and Ryan focused their hatred on Higgins. During the preliminary hearing appalling evidence was produced. When Joseph Burke, landlord of Ower, Headford, went with his son to vote they were attacked by ‘a mob’ led by Fr Conway. They were forced to swear not to vote for Higgins. Other voters were met by a gang of between 300 and 600 persons, led by Fr Conway, ‘who treated them with considerable violence, and imprisoned them at a place called Cong.’ They too had to swear not to vote for Higgins.
Even when 130 voters had the protection of a military escort, they were met by Conway ‘and a large mob’. ‘The reverend gentleman addressed them in Irish to the effect that the curse of God would befall on those who did not vote for Moore.’ There were many more accusations along the same lines. The authorities were satisfied that the priests had a case to answer. A trial date was set. Immediately, however, such a trial was condemned by the influential Archbishop McHale of Tuam. The people of Ballinrobe called a meeting to organise financial support for the priests. It did not end in Ballinrobe. The trial of the priests was presented as an attack on the Catholic church. Money poured in to the defence fund not only from all over Ireland but from America and Canada as well. The Toronto Mirror lyrically wrote: ‘There is ample room for exhibiting to the people and clergy of Ireland, the fact that their countrymen in Canada view with love, admiration, and gratitude the noble stand against oppression taken by Archbishop John, the Patriarch of the Irish Church, the Lion of the Fold of Judah (a much exaggerated title given to McHale by Daniel O’Connell at a meeting in Castlebar. The archbishop loved it! ), and his patriotic priests.’
‘A subscription roll has been opened at this office, to which anyone who is so disposed may contribute, and when it is closed, the amount will be forwarded to the Archbishop of Tuam as the contribution of the clergy and the people of Canada.’
Lost the war
The trial caused a sensation, and was followed by newspapers all over Ireland and abroad. Poor Mr Ousely Higgins whinged that Conway had referred to him from the altar ‘as a scoundrel, a ruffian, and a traitor.’ Furthermore that Higgins ‘ sold his own country and his soul to the vile Government of England’.
It was also argued that Conway had invoked the ‘curse of God’ on those who voted for Higgins. But despite a witness swearing that he had heard Conway ‘shouting from a window of a house in a laneway in Ballinrobe, asking for 200 men to intercept voters coming from the Kilmaine Road’, the jury, and those attending the court, were frequently amused at the evidence. The case collapsed.
A large crowd cheered as the priests left the court. ’The scenes of jubilation in Ballinrobe were even greater than that of Tuam. As one correspondent in the Tuam Herald, wrote: ‘A large bonfire was lighted, and every demonstration of joy manifested,’ including the burning of an effigy of Higgins.
On the following Wednesday, a large party, including His Grace Archbishop McHale, George Moore, and many others, dined with Fr Conway at St Mary’s, Ballinrobe, and were entertained ‘in his usual hospitable style.’
But all that was a little premature. The courts could not agree that skullduggery had taken place, but a parliamentary inquiry agreed that it fact it had. George Henry Moore MP had to step down due to ‘undue clerical influence, and spiritual intimidation’. Fr Conway had only won the battle; he did not win the war in this instance,.
NOTES: I am taking the above story from Pat Duddy’s article in the interesting A Journey of Hope, published to mark the 150th anniversary of St Mary’s Church, Headford, now on sale from the presbytery, Headford, and bookshops at €20.
Additional information on George Henry Moore from an essay by Owen McGee, Dictionary of Irish Biography. Moore married Mary, daughter of landlord Maurice Blake. They had five children, including the writer and critic George Augustus Moore who wrote mischievously about Lady Gregory and Yeats in his memoir Hail and Farewell (1911 ).