In the early decades of the 19th century fortunes were made in giving hundreds of thousands of emigrants safe passage to America. As the decades slipped by the numbers grew into millions. Liverpool had the main transatlantic business for these two islands, but Galway, situated some 300 miles closer to America, and with the onset of powerful steam-driven ships, believed that a better and quicker service could be provided.
Ships from the newly established Galway Line were already crossing the Atlantic, when, on August 3 1858, a deputation met the prime minister, the Earl of Derby, in London to seek £150, 000 to build the appropriate harbour facilities. The prime minister was not inclined to get into a trade war between Liverpool and the west of Ireland. He would await the findings of a commission whether the Galway facilities could be made adequate,* but asked what collateral could Galway offer if such a substantial loan was realised. He must have been surprised when a priest stepped forward and said: “If the government will accept my own personal security there will not be the least difficulty in giving it.”
It could hardly have been a more dramatic interjection. Fr Peter Daly moved centre stage and would continue to play the leading role in Galway’s affairs until his death 15 years later.
Described as a ‘turbulent priest’, and ‘the dominant public figure in Galway during the 1850s’, who was ‘a stubborn, abrasive, guileful and egotistical populist,’ Fr Peter Daly was the principle mover and shaker behind Galway’s drive to embrace modernity in the 1850s shortly after the Great Famine. Was he a man of contradictions, who was fighting to improve the lot of the citizens of Galway, and had sometimes to use intemperate language and methods to achieve these ends; or was he simply a greedy, exploitative man, who gained financially from his businesses and land holdings as the town grew more prosperous?
Born in Galway town in humble circumstances, there is little known of his childhood until he was ordained a priest in 1815. His talents as an organiser must have been apparent as almost immediately he was appointed parish priest of the old parish of St Nicholas at Market Street.
He singlehandedly exacerbated the division between Catholics and Protestants over the question of the religious affiliation of a man near death. Apparently there was some doubt whether the poor man was Catholic or Protestant. There was such a struggle for his soul between Daly and the Protestant minister, that the mayor and sheriffs had to be summoned to quell the row.
Evidently pleased with the publicity by proclaiming himself a Catholic champion, he threw himself into open fights against proselytising. He led a large number of like-minded Catholics to vigorously oppose a meeting in Loughrea of the London Hibernian Society for establishing schools and circulating Holy Scriptures. He scattered them.
The event was celebrated by Anthony O’Raftery in his poem (in Irish ), The Gathering of Catholics in Loughrea:
‘And Loughrea shall defeat them,
and beat their rascality,
We have lost our good Clayton but
Daly’s as bad for them
Their bible’s mendacious,
we’ll shame them and sadden them...’
His initial popularity led to his appointment to the Town Commissioners and the Harbour Board where he basked in the glory of substantial achievements. He was soon elected chairman of both bodies. He was a director of the Galway Gas company. He was behind many positive developments including inviting the Sisters of Charity and later the Mercy Sisters to the town.**
By force of his persuasion, he had the railway extended from Athlone to Renmore, and then across a long bridge over Lough Atalia, into the town centre. He organised the building of O’Brien’s Bridge, and built churches in Moycullen, Barna, and Bushy Park (where he is buried ). He organised soup kitchens for Famine relief, and the opening of the Magdalen Asylum.
He supported John Orrell Lever’s Galway Line, which eventually was to run sixteen steam-powered ships between Galway and Halifax/New York, from a grandiose harbour to be built off Furbo. Passengers from Britain, and all over Ireland, would be delivered to the terminal by train. It was to be the most comfortable, and shortest, route to America. He was also its main investor.
Yet, in contrast to all this progress, he was a ruthless landlord. He bought Blackrock House and lands in Salthill (where on occasions he enjoyed balls and dancing ), and other properties at Sea Road and at Gortatleva, where he built a second house, called Villa Albano. Evidently he acquired massive wealth.
He owned two farms, and worked them extensively. He evicted tenants without mercy or compensation. The local press particularly condemned his eviction of a poor widow with five children, ‘the youngest she carried at her breast’. He scorned criticism, and had the power to ban newspapers covering public meetings. He criticised the Galway Vindicator for not reporting his speeches in full. The editor, in the following issue, acknowledged Daly’s ‘utilities as a person of business’, but claimed that he ‘mars his service by impetuous rudeness, and lowers our respect for his talents by unmitigated coarseness.’
Daly’s reply was to purchase his own newspaper, the Galway Mercury, which ensured favourable coverage.
Suspended from office
Inevitably, although his supporters never wavered in their devotion to him, antagonism grew between him and his clerical colleagues, and some members of the public boards.
Not surprisingly Daly had ambitions to be Galway’s first bishop, newly established following the disbandment of the medieval warden system. He published a curious self-aggrandisement document ’Statement of Accounts’ outlining his achievements.
The hostile majority among his clerical colleagues suspected that he had himself cast the one vote in his favour at the diocesan selection of candidates in July 1844.
Finally he was suspended from ecclesiastical office by Galway’s Bishop MacEvilly for repeated displays of temper, insulting and bad language, neglecting his pastoral duties, and fermenting discord between the Christian religions. Daly refused to accept his suspension (which he described as ‘tyrannical’ ). He appealed directly to Rome where his earlier anti-proselytising and church building had been noted with some satisfaction. More significantly, he appealed to the Archbishop of Tuam, the mighty Catholic champion of his day, John McHale, who reinstated Daly over MacEvilly’s head.
When Daly’s offer to the prime minister was heard in the town the Galway Express criticised ‘this unusual and unsuccessful’ approach. Yet so pleased and excited were Daly’s supporters on the Town Commissioners and Harbour Board that they banned the Galway Express from attending and reporting their meetings in the future.
Daly’s return to Galway, whether he was in London raising funds for his various public enterprises, or returning from consultation with political parties in Dublin, he loved to be greeted at the station and marched through the town with bands playing. He would address, at some length, the crowd of well-wishers from a window of the Mechanics Club, of which he was president.
He suggested that the town appoint him an ‘unsalaried mayor’ with its own carriage-and-pair. This did not find acceptance, however, but the town commissioners resolved unanimously: ‘That a full-length portrait of the Rev Peter Daly be ordered from from Mr Haverty, the expense not to exceed £25.’
Furthermore, they passed a resolution stating, with unusual wit and playfulness on the transatlantic promotor’s name: ‘the warmest expression of our unbounded gratitude...not only for his (Daly’s ) unceasing exertions for the advancement of the interests of Galway, but for the mighty ‘Lever’ which he has put on to raise her to future greatness...’
You can hear them all laughing...
Next week: The end of the line.
NOTES: * In September 24 1852, the report from the Commissioners regarding Galway Bay, and Shannon, on whether either site suited the location for a transatlantic passenger and packet business, was succinct in its findings: ‘We do not feel ourselves justified in recommending either of these ports as suitable to a service requiring the greatest regularity and dispatch, and under the necessity of being run in all weathers, by day and night, being of the opinion that if the required regularity was enforced it would be at a considerable risk…..’
** One of the complaints Bishop MacEvilly made about Daly was that he treated the Sisters of Mercy ‘most barbarously.’ In particular the nuns claimed that he had used their money to purchase Blackrock House and lands at Salthill, and that he had built a chapel adjoining their convent at Newtownsmith which ‘not only was it too large, very cold in winter, but declared a public chapel’.
Sources include Rev Dr James Mitchell’s, extended essay on Daly from the Journal of The Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, 1983 - 1984, Fr Peter Daly; and Volume 67, 2015 Quest to Establish a Trans Atlantic Port in Galway; and an essay on Peter Daly by Desmond McCabe in Dictionary of Irish Biography.