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 become the main transatlantic port for traffic to America in the 1850s. As chairman of both the Town Commissioners and the Harbour Board, he supported J O Lever’s Galway Line, which was to run three state-of-the-art steam-sailing ships between Galway and 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.
Unfortunately, on its maiden voyage, the Indian Empire, the line’s first ship, while entering Galway Bay, was briefly stranded on the Margaretta Rock while under the directions of two local pilots, Patrick Wallace and Henry Burbridge. It was generally believed that the pilots were bribed by Liverpool interests, to stop Galway stealing their monopoly of the Atlantic trade. While languishing in prison one of the pilots, Partrick Wallace, was poisoned and died.
The ship was quickly refloated, and resumed its transatlantic passage. But damage to the project had been done. In August 1858 Daly decided to lead a party of Galway’s great and good to visit the British prime minister, the Earl of Derby, in person, and ask for funds to build the new harbour.
Who was this Fr Peter Daly? Was he a man of contradictions, who was fighting to improve the lot of the citizens of Galway, and had to sometimes 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?
He quickly made his mark when as a young parish priest of St Nicholas North (Market Street ), he single-handedly 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 Sriptures. 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 behind many positive developments for Galway. He was responsible for bringing the Sisters of Charity and later the Mercy Sisters to the town. He was heavily involved in bringing the railway to Galway, the building of O’Brien’s bridge, and for building churches in Moycullen, Barna, and Bushy Park (where he is buried ), organising soup kitchens for Famine relief, and the opening of the Magdalen Asylum.
But he was a ruthless landlord. He bought Blackrock House and lands in Salthill, and other property at Sea Road and at Gortatleva, where he built a second house, which he called Villa Albano. He farmed 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 to power to ban newspapers covering public meetings. He acquired massive wealth.
Inevitably, although his supporters never wavered in their devotion to him, antagonism grew between him and his clerical colleagues, and some fellow members of the public boards. Suspended from ecclesiastical office by Bishop MacEvilly for repeated displays of temper, insulting and bad language, he appealed to Rome (where his earlier anti proselytising and church building had been noted with some satisfaction ), at the ‘injustice’ of his suspension. More significantly, he appealed to Archbishop of Tuam, the mighty Catholic champion of his day, John McHale, who re-instated Daly over MacEvilly’s head.
In London Daly was not bashful in displaying his wealth. Lord Derby did not display much enthusiasm for the delegation nor the Galway translantic project. James Mitchell tells us that:’the prime minister, expressed the fear that Galway, as a port, would have many passengers but relatively little cargo.
When Lord Derby referred to the loan of £150,000, sought by the delegation for the constructing of the new harbour, he asked what security would Galway offer against it?
Peter Daly stepped forward and said: “If the government will accept my own personal security there will not be the least difficulty in giving it.”
When Daly’s offer was heard in Galway the Galway Express criticised the priest’s offer. But 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.
In the meantime they passed a resolution stating, with unusual wit and playfulness on the ship owner’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...
More next week.
NOTES: Desmond McCabe, Dictionary of Irish Biography; and John Cunningham, Galway 1790-1914: A Town Tormented by the Sea.
I was originally taking the story of the Indian Empire stuck on the Margareta Rock, and J O Lever’s attempts to establish a Galway route to New York, from Ray Burke’s excellent Joyce County - Galway and James Joyce, (published recently by Currach Press ). The author traces influences that Joyce absorbed during his two visits to Galway in 1909 and 1912, which Joyce reproduced, with all his inimitable subtlety, in his writings. But I got side-tracked when the extraordinary Peter Daly walked on to the stage.
I am leaning on Rev Dr James Mitchell’s, (one of Galway’s finest historians ), extended essay on Daly from the Journal of The Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, Volume 39, pages 27 - 114.