Fr. Michael Tormey, Priest and Patriot

By James Tormey Clare

January, 2003

The following article was originally published in the 2003 edition of Riocht na Midhe; the journal of the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society.

Riocht na Midhe is one of the oldest and most prestigious historical journals in all of Ireland.  The article is an abbreviated synopsis of James Clare's longer, more detailed book about Fr. Michael Tormey's life, which was subsequently published in Ireland in 2004.)

In 1849 most of the sometime leaders of Irish political public opinion of the previous 30 years were either dead, in jail or in exile in Tasmania.  The brightest and best of Young Ireland had been involved in the pathetic rebellion of 1848, a half-hearted gesture in the face of the national calamity of the great Famine.

Picking up the pieces, giving focus to a regeneration of national energies, were the editors of three papers, Gavan Duffy of The Nation, Frederick Lucas of The Tablet, and John Gray, editor of The Freeman's Journal (the name of the latter spoke for itself).  Among the helpers of these editors was one Michael Tormey, priest of the diocese of Meath, then about 30 years of age, and a spellbinding orator.

fr michael tormeyHe was born in 1820, one of six children, probably in Tuitestown,

a townland in Collinstown parish where his father had been born in 1790.

The family must have been reasonably prosperous: Michael was sent to St. Finian's Diocesan Seminary in Navan from which he entered Maynooth on 25 August 1842.


On Pentecost Sunday, 6 June 1849, he was ordained for his home diocese, Meath.  He was obviously a brilliant student and so was selected to study for a post-graduate year at Dunboyne House in Maynooth. On completing his course at Dunboyne, Tormey was sent by his Bishop to teach Classics in St. Finian's in Navan. He did so for 14 years.

As part of his studies at the Dunboyne establishment, Tormey was required to write an extended essay on a theological subject.  He chose "The Immaculate Conception", a dogma soon to be proclaimed by Pius IX in 1854 as part of divine revelation.  Tormey was requested by his supervisor at Maynooth, John O'Hanlon, to publish this essay, which he did to great success in book form in 1854.  He does not seem to have published any theological work after this book. All his consequent forays into print were political.

It was Frederick Lucas who introduced Michael Tormey to political life.  An English convert to Catholicism, who founded The Tablet, a weekly journal of English Catholicism, Lucas was drawn into Irish affairs by the independent-mindedness of its politicians.  He moved to Ireland in 1849 and became, with Gavan Duffy, a champion of tenant land reform and co-founder of The Irish Tenant League in 1850.  Giving the tenants on the land rights independently of the landlords (the three F's as they were called, fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale) was seen as the only guarantee that a famine, such as had recently ravaged Ireland would not recur.

Lucas forged an alliance between his party and a group of influential politicians working to combat an anti-Catholic act of parliament passed in London to calm social unrest, consequent on the setting up of a national Catholic hierarchy in England.  Lucas decided to seek election as an MP for Meath.  It was in this context that he met Michael Tormey.

Lucas soon fell out with his erstwhile supporter and ally -- Archbishop Paul Cullen, recently transferred from Armagh to Dublin.  Part of the reason for this falling out was the reliance of the Irish Tenant League on the priests of the country to ensure its electoral support, and the archbishop's hostility to overt clerical involvement in politics.  When Lucas went to Rome to protest in 1854, he left Michael Tormey as editor of the paper in his absence.  But Lucas, though sympathetically received in Rome, fell into bad health and died in 1855.

Cullen's change of heart followed the Synod of Thurles in 1850, which was to shape, in accordance with Cullen's vision, the structures and laws of the Catholic Church in Ireland.  One of its decrees forbade the involvement of priests in politics.  The more involved the young clergy became, in what was obviously a just cause -- demands for laws to regulate a landowner's rights vis-a-vis his tenants -- the more Cullen moved to control them.

It was unfortunate that it was the young clergy who were necessary for delivering the vote to the Tenant League: their active organization of the people was essential for winning elections.

In Meath the young clergy had the active support of the old bishop, John Cantwell, and the clergy of Navan, especially those like Michael Tormey, teaching at the seminary, were among the most active.

Fr. Tormey first surfaced in politics when he was elected to the management committee of the Kells District Tenant's Society in November 1850.

Already, and supported by many prominent clerics in Meath and Westmeath, tenant protection societies had been established in May 1850 at Mullingar and Navan.

In August, the National Tenant Right Association was founded in Dublin, when people like Gavan Duffy and Lucas, and one of the curates from Callan, County Kilkenny, who had been the first to set up a Tenants' Defence Association in Ireland, gathered, with a northern Presbyterian minister in the chair, to give focus to both Presbyterian and Catholic discontent at tenancy conditions.

They began a campaign to obtain parliamentary redress.  Soon afterwards, a meeting of 15,000 at Navan proclaimed solidarity with the aims of the movement, supported by the Bishop of Meath, John Cantwell.

Fr. Tormey had two talents which provided him with a swift road to the top of the Irish Tenant League.  He was, in a style demanded in public speaking of the day, a very effective orator indeed.  Perhaps his classical training stood to him, but the rhythms of his phrases, the striking balance of his sentences and paragraphs, and his excellent public voice -- absolutely necessary in pre-microphone days -- all communicated confidence, vision and leadership to his large audiences.  These speeches read well, and explained why Lucas, away in Rome protesting about Archbishop Cullen's condemnation of the priests in politics, left Tormey as the editor of The Tablet in his absence.

The other gift Tormey had was for penning patriotic and popular ballads which were as good as the vast majority produced in his day.  His ballad, "The Ancient Race" first published in an Irish Tenant League internal journal, was picked up by The Nation and published almost anonymously, simply signed "T".  It became not only one of the most popular patriotic ballads of the 1850s, but survived to be quoted by Michael Davitt in the speech in which he launched the Land League in the late 1870s. It became in short, the national anthem of the Land League.

On the highway side, where oft was seen
The wild dog and the vulture keen
Tug for the limbs and knaw the face
Of some starved child of our Irish race.

Tormey was at his best on the great occasion, which demanded the flowing eloquence fashionable in his day.

His speech, delivered at a banquet in Navan launching the parish priest of Clonmellon as a collector of funds for the Tenant Right League in America, made his name as one of the most eloquent public speakers of his day.

"Gentlemen, we owe much to America.  There is not beneath the skies a land, a people or a government to whom we owe so much.  Our account for that great country is an old and long one.  It runs back half a century at least and we find ourselves uniformly on the dilator's side.

Amid all the vicissitudes of fortune recorded in our history of the last fifty years, we have experienced from America befitting offices of benevolence and friendship.  They have shared in our sorrow and our struggles and our grief.  In the evening twilight of the last century, when his bondage became too vile for the bondsman, and rising up from frantic energy he sought, though vainly, to break his country's chains -- it was the free spirit of America that caught him in its maternal arms as he fled, bleeding and breathless from the implacable vengeance with which a remorseless tyranny pursued him at home.

But in her bosom, the disappointed patriot found more than a shelter and refuge.  Upon his wounds she poured the soothing balm of social life -- she bade him welcome to her commonwealth -- she threw open to him the door of her most honourable professions, and, taking him by the hand, she forthwith led him up the steep ascent to fortune, wealth and fame."

Soon afterwards he was asked to give the keynote speech nominating Frederick Lucas as an MP for Meath in June 1852.

Tormey, in his speeches and activities 25 years later in support of the Land League was quite vitriolic in his eloquence, and perhaps there was a cooling of his relationship with the bishop, Thomas Nulty, successor of his staunch supporter, John Cantwell, who had died in 1858.

In any case, when he retired from his teaching post in St. Finian's he seems never to have continued long in the curacies he was appointed to, Castlepollard 1863-1864, Rathmolyn 1864-1869, Clonmellon 1869-1873, Kingscourt, where he found a sympathetic parish priest, Fr. Peter O'Reilly, who had been a long-time friend of Lucas and Gavan Duffy and shared Tormey's political views.

Fr. O'Reilly died in 1878 and Tormey went as curate to Beauparc -- from which he retired in 1884 to his brother's home in Reynella, Tuitestown, in Westmeath, where he died in 1893.

He does not seem to have been a success in the pastoral life, and the absence of bishop of vicar general from his funeral seems to indicate that in the latter part of his life he did not commend himself to the powers that be.  In one way, like the Callan Curates, Tormey represented the outspoken generation of young priests in the 1850s who were enthusiastically involved in the Irish Tenant League, the so-called Pope's Brass Band, and the Independent Irish party.

The young clerical generation was in the beginning at least, tolerated -- if not supported in its political activities by Archbishop Cullen, at any rate before he was transferred to Dublin from Armagh in 1852.  But he soon came to the conclusion that the disadvantages of such political involvement -- an independence of attitude and a focus on secular life which would have had adverse implications for diocesan pastoral activity -- more than outweighed the advantages of the young clerics giving political leadership to their flocks, in their efforts to achieve pressing and necessary land reforms. Lucas went to Rome to defend what he saw as essential clerical political involvement, and got at most an uncommitted answer -- the answer that Paul Cullen himself would have given.

Archbishop Cullen's gradual disenchantment with the activities of the Meath clergy -- especially those at Navan -- can be traced in his private letter to Monsignor Kirby, head of the Irish College in Rome, an agent for the Irish bishops at the Vatican. His detachment became more pronounced from 1854 onwards, when Lucas was preparing a case for presentation to Rome.

12th January 1854 --

"I'm told that in Navan, nearly every Sunday, there is a lecture on tenant right or independent opposition. This is a disgrace to religion. The people themselves are dissatisfied with some foolish young priests thinking they are working wonders. Maynooth education is to blame. Priests must have some share in the political movements, but the church ought to be "A sacred and neutral spot".

Tomorrow the priests give a dinner to Lucas. Gavan Duffy is to attend.  A meeting of young Ireland with the priests of Meath.

21 January 1854 -- Navan Banquet,
Dr. Cantwell assures me that all was moderation and that things might have been otherwise if he had not been there. This I believe to be true.

23 November 1855 -- Political activities of the bishop and priests in Navan led to a fight in the public market in which priests were involved. This is the "unfettered" priest, The Tablet and The Nation used to talk about.

2 December 1855 -- Political priests in Meath.  Danger of actual fighting in the churches.  Dr. Cantwell has promised me to do something, but I doubt it, as he has encouraged the priests in these matters before.  The pity is that the priests would have greater influence if they didn't preach politics from the altars.

10 December 1855 -- Political priests of Meath still defy the synodal regulations (the regulations put forward in the Synod of Thurles in 1850 to regularise law in the Irish church.)

Unlike the Callan Curates and other clerics of the Tenant League, Michael Tormey's talents were called for again in helping launch the beginnings of Parnell's meteoric career in 1875 and 1879.  He was chosen to propose Charles Stewart Parnell at a Westminster by-election caused by the death of the Home Rule MP for Meath, John Martin.  Parnell was elected to Westminster in 1875 and Tormey nominated him again for election in 1879.

His eloquence gave substantial support to Davitt's Land League in County Meath.  Then suddenly Tormey retired from his curacy at Beauparc in 1884 and from all public life, to die, rather un-honoured and unsung in his home parish at Tuitestown in 1893.

Sources: and Riocht na Midhe.