Politics in the Catholic Church in Navan in the 1800s

Gerard Rice

A striking feature of life in the 19th century Navan was the participation of the clergy in the political events of the time, especially during the episcopacies of Bishop Cantwell 1827 to 1866 and Bishop Nulty 1864 to 1898, who were also parish priests of Navan. So deep was this involvement that Cardinal Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin, complained in 1854:

"In Navan nearly every Sunday there is a lecture on tenant right or independent opposition. This is a disgrace. The people are dissatisfied but some young priests think they are working wonders."

Given the nationalistic outlook of the two bishops, it wasn't surprising that their clergy should have become actively involved in political affairs. Bishop Cantwell was a friend of Daniel O'Connell and supported his campaign for Repeal of the Union, both financially and by attending many of the Liberator's monster meetings. In May 1845 he was present at a banquet in St. Finians Seminary, Navan which was held to celebrate the recent release from prison of O'Connell and some of his supporters. He backed the Tenant Right campaign, writing in 1863,

" we wish you ( the people ) to make every legal effort to rise from your present depressed social conditions. "

Bishop Nulty

 

Bishop Nulty (leftResolved “ That we regard the Established Church as one of the most unjust and oppressive grievances of our country, and, therefore, that we cordially approve, and will earnestly and vigorously co-operate in, every effort for its disendowment and disestablishment.

)

personally witnessed large scale evictions and  regarded them as "tantamount to a sentence of slow but certain execution ".

Known as the "patriot Bishop" he argued that the estates should be split up among the tenants and those without land (1881).

When the papal envoy, Monsignor Perisco visited Navan in October 1887 as part of his investigation of the social and religious conditions of the Irish people

he received a tremendous welcome both on his way to and in

St. Mary's Church.

 

 

 

Bishop Nulty told him at a reception in Loreto Convent, that despite efforts by the British Government  "to enlist the support of his Holiness against the National Movement " the Pope had urged him (Nulty) to " write, write, write for his religion and country."

Better educated than the majority of their fellow catholics, the priests took on a position of leadership in material as well as spiritual matters. They interfered in politics because they were " called upon by their duty and office, as helpers of the weak and oppressed and as teachers of morality ". "Morality " here refers mainly to the use of physical force to achieve political aims. As far as the bishops and priests were concerned, redress for " the numerous and overwhelming grievances of the people " had to be achieved within the law.

Political agitation in the 1800s in Ireland frequently took the form of demonstrations (large scale public meetings) which in County Meath were generally held in Navan - in the Market Square, at the Courthouse in Ludlow Street, in the Fairgreen or in the grounds of St. Finian's Seminary in Academy Street. Priests from Navan and St. Finians and from neighbouring parishes sometimes presided over these meetings and acted as recording secretaries. Almost always there were local priests among the platform speakers who would hold forth at length, as was the custom, on the National Questions of the day - Repeal of the Union, Tenant Right, Tenant Evictions, and Home Rule.

When general elections or by-elections fell due, the clergy in Meath would meet, usually in the parochial house in Navan, to discuss the merits of prospective candidates who might be invited to answer questions on their political beliefs. Normally, clerical backing practically guaranteed a candidate's election and one politician who benefitted from this support was

Charles Stewart Parnell (below) who became M.P. for Meath in 1875, representing Meath until 1880.

 

Charles Stewart Parnell

Parnell  made his first election speech in the

Catholic Young Mens Society Hall, Navan, in April 1875.

During this time he won the admiration of the

clergy and people in Meath, particularly because of his

Policy of Obstruction in the House of Commons.

To honour Parnell, a demonstration was held in the

Market Square, Navan, and along the adjoining streets on

Sunday 12th October 1879, at which 30,000 attended

 

 

 

The Administrator in Navan, Father Walter Connolly warned the congregation at morning Masses to maintain "perfect sobriety." The main resolution, proposed and seconded by local priests proclaimed "our unaltered and unalterable confidence in (Parnell) and in that noble policy which has won for him the admiration and devoted attachement of the Irish race..."

In 1880 Parnell opted to represent Cork in Parliament and over the next ten years came to be regarded as the " Uncrowned King of Ireland." But the O'Shea divorce case in Novermber 1890 undermined his position. The split in the Irish Parliamentary Party was reflected in the division in Ireland between anti Parnellites, made up of bishops, almost all the clergy and most of the people who looked on Parnell as " unfit " to lead the Irish Party, and the Parnellites, the minority of the people who continued to support Parnell, among whom were most of the voters in Navan.

The bitterness generated by the split did not abate with Parnell's death in October 1891 and became very intense when the general election of 1892 took place. Both sides fielded candidates and in Meath there were many scenes of disorder, especially in Navan. Bishop Nulty and his clergy campaigned vigorously on behalf of the anti Parnellite candidates, Michael Davitt of Land League fame and Patrick Fulham, who were both elected. However, their defeated opponents, Pierce Mahony and J.J. Dalton successfully brought court actions to have the elections declared void on the ground of " the exercise of undue spititual influence."

Although the clergy took a prominent part in the re-run of the elections in the following year when the anti Parnellites again won, their days of actively engaging in politics were coming to a close. Beneficial for so long in the past, it was now creating dissention within the church itself. Dr. Nulty's successors did not involve themselves to any great extent in national affairs and Nulty's death in 1898 more or less marks the end of direct participation in political matters by the clergy.

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Below are some cuttings from the London Times relating to these times:

 

The Times, 20th Oct 1869: Newspaper Report on Catholic Church Fenian Amnesty

The most important meeting was at Navan, in the county Meath, where, according to the Freeman’s report, at least 15,000 people assembled under the guidance of the Roman Catholic priesthood. The Most Rev. Dr. Nulty, their bishop and a host of parish priests and curates attended.

 

The Times, 7th Sept 1868:  Newspaper Reports regarding the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland

The following resolution was unnaminously adopted on Saturday last at a conference at Navan, and which no less than 115 clergymen of the diocese were present, including the two Vicars general.

“At a meeting of the clergy of the entire diocese of Meath, held at Navan on the 29th day of August, 1868, the Most Rev. Dr. Nulty in the chair, the following resolution was proposed and unanimously adopted by the meeting-

Resolved “ That we regard the Established Church as one of the most unjust and oppressive grievances of our country, and, therefore, that we cordially approve, and will earnestly and vigorously co-operate in, every effort for its disendowment and disestablishment.

The Times, 23rd March 1869: House of Commons

Petition against the disestablishment and disendowment of the Irish Church presented by Lord Bective from Ballyboggan and Castlejordan, Navan, Nobber and other places.

 

The Times, 2nd April 1869:

At Navan, there seems to have been a more temperate spirit than elsewhere; some of the delegates were disposed to consider Disestablishment as inevitable, and to be anxious to make the best terms that could be obtained. But the wisdom of the serpent is not yet in favour in church circles.

 

The Times, 20th Oct.1869: Fenian Amnesty

The most important meeting was at Navan, in the county Meath, where, according to the Freeman’s report, at least 15,000 people assembled under the guidance of the Roman Catholic priesthood. The Most Rev. Dr. Nulty, their bishop and a host of parish priests and curates attended.