By: Mervyn Ennis M.A.
Contrary to contemporary belief the Priests that supported the nationalist’s position in the 1798 rebellion were held in high esteem, in fact, they were not widely supported by their peers. Indeed, Fr Murphy of Boolavogue fame, was described by some peers as the faeces of Irish society. This article is about a little celebrated contemporary of Fr Murphy, Fr James Harold from Saggart in County Dublin.
The Colony of New South Wales was founded when the Penal Laws of England were still in force, so no Catholic priest was allowed to accompany the 300 Catholic convicts with the First Fleet. However, aboard one of the transportation ships which left Ireland in August 1799 were Fr James Harold, Fr James Dixon and Fr Peter O’Neill, who arrived in the Australian penal colony as convicts themselves.
Fr Harold had served as Parish Priest of Saggart from 1794 until his deportation in 1799. He was largely been forgotten about and there is little mention of him in the parish he served in up to his transportation in 1799 until January this year, when a hand carved plaque in his native wood, from a line drawing of Fr Harold was unveiled in the Local Heritage and Arts Centre.
Fr James Harold (1744-1831), was a member of an old Wicklow family said to have been descended from King Harold of England, one of whose sons settled in the Dublin Hills, and also gave the name to Harold’s Cross in Dublin. He was born near Dublin in 1744 and was ordained in 1774 by Archbishop Carpenter (1770-1786). He was then sent to Antwerp to complete his ecclesiastical studies, returning to the Dublin diocese in 1779 where he served as a curate in a number of parishes. In 1794 at the age of fifty he was appointed parish priest at Saggart with its two chapels at Saggart and Newcastle. He embroiled himself in the work of the parish, he was a fine preacher and orator and being gifted with a great voice he was in much demand as a singer. He is also accredited with writing popular Nationalist propagandist verse.
In the 1790s fuelled by the revolutions in France and America’s fight for independence, the hunger for civil and religious freedom was being felt throughout Ireland. The tension was experienced in the Saggart/Rathcoole area, one of the last outposts on the ancient Pale. The government responded to this increasing tension by employing a detachment of 20 Armagh militia in Rathcoole village with a reinforcement of 80 Scottish mercenaries known as the Angusshire Fencibles as back up to its own yeomanry unit. (Robert Byrne the Scottish poet was an Angusshire Fensible and on his death they provided the guard of honour). These had to be given ‘free quarters’ and billeted in the homes of the people in disturbed districts. This ploy led to large scale surrender of arms as the ‘pacification measures’ took effect.
In 1795 the outlawed organisation ‘United Irishmen’ was reconstituted as a secret oath bound body and became highly organised in Kildare, the next county to Saggart. His friendship with John Clinch and Felix Rourke, prominent leaders in the United Irishmen, drew considerable negative attention on Fr Harold. He supported the United Irishmen and wrote supportive propagandist verse, but in March 1798, in obedience to Archbishop Troy, he preached restraint and bade his parishioners surrender arms and swear allegiance.
Archbishop Troy was one of the most determined supporters of the proposed Act of Union between Ireland and Great Britain. In 1786 he was appointed Archbishop of Dublin. His zeal for religion, sympathy with authority, and distrust of popular movements, especially when violent means were employed were quickly established. He was ready to condemn all violent efforts for reform, and had no hesitation in denouncing not only all secret societies in Ireland, but also ‘our American fellow-subjects, seduced by specious notions of liberty. In 1798 he was to issue a sentence of excommunication against all those of his flock who would join the rebellion.
There was obviously tension between Fr Harold and Archbishop Troy. Fr Harold in an act of obedience to the archbishop made a very public profession of loyalty to the British government. In order to allay their suspicions he invited members of the local yeomanry to attend his religious services at Saggart and Newcastle, where he continued to exhort his flock to be loyal to the government of the day. Martial Law had been declared and ‘the army was given its head’. Searches, floggings and hangings became common place. The local population were terrorised and cowed by these methods.
On the Sunday before the rebellion Fr Harold again exhorted his people in Rathcoole to forbearance and he urged them to shun all disorder and discord. Then he went on to rebuke the yeomanry and military for the reckless barbarity they displayed. However, the military issued an order for his arrest because of this clash with the officers enforcing the disarmament and the suggestion that he sheltered a wounded prisoner, Felix Rourke, in his home. On the 23rd May the yeomanry patrolling the Saggart/Rathcoole area observed some of the local inhabitants involved in military exercises. A young lad of thirteen, who was taken prisoner and flogged, admitted that a surprise uprising was about to take place and that members of the local yeomanry were to desert and join the rebels. Rourke fled and went on the run, while Fr Harold went to Drogheda for a written ‘protection’ from the Commanding General. When his house was raided pikes were discovered in the thatch. It was also learned that Felix O Rourke had been sheltered in the house and as a consequence the military burned the Parish house to the ground.( Felix O Rourke who survived the 1798 rebellion was later caught and sentenced to death for his involvement in the 1803 Robert Emmet rebellion. He was taken and hung from the rafters of Fr Harold’s house at Rathcoole on the 10 September 1803.)
Fr Harold received a protection note from the Commanding General and returned to Newcastle where he stayed with a protestant friend in Hazelhatch. However, the protection order was countermanded and Fr Harold was arrested on the Hazelhatch Bridge on the 19th June 1798. He was charged with having fostered sedition in his parish of Saggart. The local Magistrate, Bernard Clinch, summarily sentenced him to transportation in his absence. He had also been blamed before a military court for inciting treason among his parishioners. They further alleged that Fr Harold was accused by a local United Irishman, John Clinch on the scaffold, of swearing him in as an United Irishman. This was a common ploy at the time with Clinch unable able to refute the charge. So without trial and without any opportunity to vindicate himself Fr Harold was transported to penal colony of NSW.
Fr Harold travelled on board the ‘Minerva’ which left Cork on the 24th August 1799. It is said that he actually rejoiced at being sent to Botany Bay as he knew the colony had no chaplains to administer to their pastoral needs, so he felt more like an apostle than a convict. On the passage out, an attempt was made by the Irish convicts on board to take over the ship. The master was rescued from the mutiny, as the crew opened fire on the convicts killing one and overcame the insurgents. As a reprisal the master and officers set an example by hanging the one deemed to be the principal ring leader. Reverend Harold was one of the convicts suspected of supporting the mutiny, and as a result he and others were locked away in a separate secure part of the ship for the balance of the trip to Australia.
They arrived in the penal colony on the 11th January 1800 after a trip of 140 days travelling via Rio de Janeiro. On arrival Fr Harold applied to practice as a priest but he was refused official permission. However, he did so informally, and carried out weddings in secret among his fellow convicts. Fr Harold was to minister to the families of Michael Dwyer, John Mernagh , and Ann Devlin’s family when they were deported having fought a guerrilla war in Wicklow after the 1798 rebellion until 1804. John Mernagh was the last remaining member of Dwyers followers to surrender. (O’Dwyer surrendered in December 1803. Mernagh was not captured until 19 February 1804, when he was discovered in his friends John Doyle’s house at Rathcoole by a group of militia led by a Captain Clinch of Peamount.) Fr Harold’s informal priestly work attracted the suspicions of the authorities not least among them Captain William Bligh of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ fame who complained in 1806 that ’Romish priest is now following his functions where before he kept within proper bounds and must again be limited by wise and mild measures’. Unrest among Irish convicts resulted in the Castle Hill rebellion. The revolt exposed Fr Harold to further suspicion and he was charged ‘with complicity’ though he claimed that he ‘tried at all times to prevent any disturbance and to preserve the peace of the community’. His refusal to incriminate others angered the inquiring magistrates. Several Irishmen were flogged, and Fr Harold was tied to the same tree as those being flogged to witness the brutality. Anglican Minister Harold Perkins in his book ‘The Convict Priests’ wrote:
‘that following the trial of suspected plotters of an insurrection by Irish convicts, the convict priest, Fr James Harold, was forced to place his hands on the ‘tree’ or triangle to which those being flogged were tied’.
Cardinal Moran was to explain years later,
‘that the officials did this to lower Fr Harold in the estimations of his fellow convicts by making it appear that he was concerned in the plot and by not declaring it he was responsible for the punishment the sufferers were subjected to.’
Joseph Holt, a protestant veteran of the Irish 1798 rebellion and fellow transportee with Fr Harold had been implicated as a leader in the Castle Hill rebellion but without substantial proof of his involvement he was spared the lash as was Harold. As a form of punishment for the suspected complicity he was made witness the punishments of two Irish convicts suspected of making and hiding pikes Maurice Fitzgerald and Paddy Gavin. They were unlawfully flogged in an attempt to get information out of them. Holt’s account of the two Irishmen receiving five hundred lashes from the cat is particularly horrific;
‘At the place they flogged them, their arms pulled around a large tree and their breasts squeezed against the trunk so the men had no power to cringe … There was two floggers, Richard Rice and John Johnson the Hangman from Sydney. Rice was left-handed man and Johnson was right-handed, so they stood at each side, and I never saw two thrashers in a barn move their strokes handier than those two man-killers did. … I [Holt] was to the leeward of the floggers … I was two perches from them. The flesh and skin blew in my face as it shook off the cats. Fitzgerald received his 300 lashes. Doctor Mason – I will never forget him – he used to go feel his pulse, and he smiled, and said: “This man will tire you before he will fail – Go on.” During this time [Fitzgerald] was getting his punishment he never gave so much as a word – only one, and that was saying, “Don’t strike me on the neck, flog me fair.” When he was let loose, two of the constables went and took hold of him by the arms to keep him in the cart. I was standing by. He said to them, “Let me go.” He struck both of them with his elbows in the pit of the stomach and knocked them both down, and then stepped in the cart. I heard Dr. Mason say that man had enough strength to bear 200 more.
Fr Harold was deeply traumatised by the experience, the effects of which he was to carry through the rest of his life. One account describes him as an ‘old, a nervous wreck, temperamental, irrepressible’. After alleged involvement in three insurrections, the finger of suspicion was being constantly pointed at Fr Harold. People felt they would be viewed as guilty by association with him and shunned his presence. He wrote to Governor Hunter ‘Those with whom I should think proper to associate find it their duty to keep me at a distance, while a few others begin, especially of late, consider it unsafe to hold communication with me.’ However, his problems were to deepen further. Captain Bligh, Hunter’s successor, was to follow up on his dislike of Fr Harold by deporting him to Van Diemen’s Land. In May 1807, Bligh instructed Captain Putland ‘to proceed with his majesty’s ship the Porpoise to Norfolk Island and there to put ashore Michael Dwyer and William Morris’. Among the other passengers was Fr James Harold who actually carried out a wedding in secret on board the ship, performing the ceremony for Martin Bourke, who married Phoebe Tunstall while it was at anchor in Sydney Harbour. Fr Harold was the first priest to reside in Van Diemen’s Land and he conducted a school there when his health permitted. In 1809 when a fellow convict priest was allowed home (Wexford man Fr James Dixon) Fr Harold returned to Sydney where he was appointed priest at Parmetta in the Botany Bay area. He was officially pardoned on 16th June 1810.
Fr Harold was never to forget the privations, indignity and cruelties experienced by his fellow convicts in the penal colony and on his return home campaigned to make them known. His campaign resulted in a Cistercian, Fr Flynn being officially appointed as Chaplin to the penal colony. Fr Harold returned home by a circuitous route spending a few months in Rio de Janeiro and then on to the USA where he had family in Philadelphia, finally ending up in Ireland in 1813. In 1816 he became Parish Priest in Kilcullen. In 1818 he moved to Clontarf where he became administrator and supervised the building of Fairview chapel. He resigned in 1819 aged 76 years in ill health and went to live with his relatives, the Ryan’s of Philadelphia. He returned again to his beloved Ireland and died in 1831 aged 87, out living Bligh and Archbishop Troy. He is buried at Golden Bridge cemetery at Inchicore , Dublin.
Epilogue: When Archbishop Thomas Troy ( Archbishop of Dublin 1786 – 1823) reviewed his career, his big achievements were: the building of the Pro-Cathedral and the establishment of Maynooth College, which became St Patrick’s College, Maynooth (Irish: Coláiste Naoimh Phádraig, Maigh Nuad), the ‘National Seminary for Ireland’ and a Pontifical University. The site for the Pro Cathedral at Marlborough Street was purchased in 1803 seven years before Fr Harold was finally pardoned.