The Famine Priest

Book Review by Frank O’Shea

KENMARE: HISTORY AND SURVIVAL. Fr John O’Sullivan and the Famine Poor. By Colum Kenny. Eastwood. 300 pp. €20

The second title of this book describes it best. It is the story of a priest rather than a place. He was much ahead of his time, someone who managed to get the area of which he was the Catholic leader, through the Great Famine. The author sets the scene early:

Many Irish people lived in small mud cabins then, relying on a daily diet of potatoes and milk. Others spoke about them. This included members of parliament, whom the poor could not vote for or against because they did not own any or enough property to qualify for a vote; journalists, who wrote about them for papers that many poor people could not read because they were illiterate; and clergymen, who ministered to them on behalf of churches that had their own ideas of what was best for their faithful Irish flocks.

Fr John O’Sullivan was one such clergyman, but his influence reached far beyond the small town in which he ministered and his efforts were more successful than might be expected from a mere country priest. He made himself known in London, addressing a select committee of the House of Commons on more than one occasion. He sought out friends in high places, most significantly Charles Trevelyan (of the corn in the Athenry song), ‘one of the most powerful civil servants in Whitehall’, and Lord Lansdowne, the absentee landlord who owned most of South Kerry.

The future priest belonged to a prominent Tralee family. At the age of 17, he was sent to Maynooth on the advice of his local parish priest Fr Egan, who would shortly thereafter be consecrated bishop of Kerry. After ordination, O’Sullivan had an eight-year posting as curate in Dingle, a position which required him to learn Irish and become sufficiently confident to preach in the language. In 1839, he was sent to Kenmare as parish priest, a position that would later be raised in rank to Archdeacon.

Kenmare and the surrounding areas, from Caherdaniel and Sneem on one side of the bay, to Tuosist and Castletown on the other side, suffered greatly in the famine years. The town had a workhouse for the completely destitute; built to take 500, it had five times that number at the height of the Famine, many in auxiliary overflow sheds. O’Sullivan kept out of politics, either of the electoral kind or the nationalist form; he did not support the repeal lobby and had no time for the Young Ireland movement. His letters to influential people in Dublin and London as well as to the newspapers kept his name before the ruling classes. He once said of a particular success that it was ‘a satisfaction for me and will give no small annoyance to the Tories. It is a novel thing in their eyes for a priest to have as much influence.’

Among those who visited Kenmare in 1848 were William Smith O’Brien and James Stephens. With Stephens was his friend and fellow-founder of the Fenians, Michael Doheny. The latter described his lodging in a house.

The weather was excessively wet and, for the season, cold. There was a slight partition between the room where my bed was and the kitchen, where there were three cows, a man, his wife and four children.

Doheny would later escape to America thanks to the help of one of O’Sullivan’s curates, Father Hampston. The escape of James Stephens was aided by the poet Mary McCarthy Downing, also from the Kenmare parish. (‘And this is thy grave, McCaura, here by the pathway lone …’)

In 1849, Lord Lansdowne’s agent William Steuart Trench initiated a program to send girls aged 14-18 to Australia, some 25 of them from the Kenmare workhouse. It is difficult to imagine how young girls reared in mud cabins on the coast of Kerry and in crowded poorhouses would have survived and in many cases prospered in Australia. Their story has been told by Kay Caball in The Kerry Girls, reviewed in Tintean in 2014

Although he got on with the various Protestant leaders throughout his life, O’Sullivan had a long running feud with Rev Denis Mahony, owner of Dromore castle and his third wife Kate. He accused them of proselytism, which he called souperism, and he fought bitterly against what he saw as wealthy evangelicals trying to convert his flock by promising them food and education. In September 1850, in Templenoe outside Kenmare, Mahony was set upon by an angry mob and had to be rescued; seven months later, he died suddenly.

The other feature of Kenny’s book is its coverage of John O’Sullivan’s post-famine life. He was much put upon by his brother Stephen who had fallen on hard times. He had poor relations with women and this included the Presentation Sisters who came briefly to Kenmare in 1859. After they left, he persuaded some Poor Clare nuns from Newry to set up a school, one which survives to the present day. He was praised by one eulogist for not having the Christian Brothers in Kenmare, though they had successful schools in Tralee, Dingle and Cahirciveen. He built Holy Cross church, consecrated in 1864, and today a feature of the town.

In 1853, the priests of the Kerry diocese voted for him as their next bishop, a decision that was supported by the bishops of Munster. This was stymied, however, mainly by Cardinal Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin. O’Sullivan was not a great admirer of the kinds of external piety associated with Cullen and his followers. Margaret Cusack, the ‘Nun of Kenmare’ wrote that

He used to speak out very plainly about some Roman Catholic devotions he did not approve, and I often heard him criticise the lessons in the breviary, which all priests are obliged to recite daily, in a way that would have very much astonished the authorities in Rome if they had heard him.

He confessed himself sceptical of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

As noted at the outset, this book works best as a biography of John O’Sullivan. That he devoted his greatest efforts to trying to help his parishioners through the Famine is probably why he best deserves to be remembered. The author was surprised to learn that he himself was a direct descendant of the O’Sullivan family of Tralee and he deserves credit for presenting his subject in the way a historian would, rather than a panegyrist.  

Frank is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective. He grew up in more than one of the areas covered in this book.