Carnalway, near Kilcullen, is noted in “Monastican Hibernicum” as the site of a monastery founded in 1486 for Franciscans of the Strict Observance, by Sir Richard Eustace, son of Sir Edward Eustace of Harristown, Lord Chancellor and Treasurer of Ireland. In 1831 the population of Carnalway was 1,291 and ten years later it was 1181. The local parish church, built at the expense of John Latouche of Harristown, was described by its Rector in 1918 as “very tiny but very attractive and except for the Tower which is older, was built in the Hiberno Romanesque style, being a copy of the ancient Chapel of King Cormac in Cashel”.
The Rector was Canon James Owen Hannay, an Irish writer whose literary efforts, like those of his contemporary, the once famous Kerry playwright George Fitzmaurice, are largely neglected today. Canon Hannay, who wrote under the pseudonym George A. Bermingham, was born in Belfast on the 16th of July 1865, the son of a clergyman. Ordained for the Church of Ireland in 1889 he served as a curate in Delgany, Co. Wicklow before being appointed to Westport, Co. Mayo in 1892 where he served until 1913. A fluent Gaelic speaker, he became a member of the Gaelic League, and was later elected to the executive of that organisation. The publication of his first novel “The Seething Pot” in 1905, gave rise to the false claim that he had caricatured the Parish Priest of Westport, and as a consequence he was boycotted by the local people. The unpleasantness which resulted spilled over into the Gaelic League, and Canon Hannay, the Church of Ireland Rector, was expelled from the organisation.
He continued to write, and in 1913 his most famous play “General John Regan” was produced, by the legendary Charles Hawtrey, on the London stage, to much critical acclaim. When the same play was later put on in Westport by a touring company, it led to riots similar to those experienced during the Abbey Theatre presentation of Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” in 1907. In both instances, the audiences felt outraged at the perceived insult to pure-minded Irish nationalism by the realism of the playwright’s characters.
Hannay was a prolific writer, but the difficulties presented for him in his West of Ireland parish prompted him to enlist as an army chaplin in France during World War I. On his return from the War in 1918, he was appointed to the Parish of Carnalway just outside Kilcullen, where he remained for two years before finally leaving Ireland.
His biography “Pleasant Places” was published in 1934, and in it he recounts his time in Carnalway, a Parish “without a village and no shop of any kind”. Referring to Carnalway as “pleasant and interesting”, Canon Hannay recalls that “there was one pillar box into which we used to drop our letters. If we ran short of stamps we dropped the necessary pennies into the box along with our letters and the Postman who emptied the box stamped the letters”.
The idyllic lifestyle of another era ended when he left to take up an appointment as a Church of England Minister in France and later in England. Canon Hannay, who died in 1950, was writing up to the end and his last book, “Two Scamps”, was published just shortly before he died. In all, his published works amounted to over 70 novels, plays and works of non-fiction. His short sojourn in County Kildare coincided with the publication of “The Island Mystery” in 1918, “A Padre in France” in 1918, “An Irish Man Looks At His World” in 1919, “Our Casualty” in 1919, “Up The Rebels” in 1919 and “Inisheeny” in 1920.
As a novelist, playwright and humorist, George A. Bermingham, alias Canon James Hannay, was a better writer than many who have achieved greater literary fame. His books, which give an insight into Ireland of another time, deserve a wide readership amongst the present generation, and it is hoped that their re-issue will be taken up by some enterprising publisher.