Thursday, August 9, 2007

Parish priest with a political pedigree

An old style Parish Priest, authoritarian if not out-right dictatorial in his dealings with the laity was the impression I had of Fr Patrick J Doyle. He was the parish priest of Naas when I arrived to work in the County Council Offices many years ago. Not that I had any personal dealings with the elderly priest, but his general demeanour was what one would expect of men appointed to take charges of Catholic parishes in those far off days. He was of the same mould as Fr Steen whom I remembered as parish priest of Athy around the same time. Neither men would strike one as friendly individuals with whom you could with ease have a conversation. Those were the views I held until recently but following some research in the Bureau of Military History I have reason to revisit my impressions of the late parish priest of Naas, Fr Patrick J Doyle.

What I now know of Fr Doyle creates for me an entirely different view of the man who in old age appeared so unapproachable. The future parish priest of the county town of Naas was in his younger days an active republican who befriended and knew many of the great Irish leaders of the day. In his contribution to the Bureau of Military History which he titled, An Anthology of Fugitive Memories, Fr Doyle, whose brother was a doctor practising in Carlow, recounted his memories of Michael Collins, Gearoid O’Sullivan, Kevin O’Higgins and Padraic Fleming, all of whom he counted among his friends.

When Rebellion broke out in Dublin in Easter 1916 Fr Doyle was Rector of Knockbeg College in Carlow. Gearoid O’Sullivan, a county Cork man who graduated with an MA from UCD in 1915, fought in the GPO the following year. He was interned in Frongoch and following his release was engaged by Fr Doyle to give Irish classes in the Carlow College. While there he continued his involvement with the Volunteers. Before long O’Sullivan was appointed OC of the 1st Battalion Carlow Kildare Brigade which was centred in Carlow town, but included also Bagenalstown and Leighlin-bridge. This, according to Fr Doyle, ‘entailed an enormous amount of work in enlisting and training volunteers in the area where there had been very little volunteer activity up to that time.’ The active co-operation of the college director Fr Doyle made it possible for O’Sullivan to be so involved in the local Volunteer movement. When O’Sullivan was subsequently tried for making a seditious speech in his hometown of Skibbereen Fr Doyle travelled south to give a character reference for him. It was to no avail however as O’Sullivan was found guilty and sent to prison. On his subsequent release he resumed his teaching job in Knockbeg College, all the time retaining an active involvement with the Volunteers until he was summoned to Dublin by Michael Collins to become the Adjutant General of the Volunteers. On creation of the National Army Gearoid O’Sullivan was appointed Adjutant General of the Irish Forces. At the same time Michael Collins wanted to appoint Fr Doyle as chaplain to the Army but the Kildare and Leighlin Bishop Dr Foley refused the request. It would appear that Dr Foley, a Redmondite, did not take kindly to the politics of Collins and his colleagues.

Two other men who were befriended by Fr Doyle while he was rector of Knockbeg College were Padraic Fleming of The Swan and Kevin O’Higgins of Stradbally. Both men would take opposite sides in the Civil War, but in 1919 they were on the run and each found refuge in Knockbeg College. Kevin O’Higgins had been a student at Knockbeg following his earlier removal from Maynooth College for breaking a no-smoking rule. As a newly elected TD for Laois he was involved in organising the National Loan initiated by Michael Collins as Minister for Finance. He travelled extensively on this promotion work, all the time attempting to evade the RIC and military who were on the lookout for him.

Knockbeg College became ‘a safe house’ for O’Higgins, with the active cooperation of Fr Patrick Doyle. It was while staying in the College that O’Higgins met his future wife Brigid Cole. At their wedding, attended by De Valera and many other of the leaders of the day at which Rory O’Connor was best man, Fr. Doyle gave the toast ‘The men of 1916 dead and living’ which he ended with the words, ‘to the long life and happiness of the beloved living and to the full culmination of their dearest wish, the liberty, the untrammelled liberty of Ireland.’

Kevin O’Higgins and Fr Doyle remained friends until the last, a friendship which was brought to a close when the young Stradbally man was assassinated on 10th July 1927. As Minister for Home Affairs Kevin O’Higgins had sanctioned the execution of his best man Rory O’Connor following the shooting dead of Sean Hales, a member of the Dail. He was the second member of the O’Higgins family of Stradbally to be assassinated.

During the Civil War his elderly father, a medical doctor practising in the Laois village, had been shot dead in his home in front of his wife by murderers who were never identified. Fr Doyle was summoned from Naas to attended the mortally wounded Kevin O’Higgins, but before he reached Dublin O’Higgins had died. The next morning the former College Rector celebrated requiem mass in the O’Higgins family home at Cross Avenue, Blackrock.

It was through Gearoid O’Sullivan that Fr Doyle became acquainted with Michael Collins. He met Collins on several occasions in Dublin and also in Naas. By now Fr Doyle had transferred to Naas where he would become part of the intelligent network working for Collins. One of the most important men in that network was Sergeant Jeremiah Maher, an RIG man who was secretary to the Naasbased RIG County Inspector. Maher passed extremely valuable intelligence to Michael Collins and occasionally Fr Doyle was the intermediary passing documents between Sergeant Maher and Michael Collins.

Fr Doyle played a small yet significant part in preventing an expected promulgation issuing from the Vatican condemning the Irish Liberation Movement. The British Foreign Office had apparently convinced the Vatican of the necessity of issuing the condemnation, but the unexpected arrival in Rome of Archbishop Mannix, the former President of Maynooth College when Fr Doyle was visiting the eternal city brought the two clerical Republicans together. Patrick Doyle was a student for the priesthood in Maynooth when Dr Mannix was the college president and so both knew each other quite well. Fr Doyle with George Gavin Duffy, the Dail representative in Rome, met Dr Mannix and at their urgings the Archbishop in a private audience with the Pope outlined to the Pontiff the true state of affairs in Ireland as a result of which the expected Vatican condemnation was withheld.

Fr Doyle took the Treaty side following the Treaty debate in Dail Eireann and invited Michael Collins, Kevin O’Higgins and others to speak at a public meeting in Naas on Easter Sunday 1921. Following the meeting a public banquet was held in the Town Hall where Fr Doyle and Collins were seated alongside each other. Collins and the Naas cleric last met when Collins was on a tour of army posts and following his inspection of Naas Military Barracks the Irish Army chief of staff called on Fr Doyle at his house in the Sallins Road.

Soon thereafter Michael Collins was killed and when his body was brought by boat to the North Wall. Fr Doyle was requested by the army authorities to be present to receive the remains. He was to have participated in the requiem mass in the Pro Cathedral as Deacon but the church authorities, for whatever reason, vetoed the army’s request for Fr Doyle’s involvement.

One of the other great friendships forged by Fr Patrick J Doyle during the War of Independence was with Padraic Fleming of The Swan.

Next week I will deal with the Laois man who escaped from Mountjoy and the part played by Fr Doyle, later parish priest of Naas, in publicising Fleming’s prison experiences.

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