St. Patrick’s Day is the one time in the year when the Irish diaspora gets to celebrate our national festival. Its origins lie in a feast day celebrated by the Catholic church since the early 17th century, but nowadays it has become the focus of cultural events internationally.
This led me to reflect on the contributions made by those men and women who have left our shores over the last century and a half for economic and other reasons. One such individual was James Quinn. There is some confusion over Quinn’s birthplace. A lot of early publications cite his birth place in 1819 as Athy, while more recent research indicates that he may have born in Rathmore, near Naas. Notwithstanding same it is clear that he had strong and ongoing links with Athy during his life. I touched on Quinn’s life briefly in an Eye on the Past many years ago when writing about the Parish Priests who had served in the Catholic Church here in Athy.
Quinn was an interesting, if not divisive, character who trained for the priesthood in the Irish College in Rome, graduating in 1845. After his ordination he returned to Ireland and he began a lifelong association with the Sisters of Mercy. He was based in Blackrock and also acted as a chaplain to the Sisters of Mercy in Baggot Street, Dublin. He particularly assisted in sourcing volunteers amongst the Sisters of Mercy to travel to the Crimea to nurse British soldiers wounded in the war there. Quinn himself wrote of a journey to Kinsale in the company of two Sisters of Mercy to a convent seeking volunteers for this expedition to the Crimea. Arriving early in the morning in Kinsale he went to the Convent’s chapel to perform his morning’s devotions, admitting somewhat ruefully that he fell asleep while kneeling in the chapel, only to be awoken by a Sister of Mercy perplexed at the presence of a man in her chapel at such an early hour. Quinn had previously travelled to Amiens in France with the Sisters of Mercy in 1852 to make a tour of the hospital system. This mission was of fundamental importance in the establishment of the Mater Hospital in Dublin.
By the time the Mater Hospital was founded in 1861 Quinn was already on his way to Australia after his appointment as the first Bishop of Brisbane. His was a dynamic, if not domineering presence in this young diocese which he found in a weakened and financially parlous state. His dynamism did not endear himself to a lot of his parishioners, nor to some of the local clergy and he found himself in a number of quarrels which appeared to bedevil his episcopacy in the decades thereafter. Utilising his good relations with the Sisters of Mercy he encouraged the establishment of a novitiate in Brisbane for the training of sisters for the order. With the assistance of his brother, Dr. Andrew Quinn, who was a Parish Priest in Athy, many young women left Athy for the novitiate in Brisbane. Several of the young women sent back accounts of their voyage to Australia. One wrote, ‘we could not sleep for the incessant uproar of sailors, ducks, sheep, etc. which were perhaps sea sick or else giving way to great rejoicing at the prospect of a pleasure trip to Australia.’ The exigencies of the voyage did not prevent these young women from performing their religious obligations. One described a Saturday afternoon on the deck of the ship as follows:- ‘Confessions on deck, the captain helped to make the confessional, poles covered with the sail. On Sunday 30 communicants. All assembled for rosary at 10. We are getting at home in our strange abode. It seems as if almighty God has taken the power of fretting from me.’ Another nun wrote of her initial impression of the native aboriginal people of Australia, as follows:- ‘I never saw such fearful looking creatures as the natives, especially the women. Some are bare headed, others so completely covered with feathers that one would think feathers, not hair, grew on them. They are painted in all colours.’ And on arrival:- ‘On Saturday we reached Brisbane. The Bishop and Fr. Connolly came for us and drove us to the convent where we got a very warm reception. The prayers of the Sisters saved us. For 3 whole weeks it was gale after gale. All is over now and we are quite well and happy.’
Quinn’s own brother Matthew, who had also studied in Rome, had gone to India as a missionary in 1847 but because of health issues returned in 1853. After assisting in raising an army of Irish volunteers to defend the papal states in the 1860s he went out to Australia in 1865 and was appointed the first Bishop of Bathurst. In all, four Quinn brothers joined the priesthood.
James Quinn died on 16th August 1881 and his funeral was attended by representatives of many faiths, including the Anglican Church and also Rabbi Phillips. He is commemorated in a number of places in Queensland and principally by a life size statue by Signor Simonetti in St. Stephen’s Cathedral which was installed in 1892.