It really is an incredible history, tracing how the local bishop, Thomas Nulty, essentially terrorised and demonised everybody in Meath to go against Parnell. It wasn't long before he was engaging in full-scale sectarianism. Sad to say that Michael Davitt, a Meath anti-Parnellite MP, ended up on the same side as the Bishop of Meath. Was the nastiness of the Parnellite split in Meath exceptional or was this repeated in many other areas?
Moreover, the really interesting thing in that article for me was the huge amount of anticlericalism in Meath in the 1890s. Navan, in particular, seems to have been a hotbed of pro-Parnellite and anti-clerical sentiment and activity. Here are some extracts (but the whole article is well worth reading):
The ‘quiet and insidious’ methods of political influence and control used by the Catholic clergy in Meath ‘leave life not worth living in small country towns and villages’, Navan’s town clerk, James Lawlor, complained despondently to the Irish Independent in February 1893.... The fresh elections had followed the Parnellites’ success in petitioning the courts to annul the Meath results in the bitter general election of July 1892 on the grounds of ‘undue clerical influence’. This resulted in the unseating of the anti-Parnellite founder of the Land League, Michael Davitt, and his local colleague in South Meath, Patrick Fulham.... What had particularly incensed the judges was the pastoral delivered by the bishop of Meath, Thomas Nulty, on the eve of the general election, declaring that no Parnellite voter could ‘remain a Catholic’.
The pastoral was but the culmination of a vigorous anti-Parnellite campaign by Bishop Nulty and his clergy,.... Now Dr Nulty, who had long assumed a ‘divine right’ to nominate candidates in both parliamentary and local elections, availed of the divisions caused by the split to consolidate his hold on political power.... After some initial confusion, Bishop Nulty by the end of 1891 had cleverly broken the power of local Parnellites. They were outmanoeuvred after aligning themselves with the Protestant landlord element of Navan Poor Law guardians—dubbed ‘exterminators’ by Dr Nulty. This was in a vote against a successful proposal by the clergy to appoint a nun as matron of the local workhouse, which was supported by anti-Parnellite members as well as by Catholic landlords. (Even when the workhouse was abolished by the new Irish state and its buildings became Our Lady’s Hospital, the matron continued for many years to be a Sister of Mercy.)
Bishop Nulty built on his victory over this issue of the nun to consolidate his ‘divine right’. He and his priests went on to instruct their congregations how to vote. They preached that the issues in the split were religious or moral questions, on which their teachings must be obeyed, but then claimed election results as political victories. For political advantage, they fudged the undoubted anti-clericalism of many of the Parnellites into anti-Catholicism, which it never was. When Parnellites complained bitterly about such clerical interference in politics, Bishop Nulty merely pledged to ‘beat them again and again’.... With his and his priests’ conduct being seized upon by unionists and Tories as proof that Home Rule would mean ‘Rome rule’, former Parnellite MP Patrick O’Brien could only remark ruefully that the priests had ‘done more to defeat Home Rule than all the bluster and drumming of the Ulster Orangemen’....
Parnellite resistance to clerical usurpation of control of their political affairs took violent forms, including several epsiodes of serious rioting in Navan, in which one man died and many were injured. Even policemen were attacked as they tried in vain to take rioters into custody, and the deployment of a firing party of militia was once seriously contemplated by the resident magistrate after he had read the Riot Act to no avail. Smashing the windows of the Navan parochial house in which the bishop resided, screaming abuse under his window as he slept at night, assaults upon priests, walk-outs from Mass and the public burning of an effigy of Davitt—complete with one arm—were among other forms of protest. When Davitt was sensationally felled to the ground by a stone thrown by a local shop-boy after his selection convention in Navan, it was momentarily thought that he had been assassinated. Pierce Mahony’s punching of barrister MP Matt Kenny in the round hall of the Four Courts for referring in a speech to his mother as a ‘Hindoo’ gave the defeated MP’s by-election campaign a shot in the arm. Violence was not confined to the Parnellite side: there was plenty of evidence at the petition hearings of priests assaulting their parishioners. Two Meath priests were later prosecuted for assault and one was jailed for contempt of court. But invective was preferred: Davitt dubbed Mahony ‘the grandson of a Kerry souper’, which was untrue but really hurt in a time when people could personally remember the horrors of the Famine. The insult was even repeated by Dr Nulty, who never withdrew it or apologised. The bishop also had no hesitation in returning the church offerings of those with whom he disagreed, such as that of the Navan Parnellite leader Luke Smyth. He branded Parnellite women as prostitutes in a sermon in Trim on the eve of the 1892 general election, although he later denied this. But he was criticised even by his friend Davitt for regarding all Parnellites as being guilty of Parnell’s sin of adultery.... One positive local effect of the split in Meath was the bequest by Navan Parnellite leader Luke Smyth of an extensive portion of land at Ardmulchan for a new cemetery. Such a generous donation may, however, have been motivated by Bishop Nulty’s threat—after he had been called a liar by town clerk James Lawlor while inveighing against local Parnellites in Navan cathedral—that on the Last Day he would stand at the bar of justice to condemn those Parnellite leaders for the loss of the souls they had led into sin.... Before his death in 1898, Bishop Nulty had collected funds and commissioned plans for a new St Finian’s diocesan seminary in Navan to replace the original opened in 1802 by Bishop Patrick Plunkett. However, his successor, Bishop Matthew Gaffney, decided in 1900 to close St Finian’s in Navan and to build a new college in Mullingar. He also announced his intention to build a new cathedral in Mullingar, where he had opted to live full-time. Rivalry had always simmered between the two towns, of each of which the bishop was and is parish priest and between which Bishop Nulty had divided his residency.... This form of reasoning could have been adopted to avoid the implication that Navan was deemed by Bishop Gaffney and most of his priests to be an unsuitable location for major church infrastructure or as the centre of the diocese because of the townspeople’s staunchly anti-clerical stance since the beginning of the split a decade previously. Was there possibly even an element of punishment involved in the two major, simultaneous announcements, to which, strangely, there is no record of any opposition, merely sullen acceptance? The Drogheda Independent, which Parnellites justifiably termed a ‘clerical organ’, had earlier stated that the purpose of a celebration in Mullingar of the Meath anti-Parnellite victories in the 1892 general election was to demonstrate ‘people’s anger against the Navan mob and their more miserable prompters’ who had dared to insult Bishop Nulty.
The newspaper had added rather ominously that these ‘new-blown patriots’ had made the name of Navan ‘odious to Irish Catholic ears’. Unfortunately we will never know for sure why the college was moved to Mullingar and a new cathedral built. Meath’s diocesan archive was destroyed by Bishop Gaffney’s successor, Dr Laurence Gaughran, in 1909 for fear of the exposure of a scandal over the resignation of Bishop Gaffney in 1905, ostensibly on grounds of ill health. The real reason for the bishop’s resignation appears to have centred on unfounded allegations of an improper relationship with a nun who was his nurse ...
Phew. That sort of Catholic hostility to the power of the RCC would have got very little airing when I was in school. Just how much evidence do we have of anticlericalism or/and resistance to RCC dominance from c. 1800? The Peggy McCarthy death in 1946 is one such example, as is Jimmy Gralton's experience. Other incidents, such as Eileen Flynn's case in the 1980s, stand out. Was there ever an openly anti-clerical MP or TD elected before the 1980s? Were most of the Fenian MPs anti-clerical? Did anybody at all define themselves as "atheist" or "agnostic", or were they just called "communists", "socialist republicans" or some such in the heyday of McQuaid and RCC dominance?