The Killanin Schism
The Following is a summary of a very long article on the Killanin Schism. It has been abridged, but we are happy that it remains true to the essential facts in this extraordinary story.
In his book “Fundamental Rights in the Irish Law and Constitution” Dr John Kelly points out that the lawfulness of a public meeting in Ireland will not protect it from being prohibited by the Gardai, if it seems likely to be the occasion of a breach of the peace by others. This definition of law, says Kelly “arose from a truly medieval dispute between two priests as to which of them was Parish Priest of Killanin” The dispute is known as the 1893 Killanin Schism.
The Parish of Killanin had been in the Archdiocese of Tuam. In October 1874, Fr Walter Conway was transferred from Killanin to Clifden and was replaced by Fr Patrick Coyne. In the Galway Vindicator of 12 October 1874 Coyne (curate administrator) is described as C.A., an indication that he was not legally the parish priest. When the agrarian agitation got under way, Fr Coyne took a prominent part and earned respect and affection which survives even to this day. In 1880 after denouncing landowner O’Flaherty, Fr Coyne got a threatening letter. The bishop then censured O’Flaherty.
It had long been felt that the unsatisfactory boundaries of the dioceses of Galway and Tuam should be adjusted. In 1835 Archbishop John McHale and Bishop George Browne of Galway went to Connemara for that purpose but for reasons unknown they failed. Their successors Archbishop MacEvilly and Bishop MacCormack finally decided to begin the adjustment by giving portions of Carraroe parish to Tuam. Galway would get Killanin in return. Negotiations took place during 1890 and a problem arose when Fr Coyne refused to have the parish transferred to Galway dioceses. Neither would he go to Kilconly when he was offered that parish. The matter went to Rome on November 5 th , and on 7 th December 1890, Pope Leo XIII decided the exchange should go ahead. Cardinal Simeoni told Archbishop MacEvilly that the agreement between Tuam and Galway be sent on to Rome or perhaps Archbishop MacEvilly would take it to Rome, as he was shortly going there. The agreement was actually signed in Carraroe between MacEvilly and MacCormack on the 24 th May 1890 to take effect on May Day.
- Carraroe and Lettermullen (including the adjacent islands) to go to Tuam Diocese, Lettermore, Bealadangan and Killanin to Galway.
- Chalices and other furnishings to stay where they are.
- Different curates houses to be paid off or compensated for.
Fr Coyne opposed the changes and the people loyally backed him. His work for their spiritual and temporal interests had been tireless. People who had been evicted from their holdings were restored through his efforts not alone in his own parish but in some instances in neighboring parishes. The people followed him implicitly and without question and supporters from many parishes were numerous. He presided at the Land League meetings in his own parish, which were held weekly.
Now he invoked Canon Law, and because he claimed to be full parish priest, stated that the parish could not be transferred without his consent. Archbishop MacEvilly denied that he had ever bestowed the parish to Fr Coyne. Fr Coyne then decided to go to Rome to appeal his case and he remained there from 1891 to 1894 prosecuting his appeal. On March 22 nd 1891, Dr MacEvilly wrote to Archbishop Tobias Kirby, Rector of the Irish College, Rome, explaining what had happened and telling about Fr Coyne’s trip to Rome. “I really can’t know what brings him to Rome at all since the Pope had confirmed the arrangement” On June 16 th Tuam wrote again that contrary to what Fr Coyne had said, the Bishop of Galway was quite prepared to allow Fr Coyne to continue as parish priest of Killanin. The Archbishop was not very kind in his remarks.
On 29 th December 1892 Dr MacEvilly wrote to Rome that Fr Coyne had made untrue statements about him and the bishop of Galway in “an Orange paper which, under threat of an action, apologized.” MacEvilly said that the Roman authorities should order Fr Coyne home. Later the Archbishop complained that Fr Coyne was sending around “a horrid sheet called Diritto.” Bishop MacCormack sent to the Pope a cutting from The Galway Express for which the paper apologized. The bishop stated that scandal was being caused in Galway “What a figure”, MacCormack wrote, “the Archbishop of Tuam and the Bishop of Galway are cutting in Diritto di Roma… May the Lord open the eyes of poor Fr Coyne. I have said many prayers and offered some Masses for his conversion to a right mind.”
The Galway Express
This newspaper carried detailed accounts of the Killanin events and was very sympathetic to Fr Coyne. It recorded a meeting of September 1891 of some parishioners of Killanin when a strong protest was sent to the Bishop of Galway concerning the transfer of Killanin to Galway. They said that Dr MacEvilly was “trying all in his power to deprive us and our children of our future peace and comfort in this world, by causing a separation of our ancient parish from the Archdiocese of Tuam”. There followed belligerent language towards Dr MacCormack. A letter from Fr Coyne in Rome dated 14 th November 1892 was published. He claimed that the matter was as yet undecided and sub judice and that he was still parish priest of Killanin. He would not tolerate gerrymandering. A few days later an apology to “outraged prelates” was published. Bishop MacCormack was in Rome in March 1893 and was in Oughterard from April 15 th to 17 th when he would have reviewed the situation. The Sunday after Fr Coyne left, the Bishop of Galway got Moycullen curate, Fr Michael Kieran to supply Mass in Killanin, but only a mere handful of people were in attendance. The following Sunday he came back again but with difficulty he entered the church grounds and into the building not at all, as the doors were bolted and barred and even the bell was tied up. After that the church remained closed and there was no attendance of people or priest. Some of the people of Killanin attended Mass at Moycullen and Oughterard but the vast majority did not attend Mass anywhere and gave it as a reason that the sin was not on them but on the Bishops.
Fr Mark Conroy
When some Redemptorist priests gave a mission in Oughterard in 1893, they reported to the Bishop that in their opinion a priest should now be sent as they thought probable he would be received. After the priests annual retreat, Dr MacCormack asked Fr M D Conroy to go to Killanin with a view to reconciliation. Apart from being a man of ability and determination, Fr Conroy had the advantage of having influential relations in nearby Oughterard. Mark David Conroy was a member of the Conroy family of Garafin in the parish of Rosmuc and was closely related to Sean Phadraic O Conairie (Patsy Conroy) the writer. His ancestors in both the paternal as well as maternal side came from the Leenane-Maam Valley area. After ordination on Rosary Sunday, 1884 he was Adm. Carraroe and Lettermullen until 1891, then C.C. St Nicholas Pro-Cathedral until August 1893 when he began his celebrated pastorate in Killanin.
Father Mark Conroy set out for Killanin, calling on the way on Father Francis Kenny, the aged parish priest of Moycullen. He asked Father Kenny to go with him to Killanin on Sunday in order that he might have a sponsor in his attempt to get a favorable hearing. He then continued to Father McDonogh, the parish priest of Oughterard who received him with all kindness, asked him to stay in Oughterard and say his two Masses during his absence on holidays should he fail to get a reception in Killanin. That afternoon and the following morning Father Conroy went to Killanin parish, village by village, calling here and there, saying he would say Mass in Killanin church on the following Sunday and that he hoped to see them all there. The parishioners treated Father Conroy with courtesy. He was of the opinion that they thought he would not remain in the parish. For three or four Sundays previously, meetings were held in the church grounds to organize the people so that they would prevent Father Conroy from entering the church. Killanin people in the town of Galway told the new P.P that the great majority of the parishioners were behind Father Coyne.
One Sunday morning, October 28 th 1893 Father Conroy approached his parish church with apprehension. He found a large crowd of the parishioners around the building and at the entrance gate at the roadside. Father Francis Kenny P.P. Moycullen was loyally there to support him. Father Mark addressed the people outside and thanked them for their attendance as requested. When he said he had come in obedience to the order of the bishop, someone shouted, “Why didn’t he come himself to meet us?” Father Kenny said, “Don’t interrupt, please. Let him speak.” They said to Father Kenny “You were always against Father Coyne and us in our Land League work.” Then they continued to interrupt and it was evident that many were not anxious to listen. Someone in the crowd shouted, “Come away, come away” and they withdrew towards the church to prevent entry. Father Conroy decided to avoid further trouble that morning, so having thanked Father Kenny, he returned to Oughterard to celebrate Mass. That Sunday evening he wrote a full account to Bishop MacCormack who was on his holiday.
Father Conroy now rented a residence for himself from a teacher who had been removed from Killanin School by Father Coyne. Here he celebrated Mass despite a threat that the house would be burned down, as it had been previously. From the day he took up residence, September 4 th 1893, he had police protection day and night when it was considered necessary. Father Mark preached each Sunday to those of his flock who attended Mass in his house. As well, Father Conroy taught catechism to those from his parish in Killanin, Tullykyne, and Collinamuck schools’ wisely he made no reference to the dispute but rather gave generous book prizes to good school attenders and those proficient in religious knowledge. Sometimes he was sent for when a parishioner was sick; sometimes he went himself on hearing of an illness. On one occasion he was ordered to leave a house while giving the last rites to an old sick woman. Generally Father Conroy was asked to attend funerals even though some in attendance did not speak to him. Sometimes he addressed the people around the grave but he found that many would not remain to hear. But he soon realized that he would have no standing while celebrating Mass in his own house; he must gain possession of the closed parish church. Father Mark circulated a copy of the statute law of England forbidding under heavy penalty any molestation of a minister of religion going to, or from, or in the church.
Seizure of Church
At some stage Father John Fitzgearld C.C., led a group of his parishioners from Moycullen to Killannin in an effort to bring about peace, but failed. Finally Father Conroy called in the police to regain his church. This was done on Saturday October 28 th 1893. By now Rome had found in favor of Father Conroy. On January 30 th 1893 Father Conroy was given by Rome one month to submit to the bishop of Galway or be suspended. The Pope confirmed this decision and on February 22 nd the Cardinal Prefect informed Father Coyne.
The church was seized by Mr. A Newton Brady R.M. and District Inspector Wade. According to a Daily Express reporter who was present, there were 500 opponents of Father Conroy outside and also 50 supporters. There were many police in the parish and surrounding areas. The R.M. advised the people to cease opposition to the priest and said they could take legal action against the Bishop and priest if they were being unjustly treated. Some leaders replied that the Bishop and priests should take legal action if the people were acting wrongly.
Father Conroy thanked the R.M. and proceeded to make room through a volley of stones, which was fired from the church plot towards him. When the R.M. gave orders to the police to disperse the crowd, they got annoyed and threw themselves on the ground. Father Conroy then broke the sacristy window and entered with supporters following. They opened the door which was well secured by a blacksmith. From the sacristy they made their way with difficulty into the church, forced open the doors, released the bell and put back into position some Stations of the Cross, which had fallen. The church was in fairly good condition.
Fr Coyne’s appeal to Rome had failed. He was told to return home and submit to his Bishop. He made a final petition that his appeal be heard by a commission of Cardinals and this by way of a remarkable exception was granted. But the result was the same. He was given an order to proceed home at once or failing this, he would stand deprived of his parish. This Fr Coyne failed to do; he came home as it suited him. At this time there was published in the Diritto di Roma a document said to have come from Fr Coyne’s friends in Killannin calling on him to return to “his parish” and they would support him for the remainder of his life. It was in response to this call that Fr Coyne left Rome to return to Killanin.
When Fr Conroy showed this newspaper statement to Bishop MacCormack, he said he did not think Fr Coyne would disregard the bishops and go on celebrating Mass for the people of his old parish. Rome gave the final decision through the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith on 21 st May 1894. Fr Coyne was deprived of his parish for disobedience in not having returned to Galway to discharge his ministrations as a priest.
Fr Coyne Home
Fr Coyne arrived in Galway town on 29 th June 1894 and was met by large crowds not alone from Killanin, but from other parishes on account of his popularity as a Land Leaguer. Bonfires blazed that night in the different villages and on his arrival home he got a very warm reception. His supporters had provided him with a residence in Killanin, called then and since Land League House. He is said to have stated in a speech that he was now freed from the jurisdiction of Tuam and Galway and was answerable only to the Pope. Another report was that he promised to see his lawyers in Dublin soon about regaining possession of the parish church.
On the first of his many visits to Dublin, he was met at Galway Station on the 9 th July 1894 by a representative of the bishop who offered him a document dated July 6 th , suspending him. He refused to accept it. It was believed that he called in Mullingar and managed to obtain a supply of holy oils for sacramental use. He celebrated Mass in his own house, which was attended by crowds, not alone his own followers but from the surrounding parishes.
Meanwhile the position of Fr Conroy was very delicate. On the Sundays after Fr Coyne came home, there was heavy traffic of Massgoers to Fr Coyne’s house. An effort by the other side to retake the church was expected. A burial took place in the church grounds where only a very few had been buried. Fr Conroy asked the Sanitary Authorities to have this area closed for burials as being too shallow and otherwise unfit. Consequently an enquiry was held and the plot was closed for future burials.
Frequent quarrels took place amongst the people on one side or the other, but it is fair to say that Fr Coyne never advocated violent measures but put his trust in passive resistance and agitation.
On the night of Friday February 8 th 1895, Fr Coyne with 80 to 100 of his followers seized the church. Next morning when Fr Conroy was told, he walked at once to Oughterard where he reported to the civil authorities that he intended to go as usual on Sunday morning with his followers to celebrate Mass. He asked that measures be taken to protect his rights and to prevent violence. He called also on the Resident Magistrate, Mr Newton Brady (Fr Conroy was a friend of his father, Sir Thomas Brady MP, commonly known as the “Fisherman’s Friend”). As the District Inspector was not at home, he called on the Head Constable and it took some time to persuade him of the seriousness of the situation and of the need to contact his superior officers in Galway. By Saturday Fr Coyne and friends had put locks and bolts on the doors and expressed their determination to stop by force, if necessary, the other side from getting in. Fr Coyne expressed it colourfully in promising to “hold the fort”.
The senior police officers conferred with the bishop. He in turn was advised by Blake and Kenny Solicitors. Dr MacCormack told the County Inspector that there was nothing for him to say or do. He was leaving all decisions in the hands of Fr Conroy. The police arranged to send out a strong force of mounted police from Galway. (There was not Galway-Clifden railway line yet). On Saturday, Fr Conroy had lunch with the hospitable P.P. of Oughterard, Fr McDonogh and then walked home only to find a message asking him to give the last rites to a parishioner two miles further on. On his return he called on his parish committee to arrange for a full attendance of his followers next morning at 8 o’clock. Church requisites were brought next morning in a horse and car.
Sunday February 10 th 1895
The rows and faction fights that were welling up at markets and fairs over the months now came to a head. A large number of police from many parts of the country, some of whom travelled through the night, were there before eight o’clock under Mr Tweedy, D.I. Spiddal. Mr Tweedy stated he would not help Fr Conroy to effect an entry into the chapel but that he would preserve the peace.
Fr Conroy and his followers numbering about 140 men came to the doors and found them barred and the opposition inside. The 32 police watched as Fr Coyne spoke to Mr Tweedy whom he had never met before. He informed Tweedy that he was Parish Priest and had Sunday duties to perform but was blocked by Fr Conroy and followers.
Fr Conroy said that Fr Coyne was inside with desperate men, some of whom were armed with revolvers and he asked the District Inspector to seize the church for him. Tweedy refused saying he was there to see that peace was kept. The only guarantee Fr Conroy got was that he would not be assaulted.
At the instruction of Fr Conroy, one of his followers broke open the sacristy door with a sledge, since there was no reply when they knocked. Fr Conroy and five followers then entered the sacristy followed by M Tweedy. They found Fr Coyne standing in the sacristy at the door leading from the sacristy into the church. A number of his followers were in the church. A man behind Fr Coyne had an iron bar and several men had sticks. Fr Conroy went up to Fr Coyne and asked him to allow him pass into the chapel. Fr Coyne said he would not allow him, that he was parish priest. Fr Conroy then began arguing with Fr Coyne, each trying to persuade the other that he had a right to go in.
After the police entered, a great number of Fr Conroy’s followers came into the sacristy. The opposing groups got very excited and were challenging each other, mainly in Irish. The name “jumpers” could be heard. When Fr Conroy asked the police to remove Fr Coyne who was obstructing his entrance, they refused. Fr Conroy then tried to pass. Fr Coyne gave a push to his opponent. With that Fr Conroy’s supporters rushed towards Fr Coyne, but Mr Tweedy and another policeman came between them to protect him. Further Conroy followers trying to enter the sacristy were kept back. Meanwhile at the church door, more police were keeping the parties apart.
Mr Tweedy then asked Fr Coyne to allow Fr Conroy to pass but Fr Coyne insisted he was lawful parish priest. To avoid a riot and even bloodshed, Mr Tweedy placed a hand on Fr Coyne’s arm and a policeman put his hand on the other and they led him to the outer door of the sacristy. There was lively discussion in the church grounds and on the public road while Fr Conroy celebrated first and second Masses. Then Fr Conroy and friends went home under police protection. Newspaper reporters were present and Fr Conroy was very aware of the fact that some of them were not friendly. He was under great strain himself. He had not eaten for 24 hours and worry caused him loss of sleep.
The loss of the church was the beginning of the end for Fr Coyne. He was of the opinion that Mr Tweedy had illegally arrested him and so he took him to court. The first trial of Coyne versus Tweedy was held in Dublin before Chief Baron Pallas and a jury, partly Catholic partly non-Catholic. The charge against Tweedy was assault and battery, aggravated by the circumstances that it was committed in Fr Coyne’s own church of which he claimed to be parish priest. McMahon and Tweedy Solicitors, for Fr Conroy were inclined to defend the case on the grounds that the technical assault was necessary in order to preserve peace. Fr Conroy insisted however on bringing in the canonical point that Fr Coyne was not parish priest. It took some time to persuade the bishop that this was the best course to follow. The MacDermott counsel for Tweedy definitely favored introducing the canonical and ecclesiastical aspect. Fr Conroy asked Dr O’Dea (Vice President of Maynooth), a Galway priest (and later Bishop) to come forward as a canon law expert. As he held a theology chair rather than canon law, he was unwilling to give evidence. The noted Dr W McDonald of Maynooth was then approached and readily consented to help. All relevant documents were given to him for perusal.
Before the trial Mr Tweedy told Fr Conroy that if he lost the case he would be dismissed and if they won, he believed he would get no thanks because there was a belief that he had unduly favoured Fr Conroy the day Fr Coyne was arrested. Fr Coyne’s action was dismissed and the court found in favour of Tweedy, that he had taken action only to prevent a breach of the peace.
Fr Coyne was not satisfied and so with the moral and financial help of his supporters at home and abroad he sought and got a new trial.
An appeal was published in the British Press asking for funds to help an Irish parish priest in Killanin and his parishioners who were fighting ‘the tyranny of Rome and two bishops’. Fr Conroy got no help from any source and incurred a heavy load of debt during his four years’ fight.
The celebrated case Coyne Vs Tweedy was heard in the Queen’s Bench Division on February 20 th , 21 st , 24 th and 28 th 1896 before Sir Peter O’Brien (‘Peter the Packer’) a native of the diocese of Kilfenora. With him on the bench were Judges O’Brien and Gibson. This new trial was before a jury. Mr Drummond Q.C., Mr. Taylor Q.C. and Mr. Ennis were for Fr Coyne while the Right Hon., The McDermott, Q.C., Mr Sullivan Q.C. and Mr Hume were for Mr Tweedy.
Sir Peter O’Brien the Lord Chief Baron, delivered judgement on February 28 th and stated that even assuming the plaintiff to have been legally in possession of the chapel, the defendant had done nothing exceeding his duty as a peace officer. The jury agreed on this and declared Tweedy not guilty. O’Brien delivered a long and learned legal preamble to his judgement.
Not satisfied, Fr Coyne made a final appeal which was heard on 4 th – 7 th May 1896, before the Lord Chancellor, Lord Justice Fitzgibbon and Lord Justice Barry. Mr Drummod for Coyne argued that Conroy and friends were an illegal assembly. Lord Justice Barry introduced a note of humor ‘Mr Pickwick advised you should shout with the largest mob’. The plaintiff applied for a new trial on the grounds of misdirection at the trial before the Queen’s Bench Division. Taylor, Boyne’s junior counsel emphasized that there was an illegal entry and that Coyne had done nothing wrong. The jury found for Conroy and the Lord Chancellor passed judgement accordingly.
And so, as a result of that judgement which Dr John Kelly, T.D. explains, it is now part of British and Irish constitutional law that a danger of a breach of the peace may limit the right to free assembly. A dispute in Killannin has helped to form our laws.
Fr Coyne also took an action for libel against the Freeman’s Journal in connection with the Coyne vs Tweedy case. The newspaper owners arranged through Bishop Mac Cormack to bring witnesses from Rome to give evidence. The Bishop, his secretary and Fr Conroy were put to much trouble preparing for the case but it was wasted effort as the case was withdrawn.
Fr R McDonogh, P.P. Oughterard also found himself in court when he denounced by name in Collinamuch church supporters of Fr Coyne. The people in question took an action for slander and Fr McDonogh could not deny what was claimed. But it proved almost impossible to get witnesses against Fr McDonogh into court. When the case was about to be called, Fr Coyne’s counsel offered to withdraw the case, if Fr McDonogh would pay all expenses to date. On the strong advice of the bishop, Fr McDonogh agreed to the settlement. The people in question felt they had been let down by Fr Coyne and his friends and as a result the schismatic movement lost some of its impetus. There was a feeling that since the battle was lost in Rome and at home there was no point in continuing. Fr Coyne returned to the Land league house and to the end of his days was loyally supported by his many followers.
Slowly and gradually the people began to return to Fr Conroy and the parish church. With the help of two Vincentian priests, Fr Conroy held two public meetings in the parish to denounce the schism. Good Catholics from Galway and Headford came even though the bishop reluctantly approved of these gatherings. Two open-air meetings were held on two successive Sundays, the second larger and more successful than the first and these meetings appear to have influenced Fr Coyne’s followers. Between the Sundays, the Vincentians held a few religious meetings in the school chapel at Collinamuck. Fr Coyne’s followers came out to oppose these meetings. At Christmas time a triduum of prayer was held in the church by direction of Rome, through the bishop.
A degree of unity had been brought about by the persistence and courage of Fr Conroy. Yet it was clear that while he remained, there would never be forgiveness and reconciliation with some. When Fr Francis Kenny, P.P. Moycullen died at the age of 90 on 27 th March 1987, the bishop was able to make some judicious changes. Fr Conroy was appointed to Spiddal (where he did remarkable work with the Morris family in building the present Spiddal church). Fr John Connolly, C.C. Ennistymon was a very wise choice for the divided people of Killannin. A native of Kinvara, Fr Connolly was described by the late Dean Cassidy as a ‘saintly and lovable’. Dean Cassidy continued: ‘His arrival in Killannin had a wonderful effect. He won back the people lost by Mark Conroy’. He built in 1901 the presbytery (sold in recent years). A humble and warmhearted man, he healed most of the divisions in Killannin during his 24 years pastorate.
By the time Fr Conroy left, Fr Coyne was in failing health and was told by his doctor that the inevitable was not far off. Fr Coyne began to prepare for death and sent for Fr Curran, Moycullen, to be his confessor and receive the Sacraments. He also sent for his old time trusted friends John H and Mrs Joyce of Oughterard and renewed their old friendship. He declared to them that he was sorry for the bad example he had given and the part he had taken, and asked them as his true friends to tell the people he had done wrong and he was sorry. He died on the 4 th October 1899 and is buried in the parish of his birth, Williamstown, in the old cemetery.
Mr Tweedy believed he was out of favour because he arrested Fr Coyne. In February 1898 he was transferred from Spiddal. He had to wait for years for the County Inspectorship of Cork. Some of his relations were eventually to settle in Oughterard. He may be forgotten but his name lives on in legal precedent from the Coyne VBs Tweedy case ….End