The incredible tale of a Donegal priest who fought for the poor against injustice and who spoke up for the voiceless.
Canon James McFadden had just been released from Derry jail after serving six months for membership of the Land League and inciting his parishioners to withhold their rents, but his fight against what he perceived as harsh landlord practices and the British system in Ireland was not yet over.
When he became the parish priest of Gweedore in 1873, McFadden encouraged farmers not to pay rent and rallied his parishioners to challenge alleged improvements of the local landlord, Lord George Hill. He was also known to hate heavy drinking and was often seen chasing locals out of Sheebens with his blackthorn stick.
After another rousing speech in December 1888, the authorities decided that they had sufficient evidence to charge Canon McFadden under the Criminal Law and procedures Act 1887.
A summons was issued and served on him on the 15th of January 1889, but he had no intention of attending a court system he did not acknowledge as legitimate or fair.
When he did not appear, a warrant was issued from the court for his arrest.
On the 28th of January, the RIC went to arrest McFadden but were denied entry to the parochial house. The following morning he celebrated mass in St Mary’s chapel and returned to his home. A large RIC contingent surrounded his residence and a standoff was now in play.
That night fires were lit around the parish of Gweedore calling men to defend McFadden. Over 100 assembled, determined to defend their priest.
Canon McFadden addressed the crowd from his window, imploring them to go home as he was in no danger. He obviously didn’t believe this, as he used the commotion to slip out of his home. He was sheltered by his loyal parishioners as he evaded the RIC over the next few days.
Despite the risk of arrest, he refused to abandon his parishioners and returned to St Mary's on Sunday the 3rd of February to celebrate mass.
The RIC surrounded the Chapel and after the mass ended RIC District Inspector William Martin and 42 RIC men attempted to arrest McFadden.
Inspector Martin drew his sword, approached McFadden who was still in his vestments and demanded that he surrender himself into his custody.
The congregation was horrified, seeing a sword drawn on their parish priest and a group of men rushed to his aid. Inspector Martin was soon surrounded and heavily beaten.
Six RIC went to Inspector Martins's aid and a battle began. The RIC armed with swords and cudgels and the parishioners with granite rocks. One man pulled a paling post and began to beat Inspector Martin about the head, dealing what would prove to be a mortal blow. All the RIC men present received a heavy beating with four seriously injured.
An armed reserve force of police arrived and prepared to fire on the parishioners. They were only stopped by McFadden’s pleas and his promise that he would ensure the crowd would disperse and that the parochial house could be used to tend the wounded RIC men.
Inspector Martin was brought into McFadden’s study where he passed away at 2.30pm. A riot had now become a murder and an uproar began as the RIC began arresting those they felt responsible.
In the confusion, some of the men involved escaped to the surrounding mountains and bogs and managed to avoid the police. Others took flight to Derry and would later sail to America.
Canon McFadden and 35 other men and women were eventually arrested charged with murder and sent to Maryborough Gaol (now Portlaoise Prison).
On the 31st of March McFadden and 19 of his parishioners were returned for trial at the summer assizes and charged with rioting and the murder of Inspector Martin. This surprised many who had not expected McFadden to be included in those charged with the death of Inspector Martin.
The trial created headlines throughout the world and was even debated in parliament. Thomas Sexton MP, who would later be Lord Mayor of Dublin raised the matter in the House of Commons on the 12th of April 1889 saying:
"Father McFadden called out in English and Irish to the people to preserve peace and return to their homes. We have it from Father McFadden himself that in the course of his 10 years administration of the parish he had never before in many crises found the people escape from his control, and the only occasion on which they failed to respond to his appeal was when he was powerless because the people saw him made the victim of outrage.
"I appeal to every Member, no matter what his political opinion, what is the possibility of convicting such a man, who all his life has behaved in the interests of peace and for the welfare of his people, of such a crime?"
The British authorities knew it would be highly unlikely to secure a conviction against a Roman Catholic priest in Donegal, so they moved the trial to Portlaoise.
The Irish Attorney General Peter O’Brien QC is also known as ‘Peter the Packer’, proceeded to ensure a packed jury of 12 men that had no connection to the Land League or the supporting efforts were chosen to prosecute Canon McFadden. Eleven of these were Protestant, who O’Brien believed would be more amenable to convict a priest.
The trial was now news all over the world and yet again McFadden found friends in the unlikeliest of places when another member of parliament, James Stewart MP read out a letter from a Donegal landlord.
He wanted to show the injustice McFadden and the people of Gweedore were fighting against. He read the following into the House of Commons record:
“It is useless, to deal kindly any longer with these tenants. I am going to clear out the two townlands, and it is my land I want now. Remember, they are merely living on my land as long as I let them, and I will not regard cost in carrying out my plans. In doing this I am only following out the Scriptural precept that 'a man may do what he likes with his own.' I am determined on this, and in five or at the most ten years' time there will probably not be a single family left there.”
Stewart warned the house:
“Father McFadden has been a rock of defense, and it is an example of the unjust system which the Donegal peasantry have been taught by our administration to identify with the Government of the Queen."
On the 15th of October 1889, 150 men and women from Gweedore walked the 51 kilometers to Letterkenny train station and began the train journey to Dublin. Two days later the trial began on the 17th of October.
The British authorities were shocked by the world wide positive reaction to Canon McFadden and wanted a quick resolution and the matter put to rest.
With the first defendant, Jack Gallagher, in the dock, defense Barrister Tim Healey argued that the Gweedore community believed it was a grievous crime to attack a priest in his vestments and were only defending McFadden from attack.
The jury was also shown photographs from James Glass showing the grinding poverty and distress suffered by the people of Gweedore.
After 2 weeks the jury failed to agree on the guilt of Jack Gallagher and with the prospect of a long trial ahead, a compromise was sought to ensure the trial did not collapse.
The defense team met with the Attorney General and a plea bargain was agreed for all of the men and women on trial.
There were 4 conditions mandated by the prosecution:
First, all prisoners would plead guilty.
Second, no prisoner would be sentenced to death.
Thirdly, Canon McFadden would be released immediately.
Finally, 30 years of prison sentence would be divided amongst convicted prisoners. The convicted served between 6 months to 10 years with hard labor in Mountjoy jail.
All the accused agreed to these conditions, except Canon McFadden, who wanted to share the fate of his parishioners. He was reluctantly convinced that this was the best deal available and he was set free on a bond of £50.
Those who were still imprisoned in 1892, were released by the new Liberal government.
Canon McFadden returned to Gweedore but was soon sent to America to help raise funds for the new cathedral in Letterkenny.
On his return, he was promoted to the parish priest of Inniskeel in Glenties. He spent 17 years working tirelessly for his parishioners but without any further conflict or controversy with the authorities.
In early 1917 he attended a home rule conference in Belfast and shortly after his return he fell ill. He died aged 74 on the 18th of April 1917.
Canon McFadden was a complex man with strong views and short on patience with those whom he disagreed with. However, to this day he is viewed as a man who fought for the poor against injustice and who spoke up for the voiceless.
He is remembered as a hero and deserves the name the ‘fighting priest of Gweedore’.
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