Scoil Náisiúnta An Stuacáin

By Canon Martin Halloran, P.P.
(First published in 1985, in the journal of the North Mayo Historical and Archaeological Society. Reprinted here, by past-pupil Martina Tully, with permission of the author, who wishes to acknowledge the following sources: "Worthies of Sligo" by McTiernan; "History of Sligo" by O'Rourke; "The Sligo Champion"; "The Sligo Independant" and "The Sligo Journal")

In the years immediately preceding the Great Famine of 1847 the parish of Castleconor in the Barony of Tireragh could not be considered to be in any way different from the average rural western parish of that time. Its 16,223 acres supported a population of 4,500, a population which had grown rapidly over the previous fifty years, even though through that period, emigration, mostly to the U.S., to a lesser extent to England and Scotland, had been extensive. In 1845 there were 136 Catholic baptisms in the parish -- the number for the year 1983 was 27. The land of the parish, which was owned by a small number of landlords, notably Wingfield, Thompson, Jones, Knox-Gore, Ormsby, was rented to a multitude of tenants. As tenants had a tendency to chop up their holdings to provide for their daughters and sons, the farms had in time become small and uneconomic. With over 60% of holdings having less than five acres, it was a struggle, even in good times, to pay the landlord; in difficult years it was well nigh impossible. More than a third of each holding was given over to the growing of potatoes, while oats, wheat, meadow, turnips, accounted for the remainder. Housing in the parish was primitive by present day standards. Most were mud cabins with two to four rooms; some had only one room. Furniture and bedding were also primitive. Good class housing was the prerogative of the landlords. Before 1845 when the National Schools were built in the parish, some Catholics received their little education at one or other of the three Hedge Schools in the parish, contributing a fee of one penny a week for a grounding in the 3-Rs. Only 14% of the population could read and write, 63% could neither read nor write. From this unlikely soil sprung, in the years 1843-'45 three Churchmen, who although coming from differing traditions and backgrounds, made a very significant contribution to the educational, political and literary life of the area.

John Conmy was born in Corballa in 1843 in a house which then stood opposite where Ray's lounge now stands on the main Sligo Road. His father, Thomas, who was a native of Corballa, was a tenant on 4½ acres (Irish), owned by Knox-Gore. His mother was Bridget Walsh from Gleneaskey. John was the eldest of the family, and from his early days showed great intellectual promise. His early education was in Corballa National School, where he was taught by Pat Howley, who had been recently trained in Sligo National School. He then attended St. Muredach's Seminary in Ardnaree, and after a brilliant academic course there, entered Maynooth in August, 1859, although not much more than sixteen years of age. There he was to figure prominently in the prize-lists, especially in Latin, Greek, Irish, as well as in all branches of theology and Canon Law. He had as class-fellow, Michael Logue, later to become Primate and Cardinal, and John Conmy was second only to him in scholastic achievement. A contemporary says of John Conmy that "he was always a great favourite in Maynooth. He was kind and obliging, humble and modest".

Ordained in 1866, although only twenty-three years of age, his first appointment was as curate to Belmullet. After a year he was changed to Dromore West, and in 1870 was appointed Professor of Latin and Greek in the Seminary in Ardnaree. Past-pupils of his have said that he was a gifted teacher, with a great mastery of the Classics, who spoke very precisely and with impressive enunciation. He was President of the Seminary from 1874 to 1879 when he was appointed Administrator in the parish of Backs. During that period agrarian unrest was at its height in Ireland, but John, while at times fearlessly defending the rights and liberties of his flock, managed to lead them always in the paths of moderation. The esteem with which he was held in Backs was evident in the great demonstration of affection for him shown when he was changed, after eight years, to Addergoole. However, his stay was a short one for, on the death of Dr. Costello in 1899, he was transferred to Crossmolina, appointed Vicar-General of the dioc ese, and also Master of Conferences -- offices which he discharged with distinction for the next three years.

The Bishop of the diocese, Dr. Conway, being in ill-health for some time, applied to Rome for a Co-Adjutor, and in 1892 John Conmy was chosen. The Consecretation ceremony took place in St. Muredach's Cathedral on August 24th, where the Consecrating Prelate was Dr. McEvilly of Tuam, assisted by Dr. Healy of Clonfert. Also present were Bishops Gilooley (Elphin), McCormack (Galway), Lyster (Achonry), as well as his forner class-fellow and friend, Dr. Logue, now Primate of All-Ireland. Bishop Conway of Killala was unable to attend because of failing health. The space available in the Cathedral was limited, because of improvements being carried out at that time. Despite extensive preparations it was not without some last-minute unforeseeable difficulties. The ceremony was due to start at 10 a.m., but had to be delayed 'til 10.30 to wait for the arrival of Dr. Logue by morning train. Also the Bishop of Achonry, Dr. Lyster, was to give the homily, but had to cry off at the last moment because of a thro at infection. His place was taken at very short notice by Fr. Finlay, S.J. "The portion of the Cathedral where building operations are in progress was curtained by crimson cloth, which had a very pretty effect, while the same material was employed to screen off a section of the South transcept for the Bishops and clergy to robe in, the vestry being wholly insufficient for the purpose …the cathedral choir, under the conductorship of the efficient organist, Mr. Malachy Tuohy, rendered some beautiful selections from Haydn's Mass. Mrs. Gallagher and Miss Annie O'Dea (soprano), and Miss Maggie Timlin (contralto), sang the solos with exquisite taste" (Western People, August 22nd, 1892).When Dr. Conway died in 1893 John Conmy became Bishop of killala, and went to reside in the house in Ardnaree which had been occupied by his predecessor. The house is still identifiable by a religious motif in some interior glass.

For eighteen years the able and zealous Dr. Conmy ruled the diocese. He did trojan work on the building and re-construction of schools. He took a great interest in the All Red Route and, indeed, travelled to London to promote it. He was, all through his life, a staunch supporter of the Land League and also of the Irish Party. He championed the cause of the Irish revival at a time when it was neither popular nor profitable and the success with which Irish was taught in the schools of the diocese was in no small measure due to his unflagging zest and enthusiasm. In tributes paid to him by his contemporaries all mention him as being a great friend of the poor-"he is heart and soul the friend of the poor man". That he hated public appearances and said very little was probably due to the unfortunate experience he went through while Bishop-elect before his consecration. Although Parnell had died in 1891, there was still a fair amount of support for the Parnellite Party, especially in the towns and in this Ballin a was no exception. Because they had opposed Parnell and had supported Nationalist candidates in the 1892 election the Bishops weren't very popular with the Parnellites. John Conmy openly supported, and canvassed for the Nationalist candidate, Crilly, and this angered the local Parnellites. As John Conmy and Crilly were driving in the direction of Crossmolina on nominations day a woman rushed from a house in one of the streets and threw a can of dirty water in the Bishop-elect's face. Some days later when the Bishop-elect chaired a Nationalist meeting in the town he was struck in the side of the face by a large stone.

He will be remembered chiefly for the building of St. Muredach's College in 1906. The old Seminary, which was a house in the street in Ardnaree, was opened in 1851 during the Episcopate of Dr. Thomas Feeny. It was a day school, and those from a distance lodged in houses in town. Dr. Conmy wished to have an adequate educational facility placed within the reach of the less well-to-do of the diocese. He spared neither time nor labour to make his vision a reality and to have a college worthy of its high purpose -- the training of boys in the best traditions of Catholic scholarship. The Seminary was sold when the College was opened and the money used to buy shares. The profit made from these, in addition to a diocesan collection and a big fund-raising effort in Ballina, cleared the debt of £11,000 quickly. It was a big undertaking for a relatively small diocese with limited resources, but it stands as a monument as much to the generosity and sacrifice of the people and priests of the diocese as to the vision an d energy of Bishop Conmy. Fittingly, his portrait in oils, commissioned by the clergy of the diocese, hangs in a place of honour in the College, and shows him to have been a handsome, imposing figure. He willed all his possessions to the College.

On August 26th, 1911, Bishop Conmy died, of cancer it is said, in his 68th year. He had been ill for some time previously, and a few weeks before his death he asked to be taken to Abbeytown in Crossmolina, the residence of his great personal friend, Monsignor John O'Hara. There he rallied for a short while before death. He was buried, after Solemn Office and Requiem Mass, before the High Altar in the Cathedral. The final Absolution was performed by his lifelong friend, Cardinal Logue. Present also were the Bishops of Tuam, Elphin, Galway and Clonfert. His life and achievements are well summed up in the resolution of sympathy of the Ballina Urban Council. "His eminence as a theologian his profound gifts as a scholar, his splendid support for the revival of the Irish language and industries, and his abiding love of our country, corresponded with the exalted position that he filled, and made his Episcopate worthy of this ancient and historic See. His interest in the material welfare of h is people was a distinguising characteristic of his whole life, while the magnificient and most succesful new College, which he promoted in the cause of education of the youth of the diocese, will forever remain a proud monument to his memory". (Western People, Sept. 2nd, 1911).


Miss Bridget Conway, now aged 103, still lives at Bartra, where her uncle, Michael J. MacHale, was born in 1845. His father, a comfortable farmer, was Michael MacHale of Bartra, his mother, Mary Reynolds, of Corballa. Michael J. received his early education in the local National School where his teacher was John Beglin, and thence proceeded to St. Muredach's Seminary in Ardnaree, where one of his contemporaries was his fellow parishioner, John Conmy of Corballa. From here he entered Maynooth where he pursued a distinguished academic career, being top of his class in English and Elocution, as well as receiving many prizes for Irish. He also received first prize for a dissertation "Literary taste, its nature and cultivation". After ordination he ministered as curate in his native Tireragh -- in Dromore West, Kilglass and Skreen.

From his student days his sympathy lay with the tenant farmers in their struggle against oppressive laws and ruthless landlords. His outspoken views on their plight and his attacks on the Establishment were to land him in trouble in Maynooth and later as a curate. It is not surprising that when Davitt founded the Land League in 1879 in neighbouring Mayo, MacHale gave it his blessing and worked enthusiastically for its promotion. He became prominent in Land League agitation throughout Tireragh, but especially in Skreen, much to the displeasure of his Bishop, Dr. Conway. In the winter of 1879 he formed the Skreen Tenants' Association and on New Year's Day of 1880 he organised a Tenant Right meeting in the same parish. The Land League was very strong in Skreen and Dromard at this time. As well as the curate, Fr. MacHale, the Parish Priest, Fr. Conway, was a staunch supporter of the League. The depth and intensity of the support in the parish is brought out by an incident, reported in "The Nation" of Se ptember 24th, 1881, which relates that much excitement was caused in the parish of Skreen on the previous Sunday. Apparently, Fr. Conway, the Parish Priest, had become very involved in Land League agitation in the Parish, was suspended by the Bishop of Killala, Dr. Conway, and had left the parish. However, the parishioners it seems by no means agreed with his suspension, and they said he was their parish priest still, and they would have no other. They threatened to build up the doors of the two churches in the parish unless Fr. Conway was re-instated the following Sunday. There wasn't a great demonstration in Skreen on the Sunday but in Dromard a crowd of 500 men marched into the church, took possession of both doors and said they would allow no clergymen to approach them but their own priest, Fr. Conway. There were 50 policemen, under Head Constable Rogan, of Sligo, present, but the crowd firmly and definitely refused to admit any other clergyman to the church. Despite the best efforts of the Hea d-Constable they would not give way. Threats of ecclesiastical censure they treated with scorn, and when the police pretended that they would force a way in, the congregation seemed determined on resisting. The police at this junction deemed it prudent to withdraw leaving the people in possession of the church. When they went the people knelt down in the open air and recited some prayers.

MacHale was blessed with a fine delivery and wonderful command of words, which he used to advantage at monster meetings throughout the barony. At Dromore West, 1880: " Well done, noble tillers of the soil, well done. Your numbers and your order proclaim that there is at last hope for Sligo. Your ringing cheers presage that, if true to themselves, the tenants of this, my native barony of Tireagh shall yet obtain their just demands". ("Sligo Champion", 1880)

At a mass meeting in Easkey, to which he led a large Skreen contingent, he was one of the principal speakers: " From this assembled multitude let us ring out the glorious and conquering cry of 'no surrender'. We shall raise that cry 'til our enemies surrender, 'til we tear down the long flaunted brazen banner of feudal despotism". ("Sligo Champion", 1880). At a rally in Skreen in the same year: "On Christmas Eve, I called to administer the last rites of our holy church to an old man dying of destitution on his cabin not far from the mansion of the owner of the soil. Here is what I saw: four human beings --that was the poor man's family -- had continued to live on three-quarters of an acre of ground and the yearly rent was three pounds and five shillings; and much of the mountainous patch was covered with piles of picked up stones. Chimney in the cheerless house there was none, bed there was none save a few rotten boxes and dirty rags, food there was none, except a few potatoes for the Chr istmas meal, and the dying serf and his wife -- as she told me -- for want of a stitch of clothes had not been to Mass in all of ten years. And I saw this miserable victim of starvation -- this man of God -- with his life-breath ebbing fast away, and I trembled to think that worse than the horrors of the Galtee Hills were enacted before my eyes on the mountain-side of the parish of Dromard". ("Sligo Champion", January 3rd, 1880).

Michael MacHale was also an accomplished poet and contributed many poems to newspapers and periodicals under the nom-de-plume 'A Country Curate'. His first book "Irish Priests and Irish People", consisted of a long poem in which he reveals his great love for faith and country. It brought from a reviewer at the time the comment: "In the thoughts as well as the language we have strong evidence of a high poetic faculty which we trust the Reverend author will further cultivate and employ for the glory of God and the honour of the old country".

His best known work is a book of poetry completed in January, 1880, entitled: "Songs of Freedom and other poems", published by Gill and Son, Dublin. It is long out of print, but a copy may be inspected in the National Library. In a postscript he writes: "Most of the foregoing poems were written during the Famine of the past year (1879), written as protest against the periodic destruction of a people by a systematic process of misgovernment. I saw the highways, daily, for months, swarming with crowds of half-starved mendicants clamouring for food. I was daily in houses where squalor and hunger and wind were the chief and persistent luxuries of the wretched occupants. Until the wrongs of the poor struggling tenant masses are redressed on an equitable basis, there can be no peace or prosperity in Ireland". In verse he introduces his work:-

"Here I have gathered together the songs of the fugitive years,

Some sung mid the wild mountain heather, some strung on the meadows of tears,

Some chanted in leisure from duty, from holiest work I have done,

When the sunlight was strong with its beauty, or the evening was faint with the sun"

Songs of Freedom contains poems on many diverse topics. There is one on the death of Edward Lavelle, a Maynooth student of his time, one in memory of a co-diocesan who died in 1874, Fr. John O'Donnell, one for an old friend, Martin Melvin, who died in 1878:-

I stood beside thy grave today,

O friend of all my days of youth,

O man of honour and of truth,

And bent my reverent head to pray.

There are poems on the Land league, Midnight Mass, Death by Famine, Nativity, last Moments, to a patriot in prison, St. Patrick's Day in Exile, The Emigrant Ship:-

One last fond look at the land that bore them, one long last sigh,

One fixed firm glance at the fate before them, as forth they fly,

One deathless hope in the Heaven o'er them, in God on high,

As they speed to that land over waters fleeting,

That will grasp their hands with a friendly greeting.

The reviewer of the book in the "Irish Monthly" says; "The daring mastery of rhyme shown in some places illustrates a dearth of rhyme on others, but while he takes a great many freedoms with metre there is unmistakable talent in the book".

During this period of Irish history the Bishops were under pressure from Rome to prevent their priests from openly supporting and advocating agitation. As a result Michael MacHale was transferred to Kilmoremoy in 1881. He wasn't very happy there, for in 1886, he left Ireland to undertake pastoral work in Brooklyn where he was attached to the Church of St. Charles Borromeo. Within nine months he was dead.

The "Sligo Champion" of August 27th, carried the following account of his death: "The 'Brooklyn Daily Eagle' gives an account of the melancholy death of Rev. M. J. MacHale at the early age of 42 years. Fr. MacHale was curate in Dromore West, Kilglass and Skreen, and was widely known as a poet, his 'Songs of Freedom' having received a large circulation in Ireland and America. The deceased clergymen left Ireland in November last and proceeded to Brooklyn, where he acted as assistant for some time to Fr. Ward at the Church of St. Charles Borromeo. He left Fr. Ward and went to live with his friends in New York, but on 25th May returned to Brooklyn and took a room in the first floor of the Boston House in Atlantic Avenue near South Ferry. On July 31st he complained greatly of the heat and ate nothing. From that time to the day of his death in St.Peter's Hospital, to which he was removed by order of his medical attendant, he was not known to have eaten anything, death resu lting from exhaustion and lack of proper nourishment. The Eagle states that his brother-in-law in Ireland supplied him with liberal remittances and that he seemed to have plenty of money. On the Sunday previous to his death he became unconscious and never rallied. The funeral service was held in St. Peter's Church on the 10th inst., and the remains of the lamented clergyman was interred in Holy Cross cemetary, Flatbush".


James Greer was born in Scurmore in January, 1845, near where the Quay Road meets that from Ballina to Enniscrone. He was the second son of John and Elizabeth Greer. Baptised in Killanley Church by the Rev. Francis Kincaid, he later attended that primary school in Scurmore, which was run by the Church Education Society, where he was taught by Mr. Coulter. The school was on the site now occupied by the house of Sean Hannon. The Greers of Scurmore had long been pilots on the Sligo side of the Moy, but John Greer died when James was very young. Soon, with his widowed mother, brothers and one sister, he was evicted from his home by the owner of Moy View "where Wingfield's pride ruled far and wide and scattered many a hold". This, some may find surprising, as it is the popular perception that only Catholics were evicted during that period. The family having gone to live in Enniscrone, James tried his hand at a number of occupations before eventually deciding to become a teacher. He was accepted in 1863 into the Skreen Training School by Nangle, and his education there was free. The students in the school at that time did not reside in the school, but lived in the homes in the parish. James did so well there that he was sent to Trinity College in scholarship, from which he graduated with distinction. At this stage he joined the ministry, was ordained in February , 1866, worked for a number of years as curate in St. Macartens Cathedral in Monaghan, and then became Rector of Drum, in the diocese of Clogher. Because of constant ill-health, he resigned his post in 1900, and returned to Enniscrone, to the spot he loved so well, to live among the friends and neighbours so dear to him, and here quickly regained his vigour of mind and body. For almost thirty years from then he was to be seen as a familiar figure around Enniscrone, Scurmore, Moy View, Killanley. Over a period of twenty years he contributed many articles to the "Western People" under the nom-de-plume of "Moy Salmon". Th ese later formed the basis of his book, published in 1924, and entitled "The Windings of the Moy with Skreen and Tireragh".

Older residents of Enniscrone will still remember the gentleman in clerical garb, carrying a walking stick, his frame bent under the weight of years, with kindly patriarchal face, keenly observant eyes and intellectual brow. Even in retirement his natural quality as a pastor remained. Wherever there was sickness, sorrow or distress he was present with his counsel and comforting words for Catholic as well as Protestant. "I have passed through the semi-famine of 1863 when there was a complete turf famine, and almost a potato famine. That year it rained daily from the 4th of June to the 21st of September. Too clearly in middle life, I remember the famine of 1879-'80 when the voices of Davitt and Parnell rang out clearly in Ireland and far beyond it. It was a time when I used to be occupied for hours in my little reading room, writing to landlord's agent, solicitors, etc., all demanding their pound of flesh". In an age not noted for its ecumenism he held extremely wide and charitable view s on religion, and was very popular with all creeds. Speaking of Fr. Hugh Conway, Parish Priest of Skreen and later Bishop of Killala, he says: "His noble and lovable presence forced from me a humble salute whenever I chanced to meet him. Some of the Training School boys would not salute, especially the converts of perverts". (Windings, page 99). Of Nangle he has "to all thoughtful people it seems so silly for one Christian communion to be wasting its energies in trying to change the settled born opinions of another Christian communion. It is well that the days of wild religious controversy and theological challenge in Ireland are no more". (Windings,page 110), and again, "intolerance, persecution, etc., of one people or party over another recoils upon itself and in due time the downtrodden spring up with renewed life and youth". He had a great admiration for Michael Davitt, for Davitt's family had been evicted like his own - "my furthest memory is the day of my eviction from the home of the Gre ers of Scurmore, above the Moy" (page 174). In the foreword to his book he says: "The articles in this book were written without any thought of publication. As the years went by there were several, both clergy and laity, who urged the putting of them into book form. Thus to their persistent appeals and encouragement is to be attributed this little volume". In a smooth and cultured style he wrote in the book of the beauty and grandeur of the countryside between the Moy and the Atlantic, its history and antiquities, its abbeys and churches, its old castles and mansions. It is long out of print but copies of it are still treasured possessions in many a house in the county, and in those of its emigrants. Costing five shillings when published it can now fetch up to fifty pounds in the second-hand market.

Greer has also some poems to his credit. One stanza of his poem on Moyne Abbey goes:-

The golden sun is sinking far beyind Kilcummin shore,

The pale faced moon of rosy June doth rise to waken lore,

The evening star illumines far around old Nephin's crown,

And muffled roar of Rosses shore doth swell these valleys round.

This silent strand these waters grand, so deep, so lone, so blue;

This abbey Moyne whereon I stand, this prospect of Moyview,

The calm repose of evenings close that wraps this pool of Moyne,

And wailing cry of seabirds high deep silence all enjoin.

He also penned some lines on the grave of Michael Davitt, some of which run:-

Peace to thy soul, peace to thy grave, thou light of God from humble home,

Thou wert the bravest of the brave, in righting wrongs thou stoodest alone,

There's a place above for the good and true, for the soul that weeps with those that weep;

In that land of light hid from ken and view, brave Davitt now you sure must sleep.

James Greer died at his residence in Orme Lodge, Enniscrone, on 19th September 1929, at the age of 84. His remains were removed to Killanley Church and buried in the family plot in the church graveyard. The burial Service was conducted by his old friend Archdeacon McCormack, assisted by the Rector of Killanley, the Rev. Mr. McGahey. The attendance of Catholics at the funeral far outnumbered that of his co-religionists and at the burial, William J. Caffrey, Co. C., spoke some words of appreciation on behalf of the Catholic community.

The trio, whose lives I have sketched, lived in their early youth through the horrors of the Famine and its aftermath. All, subsequently, achieved a modicum of fame in their native Tireragh. We can admire the intellectual ability of the one, have sympathy for the second dying in exile far from the land he loved, praise the courage of the third, who came back in ill-health and lived for nearly thirty more years to praise the beauties of the area. I feel that all three demonstrate the ability of the human spirit to rise above the hardships and difficulties of life and achieve a measure of greatness.