Oration at the Unveiling Ceremony
By Tommy McKearney, 25th August 2019
Whomsoever can define the narrative of history often influences the received wisdom of the present and is thereafter in a position to set the agenda for the future. Nothing, therefore, challenges the powerful so much as those who question their interpretation of history whether it is their attempt to exaggerate the importance of some or to bury in obscurity the contribution of others.
The powerful fear nothing so much as the person of integrity who highlights their failures their follies and their crimes. That individual who exposes the flaws or wrongdoing in their decision-making, who highlights the weaknesses in their negotiating strategies or the lack of merit in their pontificating is dreaded.
It should come as no surprise therefore that the heroic role played by Father Michael O’Flanagan in the history of this country has sadly, and indeed scandalously, been overlooked and neglected for so long. Too many powerful elements on this island and abroad have had a vested interest in preserving this uncharitable silence.
Maintaining a silence about a men who encapsulated the republican virtues that epitomised the noblest aspects of Fenianism:
— Fearless in speaking against imperialism;
— Staunchly supportive of Irish independence;
— Believing and practising the values of secularism;
— A courageous man of action who participated in activities;
— Searing in analysing every situation;
— Brutal honesty – even at huge person cost – in his deliberations;
— Always on the side of the poor and oppressed whether in rural or urban Ireland or abroad.
Father Michael O’Flanagan excoriated the British Empire for its brutal treatment of the Irish people and its denial of our people’s right to self-determination and he joined the struggle to break the connection with that execrable government in London.
He rejected the Treaty that partitioned Ireland and which delivered only dominion status rendering us effectively little more than administrators of British rule in Ireland.
In the 1930s he courageously contradicted and rejected fascist propaganda claiming that the civil war in Spain was about religion … By the way have we not heard a similar claim in relation to conflict closer to home?
Religion indeed plays a crucial part in this story. As an ordained priest of the Catholic Church Fr Michael O’Flanagan broke not only with convention but his political analysis and activity posed an existential threat to the power structures in Ireland before and after the Black and Tan war.
Religion, a private matter of conscience and guaranteed by the Proclamation, has been used by the ruling class to divide the people of this land and thereby gain control over us. The concept of carefully fostered divisions was no mere rhetoric in the Proclamation. Religion was used to underscore the difference between the Empire supporting aristocracy and a restless, independence-seeking people. In the northern part of our country religion was exploited to provided the basis for dividing working-class people and allow the empire retain a foothold on its western flank.
And when in 1795, the British government funded the establishment of The Royal College of St Patrick in Maynooth, it did so not out of affection for the Roman church but to exercise influence. In return for state acceptance and support, the Catholic church in Ireland was expected to support the state, maintain the status quo and at all times condemn revolution.
Sadly and to our enormous cost this convention survived the establishment of the Free State. And only in recent years have we learned the full extent of this calamity. As the old radicals used to sing, ‘with church and state in close embrace, there must be pain for the human race’.
When Michael O’Flanagan chose to disregard this practice he was making an incalculable contribution to the welfare and well-being of Irish society. He was practicing the republican virtue of secularism, demonstrating that in Ireland it was quite possible to separate church and state and that home rule did not mean Rome rule. For a long-suffering people, yet for a people who at that time had a deep devotion, this was of enormous importance. To the powers that were in place it was equally important since it questioned their every action.
Fr O’Flanagan was no mere clerical figurehead appointed as a token gesture.
He was a gifted orator, a fact that was recognised by senior church figures when only four years after his ordination in 1904 he was sent by his bishop to the United States to engage with the Irish American Catholic community. Nevertheless, while there he displayed his deep commitment to Irish republicanism. He not only acted as an envoy for the Gaelic League, he also met and conferred with Tom Clarke and O’Donovan Rossa.
Always known as a fine speaker, his first public emergence as a political activist occurred in March 1913 when, against the wishes of his bishop, he attended and spoke at rallies in support of striking dockworkers in Sligo. This was a man who said of James Connelly – he led down his life for the Irish people to assert for them not only the right to be the political rulers of Ireland but also the economic owners of Ireland as well.
Not only was he a first class orator but he also believed in taking action in support of the less well-off and deprived. In 1915 in his parish of Cliffoney an attempt was made by local authorities to deny the poor the right to harvest turf. Defying the expressed wishes of his bishop, Michael O’Flanagan mobilised his parishioners, led them to the local bog and began harvesting turf. Thanks to this courageous piece of direct action, he forced the authorities to reverse their decision on turf cutting. He was however, unable to prevent his Bishop from censoring him and was transferred to a remote parish from where he was to have perhaps his greatest impact.
In the same year of 1915, he stood in this cemetery and delivered requiem prayers over the grave of O’Donovan Rossa before Patrick Pearse delivered his immortal oration. Nor was he afraid to directly involve himself in the fight for independence. In 1916 he helped transport arms and ammunition to his friend Patrick Moran in Crossna, the same Patrick Moran who he was to visit the evening before his execution in Mountjoy jail on 21 March 1921.
However it was in early 1917 that Fr O’Flanagan was responsible for what was perhaps one of the seminal moments in 20th-century Irish history when he effectively organised the by-election victory of Count Plunkett in North Roscommon. This result prevented Redmond’s parliamentary party from regaining its post Easter Rising momentum and facilitated the Sinn Fein general election victory of 1918.
His most heroic deeds came however when he had least political power. As a Catholic priest in early 20th-century Ireland and as a leading and influential member of Sinn Fein he could quite easily have earned immense personal privilege had he sided with the pro-treaty forces. His integrity and his analytical mind led him to take a different stance, albeit one that came at significant personal cost. Fundamentally opposed to the dominion status delivered by the treaty, he toured the United States and Australia speaking eloquently and fervently in support of the Republic.
In the face of incredible opposition and hostility from his church both in Ireland and abroad, from the pro-treaty apologists in government and in the media he persisted. He never relented in his opposition to the Treaty, unveiling a monument to Kildare’s civil war republican dead in 1933.
Always a friend of the poor, the less well-off and the working class he was quick to recognise the threat posed by fascism in the 1930s. No longer young, he worked tirelessly both at home and in the United States in support of the Spanish Republic and against the dictatorship of Franco and the Spanish Falange. It requires little imagination to envisage the hostility his principled position would have invoked in Ireland of the 1930s yet he fearlessly held his position as he had done throughout his lifetime.
And when Irish survivors of the International Brigades led by the legendary Michael O’Riordan returned to Dublin on 10th December 1938, there standing on the back of a lorry in driving rain in Abbey Street to greet them was Michael O’Flanagan, the ‘staunchest priest in Ireland’…
His life ended was to end at the relatively young age of 65 in 1942. Testimony to the regard he had earned, among the mourners was old comrade, veterans of the International Brigade and significantly in recognition of his commitment to the ordinary working class people of Ireland, stood the great Jim Larkin.
Almost 80 years have passed since he was laid to rest in this cemetery. Since his passing much has changed yet so much remains the same. Ireland is still partitioned and we might well ask ourselves what Fr. Michael O’Flanagan would make of contemporary Ireland, he who once asked in an article; ‘What will the Irish Republic do for the labourers? … What shall we eat and what shall we drink and where shall we be clothed? What would Fr O’Flanagan make of a state with 10,000 homeless and where we have food banks in almost every town?
Father Michael O’Flanagan came from the Fenian tradition and came with a clear understanding of its origins. He recognised, as did the founders of the Fenian movement that the welfare of the people would be best served in an independent and sovereign republic and that by the same token the republic must take care of all its people. He lived his life by these principles and never deviated. He has left us with a magnificent but challenging legacy. A legacy many of the powerful and comfortable would wish us to ignore and to forget.
Let us honour the life and memory of this patriot by committing ourselves to neither ignore nor forget his contribution and for what he struggled.
Let us pay him the only fitting tribute that an Irish republican patriot deserves – to pledge ourselves to build the republic he struggled so valiantly for throughout this adult life.