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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)


Rev. James Maher P.P.

1793 - 1874


Fr. James Maher P.P.

By Prof. Donal McCartney, Professor of Modern History.

Fr. Maher was born at Donore, Co. Carlow, on 24 May 1793 the year that Carlow College, the first of the Catholic seminaries, opened its doors for students, the year also when the Catholic 40/- freeholders were given the vote. Both events were afterwards important in his life. His parents were comfortable farmers and were related to what has been called the Catholic clerical aristocracy of Kildare & Leighlin the Mahers, Morans and the Cullens. His nephew and close friend, Archbishop Cullen was. Ireland's first Cardinal and his grand-nephew Archbishop Moran was also a Cardinal. His immediate relations formed the hard core of the rising educated Catholic middle-classes who looked after the numerous new churches and convents that were beginning to dot the 19th century Irish landscape. Fr. Maher's family moved to Kilrush, Co. Kildare just before the 1798 rebellion troubled the countryside, and his brother-in-law Hugh Cullen of Prospect was charged with sheltering the rebels but released. Maher received his early education in the famous Quaker school at Ballitore, Co. Kildare (Edmund Burke had earlier been to that same school and Paul Cullen was later to be a pupil there). After this he spent about 8 years in Carlow College before going to Rome in 1817 where he finished his theological studies with the Vincentians prior to his ordination there in 1821. From 1822-7 he was a curate in Carlow, living with JKL, and it was during these years that he had his first controversies with the Evangelicals. From 1827-30 he was PP of Leighlinbridge during the last years of the struggle for Catholic Emancipation.

He served as PP of the united parishes of Goresbridge and Paulstown from 1830-33 at the height of the Whiteboy agrarian activities in this locality, where he was one of Bishop Doyle's most reliable 'trouble shooters'. The new parish priest induced many to renounce the secret society and to hand over their arms to him. These were surrendered to the authorities in Carlow and Kilkenny. Adopting Bishop Doyle's advice on vigilantism, Fr. Maher at the head of parishioners and aided by the police, dispersed the Whitefeet from Castlecomer who had been perpetrating outrages in the neighbourhood of Goresbridge. On another occasion he encouraged his congregation at the last Mass one Sunday to pursue a body of Whitefeet who had appeared in arms in Paulstown. The arrested Whitefeet were later handed over to the police. In faction fighting that was not unrelated to the Whitefeet and Blackfeet, Fr. Maher once intervened physically in order to restore the peace by knocking down several of the combatants.

The power which had for long resided in the landlords was now slipping to the priests. And some of the more extreme Tories among the gentry were convinced that it was a mistake on the part of the government, the magistrates, and police, ever to make the priest the means of communication with the Catholic population even on matters of violence because it gave them a consequence they ought not to have.

A Tory witness told a select committee in 1832: 'Such persons as Lord Killeen or his father (Lord Fingall) or Lord Kenmare and such other gentlemen who are always loyal and well conducted should have been the medium and not the priests'. But that battle had been fought. Aristocracy, whether Catholic or Protestant was retreating, unevenly, it is true, before the advances of democracy, and in the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin. it was men like Bishop Doyle and his friend and ally Fr. Maher whose influence mattered to an increasing extent.

Maher was recalled in 1833 to live with the ailing JKL and became Administrator of the Cathedral between 1833-37. He served as Professor of Theology and Sacred Scripture in Carlow College from 1837-41. It was during the 1830s that he was involved in the Tithe-war and in all the excitement of O'Connell's election 'campaigns in Carlow. In these years, Maher, his friends and relations were all very much involved in the anti-tithe agitation. Middle class Catholics led by O'Connell and Doyle objected to the payment of tithes mainly on religious and liberal grounds. They objected to the inequity of Catholics having to pay an additional tax for the upkeep of the 'heretical' but richly endowed established church which catered for a minority. It was enough to breed discontent, said O'Connell, to see this immense wealth poured into the laps of the Church of Ireland having to contribute one tenth of the produce of their land, including one potato in ten, for the upkeep of the Church of Ireland. The objections of the Catholic farmers to tithes were essentially on agrarian and economic grounds. Tithes were seen as an extension of rents and as part of the oppressive land system. Nor did it ease relations between the people and the established church that some of the clergy in attempting to get their tithes were seen to act as tyrannical magistrates and landlords. That some of the resident clergy were also proselytising evangelicals only served to arouse further hostility among local Catholics. The campaign of resistance against tithes was nowhere carried out with greater resolve than in the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin where it had JKL's fullest support. Fr. Maher's brother, Patrick Maher of Kilrush was jailed on four occasions for persistently refusing to pay tithe. So, too, was Fr. Andrew Fitzgerald, President of Carlow College, jailed on similar charges.

The electoral successes which Maher had helped to spearhead, eventually broke the monopoly of the tory gentry in the constituency. As Fr. Maher put it after one election victory in the 1830s "It is now evident that the people have the power in their hands of choosing their own representative. The road to a seat in the legislature is henceforth open to the best friend of the people. It is closed against all others. The key to the House of Commons is now in the hands of the people, which key had too long lain in the breeches pocket of the aristocrats. This is a mighty advantage. The highest court in the realm shall no longer be encumbered by a cohort of aristocratic incapables; or polluted by the presence of boroughmongers or placemen or the nominees of any party. The reform bill has conferred upon the people the power of sending their friends to parliament and leaving their conservative neighbours at home. The difference between an aristocrat and a popular member of parliament is that the former, is always for things as they are, the latter seeks a change for the better. The victory establishes the fact that the people can send whom they please to parliament, and this has shaken this vicious system and laid .the foundation of a better order" of things."

Fr. Maher became PP of Carlow-Graigue in 1841, and apart from two years in Rome (1844-6) recuperating from a serious illness, he ministered in Graigue for over three decades, including the Repeal and Famine years, until his death in 1874. For most of the time that he was PP of Graigue he lived in Carlow College.

Fr. Maher returned, after his recuperation in Rome, on the eve of the worst disaster in modern Irish history The Great Famine. He felt deeply for the sufferings of the poor during this calamity and he laboured indefatigably in their interests. His experience of the Famine was the cause of his most -bitter condemnation of Government policy in Ireland. His indignation was equalled only by the burning words of John Mitchel: "The Almighty indeed had sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine."

He condemned Work Houses, whose main object he said was not to relieve destitution, but which were the pretext and excuse for refusing relief and "thereby save property as best they can from the charge of supporting the hated poor". The Carlow Work House had been built for 800 but there were 1200 there after the famine. Breakfast and lunch consisted of 8 oz of maize and 2 oz of rice made into gruel. There was no dinner. Children got half portion of gruel for breakfast and bread for lunch.

This is only part of a very lengthy article published in Carlow County Heritage Society 1987-88.

Source: Carlow County Heritage Society 1987-88 Vol1 No. 2 p.47-48.


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