There’s many a lonely hearth-stone tonight in wide Mayo,
There’s many a gallant heart content again can never know
But darkest woe and grief for him the saintly true and tried,
Who on the Saxon scaffold that day for freedom died.
-- From “The Priest of Addergool,” by William Rooney (Founder of Castelbar’s first public library) 1898
In June 2013 we spent two weeks in the lovely little village of Lahardane (sometimes spelled Lahardaun), County Mayo, on the western shore of Lough Conn. Lahardane, and the parish of Addergoole, is known by many in Ireland as home of the “Titanic Fourteen,” 14 locals who were aboard the Titanic, 11 of whom were lost.
There is a beautiful memorial park there commemorating those victims. The day we went to visit the park my eye was drawn to a Celtic cross monument on the roadside nearby. I thought it was related to the Titanic story, but when I went over to look at it I discovered it was actually a monument to Father Andrew Conroy. I had never heard of him before, but would learn that he played a heartbreaking part in the tragic 1798 Rising.
As is often the case with these monuments you find dotted around the small villages of Ireland, Father Conroy is not one of the figures you see prominently featured in the overall history of the ’98 Rising, but in the local area his memory is still revered by many more than two centuries after his death.
Little has been written of his early life, but he apparently grew up somewhere in the vicinity of Lahardane, where he was educated by the local clergy in a hedge school. Conroy followed in the footsteps of the “Wild Geese” to France, but he went to study for a vocation in the priesthood, not to join the Irish Brigade.
(Left: The ruins of the ancient church at Addergoole cemetery, with Lough Conn in the background.)
After being ordained he returned to Mayo and was appointed the priest for the parish of Addergoole (Lahardane). He started several hedge schools in the area to try to help give the children of the local population a chance at success under a system that provided very few opportunities to poor Catholics.
At the time, this area west of Lough Conn was very rural and isolated with a mostly poor, Catholic population. His time in France would have allowed Father Conroy to become acquainted with how much better the “haves” of the world lived than did his poor west Mayo parishioners. With many of them working land owned by rich and often absentee British landlord, one could imagine that the young priest may have developed an affection for his parishioners and harbored resentment toward the British establishment that helped to keep them in such destitute conditions. Over many years, such an emotion can become quite strong. This may have given him sympathy with the United Irish movement that developed many years later, but there is no indication that Father Conroy ever became a part of that organization.
When General Jean Joseph Humbert and his 1,000 French troops landed in Killcummin Bay (right) north of Killala on August 22, 1798, word quickly spread across County Mayo. Humbert issued a proclamation to the Irish people. (See at the end of the article.) It ended: "Union! Liberty! the Irish Republic! such is our shout. Let us march. Our hearts are devoted to you; our glory is in your happiness. Humbert rapidly took the small village of Killala and larger town of Ballina, just northeast of Lough Conn. The British correctly anticipated that his next object would be Castlebar, and the only good roads to it led through Foxford along the eastern side of Lough Conn. The British set up strong defenses there along the River Moy.
In northern Mayo many local priests showed up in Ballina, bringing in some of their parishioners to join Humbert’s forces. Though the hierarchy for the Catholic Church in Ireland opposed the United Irish rising, many parish priests, men who had a closer association with the people than the bishops, supported it.
Exactly what Father Conroy did in these early days of Humbert’s invasion is rather hazy. There were priests, most famously Father John Murphy in County Wexford, who were actively involved in leading Irish rebels during the rising, but there is no evidence that Father Conroy was ever directly connected to the United Irishmen or accompanied Humbert’s forces. How old Father Conroy was in 1798 is not certain, but at least one account referred to him as an “aged priest,” so he might not have been physically up to any direct participation.
(Below: A monument to General Humbert in Killala.)
Some accounts claim he was one of a number of priests who went to Ballina with local recruits. Those accounts also claim it was he who advised Humbert to use the rough road west of Lough Conn, through Crossmolina to Larhardane and through the Windy Gap to Castlebar. According to other accounts, someone else directed Humbert west of Lough Conn and Father Conroy first met with Humbert and his army in Lahardane.
Another tale told of the priest involves an Irish lieutenant in the British army named William Burke, who was sent from the Ballina area with a dispatch for the British in Castlebar, warning them that Humbert was taking the western route around Lough Conn. It was said that he was intercepted by Father Conroy in Larhardane, who convinced him to end his mission and give up the papers. Burke was hunted down by the British a few weeks afterward in the mountains between Lahardane and Newport and hanged in Castlebar.
We’ll probably never know for sure how many of the tales that came down through the years are correct, but all accounts agree that Father Conroy entertained General Humbert and his officers at his home when they passed through Lahardane in the middle of the night. According to historian Richard Hayes in “The Last Invasion of Ireland,” Conroy had, “provisions of various kinds, bread, milk and chicken, had been prepared for their coming.” The Father’s fluency in French would have allowed him to be of great help to Humbert in advising him on the best route from Lahardane to Castlebar.
A number of local residents joined Humbert’s army here. Hayes mentions, “the Jordans of Derrysallagh, Barretts of Lahardane, Joyces of Glenavinne.” It was said that Father Conroy sent young John McHale, who would later be a famous Archbishop of Tuam, to alert the local men who wanted to join the fight. Humbert knew speed was essential and stayed in Lahardane for only about two hours. As they moved out in the darkness Father Conroy stood to the side of the road offering his blessing to his parishioners and the other members of Humbert's force, both Irish and French.
Humbert went on to win the most famous victory of “The Year of the French” the next day, routing General Lake’s forces and sending them fleeing in a victory known ever after as the “Races of Castlebar.” Without further reinforcements from France, however, the rising was doomed.
(Below: A French depiction of the Battle of Castlebar.)
Humbert skillfully weaved his way northeast, trying to join forces with rebels he heard were rising in Longford and Westmeath. It was the equivalent of the “Hail Mary Pass” at the very end of an American football game. He was finally hemmed in at Ballinamuck in County Longford on September 8th by forces far larger than his. He put up a short defense in their hopeless circumstances, to uphold his honor, then surrendered to forces led by the same Lord Cornwallis who had surrendered to Washington at Yorktown.
The French were allowed to surrender, but in a precursor of things to come, many of the Irish who tried to surrender were slaughtered. This is clearly reflected in the fact that 12 British died in the battle and 500 Irish were killed. Most of the 200 taken prisoner were in a short time executed. This included Mathew Tone, brother of Wolfe, and Bartholomew Teeling, in spite of being captured in French officers uniforms.
(Left: A 1798 Rising monument in Castlebar.)
The British had met Irish resistance with coercion. It was the same mistake they always made, right up until 1916's Easter Rising, when it would finally bring about the outcome they hoped it would prevent. In the aftermath of the Rising, Ireland was awash with with arrests and executions, and one of those who would be swept up in this bloody vortex of British revenge would be Father Andrew Conroy, the priest of Addergoole.
A few months after the Rising ended, British soldiers arrived in Lahardane. Various stories had been circulating in the area about his aid to Humbert. When the soldiers arrived at his cottage, there were four men, possibly in French uniforms, there who resisted trying to save him. Two were killed and another wounded. The British claimed to find a French carbine and cartridges in his house and a copy of the French Proclamation to the Irish people.
They transported Father Conroy to Castlebar for a trial that was, like so many other trials of Irish rebels before and after, merely a sham prelude to the execution all knew would follow. He was tried, quickly found guilty, and immediately taken to a tree on the mall opposite the Imperial Hotel and hanged. Numerous grief-stricken residents of the Lahardane area bore the body of their beloved parish priest back home, sadly following the reverse of the same route Humbert had taken to Castlebar. He was buried by the shores of Lough Conn within the ruins of an ancient church at the picturesque Addergoole burial ground.
Like so many Irish martyrs created by the British, Father Conroy became a local legend that could be used by succeeding generations opposed to British rule. The tree where he was hanged became a republican shine. When it was destroyed in a storm in 1918, a period when another republican revolution was in progress, a number of Celtic crosses were carved from the wood and became prized republican relics. Éamon de Valera later said of its destruction, “This tree was a symbol of tyranny, and its destruction was a portend of the downfall of tyranny.”
During the centennial celebrations of the ’98 Rising, a time when the republican ideals that would eventually lead to the War of Independence were beginning to spread, nationalist poet William Rooney commemorated Father Conroy with his poem, “The Priest of Addergool.” As Patrick Pease said at the funeral of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, “but the fools, the fools, the fools! They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”
Father Conroy was another one of those local inspirations that helped keep alive the desire for freedom from British rule. People like him were oppressed and murdered in their own time, but the ideas they espoused could not be extinguished by their deaths. Indeed, those deaths illustrated the iniquities of foreign rule and thus helped keep that flame burning.
(Below: Inside the old church at Addergoole Cemetery. Father Conroy's remains are somewhere beneath here.)
In 1937 the Celtic cross monument that my wife and I saw in Lahardane was erected in Father Conroy’s honor. Father Harte, who assisted the ceremony, had with him one of the crosses carved from the tree upon which Conroy was hanged. The monument ensures that his sacrifices for his country will be remembered by locals, but also by those who chance upon it in their travels through the area, as we did.
The hanging tree where Father Conroy was hanged, on the mall in Castlebar.
The Chieftains The Year of the French The Irish March- March of the Mayomen (1st soundtrack ever done by them)
History of the Irish rebellion in 1798: with memoirs of the union, and Emmett's insurrection in 1803
You have not forgotten Bantry Bay—you know what efforts France has made to assist you. Her affections for you, her desire for avenging your wrongs and insuring your independence, can never be impaired.
After several unsuccessful attempts, behold Frenchmen arrived amongst you.
They come to support your courage, to share your dangers, to join their arms and to mix their blood with yours in the sacred cause of liberty! They are the forerunners of other Frenchmen, whom you shall soon enfold in your arms.
Brave Irishmen, our cause is common; like you, we abhor the avaricious and bloodthirsty policy of an oppressive government; like you, we hold as indefensible the right of all nations to liberty; like you, we are persuaded that the peace of the world shall ever be troubled as long as the British Ministry is suffered to make with impunity a traffic of the industry, labor and blood of the people.
But exclusive of the same interests which unite us, we have powerful motives to love and defend you.
Have we not been the pretext of the cruelty exercised against you by the Cabinet of St. James? The heartfelt interest you have shown in the grand events of our revolution—has it not been imputed to you as a crime? Are not tortures and death continually hanging over such of you as are barely suspected of being our friends? Let us unite, then, and march to glory.
We swear the most inviolable respect for your properties, your laws, and all your religious opinions. Be free! be masters in your own country. We look for no other conquest than that of your liberty—no other success than yours.
The moment of breaking your chains has arrived; our triumphant troops are now flying to the extremities of the earth to tear up the roots of the wealth and tyranny of our enemies. That frightened Colossus is mouldering away in every part. Can there be any Irishman base enough to separate himself at such a happy conjuncture from the grand interests of his country? If such there be, brave friends, let him be chased from the country he betrays, and let his property become the reward of those generous men who know how to fight and die!
Irishmen, recollect the late defeats which your enemies have experienced from the French; recollect the claims of Honscoote, Toulon, Quiberon, and Ostend; recollect America, free from the moment she wished to be so.
The contest between you and your oppressors cannot be long.
Union! Liberty! the Irish Republic! such is our shout. Let us march. Our hearts are devoted to you; our glory is in your happiness.