The West Cork ‘Pagan’ that tried to convert Mrs Brown’s Boys

Posted on: 3rd November, 2015

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Patrick J. Mahoney

Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column will highlight the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.

Above: Mountjoy Jail circa 1866

With both Halloween and All Saints’ Day rapidly approaching, it is worth briefly considering the historical significance of their origins. While All Saints’ Day had traditionally been observed on May 13 since its introduction in the year 609, the Catholic Church decided to move the celebration to its current date during the eighth century. As a result of this change in the liturgical calendar, the new feast date encroached upon the traditional Gaelic festival of Samhain, celebrated from sunset on October 31 to sunset on the following day to mark the end of the harvest and the coming of the winter season.

For an Irish society that was very much in a state of spiritual transition, there existed a sense of uneasiness regarding the coexistence of increasingly standardised Christian customs and beliefs and those that were connected to the religions that had preceded Christianity’s arrival.

For history enthusiasts, this period of spiritual change can serve as a window into the mind of one of the most eccentric characters in both West Cork and Fenian lore. For Macroom’s Patrick O’Leary, typically referred to by his self-proclaimed nickname ‘Pagan’, the shift away from the beliefs of pre-Christian Celtic paganism to Christianity proved to be both a driving force in his involvement with the Fenian movement, and one of the defining elements of his own unusual legacy.

Born in Macroom in 1825, by the 1840s O’Leary found himself in the United States, studying for the priesthood at the American Catholic College. However, like many other young men of the time, the small, wiry Cork man got caught up in the patriotic fervor that had come over his adoptive country at the outbreak of the Mexican War. As a result, he abandoned his religious studies for a very different sort of education on the blood-soaked battlefields that lay south of the US border. During the course of his service, O’Leary saw action in a number of skirmishes. On one such occasion, the former seminarian was grazed in the head by a spent musket ball, which left him with a noticeable indentation on the top of his forehead.

Following an honourable discharge as a result of his injury, O’Leary settled into the politically charged environment of New York City, where he came into contact with a wide range of revolutionary ideals, including those espoused by the future leaders of the Fenian Brotherhood, founded in the city in March of 1858. Upon joining the budding movement, his new comrades noted that while they admired O’Leary’s intense commitment to throwing off the yoke of British rule in Ireland, there was a peculiarity to the Mexican-War veteran. Attributing it to the head injury that he had suffered in his military days, the West Corkonian quickly began to develop a reputation amongst his peers for bouts of religious mania and a near obsession with reviving pre-Christian paganism in Ireland. Despite his early studies for the priesthood, it became abundantly clear that his disdain for the Catholic Church equalled that of British imperialism. In a symbolic act of protest, O’Leary changed the spelling of his name to the Irish Ó Laoghaire to rid himself of the “cursed English way of spelling”, and dropped his baptismal name, claiming that the teachings of St. Patrick, in particular the idea that one should forgive their enemies, had rendered the Irish unwarlike and directly led them to become a subjugated people under British rule. Additionally, he expressed his desire to the Fenian leadership that after they had expelled the English from Ireland’s shores, so too should they drive out the Roman Catholic Church and then return to the beliefs depicted in the stories of Irish mythology, namely those of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Fianna. His revulsion of the religious and governmental institutions extended to their respective leaders of the time, whom O’Leary took to referring to by cheeky nicknames. As such, Dublin Archbishop Paul Cullen, an outspoken opponent of Fenianism, became simply Paul; Queen Victoria was referred to as Mrs. Brown, an ode to a rumour of the time that the widowed royal had entered into a romantic relationship with her personal servant John Brown, and the Pope was sarcastically spoken of by the new title of ‘The Boss’.

Undoubtedly, O’Leary’s biggest contribution to the Fenian cause came in the autumn of 1863, when he returned to Ireland and began attempting to recruit some of ‘Mrs. Brown’s boys’ to the nationalist cause. His fellow Fenian John O’Leary, who was of no relation, noted of the process utilised by the Pagan in attempting to sway the opinions of his countrymen fighting in the ranks of the British army, “He first asked his man if he were an Irishman, then made his proposal directly, and immediately after proceeded to administer the oath.” To further gain their sympathies, O’Leary drew from his own military experience, and explained that while the British government was exploiting the young men in their youth, if they should become crippled or maimed in battle, they would be left to live out their days in physical and financial destitution in the nation’s poorhouses. Regarding this risky process of revolutionary recruitment, O’Leary concluded, “the extraordinary recklessness of ‘The Pagan’ was rather an advantage in dealing with these soldiers, who were themselves mostly daring.”

In a couple of short years, O’Leary had covertly recruited thousands of members to the Fenian cause from the ranks of the crown’s forces. However, in 1864, the recklessness that he had become known for would catch up with him. While attempting to procure recruits near a military barracks in Athlone, one of the soldiers who had been the object of his enlistment attempt turned the tables and reported Pagan to the authorities. He was quickly arrested, tried and sentenced to seven years penal servitude.

After being imprisoned in Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail and Portland Prison in the south of England, O’Leary was granted an unconditional pardon for good behaviour, and returned to New York in 1871. Not long after his return to the Empire City, Pagan’s involvement in Fenian affairs waned, along with his disdain of the Catholic Church. In 1873, the most eccentric of the Fenians passed away quietly in a veteran soldiers’ home in Norfolk, Virginia, after having become fully reconciled with the church.

This holiday season, as you celebrate Halloween and/or All Saints’ Day, take a second to think back on the man whose story is undeniably defined by his fixation upon the retreat of pagan customs after Christianity took hold in Ireland, and the affects that this spiritual shift had in the long term. On that note, while ‘Pagan’ certainly has a ring to it, I don’t think I’ll be changing my name anytime soon…

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Wave to Mary! 65-year-old Mary Nolan Hickey is running around the entire coast of the Island of Ireland to raise funds & awareness for the RNLI and is currently running the roads of West Cork.

Mary is the only woman to have completed every single Dublin Marathon (all 38 of them). She’s also completed the grueling Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert, known as the ‘toughest foot race on earth’.

To mark her 50th year involved in Athletics Mary is taking on her biggest challenge yet (even though she thought she’d already done that when completing the Dublin Marathon when she was over six months pregnant!) She wants to raise as much money as possible for the RNLI.

Mary started her epic journey in Arklow, Co. Wicklow, on New Year’s Day. She aims to cover up to 5000 kilometers, using coastal routes, over the next five months. She hopes to get back in time to get her first pension payment in June when she turns 66.

Mary will stop off at as many RNLI stations as possible, on her once in a lifetime adventure. As far as she knows no other woman has ever taken on this challenge.

Speaking about her journey Mary said:

“I wanted to prove that age not a barrier. Coming from a coastal town I have a deep affinity with our local RNLI station & volunteers and have huge admiration for the brave men and women who risk their lives to save lives at sea”.

Mary, who’s depending on the goodwill of communities along her route for accommodation, has been astounded by the response so far. “The support has been overwhelming,” she said. “I have met the most amazing and encouraging people along the way”.

To see more about Mary’s adventures, and to pinpoint her location today, check out her Facebook page - rnlilapofthemap2018.
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20th March, 2018  ·  


This Saturday the 10th March, will see some magically curious activity as local Bandon national schools compete in a Wizarding Harry Potter Quiz. The prize will be the beautiful Bandon Banshee Perpetual Cup.

As any Harry Potter enthusiast knows, Bandon has the unique honour of having a character named after the town. The Bandon Banshee, was referred to as the nemesis of Gilderoy Lockhart in the Chamber of Secrets. The book grossed €60 million in sales and was the 7th highest earning film of all time.

Locals, looking to enhance the town for young people, saw the quiz as an ideal way promote the connection. The universally absorbing book series brings young readers on a huge adventure of magic, adversity and triumph. It is also an exploration of loyalty and friendship, good and evil – so it is not only popular way to engage young people, it is a hugely positive connection.

Zoe Tennyson, one of the organisers said they were delighted with the response from schools who ran a qualifying quiz as part of World Book Day. On Saturday Bandon Town Hall will be transformed into Hogwarts Great Hall, with proceeds going Bandon Playground Group, and to cover costs of the event.

Bandon Books will be rewarding the winning team with vouchers to each of the five members. The Bandon Banshee, or Bean-sidhe na Bandaan Perpetual Cup will be hotly contested – but which school will the Banshee go to??

If you have any questions please call Marguerite McQuaid on 087 900 9494
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8th March, 2018  ·  

Ballineen Foróige Young Engineers Exhibition 23 February 2018

The inaugural Ballineen Foróige Young Engineers Exhibition will take place in Gort Mhuire Hall in Ballineen this Friday 23rd February. As part of Engineers Week 2018, leaders and members of Ballineen Foróige Club have organised an exhibition which will showcase a diverse and exciting range of engineering projects that have been undertaken by members of the club over the last few weeks, with the aid of leaders and a number of local engineers.

With the aid of local pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, along with the support of STEAM Education, a UCC based company focused on promoting science, technology, engineering, arts, and maths subjects in primary schools, Ballineen Foróige has been engaging members and leaders in all things engineering over the last six weeks. From researching, designing, and prototyping a project based on local problems, to participating in various workshops on coding and careers in engineering, Ballineen Foróige have been extremely busy in preparation for the exhibition this coming Friday night.

On the night itself, Michael Loftus, Head of Engineering at CIT, Fintan Goold, Manager at Eli Lilly and All-Ireland Cork winning Footballer, along with Geraldine Coughlan of GCA Architects & Designers, a local business, will act as judges on the night, evaluating the different engineering projects and offering some advice to the members of the club. Also in attendance will be the CEO of Foróige Seán Campbell, along with a number of local councillors, TD’s and Senators.

Leading the team of Ballineen Foróige leaders organising the event, is Rebecca Dwyer, a bioprocess engineer at Eli Lilly. Rebecca recently became a leader in the club and says that Ballineen Foróige Young Engineer Exhibition 2018 “promises to be a fun, challenging and rewarding experience for all involved and we look forward to welcoming parents, relatives, friends and members of the public to the exhibition and film screening on the evening of Friday 23rd February.” Overall, there are twelve projects entered in the exhibition. One project, led by Cian Kennefick and Charlie Nolan, members of the starting out club, examines the possibility of installing speed ramps on the road near local primary school. Fourteen-year-old Charlie says he got involved in the project as it was something to do and it gets you thinking. Cian says the most exciting part of the project was the building of the prototypes.

Both Cian and Charlie, along with thirty other members of the club will display their projects this coming Friday 23 February in Gort Mhuire Hall in Ballineen. Doors open at 8pm and the event runs until 10pm. All are welcome to attend, and admission is free. Catering, including tea and coffee, will be provided on the night.
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20th February, 2018  ·  

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Main course

17th February, 2018  ·  

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