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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