Turtle Bunbury

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This story was commissioned by the Irish Daily Mail in April 2010 to coincide with the arrival of the Cross of Cong at the National Museum of Country Life in Castlebar.

‘Stop right there’, shouted the constable.

Father Lavelle froze, his long black cloak swirling around him in the autumn breeze. The Galway train was slowly cranking up, spewing thick clouds of coal smoke onto the colonnaded platform of Dublin’s Broadstone Station.

Through the haze, the priest could see a party of men advancing towards him with haste, led by the constable and a very flustered secretary of the Royal Irish Academy.

Father Patrick Lavelle, PP, Cong, Co. Mayo, lowered his head and gradually drew the cross from the folds of his cloak. Even in the relative darkness of the station, the ancient Celtic masterpiece glimmered with gold and silver, copper and bronze, brass and enamel.

‘I was taking it back to its rightful home’, said Father Lavelle quietly, as the secretary relieved him of the cross.

‘The only thing going back to its rightful home is you Father. That train is headed for Connaught. Be on it’.

And so Father Lavelle returned empty-handed to his parishioners in Cong. But at least he had tried.

That, at any rate, is the legend being repeated all over the world this week as the historic Cross of Cong, considered one of Europe’s most valuable treasures, made its way back across the River Shannon for the first time in over 170 years.

The Cross of Cong was almost certainly commissioned by Turlough Mór O'Connor, High King of Ireland, one of the greatest patrons of the arts in the Celtic age.[i] Crafted during the early-12th century by an exemplary Roscommon-based goldsmith, it was apparently built to hold a piece of the original ‘True Cross’ on which Jesus Christ was crucified. From Clonmacnois it made its way to the Cathedral Church of Tuam. In about 1150 AD, it reached the Augustinian Abbey at Cong where it dominated the processional regalia for the next 400 years.[ii]

The cross vanished during the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-16th century. During the 1820, it was rediscovered in a chest in an old cottage outside the village and presented to Father Patrick Prendergast, the last Augustinian abbot of Cong.

Upon his death in 1829, Fr Prendergast was succeeded by Fr Michael Waldron. To the shock of his parish, Fr Waldron sold the Cross of Cong for 100 guineas (perhaps €90,000 in today’s money). He claimed to have used the money to build a new school and put a new thatched roof on the village chapel. But inevitably there was, and still are, parish murmurs that Fr Waldron used the sale money to better his own life. Contemporaries certainly noted that Fr Waldron was greatly ‘hated by the people’ for selling the cross to ‘heretical hands’.[iii]

The ‘heretical hands’ belonged to mathematician James MacCullagh who, in 1839, gave the cross to Dublin’s Royal Irish Academy who held it safely in their Gold Room. It remained one of their most beloved artifacts until 1890 when transferred to Dublin’s new National Museum of Science and Art, the forerunner of the present National Museum of Ireland.[iv]

Last Wednesday, the Cross of Cong went on display in the National Museum of Country Life in Turlough Park, Castlebar, where it will remain for exactly one year.[v]

Pat Wallace, director of the National Museum, maintains that it is ‘the finest artefact ever to come out of Connaught … It is the finest processional cross of its era and even in the Vatican, with all the great Christian treasures of the world, this would stand out’.

Small wonder then that Fr. Lavelle might have wanted to bring it home to Cong. Having succeeded the unpopular Fr. Waldron as parish priest of Cong in 1869, a successful seizure of the Cross would have greatly boosted his standing amongst his new parishioners. He is said to have carried out his attempted ‘liberation’ of the cross sometime in 1870.

Alas, while ‘Da Vinci Code’ enthusiasts may yet turn up something, there are no records of this tale in any contemporary newspapers, letters or diaries. His many enemies made no reference to it. Nor did his obituary. That is not to say it didn’t happen. But if it did, the event was evidently hushed up.

Known variously as the ‘Fenian Priest’ and the ‘Patriot Priest of Partry’, Fr Patrick Lavelle was born in 1825 in Mullagh, Co. Mayo, a townland just west of Croagh Patrick. He was the eldest child in a family of three sons and two daughters born to Francis Lavelle (d. 1862) and his wife Mary (née MacManus). Francis Lavelle held a 25-acre farm from Sir Roger Palmer and had other sources of income.

In 1830, Francis's brother, also Patrick Lavelle, became the first Catholic owner of the Freeman's Journal, Ireland’s oldest nationalist newspaper.[vi] Patrick's premature death, without issue, in 1837 provided the family with enough wealth for young Patrick became a boarder at St. Jarlath’s College, Tuam. Having mastered philosophy, theology and Irish, Patrick entered the Catholic Seminary in Maynooth in 1844, graduating seven years later as one of the college’s top ten students.[vii] In a sign of what was to come, his fellow classmates recalled the young Mayo man as being of ‘an impetuous and quarrelsome nature’.[viii] He was ordained a priest on 21 June 1853.

In 1854, he graduated from the Dunboyne Establishment and was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the Irish College in Paris. However, when he arrived, he found that his position had already been filled by a protégé of Dr. John Miley, Rector of the Irish College.[ix] Eager to remain in Paris, Fr. Lavelle convinced the College Board to create a new Irish language course and installed himself as teacher. His relationship with Dr. Miley remained volatile for the next four years. In 1858, matters reached a head when the Rector persuaded the French authorities to deport ‘the turbulent priest’ back to Ireland where he was appointed curate of Mayo Abbey.[x]

The most important man in Fr. Lavelle’s life was John MacHale, the Catholic Archbishop of Tuam who had taken his side during the Parisian saga.

An outspoken critic of government policy in Ireland, Dr MacHale was particularly anxious about the activities of his arch-rival, Thomas Plunket of Tourmakeady, the evangelical Protestant Bishop of Tuam.[xi]

Dr. Plunket was one of the largest landowners in Co. Mayo. As part of a major proselytising campaign, he had lately initiated a policy obliging all tenant children on his lands, irrespective of religion, to attend one of the so-called new non-sectarian 'National Schools' which were then being established across Ireland. Dr. MacHale feared such schools would greatly weaken the Catholic faith in Ireland.[xii]

Dr. Plunket’s local village was Partry. When a vacancy for the post of Administrator of Partry came up in 1860, Dr. MacHale appointed the pugnacious Fr. Lavelle’s to the task.

The 35-year-old priest lost no time in taking on Dr. Plunket, forbidding Catholics from sending their children to Plunket’s schools and urging the Protestant Bishop to back off.[xiii]

The Bishop did anything but and, in early 1860, he began evicting tenants who failed to send their children to his schools. A protestant was murdered at this time and the district was proclaimed under the Crime and Outrage Act. The crisis peaked when Dr. Plunket recruited a "crowbar brigade" of army and police, under Colonel Knox, Mayo's High Sheriff, to evict sixty families from the villages of Gortfree and Gurteenmore. Every house was then razed to the ground in what became known as the Glensaul Evictions. [The DIB suggests it was just five houses so perhaps that was 60 people]. Such behaviour was roundly condemned from the pulpits of Ireland and France to the news desk of The Times in London. The newly founded Fenian Brotherhood sent large contributions from the USA to help the evicted tenants.

As Dr. Plunket’s support ebbed away, Fr. Lavelle pressed home his advantage, building a network of schools in the area with Franciscan brothers as teacher. Victory was realised when the Plunket family sold their land to Abraham and Joseph Mitchell (the Yorkshire mohair manufacturers), and abandoned the area.[xiv]

‘The War in Partry’, Fr. Lavelle’s published account of this era, made him a household name throughout Connaught, the lowly Catholic priest who defeated the Church of Ireland Bishop.

In an interview with The Nation, the leading nationalist newspaper of the day, Fr Lavelle told how the evictions had ‘aroused his determination to do all in his power to assist the movement for national independence’.

The problem with evictions became considerably more personal in 1863 when his mother and aunt were forced out of their home by Palmer's agent and had their house destroyed.[xv] Horrified by the event, Fr. Lavelle became increasingly committed to the Fenian cause.

His links to Republican extremists began in 1861 when the clandestine Irish Republican Brotherhood elected him Vice-Preisdent of their new public front, the Brotherhood of St. Patrick.[xvi] This role brought him into direct conflict with Paul Cullen, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, who strongly disapproved of the Fenians. When Fr. Lavelle led several thousand mourners on a funeral procession to Glasnevin for one of the Fenian leaders, Dr. Cullen reported him to the Church authorities in Rome.

Fr. Lavelle responded by giving a well-publicized lecture in Dublin’s Rotunda in which he reasoned that when a country is misgoverned, it has a right to revolt and that it is the Church’s duty to weigh in behind that revolt.[xvii]

By the time of his mothers’ eviction, the rogue priest was a well-known figure at Fenian rallies all over Ireland, as well as Glasgow. He frequently mocked Dr. Cullen’s leadership from the platform. In one interview, he told San Francisco readers how it had been foretold that a red-headed bishop would arise in Leinster and being great woe to the Gael; Dr. Cullen was incensed by such insolence.[xviii]

However, the priest from Patry retained the protection of Archbishop MacHale, Dr. Cullen’s western rival, who was himself a Fenian sympathizer.

In 1865, several Fenian leaders were arrested and two years later, the organization staged its abortive rising. At Dr. MacHale’s recommendation, Fr. Lavelle had resigned his post at the Brotherhood in 1863. However, he continued to defend the cause of Fenianism.

As one of the key figures in the Amnesty Movement, he received a massive injection of clerical support following the execution of the so-called Manchester Martyrs in 1867.[xix] Several Bishops and 1,400 priests signed the petition seeking the release of Fenian prisoners. However, while Archbishop MacHale kept his counsel, the now Cardinal Cullen and the Catholic hierarchy came out firmly against the Fenians.

On 12 January 1870, the Pope issued a Holy Office Decree stating that ‘the American or Irish society known as Fenians is among the societies condemned and banned by the papal constitution’. Henceforth, membership of the Fenian Brotherhood was grounds for excommunication.[xx]

Although Cardinal Cullen badly wanted Fr. Lavelle gone from the church, Dr. MacHale’s support ensured the priest was able to stay on side with the Vatican. At one point, Fr. Lavelle even posted a testimonial to Rome, signed by 94 priests who could vouch for him. (It was widely noted that all the priests of Tuam wrote in a very similar hand.)

In October 1869, Dr. MacHale effectively promoted Fr. Lavelle, appointing him parish priest of Cong, the second richest parish in Tuam archdiocese.[xxi]

Such a lucrative post must have been extremely welcome to Fr. Lavelle whose income was greatly depleted by a steady stream of libel actions and other court cases in which he had been involved since at least 1860.

It is at this juncture that the priest is said to have stolen the Cross of Cong. The story goes that he went to the Royal Irish Academy and asked to see the cross. Left alone, he stuck the 12th century masterpiece under his cassock and strolled out of the building. He was accosted at Broadstone and the cross was rescued. No charges were brought against him. Whether this story is true or not, Fr. Lavelle certainly enjoyed a much better relationship with his parishioners than his predecessor.

In the early 1870s, Fr. Lavelle began to mellow. He published a book called ‘The Irish Landlord since the Revolution’ which described landlords as ‘territorial monsters’ and ‘murderers’. However, he was increasingly friendly with several such persons. [xxii] In 1868, he had campaigned at an election on behalf of George Henry Moore, a liberal landowner and father of the novelist George Moore.[xxiii] He also became an intimate friend of Sir Arthur Guinness, (Lord Ardilaun from 1880), of Ashford Castle. It was rumoured that the Guinness’s had bailed him out of debt and that he was now in their pocket. Sir Arthur certainly gave him a new residence, at Pidgeon Park, just outside the village, and 13 acres of free grazing at Caherduff.

Old acquaintances took exception to such gentrified friendships, particularly after the 1874 election when the priest came out against a Fenian candidate.[xxiv] The Connaught Telegraph suggested he had become ‘a henchman’ of the landlords.

Fr. Lavelle became a recluse during his last decade, through a combination of ill-health and dismay at the way his star had so abruptly fallen. He died aged 61 on 17th November 1886. His obituary in the Freeman’s Journal stated that it was ‘well-known that under the influence of social agencies to which he was impervious at an earlier period, his later course of action was decidedly changed’.

It was remarkable that while no major nationalist leaders attended the funeral of the ‘patriot priest from Partry’, the aisles were filled with the family of Lord Ardilaun and other minor gentry.

A plaque to his memory erected by the people of Cong reads: ‘Pray for the soul of Patrick Lavelle who in dark and evil days successfully fought the battle of faith and fatherland’.[xxv]


With thanks to Michael Purcell, Alex Findlater, Tomas Ryan, Tony Candon, Catherine Carney, Lorna Elms (National Museum of Ireland - Country Life. Admission Free), Meike Blackwell, Anthony Tierney (Four Courts Press) and Dr. Gerard Moran (NUI Galway), Ger Delaney (South Mayo Family Research Centre), Dr. Bernadette Cunningham (Royal Irish Academy), Ciara Timlin (Royal Hibernian Academy), Griffin Murray, Jim 'Tailor' O'Malley, and Regina Lavelle.


1) On 14 April 2010, Dr Bernadette Cunningham, Deputy Librarian, Royal Irish Academy, confirmed to me that the cross of Cong was in the possession of the RIA in 1870, having been purchased for the Academy by Sir George Petrie some years earlier. She added: "I have checked the Academy archives and there is no mention of any incident involving the theft of the cross of Cong. I have also checked personally with Dr Gerard Moran, author of two books on Patrick Lavelle (see www.irishhistoryonline.ie) , and while he had encountered the story about Fr Lavelle and the cross of Cong in the course of his research, he believed the story was a fabrication."

2) By a fine chance, I went to Mayo for Easter the same week I wrote this story. While there, I called in to see Jim 'Tailor' O'Malley, a wonderful farmer who featured in 'Vanishing Ireland - Further Chronicles' in order to sign some books for a niece of his who was visiting from Atlanta, Georgia. Jim took me out to the back of his farm and pointed at a particularly verdant green field a couple of miles away. 'That', he said, 'is Mullagh and that field is where Father Lavelle's house was ... the one his mother was evicted from'. Jim's land was also, in part, owned by the Palmers.



‘A radical priest in Mayo: Fr. Patrick Lavelle : the rise and fall of an Irish nationalist, 1825-86’, Gerard P. Moran (Four Courts Press, 1994)

George Moore, 1852-1933’, by Adrian Frazier (Yale University Press).

Richard Hayward, The Corrib Country. (Tempest, Dundalgan Press, Dundalk, 1943).


'Lavelle, Patrick' by C. J. Woods, 'Dictionary of Irish Biography' (9 Volume Set), Edited by James McGuire, James Quinn (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

‘The Patriot Priest of Partry’ Patrick Lavelle: 1825-1886’, Tomas Ó Flaich, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol. 35, (1976), pp. 129-148. Published by: Galway Archaeological & Historical Society

‘The Cross of Cong: Some Recent Discoveries’, Pádraig Ó Riain and Griffin Murray, Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring, 2005), pp. 18-21 , Published by: Wordwell Ltd.

‘Notes on the Cross of Cong’, by E. Perceval Wright The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland © 1901 Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.


[i] ‘The old Gaelic Christian Church had got into bad ways so they were trying to reform itself’, explained Pat Wallace on the RTE News in March 2010. ‘And in all of that there was an artistic renaissance, a flourish with new forms of architecture, lots of stone sculpture, manuscript illumination and particularly fabulous new metalwork with artistic styles coming in from Scandinavia, influencing the Irish, and a revival of the ancient Irish style. All of that comes together in the Cross of Cong. There is no other way to describe it than the finest artefact ever to come out of Connaught’.

[ii] Cong was then controlled by the O’Duffy’s, one of the most influential ecclesiastical dynasties of that period.

[iii] According to a letter in the Tuam Herald (12 March 1888), Waldron kept the money for himself but the local story is that the money was used to roof the chapel with slates.

[iv] In 1862, the Celtic masterpiece was part of a collection that journeyed to the Science and Art museum in South Kensington, London, for the International Exhibition of that year. When the future King Edward VII and his wife visited Ireland in April 1868, The Times reported that they went to the 'Royal Hibernian Academy' [sic] with the Duke of Abercorn to inspect the Cross Cong and various Irish antiquities. It is believed that The Times erred in stating that the Cross was at the RHA rather than the Royal Irish Academy. However, if by some chance it was at the RHA in 1868, and still there in 1870, then it is just possible that that Father Lavelle attempted his brazen liberation from the RHA. However, the RHA was destroyed in a fire during the 1916 Rising and all records and files up to that year were also destroyed, so we have no further evidence of this.

[v] It is both a proud and humbling moment to have such a treasure’, says Tony Candon, Manager-Keeper of the National Museum of Country Life. ‘It is very much seen as a Mayo artefact. It is called by a Mayo name and Mayo people are incredibly interested in it.’

In March 2010, the day the cross arrived back in Mayo, I spoke with Cong butcher Tomas Ryan who joked: ‘We have the original in Cong. That’s just a duplicate. The real one has been here all along’. He says the people of Cong are hopeful the Cross will make a journey back to the Abbey but the roads may be too bumpy. Paul Mullarkey and Andy Halpin of the Antiquities division of the National Museum, who oversaw the transport of the fragile cross, under armed guard, from Dublin to Castlebar, were greatly relieved that the bumpy journey had not damaged it.

[vi] In 1841, Patrick Lavelle sold the Freeman's Journal to a group of O’Connell’s supporters led by fellow-Mayo man John Grey (later Sir John Grey).

[vii] Fr Lavelle’s early education was probably in a hedge school. In 1844, he moved on to Maynooth College where he spent approximately ten years, an era that coincided with the O’Connell’s death, the Irish Famine, the abortive Young Ireland Rising, the collapse of Sadlier’s Bank, the construction of the new Gothic buildings at Maynooth and the visit of Queen Victoria to Maynooth (but not the college). Seven of those years were in preparation for the priesthood. In 1854, his final year, he was appointed Assistant Librarian in the College. He emerged as one of the top ten students of the College and was sent on to the Dunboyne Establishment for higher studies.

[viii] ‘…… in the refectory or class room or recreation ground’. D’Alton, History of the Archdiocese of Tuam.

[ix] Dr. Miley attended Daniel O’Connell at his deathbed in Genoa in 1847.

[x] By 1856, Lavelle was lambasting Miley for failing to pay his due wages and Lavelle himself was found to have been ‘wanting in due respect to his superior’. Two years later, the matter reached a head when, for no stated reason, Dr. Miley instructed the gendarmes to exclude Lavelle and his friend, Father Rice, from the college. The French government then ordered the two men to leave France. The board in charge of the bankrupt Irish College subsequently transferred it to the Vincentian Fathers, and Dr. Miley returned to Ireland to become parish priest of Bray. Rice was appointed curate of Fermoy and subsequently became parish priest in Charleville where he died in 1892.

[xi] Dr. Plunket was also Bishop of Killala and Achonry.

[xii] The national schools were established under the control of the Irish Church Missions Society.

[xiii] Much of Fr. Lavelle’s initial agitation involved law suits, such as a successful libel action against Lord Oranmore who had called him ‘a turbulent priest and a speaker of seditious incentives’. Matters became increasingly heated after the eviction orders by Plunket. One of Plunket’s teachers pointed a seven-barrel revolver at the priest, while Hamilton Townsend, the local parson, similarly threatened ‘to blow [Lavelle’s] brains out’.

[xiv] Dr. Plunket’s heiress and daughter was Catherine Plunket of Ballymascanlon, Co. Louth, one of the oldest people in Irish history. She died in 1932 at the age of 112.

[xv] Following the deaths of his father, brother and sister in quick succession in 1863 and 1864, Fr. Lavelle’s mother was left on her own. The priest apparently wrote to Thomas Ormsby, agent of the estate of Sir Roger Palmer where she was living, and requested that his aunt might also live with her. The request was turned down. When her sister moved in anyway, the two women were evicted and the house torn down. Lavelle unsuccessfully sought redress from the courts.

[xvi] The Brotherhood of St. Patrick was founded in 1861 by James Stephens. Later that year, Fr. Lavelle brashly led the mourners for the procession of the coffin of the Young Irelander and Fenian leader Terence Bellew MacManus (possibly a cousin as Fr Lavelle's mother was a MacManus? he died penniless on the gold fields of California) on its way to lie-in-state in Glasnevin in November 1861. He also wrote and spoke a lengthy piece in praise of MacManus, albeit pressing for moderation rather than revolution. He then led the assembled thousands in the recitation of the De Profundis. Archbishop Cullen was appalled and complained directly to Rome about Lavelle’s actions, describing him as ‘the man who caused the trouble in the Paris College three years ago’.

[xvii] The lecture was entitled ‘The Catholic Doctrine of the Right of Revolution’.

[xviii] A small man, the press likened Fr. Lavelle to an elusive leprechaun. His letters supporting the Fenians and attacking Cardinal Cullen were published in newspapers from Castlebar to Dublin, New York to San Francisco.

[xix] In October 1867 his friends honoured him with a banquet in the Rotunda in which he was toasted as ‘priest and patriot, the fearless defender of the faith of his flock and the unflinching and persistent advocate of human freedom’. Fr. Lavelle was unable to attend the Martyr’s hugely publicised funeral procession owing to an accident just weeks before. He nearly lost an eye when struck on the head by a piece of falling timber during a house-fire. He nonetheless celebrated a high mass for them in Cong which further infuriated Cardinal Cullen.

[xx] The Pope was also influenced by Odo Russell, the British agent in Rome.

[xxi] While Cardinal Cullen was in Rome, Fr. Lavelle managed to cajole the staff at Maynooth into allowing him address the students; the subject of his talk is unknown.

[xxii] His solutions to the land problem were not quite as radical, save for his suggestion of a tax on absentee landlords and compulsory tillage of approx 75% of land. He welcomed Gladstone’s Land Act of 1870. He also joined Isaac Butt’s fledgling Home Rule movement.

[xxiii] In 1868, he successfully campaigned for the nationalist candidate George Henry Moore, a landowner and father of the novelist George Moore. In 1870, he canvassed for an English Catholic called Henry Mathews simply because Mathews opponent had been partially responsible for the execution of the Manchester Martyrs. In 1872 he was accused of being amongst those clergy who used undue influence in sermons and threats from the altar to ensure electoral victory for Captain Nolan over Lord Clancarty’s son. In the subsequent enquiry, Lavelle was reprimanded for calling Sir Thomas Burke a ‘liar’, a ‘false prophet’ and a ‘brainless baronet’. He favoured the obstructionist tactics of Parnell and Biggar but was nowhere to be seen at any of the Land League meetings in Mayo in 1879.

[xxiv] During the Mayo election of 1874, he backed a young catholic landowner called Thomas Tighe, against a former Fenian and the eventual winner, John O’Connor Power.

[xxv] He’d have made an ideal guest for ‘The Late, Late Show’. As O Flaich puts it: ‘Courageous, hot-headed, impulsive, pugnacious, unyielding, call it what you will – I suppose it was a combination of the lot – he was certainly a dauntless fighter who believed that in the circumstances of Ireland in the 19th century, the priests’’ place was with his people in the struggle for justice and national independence’.