Turtle Bunbury

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Father Patrick Gill

Father Patrick Gill at the church
in Lecanvey.
(Photo: James Fennell)

Vanishing Ireland
Very Rev. Patrick Gill
Parish Priest
St Patrick’s Church, Lecanvey, Co Mayo
Born: 1927
On 21st September 1795, a group of unarmed Catholics gathered outside Loughgall, Co Armagh, to debate ways in which they might resist the recent upsurge in Catholic persecution by the Protestant Peep-of-Day Boys. The story runs that this assembly was suddenly attacked by Protestant sharp-shooters, leaving between eight and thirty Catholics dead, depending on what paper you read. Indeed, Protestant lore holds that the Catholics had actually attacked first, only to be ‘routed with great slaughter by the brave Protestants’. The skirmish became known as the Battle of the Diamond and, that same night, a body of senior Armagh Protestants formally established the Orange Order in Ireland.

Over the ensuing weeks, the Order’s more thuggish members caused unholy terror to the Catholic population in mid-Ulster, burning their houses, destroying their linen-weaving machinery and driving the families out of the county. ‘To Hell or Connaught’ was the short note many a Catholic found pinned to his front door as a prompt to his exile.

Among the 7,000 Catholics expelled from Ulster during this period was a barrel-cooper called [Michael] Gill who migrated to the stormy shores of Co Mayo. Perhaps, like many Armagh men of that time, he was attracted by the fledgling flax industry on Lord Sligo’s estate in Westport.

Four generations later, the legacy of the 1795 pogroms lives on in the memory of Father Patrick Gill. ‘When my people arrived here, they were glad to take up a small bit of land anywhere. Even a bit of a bog was better than nothing. They would reclaim it and till it and they grew just one thing. The lumper potato. And when that failed, they were in a bad way’.

Whatever bitterness the Gills felt about being expelled from Armagh presumably mushroomed during the Great Famine which struck Mayo harder than any other county in Ireland. Father Patrick is of the view that certain landlords in the area were guilty of extracting the maximum from the common people at this time and the famine is still evidently a very sensitive subject for him.

Born on a farm near Louisburg in 1927, Father Patrick was the only one of his immediate family to enter the church. His calling was gradual, born during the long periods of prayer time that dominated his youth.

By 1945, he was training to be a priest in Maynooth. Having obtained a degree in philosophy and theology, he was appointed parish priest of Mulranny in Co Mayo. He was subsequently relocated to Headford in north County Galway. Latterly he was parish priest in the pretty village of Miltown on the upper reaches of the Clare River, between Tuam, Co Galway, and Claremorris in Co Mayo.

In 1998, Father Patrick retired to the Parochial House of Lecanvey at the foot of Croagh Patrick and just a few miles from the place of his birth. Surrounded by some forty lean young fir trees, the two-storey Parochial House was built in the 1920s and overlooks Clew Bay. It stands directly across the road from St Patrick’s Church. When Father Patrick’s ancestor arrived in Mayo two centuries ago, the church in Lecanvey was a simple thatched structure set upon a small strip of land leased from Lord Sligo. The present, considerable building was completed in 1891 with a modernist porch added in the 1960s. At the back is a community centre where younger folk play indoor soccer, basketball and badminton. The priest is also, of late, the proud caretaker of a FAS-built poly-tunnel, pitched behind his house, wherein members of the community are invited to grow their own vegetables.

On the summit of Croagh Patrick behind the church, you can just see the Oratory where so many barefooted pilgrims find their solace. Father Patrick has climbed the Reek at least 25 times and counsels that preparation is key. ‘You would want to hone the climbing skills and get a bit of exercise. Oh boy, does it make the legs sore!’

Father Patrick says he is ‘just holding the fort’ in Lecanvey, but with 660 parishioners, one senses his retirement is by no means idle. He continues to read, chiefly theology, history and the newspapers. He avoids fiction and has no interest in movies or television. He adores classical music and has even been known to attend the Sunday night sessions in nearby Stanton’s pub. ‘Rise up your heart and sing’, he urges. His ambition is to encourage people to be ‘kinder, nicer and more compassionate’ to one another. He likens the effect to ‘a drop of paint in water; the goodness spreads and colours those around about them’.

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.