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Father Phelan, Parish Priest of Rathvilly (1885-1903)

Phelan Street, Rathvilly, was named for Father Phelan in 1903.

Carlow Nationalist – Saturday 21 March 1903



Universal and widespread regret will be felt at the announcement of the death of the Very Rev John Phelan, PP, Rathvilly. The revered pastor had been in failing health for the past two years, and last September removed to Dublin in the hope that a change of air and scene might restore him. He improved wonderfully for some time, and great hopes were entertained that he would be able soon to return and resume the duties of his sacred calling. However, the fond hopes of his friends and the members of his flock were not to be realised. A change for the worse set in, and on Wednesday. 11th inst, he passed peacefully in the presence of some of his oldest friends, Father Morrissey, C M (who administered the last Sacraments); Rev J Walshe, S J; and Rev H Lube, CC, Haddington road.

Sir Christopher Nixon and Dr O’Donnell, Merrion square, were in attendance on him to the last.

Father Phelan belonged to an old and highly respected Queen’s County family. He received his early education at the Preston Endowed School, Abbeyleix, and afterwards in Mountrath, from which he went to Carlow College to pursue his ecclesiastical studies. From Carlow, he proceeded to Maynooth where he was ordained, and where he had for contemporaries some of the most eminent ecclesiastics of the past generation.

After his ordination he laboured as curate in Clonegal and Hacketstown, being subsequently appointed Administrator in Carlow, where he spent a number of years. On the death of the Rev William Hooney he was made Parish Priest of Emo, Queen’s County, and here it was that he first found scope for the energy and resource which were characteristic of him.

He built the beautiful church at Courtwood and the Parochial House there; also the Parochial House at Emo; and he renovated and beautified Emo Church. He as well built schools and residences for his teachers. An event to which he always looked back with gratification was his association with the Countess of Portarlington, a pious and benevolent lady, who was received into the Catholic Church by his friend and predecessor, Father Hooney.

After his great work in Emo it might be thought that he would be content to crown “a life of labour with an age of ease,” but no, for him it was not to be.

On the death of the Rev P C Nolan he accepted, at the request of Dr Walshe, the pastoral charge of Rathvilly parish, and with it the most arduous undertaking of his whole career. Father Nolan had begun the erection of Rathvilly Church. but it pleased God to call him before the work had proceeded far, and Dr Walshe well knew that in Father Phelan he had one fully capable of accomplishing it.

St Patrick’s Church, Rathvilly.

On coming to Rathvilly in February, 1885, he literally took off his coat, and, in season and out of season, he spared no exertion, but with his indomitable energy, and against disadvantages  which would have disheartened many another, he overcame all obstacles, and perhaps the proudest day in his whole career was the 17th March, 1889, when, in presence of an enormous assemblage of priests and laymen, he saw the magnificent edifice dedicated to the worship of God.

In Rathvilly, as in Emo, he was not content with confining his exertions to the one undertaking. He had the churches at Ticknock and Talbotstown repaired and decorated, new schools built at Tyneclash, and teachers’ residences at Ticknock and Rathvilly.

Although so fully occupied in providing for “the beauty of God’s House,” he never permitted the duties proper to his calling to be in the slightest degree interfered with. He was untiring, and unsparing of himself, in his labours for the spiritual welfare of his people. In the pulpit his clear and resonant voice, his fine command of language, the evident and heartfelt sincerity of his words. made impressions on the hearts of his hearers not soon to be effaced.

Devoted to the spiritual welfare of his people, Father Phelan was fully alive to the duty which devolves on the Irish Soggarth of championing their political rights, and of forwarding their material interests. He was not long in Rathvilly until he made his influence felt, not alone in his own parish, but all over County Carlow. He gave invaluable support to the different National movements of his time. As President of the National League in Rathvilly he did yeoman service in the cause of Land Reform. His speeches and letters in the public press were always marked with great ability and force.

His patriotism and enthusiasm had a marked influence with his people, and when Father Phelan was in the zenith of his powers, Rathvilly was looked on to by the entire Co Carlow for light and leading. He was a patriot in the best sense of the word, and his love of country and people was second only to his love of God.

Socially Father Phelan was a favourite with everybody. The soul of hospitality, his ready wit and racy humour, his powers as a raconteur, his great and valued experience of men and things, made it impossible for those who ever had the privilege of spending an evening in his society not to remember it always. But his friends, and they were legion, can now only look back and long for the touch of a vanished hand, for the sound of the voice that is still.”

He was ever broad-minded and tolerant for the feelings of others, and this fact was testified to by the large number of his Protestant neighbours, who came to his funeral to pay a last tribute of respect to his memory, and the bells of the Catholic and Protestant churches sent out their solemn notes in sympathy during Friday and Saturday.

It was his wish that he should be interred in front of Rathvilly Church, and as the people pass by his grave many a fervent prayer will ascend to the throne of the Most High for the good and holy priest, the devoted pastor, and the true and kind friend of all. When the news of Father Phelan’s death reached Rathvilly the greatest sorrow was manifested by the parishioners, each of whom felt as if the hand of Death had removed a dear personal friend.

Picture of Rathvilly showing only known picture of old chapel beside graveyard, plus a smaller version of the Phoenix Centre. The photo was provided by the Tobin family from Rathmore. The altar rails from the old chapel were brought to Talbotstown and Tynock.

The Rev P Loughlin, CC: Messrs P Deering. Co C, Edward O’Toole, and R Lawson, left for Dublin, and proceeded to Linden, Blackrock, where the death took place. They were here joined by Mr F Phelan, Abbeyleix (nephew): Mr Arthur M’Mahon, J P. Cuddagh, Rev C O’Shea CS. C P. Blackrock, Rev John O’Reilly, CS C P. Blackrock College, and Rev Father Manron.

On Friday the remains were conveyed to the Kingsbridge, and thence by 12.30 train to Rathvilly. They were met at the railway station by a large crowd of the parishioners, and a procession being formed, they sere reverently borne to St Patrick’s Church, where they were to lie pending the interment on Sunday.

The sad procession was headed by the Rev P Byrne. P P. Rathoe, Rev P O’Neill, PP, Baltinglass: and the Rev P Loughlin, CC, who recited the solemn prayers for the dead. The coffin was placed on a catafalque opposite the High Altar, and the people joined in prayer for the repose of the soul of their beloved pastor.

During the evening and on the following day the church was filled by a constant succession of mourners, the demeanour of the people and their unaffected sorrow showing the place which Father Phelan had occupied in their hearts.

On Sunday at one o’clock the interment took place, the mortal remains of the good priest being laid to rest in the shades of the stately temple he had done so much to raise. At the appointed hour the church was thronged, many travelling long distances to pay a last tribute of respect. When the church bell had tolled out the last mournful notes a procession of clergy headed by cross-bearer and acolytes. entered the church.

Billie Eilish – What Was I Made For? (Official Music Video)

The following priests were present: – Rev M O’Neill. P P. Baltinglass: Rev P Byrne. PP., Rathoe; Rev T Monahan. PP, Hacketstown; Rev P Loughlin, CC. Rathvilly; Rev E Kilsella, CC, do; Rev J Kearney. Adm, Tullow; Rev T Norris. C Ballyconnell; Rev T Byrne, CC Hacketstown. The burial service having been intoned, a procession was formed, and the coffin was borne out of the church and around the sacred edifice to the grave which had been prepared to the right of the principal entry. Here the last blessing was given and the grave closed on one in life displayed all the qualities of the true priest and a devoted Irishman. Amongst those present were the following: -Fintan Phelan, Abbeyleix (nephew); John Hammond, M P. Carlow; Michael Governey, Co C, CUDC, Carlow; John Conlan,”Nationalist”; E P O’Kelly, JP, chairman Wicklow Co C; T B Doyle. J P, Coroner West Wicklow; Patrick Hanlon. Co C. Grange; Dr J.J. Nolan. J P., Coroner,  Carlow; Rev J O’Callaghan. M A. Rector, Rathvilly; Dr T Kidd. Rathvilly; C. F. McNally, J P. Co C. Grange; Wm Burgess, J P. C R D C; Charles Butler. Lisnevagh; P P Morrin, JP, Baltinglass; Edward WilsonJP. Rathmore; Dr Walshe, Kiltegan; J H Dagg, Clerk, Baltinglass Union: Mr M’Leod, manager National Bank, Baltinglass; H P Earl, Bough; Wm Kelly, Talbotstown; John Kane, Ticknock; Eugene Byrne, Phillipstown; Joseph Kane, DC, do; Michael Kane, do: James Dempsey, T C, Tullow; Gerald O’Toole, T C, do; W L Maher. T C. do; John G Murphy. Co C do; Michael P Maher do: Wm Fanning, do: John Donohoe, TC, do; Denis Deering, Paulvillle, Patrick Nolan, Dublin; John Deering, Kilcock: Thos Doyle, Baltinglass; Hugh Doyle, do; James, Doyle, “Leinster Leader”; Edward Doyle, Baltinglass; Edward O’Neill, do; Denis Kehoe, do; Peter Kehoe, do; Nicholas O’Toole, Hacketstown; Edward O’Toole, Rathvilly; Michael Kelly. Englishtown; J H Wrafter, Bough; Patrick Deering, Co C. Ballybit; Thomas Corrigan, Maplestown; John Kehoe, Mount Neil: Wm Corrigan, Garretstown; Thomas P Ryan, Tobinstown; Wm Fisher. do; John L Salter, Ballybitt; William Smyth, Rathdaniel; John Donnelly, D C, Broughulstown; Gerald Donnelly, Carlow; James Browne. DC. Knocklishen; Patrick Finnegan DC; Matthew Finnegan, DC; Edward Cusack, DC; Patrick Dowling, DC; Stephen Doyle, DC: Michael Treacy, DC: James P Lawson. Constable Duggan, Richard Lawson, Constable John English; Benjamin Allshire; John Maher; William Malone; James Doyle; William Smyth; John Molloy; Edward Dempsey; Jas Fanning; Peter Lawler; Sergeant M’Govern; James. Deering; Constable Davoren;  John Browne, Barnhill; John Browne, Knocklishen; Peter Browne; Patrick Nolan; James Brien; Timothy O’Toole; Wm Breen; James Maher; Thomas Maher, John Kehoe; Daniel Healy, Patrick Kehoe, Patrick Bermingham; John Nolan; Edward Lawler; John Leary; John Farrell, John Carty, Thomas Doyle, Michael Doyle, Patrick Dowling, Thos Dowling; Edward Nolan, Patrick Donegan, Bernard Dunne, Thomas Nolan, Bernard Byrne, Thomas Byrne, James Byrne, Ballyoliver;  James Byrne, Portrition; John Fitzpatrick; Laurence O’Toole, Patrick Murphy.

Wreaths were sent by the following:- From Mrs Kate Lawler. “With deep regret:” “In affectionate remembrance.” from Dr and Mrs Kidd; “A tribute of sincere sympathy” from Mrs Lawson: “With deepest sympathy.” from Mrs Leigh, Rathgar; “With Rev and Mrs J O’Callaghan’s deep sympathy:” “With heartfelt sorrow. – from Edward and Mrs O’Toole; ” With deep regret” from Miss Heydon and sisters. R I P.

Weeping ash by St Patrick’s Church, Rathvilly.


When the hour arrived today for the chanting of the Solemn Office and the celebration of the Requiem High Mass, St Patrick’s Church was filled in every part by a congregation of sincere mourners. The Most Rev Dr Foley, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, presided in the choir, and was assisted by the Very Rev Monsignor Burke, PP, VF, Bagnalstown. The Rev P Loughlin. CC, sang the Mass. and was attended by Rev E Kinsella. CC, Kiltegan, as Deacon, and Rev J Mooney CC, Ballinakill. The chanters were Rey W P Bourke, CC, Rathoe, and Rev P Gorry, CC, Carlow. The other clergy assisting were Rev William Byrne, PP, Clonmore; Rev Thomas Monahan, PP, Hacketstown; Rev Thomas O’Neill, PP, Baltinglass; Rev Peter Campion, Kildare; Rev Patrick Byrne, PP, Rathoe; John Cullen, PP, Tinryland; Rev H Dunne, PP, Kill; Rev. Joseph Kearney. Adm. Tullow; Rev John Dunne, CC, Baltinglass; Rev Michael Hayes, CC, Baltinglass; Rev William P Bourke, CC, Rathoe; Rev Patrick Gorry, CC. Carlow; Rev John Foley, CC, Clane; Rey John Fenlon, CC, Clane; Rev Thomas Norris, CC, Clonmore; Rev Patrick Ramsbottom, CC, Hacketstown; Rev T Byrne, CC, Hacketstown; Rev Edward Loughlin, Tullow.


The Kildare Observer and Eastern Counties Advertiser of 21 March 1903, p. 3 remembers Father Phelan thus:

‘… the Board Guardians of the Baltinglass Union have heard with the deepest regret the death of the Rev John Phelan, pastor of Rathvilly parish, and they desire to place on record the cordial respect and deep regard in which the deceased was held by all classes and creeds. His benevolence was well known and his ability widely recognised, and the parish and diocese are poorer by his loss.”
Chairman—Father Phelan was a friend of a great number of guardians in this room, and I think he was a person who endeared himself everyone who knew him. He was personal friend of mine for a number years, and there was no one who took more unselfish view of things as he did.
Mr Cusack—He is great loss to the parish.
The Clerk said Father Phelan had taken a great interest in the Labourers’ Act and housing of the poor. In the Rathvilly there are more houses erected by the union than in any other of the divisions. In No 2 rural district, a good portion of which is in the parish of Rathvilly, there were 100 cottages in eight divisions, and inNo 1 district only 80 cottages in twenty divisions. He remembered that Father Phelan went personally to the Local Government Board to represent to them the unhealthy state in which Scott’s row was. with the object of having it closed up and better houses built. |
Chairman—l am sorry he did not live to see it done. The resolution was then passed in silence.’