Spiritual support and 1916

Posted By: December 25, 2015

by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. Irish  Catholic ( Dublin)Thursday, December 17, 2015

“Hopefully the centenary celebrations will find a space to remember the priests of 1916”, writes Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

If I was to scour the list of places which the conventional wisdom of today associates with Dublin in 1916, I would find in such lists only rare if any mention of Dublin’s St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral. Indeed the conventional wisdom rarely refers to any church and I hope that the programme of the official centenary celebrations will see that their contribution not be ignored.

The men and women of 1916 were men and women of faith. The Proclamation is prefaced in the name of God. Each of the leading figures had a personal story of faith which accompanied them along their journey. I would love to see some historian taking up research into the spiritual and religious roots of their commitment.

Dublin’s pro-cathedral was a centre of humanitarian and spiritual concern during the dramatic days of Easter Week 1916. Indeed it was the secretary of Archbishop William Walsh along with the administrator of the pro-cathedral, who anointed the man who was probably the first person to die in the uprising: a British soldier that passers-by noted was wearing a miraculous medal.

The written memoirs of the priests of the pro-cathedral – which the Dublin diocesan archivist illustrates elsewhere in this issue of The Irish Catholic – tell how it was James Connolly who enabled them to enter the GPO early on Easter Monday to speak with the leaders, especially Patrick Pearse, who asked that more priests should come as many of the men wanted to go to Confession.


During the days of the Rising the priests of the pro-cathedral spent days blockaded in Jervis Street Hospital and other buildings in the vicinity attending to the wounded. One of these was Fr Edward Byrne who was later to become Archbishop of Dublin. Archbishop Byrne some years later, together with the Lord Mayor of Dublin, spent intense energy in trying to prevent the Civil War and it was he who presided in the pro-cathedral at the funeral of Michael Collins.

Sadly, the priests of the pro-cathedral were also witnesses to a less noble and ignored side of those days: the wholescale looting by some Dubliners of the properties in O’Connell Street on the first days of the Rising. It is also interesting to recall that the breakdown of many informal networks of solidarity meant that the numbers attending the homeless shelter and food centre in Back Lane greatly increased. 

The pro-cathedral remains today one of the few buildings around O’Connell Street still standing as it was in 1916. The cathedral provided refuge for many who could not get out of the city centre during the fighting. At least one man was shot at the entrance by a sniper. As the buildings around it burned and O’Connell Street was a smoking ruin, the cathedral itself came under fire risk and was saved only by a change in the wind direction.

Hopefully the centenary celebrations will find a space to remember the priests of 1916. The Dublin diocesan archives show the role played, in addition to those at the pro-cathedral, by the Capuchin priests in Church Street and by the priests in Aughrim Street who were chaplains to Arbour Hill. Fr Francis Farrington, curate in Aughrim Street and Chaplain to Arbour Hill Prison, wrote of how on May 3, 1916, Pearse, McDonagh and Clarke were executed in Kilmainham Jail at 3.30am. Their remains were brought still warm and dripping with blood to Arbour Hill military prison and buried, un-coffined, in a trench 60 feet long and Fr Farrington read the burial service at 4am.


The Parish of James’ Street contains the registration of the marriage in Kilmainham between Joseph Mary Plunket and Grace Gifford and the chaplains to Kilmainham record the devotion of those condemned as they received Holy Communion on the days before their execution. One chaplain recalls particularly the devotion with which he saw Connolly receiving Communion twice on the days before he died.

Archbishop Walsh was seriously ill at the time but followed events closely. On May 8, he received a letter from General Maxwell asking him to convey his thanks to all the clergy who rendered so many services during the Rising. 


The archbishop responded on May 11 thanking him for the “gratifying testimony of the fidelity of our clergy in the discharge of their duties during the recent troubles in Dublin”. The archbishop acknowledges that many individual cases had been brought to his attention especially in relation to the clergy at the pro-cathedral and Church Street but he adds “I feel that it would be invidious to treat these cases as they were exceptional”. 

It is fitting that we should remember these and many other priests whose names will not be recorded for history but who provided spiritual support and comfort for so many during the uprising and afterwards.
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