Dr Patrick Donnelly - The Bard of Armagh (1)

Hugh A Murphy discusses a turbulent period in Irish history

Patrick Donnelly was born in the year 1649 in the townland of Gortalowry, in the parish of Desertcreat in Co. Tyrone. He was descended from one of the celebrated Gaelic Clans of the previous era, the Clann Uí Dhonnghaile, who by the time of Bishop Donnelly’s great grandfather, Donall Gruama Ó Donnghaile, in the late 16th century, were closely linked to the ruling dynasty of the O’ Neills, with whom they claimed kinship.

Patrick Donnelly lived through one of the most turbulent periods in Ireland’s history, the second half of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th, a period that was to witness the final total eclipse of these great Gaelic Clans who had formed the central core of Irish society for centuries, and who had been the pillars of the Catholic Church.

They were replaced by a new ascendancy who were completely out of sympathy with both native Irish interests and with Catholicism. Through various stages of persecutions, banishments, and draconian laws the Catholic Church was brought to its knees. For a number of years the only person who stood between its survival and the ultimate fulfilment of Cromwell’s stated wish to see a total end to Catholicism in Ireland was, Dr Patrick Donnelly, Bishop of Dromore, and Bard of Armagh.

In the decade prior to Patrick Donnelly’s birth, things had begun to look up for both the Irish society and the Catholic Church. After the rising of 1641, once more spear-headed by the O’Neills, and the setting up of the Catholic parliament, the Confederation of Kilkenny, the Church began to take its first tentative steps on the long road back from the ravages of the Elizabethan era, followed by the first stage of the plantations and the accompanying severe anti-catholic laws put into operation under James 1.

This rising was different to the first rising of the Earls in 1595, which saw their almost total annihilation at Kinsale, in that it crossed the cultural demarcation line in Ireland, embracing both the native Gaels and the landed catholic aristocracy of the Pale, that coastal strip from Dundalk down to Dublin first planted by the Anglo-Normans, and embracing Co Meath, the homeland of the Plunkett family.

This rising was essentially an anti-reformation struggle where both sides were united in the common cause of their religion, to the backdrop of a major threat coming from England, where a predominantly protestant parliament was trying to wrest power from the king.

With the arrival from Spain of Hugh O’ Neill’s nephew, Owen Roe O’ Neill, to take charge of the Irish forces the native catholic armies were in the ascendancy. Catholic churches were opened once more, schools set up, priests ordained and Bishops consecrated. For a time a better future was being presaged for the Catholic Church than had been its recent bitter past. All this was to change utterly in the very year that Patrick Donnelly was born, in 1649, with the arrival of Cromwell in Ireland.

It would be difficult to overstate the devastating effect of the decade of Cromwellian occupation on the society of Ireland and on the Catholic Church. The second purge of the Earls took place which saw the survivors of the first plantation banished from the country, or, like the O’ Neill dynasty of South Armagh, sent to the bog lands of Connacht.

This was paralleled by an anti-catholic backlash unseen in the previous history of Ireland, as if Catholicism itself were on trial for its life for daring to raise its head above the parapet and challenge the perceived authority in the land. To be a catholic now was to be in a position of danger and to be a cleric was to be a member of the hunted class.

The Donnellys had risen with the O’Neills in the first rising of 1595 in the time of Patrick’s great grandfather, Donall Gruama, and again in 1641 in the person of Bishop Donnelly’s own father, Patrick Donnelly. After the first rising, the Donnellys had lost all their lands and were reduced to the status of small tenant farmers on the former great Gaelic estates.

In 1610 Donall Gruama’s son Shane, Bishop Donnelly’s grandfather, was granted the tenancy of 60 acres of land, including a number of acres of shrub land and five acres of bog in the Desertcreat area. This would have given a secure, though modest, income to the family during the early years of Bishop Donnelly’s childhood.

In the Cromwellian confiscations, however, this land also was lost and the family were cast to the wayside, like so many other Gaelic families of the time. These confiscations came into force in 1659 when the young Patrick was just turned ten years of age, and for him life would never be the same again.

Whatever education he would receive from now on would have to be gained, like so many other things in his later life, in secret, depending as he was on the resources available to him in the hedge schools. Part of his survival would depend on his skills as a musician, an art handed down to him through many generations of his Gaelic ancestry where music, as in the case of all the great Gaelic Clans, was an integral part of Clan lifestyle. It is not at all surprising that it should be the disguise of a wandering minstrel that he would adopt later in life when Bishop of Dromore, hiding out in this small townland of Doctor’s Quarters.

During the tribulations of the Cromwellian era the man who was later to be Patrick Donnelly’s friend and mentor, Oliver Plunkett, was in Rome. He was ordained in 1654 when the atrocities were at their highest and shortly afterwards his family too were left landless, his father losing all his ancestral estates, some 680 acres, in Co. Meath.

In 1669, the year before Oliver Plunkett arrived back in Ireland as Primate, the ravages of the Cromwellian period were all too evident in his native land. All the four Archiepiscopal Seas of Armagh, Dublin, Tuam and Cashel were without occupants. Neither was there a Bishop anywhere in Ulster. In fact the only working Bishop in the whole of Ireland was his own kinsman, Patrick Plunkett, who was then Bishop of Ardagh.

All Catholic Churches were either closed or occupied by other denominations. There was no education of any kind officially on offer for the catholic youth of the country, something which appalled the new Primate even more than many of the other problems that he had to face on his arrival.

Its effect could be seen amongst the younger priests who had been ordained in the previous decade, mostly by the lone Bishop Patrick Plunkett. Their education was at best rudimentary and their ecclesiastical training was virtually nil. This was a problem which he felt had to be addressed immediately. He very quickly came to the conclusion that he had no other option but to set up schools himself.

In July 1670, just some four months after his arrival in Ireland, Oliver Plunkett in a letter to Rome stated that he had already built 'from the foundations a commodious (mass)house and two schools.' There were already 150 students attending the schools and 25 ecclesiastics.

In the following year the number of priests had risen to 56. As Cardinal Ó Fiaich says in his book on the life of Oliver Plunkett, it is quite likely that with few exceptions all the priests of the Armagh Diocese were routed through these schools for retraining in the next couple of years.

Among the students attracted to these schools, situated in Ballybarrak outside Dundalk, was Patrick Donnelly from Desertcreat, then in his twenty first year. Another student from this area who was later to become a very close friend of his was John McParland. This man completed his education in the schools in Ballybarrak just before Oliver Plunkett moved them to Drogheda in the year 1672.

He was ordained in the same year in Ballybarrak and took up residence in Lathbirget where he was to remain for the rest of his life. He was Parish Priest of Upper Killeavy during the time that Patrick Donnelly was Bishop of Dromore and living here in Doctor’s Quarters, less than a mile from Fr McParland’s house.

In the following year, 1673, Patrick Donnelly was ordained by Oliver Plunkett in Ballybarrak, a member of the last group of priests to be ordained there by the Primate. He was appointed curate in Armagh city (the Parish of Armagh), a position that he was to hold for the next six years. It is very likely that he lived in Armagh city or its environs during that period.


In the next extract read about the dramatic changes that lead to Oliver Plunkett hiding out on Slieve Gullion.

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