Dr Patrick Donnelly - The Bard of Armagh (3)

Hugh A Murphy tells the dramatic tale of the only remaining Bishop in Ireland

Shortly after Patrick Donnelly’s departure,  Oliver Plunkett was arrested on December 5 1679 and imprisoned. During the course of his later trials and final execution,  on July 1 1681, there is no record of Patrick Donnelly being in Ireland.

In records still extant for the year 1681 of bursaries granted to students in the Collège des Lombards there appears the name of Patrick Donnelly and, very interestingly, the name of his younger brother, Terence Donnelly, who was later to be appointed Bishop of Derry.

Patrick Donnelly remained at the Collège des Lombards for six years in all and adequately fulfilled the promise that his mentor had seen in him, graduating with a joint doctorate in both Civil Law and Church, or Canon, Law.

On his return to Ireland in 1685, he was appointed Parish Priest of Keady, a position he was to hold for a number of years. There is a possibility that he way have spent a time at first as Parish Priest of Louth. This, however, is not entirely certain.

In the early 1690s he was elevated to the position of Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Armagh and Vice-Primate, filling in for the then Archbishop and Primate Dominic Maguire who, for reasons best known to himself, remained throughout the duration of his office in voluntary exile in Paris, at the royal Court of Saint Germain, the residence of the deposed Stewart king, James II.

Some years later, around the mid-1690s, he was moved to occupy the same positions in the diocese of Dromore, which still was without a Bishop. Finally in the year 1697 he was appointed Bishop of Dromore. In the documents pertaining to his appointment, it states that since there were no churches or mass houses anywhere in the diocese of Dromore mass would have to be celebrated in parishioners’ houses, or in the open.

The appointment of Patrick Donnelly as Bishop of Dromore could scarcely have fallen at a more inauspicious time, virtually coinciding, as it did, with one of the more draconian of the Penal Law Acts and one whose very name gave clear indications of its intent, the Suppression of Popery Act.

This act, amongst many other provisions, banned all Bishops permanently from the country under pain of death. Immediately on his appointment, therefore, as Bishop of Dromore Patrick Donnelly was officially an outlaw.

Hugh A Murphy, reproduced by kind permission of RoSA. All rights reserved.Also, as a result of the panic spread throughout the country by this act, Patrick Donnelly was one of only two Bishops now left in the whole of Ireland, the other being the aged and infirm Bishop of Cashel, John Brennan, who was permanently confined to bed and unable to carry out any functions, either as Bishop or priest, including celebrating mass. Bishop Donnelly was, therefore, on his appointment, the only active Bishop in the whole of Ireland in the year 1697, a situation that was to remain unchanged for the next ten years, until he himself consecrated the next Bishops in the year 1707.

The new Bishop had no alternative but to go into hiding. He followed the footsteps of his illustrious friend and mentor, Oliver Plunkett, and headed for the security of the South Armagh hills, returning one feels to a hideout here in Doctor’s Quarters already well known to him.

Throughout the main part of the year,  he worked as an ordinary peasant farmer tilling the fields around his cabin, indistinguishable from the rest of the community. During the summer months he took to the roads in his, by now, celebrated disguise of a wandering minstrel, under the alias Felim Brady, and did an annual Episcopal tour of the whole diocese of Dromore, returning normally in September.

In the year 1704 the Suppression of Popery Act was taken a stage further, with the passing of the Act of Registration. This act required all catholic priests to sign an official register, giving their names, status in the Church, and permanent place of residence. They would be allowed to remain in their then abode but would not be allowed to have curates or to move outside their county.

This had to be guaranteed by two bondsmen depositing sureties of £50 each, quite an enormous sum in those days. Those who did not sign the register would be, if later caught, subject to imprisonment. After much reflection the majority of priests in the Archdiocese of Armagh signed this register, as it gave them some form of security against arrest. Fr John McParland appears on this register, his status given as Parish Priest of Upper Killeavy, and his place of residence as Lathbirget. His two bondsmen were Abraham Booth of Carrickasticken and Daniel Callaghan of Lislea.

The above concession did not apply to Bishops, who were still permanently banned from the country, thus ensuring that no further ordinations could be made. This left Bishop Donnelly in a quandary as he was the only person in reality to whom this applied. Being an expert on the workings of the civil law, and using the leeway available to him in canon law, Patrick Donnelly signed the register in Newry, giving his status as Parish priest of that area of the Newry parish which fell inside Armagh, and giving his place of residence as  'Corrinallagh', the townland now known as Carricknagallia, of which the present small townland of Doctor’s Quarters then formed a part.

This subterfuge worked, but only for a short time. Two years later, in 1706 he was betrayed by a former priest, one John Duffy, who gave evidence under oath that Patrick Donnelly was actually a Bishop and that he had personally witnessed him ordaining priests and wearing the Bishop’s mitre. He stated that he was residing in the house of Fr John McParland.

Word was sent to Captain Walter Dawson in Armagh and he sent a representative, 'one I could depend on”, to investigate the matter.' On September 9, 1706 the house of Fr John McParland in Lathbirget was raided. Word was sent back to Captain Dawson that no evidence had been found of a Patrick Donnelly living, or ever having lived, in the house of John McParland.

Captain Dawson, however, reported to the authorities that his representative had found during the course of his investigation that there was a man by that name living 'within a short mile' from Fr McParland’s house and that if this were the man in question he could soon have him apprehended.

Receiving word to proceed he himself, together with a sergeant and twelve men visited the area on September 14, 1706 and raided the house of Bishop Donnelly here in Doctor’s Quarters. They apprehended Bishop Donnelly who had just returned from his annual Episcopal tour of his Diocese and brought him to Dundalk gaol. A few days later he was transferred to prison in Dublin.

In the following months strenuous efforts were made to find witnesses to corroborate the evidence of John Duffy. But, despite all offers of bribes and threats of force, no one could be found to come forward to support John Duffy’s claims, something which is a great testament to the esteem and affection in which Doctor Donnelly was held.

During the course of his imprisonment in Dublin the Bishop of Cashel died, thus leaving Patrick Donnelly literally and physically the only Bishop in the whole of Ireland. Since there was no evidence forthcoming to corroborate Duffy’s claims, Patrick Donnelly was acquitted of all charges and released on the May 13, 1707.

With poetic irony Bishop Donnelly remained long enough in Dublin to consecrate three Bishops before returning home:-

Thaddeus O’Rourke, Bishop of Killala.
Edmund Byrne, Archbishop of Dublin.
Hugh McMahon, Bishop of Clogher.

The last crisis in the Catholic Church to confront Patrick Donnelly in his lifetime was the infamous period of the Oath of Abjuration. Read about it in the final section.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation