Incisive visit to the time of the boycott
THE COLD SNAP was as good an excuse as any to malinger under the duvet the other day and tuck in to a book left on the long finger during the summer. ' The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott' by Tim Fanning, published by Collins Press, proved well worth the lie-in.
The author, not yet 40 years old, is a generation removed from the events of 1957 when the Catholic parishioners of Fethard decided to have nothing to do with their Protestant neighbours. However, Fanning spent holidays as a child in the Fethard area and knew Seán as the man who owned the old castle of Dungulph where he enjoyed summer vacations in boyhood.
The pleasant memories stirred his interest in how it was that Seán and Sheila Cloney, along with their two daughters, Eileen and Mary, became caught up in a situation that convulsed their own neighbourhood and had repercussions all over this island. Fanning tells the tale with an incisive reporter's style in a manner that never strays into sentimentality.
He recalls how the couple, in other respects the girl and boy next door, realised in advance that her being Protestant and his being Roman Catholic was likely to have repercussions once they decided to wed. They married far from home in the anonymity of an English registry office and were slow to set up home thereafter on the farm at Dungulph.
Before they did so, they were belatedly persuaded to wed in a Catholic ceremony, performed after Sheila signed the standard Ne
temere contract, agreeing to bring up her children in the faith of her husband. It was when she began to think better of this agreement and struggled to escape its consequences that the ordure hit the ventilator.
Fifty-three and a half years ago, Father Laurence Allen called to the Cloney House to insist that first-born Ellen must attend his parish school in nearby Poulfour – in keeping with the commitment given when the Ne
temere paper was signed. Sheila was minded to send her child to the tiny Protestant school in the village of Fethard.
Whatever it was that Father Allen said, she took fright and left Co. Wexford, on the back of the proceeds of the sale of some pigs. She brought her two daughters Eileen and Mary with her (Hazel was born several years later after all the kerfuffle had died down), first to Belfast and later to Scotland, ending up staying in the wilds of the Orkney Islands.
A fortnight later, during the month of May 1957, curate Father William Stafford preached the sermon which inspired his flock to withdraw their custom from Gardiner's hardware on one side of the village street and Cooper's confectionery on the other. Before the end of the summer term, the Church of Ireland school had closed because the teacher, a Catholic, had abandoned her post.
Milk from Protestant cows was practically unsellable. Catholic workmen decided not to take employment on Protestant-owned farms. It was suggested at the time that all of this was the result of individual actions in accordance with individual consciences. But Tim Fanning makes it clear in the book that this was a sectarian boycott which had the tacit backing of Bishop Staunton.
The writer of the book suggests a variety of historical factors that fostered the boycott mentality, dating back to the Land War of the 1880s. The character of Father Stafford also appears to have contributed strongly to the way in which one family's circumstances became a stick with which to beat every member of a religious minority.
The boycotters chose to believe that all their Protestant neighbours were somehow all responsible for spiriting away two young children and removing them from the church in which their mother had contracted to have them reared. Bear in mind that the civil courts of the time were prepared to uphold the terms of Ne temere. A judge of today would almost certainly take into consideration the horrid pressure a young woman was put under to sign and rule the contract void.
It all sounds like another era entirely, or ■ another (very bewildering) country. Yet the boycott occurred in living memory, in Co. Wexford. The balance between individual rights and the power of religion has since been completely recalibrated in an Ireland transformed, mostly for the better.
There is one aspect of the case that carries a modern resonance. Now, as then, primary school managers keep keen count of the young scholars on their rolls. Back in 1957, Fethard's Church of Ireland school had just 11 pupils and was struggling to maintain numbers in order to justify the employment of their one teacher. The board of management would have been delighted to welcome little Eileen.
At the same time, the Catholic school up the road in Poulfour had a roll that was hovering close to the point where it might lose a member of staff if numbers continued to fall. It is laughably plausible to suggest that this was the decisive factor in propelling the community into crisis. It is arguably fitting that, in the end, Seán and Sheila decided educate their first two girls at home, though Hazel was later sent to receive her education more formally in class at Poulfour.
The couple are the undoubted heroes of ' The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott'. Though they were never ones to court attention, their tale has already provided inspiration for a film and a novel. Though both now deceased, long may they continue to inspire faith in commonsense and individual liberty.
There are a few amusing strands to a book that deals with serious issues. Readers are reminded, for instance, that the 'Irish Times' was the first national newspaper to show an interest in the subject. They promptly dispatched reporter Cathal O'Shannon to Fethard – in Co. Tipperary.
It is also recorded that Sheila Cloney remained blissfully unaware for months of the upheavals she had left behind. She first learnt of the boycott through some evangelical literature imported from Peru of all places.
On a more solemn note, we are reminded that it took death to divide her and her husband. Seán died in 1999 and now lies buried in Templetown. Sheila passed away last year and is interred in Fethard beside her daughter Mary.
ABOVE: Tim Fanning's 'The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott'. BELOW: Reports of the boycott in The Irish Times in 1957 and 1958.