John Fahy’s Catholic Paranoia

I recently published an essay in Études irlandaises on attitudes towards capitalism in Irish Catholic social teaching in the first half of the twentieth century.  When I first started working on this, I had planned to incorporate information about John Fahy (1893-1969) a parish priest who was based first in Bullaun, a townland outside Loughrea in east Galway before being re-located to Offaly.  For various reasons – not least how hard it was to actually connect Fahy’s idiosyncratic politics to broader currents – I cut this material, but am now writing it up here as a blog post.

John Fahy in 1919 at his Ordination as a Priest

Fahy came from a smallholding farming background just outside of Loughrea and his early politics seems to have combined traditional ‘devoutly Catholic ideals’ with a leavening of communism (as a young priest he was sent to Dundee in Scotland, where he attended speeches by Robert Stewart, a well-known local communist).  His first forays into political activism were in collaboration with Peadar O’Donnell, a socialist republican with international communist connections.[1]  And yet John Fahy clearly changed over time, becoming more recognisably anticommunist by the 1950s whilst still retaining a suspicion of global capital.     Sometime during his activities with O’Donnell, Fahy wrote a play set during the Plan of Campaign of the later 1880s which appears to have investigated these social concerns; the play was produced locally but it is not clear if any copies of it have survived.[2]   

Already in this early part of his public career, Fahy had a propensity for radical critiques of capitalism as well as a dash of extremism.  O’Donnell remembered him as a ‘fine propagandist’ with ‘a great gift for leadership’, but also as a person who exhibited an ‘occasional incoherence’.   Clearly, O’Donnell had his reservations about him, though he also believed that he and Fahy were of one mind in their concerns about ‘the Ireland of the poor.’  The group led by Fr. John Fahy produced a ‘catechism’, which O’Donnell published in the 1920s in the IRA’s An Phoblacht newspaper:

“How did England establish a claim to the land of Ireland?  By robbery.  What is rent?  Rent is a tribute of slavery enforced by the arms of the robber-landlord.  What is a landlord?  A landlord is a descendant of a land robber.  Who pays rents to landlords?  Only slaves.  What is a bailiff?  A bailiff is a land robber’s assistant….”

By the early 1930s, Fahy was not only active in O’Donnell’s anti-annuities campaign but was also probably a member of the I.R.A. and was collaborating with Tom Kenny, the Galway delegate to the communist Saor Éire organisation.  These activities not only lead to Fahy receiving a six-week imprisonment – for the ‘‘crime’’ of seizing impounded cattle from government bailiffs as well as preventing bailiffs carry out further seizures – but also were the cause of Fahy’s re-appointment to Lusmagh parish in Offaly, in the Irish midlands.  For the subsequent twenty-six years, Fahy remained publicly silent on all political issues in an act of ‘penitential-like conformity’ to his Bishop.  Fahy appears to have written a utopian novel during this time. It was refused an episcopal imprimatur and now sadly appears to have been lost.  Brian Murphy also says Fahy wrote an unpublished devotional text in 1956 entitled ‘The Framework of What We Believe’. Other than his Lia Fáil newspaper, Fahy’s only other extant published work appears to be The Sacrifice of the Mass, a conventional religious pamphlet.[3]  The fact that copies of this pamphlet only exist in a handful of libraries around the world suggests that it mostly sank without a trace.

The Sacrifice of the Mass: The Greatest Thing on Earth
(Dublin: Browne & Nolan, 1957)

In 1957, Fahy returned to public life with the founding of his short-lived Lia Fáil [Stone of Irish Destiny] organisation, and its eponymous newspaper.  Brian Murphy suggests that by this time ‘the cold war communist suppression of religion in Eastern Europe had turned his earlier enthusiasm for the left into contempt.’[4]  Whether or not this was the only root cause, it is certainly the case that Fahy’s brief but intense flurry of journalistic writings in the late 1950s were marked by a harsh anti-communism as well as a generally conspiratorial and even violent tone.

Lia Fáil (issue 2, Sept. 1958, and issue 9, undated)

Lia Fáil ran for nine issues in 1958 and 1959 and each issue was filled with antisemitic and paranoid invective.  Alongside standard nationalist rhetoric about reclaiming the land of Ireland and Social Catholic ideas drawn from Pope Pius XI’s Quadregesimo Anno, the Lia Fáil newspaper featured claims that ‘a syndicate of British-Orange-American Freemasons’ had purchased Killarney or that Jews and Freemasons were in cahoots in their plotting against Ireland.  And in one of its weirdest moments, the paper advocated using ‘atomic arms’ to invade Northern Ireland.  Fahy remains a truly odd character, anti-capitalist and anti-communist with an increasing willingness to advocate extreme levels of violence that is at odds with how powerless he was to actually carry any of this out.

[1][1] The only dedicated biography of Fahy is Jim Madden. Fr. John Fahy: Radical Republican and Agrarian Activist (1893-1969) (Dublin: Columba Press, 2012) and I draw quite a bit on that here. For background on Fahy’s work with O’Donnell, see: Aidan Beatty, ‘The Economic War and the Pamphlet War’. In Douglas Kanter, Patrick Walsh, eds. Taxation, Politics, and Protest in Ireland, 1662-2016 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) 305-330.

[2] Peadar O’Donnell.  There Will Be Another Day (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1963) 94-95

[3] Brian S. Murphy. ‘The Stone of Destiny: Father John Fahy (1894-1969), Lia Fáil and Smallholder Radicalism in Modern Irish Society’. In Gerard Moran, ed. Radical Irish Priests, 1660-1970 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998) 187-191, 194-196. See also: Brian S. Murphy. ‘“The Land for the People, the Road for the Bullock”: Lia Fáil, the Smallholders Crisis and Public Policy in Ireland, 1957-60’. In William Nolan, Timothy P. O’Neill, eds. Offaly: History and Society (Dublin: Geography Publications, 1998)

[4] Murphy, ‘Stone of Destiny’ (1998) 196.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s