THERE are many religious who have served Ireland well down through the centuries. Some have received the recognition they deserved, but many others have not. And it is one of the latter about whom I write this week, who not alone is Irish but he is one of our own.
He is Daniel Delany, who was born in the townland of Paddock in the parish of Castletown, County Laois in January 1747. Daniel was the older of two boys but would lose both his father Daniel and sibling John at an early age. His mother Elizabeth (née Fitzpatrick) sent him to her sisters in nearby Mountrath to be cared for and educated while she took on the burden of running the farm.
Daniel’s aunts enlightened him on Ireland’s history and, of course, the effects of the Penal Laws. These were clear in his own mind as he experienced being taught at a hedge school in Brisclagh, and he was also tutored and guided by the local parish priest, Fr Lawlor, who would pass away himself on 26 March 1762 at the young age of 44.
Meanwhile, a Protestant gentleman secretly instructed him in Latin grammar. All of these tutors realised Daniel’s intelligence and took his early education seriously. He was also told of how Catholicism was kept alive through the centuries by priests and monks, who daily put their own lives in danger as they tended those in need, and it would probably have been this teaching that sowed the seed of a religious life in Daniel’s mind. So also may have been his own observation of the persecution of Catholics in the area.
The then earl of Mountrath, Charles Coote, was in no way sympathetic to Catholics. When Daniel was just five years’ old, the then Bishop Gallagher passed away in his home, a wretched hut of straw and rushes on the edge of the Bog of Allen.
Daniel received his First Holy Communion at the age of ten in the small, thatched chapel constructed on a sand bank close to the River Nore, which was the only place of worship for miles. Daniel’s mother was happy to see him go to France to prepare for the priesthood; however, the penal restrictions made it almost impossible to leave the country. But at the age of 16, with the help of some Protestant friends, and particularly Rev Dr Patrick Delany, he was safely smuggled to Paris in 1763, where he would study for the priesthood in the Irish College in that city.
Daniel’s learning at home stood to him and he earned the highest distinctions available up to his ordination in 1770. He joined the teaching staff at St Omer, remaining there for a number of years following his ordination. During this time, he mingled with and made friends with members of the Irish Brigade and other Irish residents in the city.
Disguised, he returned to Ireland in 1777, much to the joy of his mother. But he was shocked at the state of the country, which both spiritually and politically had practically fallen apart. Poverty and starvation resulted in faction fighting, no dues were collected, and nailed-up churches ensured that no services were conducted.
Strange as it may seem, Mountrath was a much larger town then than it is now. Daniel prepared to return to France but, on the pleading of his mother, decided to stay in Ireland. A year later he would take up a position as curate in Tullow, Co Carlow. This would be his first step on the road to succeeding his mentor there, Bishop Dr James O’Keeffe, at the Augustinian monastery. It was constructed in 1315 and served as the residence of the bishop of Kildare and Leighlin but was now in a serious state of disrepair.
Father Delany’s mother died in 1781, leaving her entire estate to him to be used for pious purposes. Realising lack of education was causing most of the problems, he immediately set about teaching the children Catholic beliefs such as prayers, hymns and catechism, gathering a group of well-educated people to help him.
By now he had decided to dedicate himself to improving the lives of the downtrodden Catholics in his home country. In 1783, aged 36, Daniel became coadjutor (assistant) bishop. In 1785, he set up the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament and, despite opposition, the processions on Church festivals went ahead as he defied attempts to intimidate him.
In 1787, Dr O’Keeffe died and Daniel became bishop of Kildare and Leighlin on 17 February 1788.
By coincidence, relaxation of the Penal Laws began in that year, which meant Bishop Delany immediately improved the plight of Catholics. He set about the construction of the church where the Church of the Holy Rosary in Tullow is now located. Initially, the original church overseen by Bishop Delany was on unleased ground but would later be secured from the landlord, a Mr Doyne. The original church was named in honour of the nativity of the Blessed Virgin and completed in 1805. It was dedicated to Our Lady of the Holy Rosary by Cardinal Cullen on 3 October 1875.
The setting-up of Sunday schools in Tullow, principally to teach the catechism not alone to children, but adults as well, was already in place prior to the church being completed.
His predecessor, Bishop O’Keeffe, had founded Carlow College in 1782 and it was a work in progress when Bishop Delany succeeded him. This was another mountain to climb, but the work was completed and the college became fully functional, taking in its first students in 1793. In 1841, the college was accredited to London University and students took degrees in arts and law from than body. In 1892, the college became a seminary, remaining so until 1990, when it resumed its original role, taking students from all over Ireland.
Bishop Delany introduced the first Corpus Christi procession in Tullow in 1784. He also defied Dr O’Keeffe in a friendly way by having the Angelus bell rung on a regular basis.
Bishop Delany’s home town of Mountrath was deeply embedded in his mind and the reports he was getting were not good. He had invited six women to go to Mountrath to set up Sunday schools. They remained there for nine months, and again the townspeople turned back to religion.
The one problem he had was finding teachers, so he decided to build convents close to the churches in both Tullow and Mountrath. As the land that the churches stood on was owned by landlords, he had problems securing tenure. In Mountrath, this was done through a Mrs Hawksworth, who persuaded her husband to donate the land, the lease of which was achieved forever. Mrs Hawksworth, by her own request, was later received into the Catholic Church on her deathbed.
The 1798 Rebellion curtailed any further progress in the construction. Again, Bishop Delany was facilitated with a never-ending lease to build on the site of the current church in Tullow, along with a little house, which is now part of the convent. Shortly after, a field was acquired, on which the convent was built and now stands. He also was given a row of houses in Mountrath and work began on the construction of all premises.
In 1807, he invited six women to form a religious community in Tullow. All were local. They came from Tullow, Clonmore and Ardattin.
On St Brigid’s Day, 1 February, he called Eleanor Tallon, Bridget Brien, Judith Whelan, Margaret Kinsella, Eleanor Dawson and Catherine Doyle to join the Sisters of Saint Brigid in honour of the great fifth-century saint, who shares the honour of being our patron saint with Patrick. He wasn’t thinking about founding a new order but reviving that which had been there from the fifth to the 16th century before the monasteries were suppressed.
The women had taken vows of chastity some years before and were aged between 25 and 48. They became known as the Brigidine Sisters. Two years later, representatives of the Brigidine order arrived and took residence in the row of houses in Mountrath. This would be the beginning of a worldwide order which, like the Patricians, would soon spread Catholicism throughout the USA, Britain, Africa, New Zealand, India, Australia and many other countries.
With girls’ education now in safe hands, Bishop Delany set out to give boys the same chance, and on 2 February 1808 he said Mass in the old chapel, during which he received the first four men into the Brothers of Saint Patrick, which would become better known as the Patrician Brothers. The four founding members were Patrick McMahon (Brother John Baptiste), Richard Fitzpatrick (Brother Bernard), Ambrose Dawson (Brother Joseph) and Maurice Cummins (Brother John Evangelist). Three other men would join soon: Patrick Woods (Brother Francis), Patrick Kelly (Brother Serenus) and Thomas Phelan (Brother Dominick). At this time, the brothers had to maintain themselves by doing manual labour. The new foundation was established in Mountrath on 2 February 1810 with Br Joseph Dawson the leader, as he had been associated with the Trappist order in England.
By coincidence, as the order outgrew its original premises, it purchased the premises known as Ballyfin House, so long denied them, from Sir Ralph Coote. It stood on 600 acres close to the village of Ballyfin, Co Laois, and in 1928 a boarding school was established there.
In 1885, the order applied to the Holy See for approval of the congregation, which was approved by a rescript issued for five years on 6 January 1888 by Pope Leo XIII, and a final decree of confirmation issued on 8 September 1893.
In this article, I have endeavoured to highlight the most important parts of Bishops Delany’s contribution to Irish history, which was immense. Sadly, due to space limitation, many more achievements are left out. Most important is his legacy of the Brigidines and the Patricians; few others can claim the same achievement as this gentle man.
Bishop Daniel Delany died on 9 July 1814, aged 67. His remains rest in his beloved Church of the Holy Rosary in Tullow, where a museum in his honour also stands.
His final words to the two religious orders he founded were: “Love God and live together in peace and charity.”
Perhaps we should all take heed of Bishop Delany’s words. If you look at it, anything is better than the conflicts that are threatening our world.