Fr. Michael O’Flanagan (1876 - 1942)

Michael O’Flanagan was born in Kilkeeven, Castlerea, Co. Roscommon in 1876 to Edward Flanagan and Mary Flanagan, nee Crawley. The Flanagan's were smallholding farmers who managed to eke out a living by raising enough crops and livestock to provide for the family.

Despite the many hardships they faced under British rule they remained defiantly steadfast and confident in their Irishness, resolute and determined to resist the attempted anglification of the Irish people which, at that time, was an imperative British objective. To that end they embraced all aspects of their ethnic Irish cultural heritage including its history, literature, arts and language. They also engaged in Fenian and Land League activities despite the risk such so-called "subversive activities" posed to their wellbeing and freedom. 

Such were the childhood difficulties and influences that characterized Michael early years.

In a historic context it’s worth noting here that another notable individual, Douglas Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League, also hailed from Castlerea. A speech delivered by Hyde to the Irish National Literary Society in November of 1892 titled ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicizing Ireland’ led to the formation of the Gaelic League. Hyde was a leading figures in the Irish Literary Revival movement at the turn of the 20th century.

O’Flanagan received his primary education at the Cloonbonniffe National School in Castlerea. After completing his primary education he attended Summerhill College, a secondary school for boys in Sligo town.  After graduating from there in 1894 he entered St. Patrick's College in Maynooth in Co. Kildare to study for the priesthood. He was a brilliant student who excelled in a broad range of subjects including oratory, theology, the Irish language, education and natural science.

O'Flanagan was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Elphin in August of 1900. After his ordination he returned to Summerhill College as a lecturer of Irish, a position he officially held, albeit long absences, until 1914. As a young newly ordained priest, O'Flanagan, who involved himself in Irish nationalism, rural development, Irish self-reliance and the survival of the Irish language, worked with Hyde on a number of projects during the turbulent early years of the 20th century.

In 1903 O'Flanagan was the prime mover and organizer for the Sligo Feis, the first Gaelic Feis in Connacht. The aim of the Feis was to advance the revival of the Irish Language and the preservation of Ireland's Cultural heritage. During the early years of the Feis Douglas Hyde adjudicated Irish language competitions. After O’Flanagan left Sligo the Feis lapsed. It was revived in 1929 and has flourished ever since.

In 1904, O'Flanagan, who by then was recognized as an expert on agricultural cooperatives, was sent to the United States by the Bishop of Elphin, John Joseph Clancy and Horace Plunkett, the vice-President of the Irish Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction. His mission, which spanned a number of years and numerous trips was 1) to raise funds and awareness for home-based industries in the west of Ireland and 2) publicize the work of the Gaelic League and raise funds to support its programs.

In 1910 Flanagan was elected to the Executive Council of the Gaelic League, an organization the Catholic Hierarchy deemed a threat to its exalted role in Irish society and to its influence over the everyday lives of the Irish people.  As a priest, his involvement with the League and other nationalist leaning organizations placed him at odds with the Hierarchy, thus, despite his communicative and fundraising skills, his chances of advancing within the organizational structure of the Church were nonexistent.

As a consequence Flanagan spent much more of his time involved with political issues, particularly with those relating to the struggle for control of the Gaelic League.  In 1913, control of the League was in the hands of the republican leaning Keating Branch led by Cathal Brugha.  O’Flanagan, who supported the aims of the Keating Branch was elected to the League’s Standing Committee.  

During the years 1912 through 1914 O’Flanagan spent some time attending to his ecclesiastical duties at St. Sylvester in Rome in Rome "the Church for the English-Speaking Peoples in Rome".

In 1914 the new Bishop of Elphin, Bernard Coyne, appointed  O’Flanagan as curate to the parish of Ahamlish, serving in Cliffoney village. After arriving there he became involved in a turf cutting dispute that became known as the ‘Cloonerco Bog Fight’. The dispute was brought about by the Congested District’s Board who persisted that turf cutting rights be awarded to families who had relatives in the British Army or Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.).  The local farmers who depended on turf for cooking and heating their homes were, literally, left out in the cold.. Bishop Coyne warned O'Flanagan not to become involved in the dispute

At the onset of the turf cutting season in 1915 O'Flanagan instructed the local farmers to meet him outside the church with their turf cutting implements. Ignoring the Bishop’s warning he led them to the bogs where they encountered a large contingent of RIC who ordered them to stop. Ignoring their orders Fr Michael marched through the assembled RIC and cut the first sod of turf himself. Reluctant to arrest a priest the RIC backed off.  Despite selected arrests and legal action by the authorities the local farmers prevailed.

After cutting and saving the turf the farmers, in an act of defiance, stacked the turf close to the RIC barracks with a sign that read:  “OUR OWN TURF FOR OUR OWN PEOPLE: FOREIGNERS HAVE NO RIGHTS HERE”.

In retaliation for having defied the bishop regarding the turf cutting incident as well as his anti-British stance, Fr. O’Flanagan was transferred to Crossna, a remote parish in north Roscommon reserved for recalcitrant priests. If the intent was to silence him it did not work. He continued to agitate for the redistribution of land to the farmers who worked its’ soil for privileged and/or absentee landlords.  He also spoke out against Ireland’s forced participation in WWI – the War of the Empires. 

On Sunday 1st August 1915 Fr. O’Flanagan officiated at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa. He accompanied O’Rossa’s widow, Mary Jane, and daughter in their carriage in the funeral cortege to Glasnevin where he conducted the burial service in Irish.  After he finished Pádraig Pearse delivered the funeral oration, a speech for the ages.

He did not participate in the Easter Rising of 1916. He considered the executed leaders martyrs and heroes and their execution a grave criminal act, akin to a war crime.  In its aftermath he became more fervent and committed to Ireland’s freedom and sovereignty.

At the 1917 Sinn Féin convention nationalist leaning members led by Arthur Griffith and republican leaning members led by de Valera resolved their differences and agreed to move forward in pursuit of an independent Irish Republic.  De Valera was elected President of the unified organization; Arthur Griffith and O’Flanagan were elected vice-Presidents. O’Flanagan who was an effective and knowledgeable leader took control of the organization during de Valera’s prolonged tour of the United States in 1920. 

In May of 1918 during the East Cavan by-election campaign O’Flanagan denounced the British and German war-mongers who had led millions to their deaths: “Those royal cousins who rule England and Germany will come together and clink their champagne glasses over the graves of millions of the flower of the manhood of Germany and England.”

After this speech O’Flanagan was sanctioned by Bishop Coyne who could not countenance any criticism directed at the British for either their callous treatment of their Irish subjects or their imperial global pursuits.    

During the 1918 General Election campaign, O’Flanagan’s oratorical skills and eloquence was a major factor in the success of Sinn Fein candidates who won 73 of the 105 seats contested. Those skills were clearly demonstrated in the successful election campaign of Count Plunkett’s in Roscommon north.

Count Plunkett was the father of Joseph M. Plunkett, one of the executed 1916 Proclamation signatories. He was also a distant cousin of the aforementioned Horace Plunkett.

The Irish General Election of 1918 was part of the United Kingdom's General Election for seats in the British House of Commons in London. Instead of heading off to London to take their seats the elected Sinn Féin candidates convened their own parliament, Dáil Éireann, at the Mansion House in Dublin.  O’Flanagan, who was appointed the Dails’ Chaplin, recited the invocation at its inaugural meeting in January 1919.

It was at that meeting that Ireland was declared a sovereign 32-county Irish Republic.

During the War of Independence he held unauthorized communications with Edward Carson, leader of the Unionist in the north, and with Lloyd George, the British prime minister probing the possibility of arriving at a peaceful solution to the conflict.. His efforts, which caused consternation within the Republican ranks, proved fruitless.  

Despite his efforts at peace-making he vehemently opposed the divisive Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 that ended the war. He did not take part in the ensuing Treaty War between British backed Free State forces who supported the Treaty and Republican volunteers who opposed it.  Nonetheless, his anti-Treaty stance coupled with his castigation by the Church made him a potential target for retribution by Free State agents. Aware of his vulnerability to harm he returned to the Unites States in November of 1921 at the height of the Treaty War.    

In March 1923 O’Flanagan together with John J. O’Kelly (also known by his nom de plume ‘Sceilg’) arrived in Australia from the United States as envoys of the Irish Republican movement. During their six months stay in Australia they met with Irish groups sympathetic to the Republican cause. They also met with Irish-born Cardinal Daniel Mannix an outspoken opponent of English rule in Ireland. When the purpose of their visit became known to the authorities they were deported back to the United States. He returned to Ireland in 1925.

At the 1926 Sinn Fein convention O'Flanagan sided with the Sinn Fein members who defeated a proposal tabled by de Valera to allow Sinn Fein TD’s to enter the Free State Oireachtas (government apparatus)   In order to do so TD’s would have to swear allegiance to the King of England one of the contentious Treaty imposed conditions that precipitated the Treaty War.  After his defeat de Valera left Sinn Fein with his supporters, founded Fianna Fail, swore allegiance to the King and entered the Oireachtas.

During the years 1927 through 1935 O’Flanagan edited, for publication, several volumes of John O’Donovan manuscripts relating the 1830s Ordnance Survey of Ireland. During that same period he was commissioned by the government to write a history of the Irish language for schools.

The manuscripts O’Donovan produced in support of the Ordnance Survey included descriptions and details relating to topographical features, antiquities, population, and socio economic factors that could not be adequately encapsulated in cartographic form. This was done at the Parish level for every county in Ireland

In 1933 O’Flanagan was elected President of Sinn Fein. He was expelled from the party in 1936 for participating in a Radio Eireann broadcast. He was later readmitted.

During the Spanish Civil War he supported the Spanish Republic. He was vocal in his opposition to the Catholic Church’s support for the coup d’etat led by the fascist, General Franco, and his supporters.  While on a speaking of North America in support of the Spanish Republic he made his feelings perfectly clear regarding the Church’s involvement in political affairs stating, “when the Church tries to step outside of its own activity, which is to preach the gospel, it is very likely to do wrong.

In addition to other undertakings during the 1930’s he worked on the development of county histories in Irish. The first of these works was published  in 1938. It was for his native county of Roscommon "Stair na gCondae 1 – Ros Comáin".  

In April of 1938 his  ecclesiastical duties were restored by Bishop Doorly allowing him to say Mass in public and administer the Sacraments.

Fr. Michael O’Flanagan a devout and exemplary priest a man of the people and a diehard patriot died in Dublin on 8th August 1942 at the age of 66. He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery on August 10th. His graveside oration was given by "Sceilg"


Contributor;  Tomás Ó Coısdealha



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Posted 10/15/2015