Father Casey, Patriot Parish of Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick 1840-1907. Monument to his memory in The Square, Abbeyfeale.

Life of Fr William Casey, Patriot Priest of Abbeyfeale (by Nioclás O’Lionáird)

William Casey was born at Castlequarter, Kilbehenny, Co. Limerick, in 1840, to John Casey and Johanna Kiely. William had two sisters, Mary and Norah, and two brothers Owen and Patrick. The Casey’s were substantial farmers and all survived the Great Famine. John Casey’s brother, Fr. Daniel Casey was P.P. in Glanworth, Co. Cork, where he died and was interred in 1867.

Owen married Catherine Hurley and took her parents’ farm at Longueville, Ballynoe, Co. Cork. They had six children, including Father John Casey, C.C., Ballymacoda, Co. Cork, and Father Pat Casey, C.C., Mallow, Co. Cork who became Bishop of Ross in 1935, and died and was interred at Skibbereen, Co. Cork in 1940.

William, subject of this article, became a priest and was later appointed Parish Priest of Abbeyfeale, Co. Limerick, dying in 1907 and interred there. Mary married T. Hurley, a farmer of Curraglass, Ballynoe, Co. Cork. They had four sons, including Father Pat Hurley, Macroom, Co. Cork.

Patrick, who was to inherit the farm at Castlequarter, died at an early age and the farm went instead to Norah. Norah married Tom O’Donnell, Lyre, Galbally, Co. Limerick. Among the children of three of Tom O’Donnell’s brothers were four priests and four nuns.

William Casey was raised in the malevolent shadow of the Great Famine. It was a time when Daniel O’Connell was coming to the end of his Repeal movement, and of his life. The most, and the best, of the land in Ireland was still held by the old planter class. The failure of the stable diet – the potato crop – had devastated the countryside of the Galtee Valley adjacent to Kilbehenny. It was in the Workhouse in nearby Mitchelstown that the starving people from that area were forced to seek succour, but often found dead from disease instead.

William Casey’s youth would be full of the heart-rending accounts of death by starvation and disease – all attributable to the iniquitous system of land ownership and the misgovernment as practiced in the hapless Ireland of that time. His family background was nationalistic with loyalty to the faith. His generosity and charity began at home. As a result, his heart would be with the deprived and the downtrodden; the landlord class and their minions would be his avowed foes in his fight for justice for the oppressed. During his ministry in Abbeyfeale, Fr. Casey stood resolutely on the side of the tenant farmer, the poor and the weak, offering strong leadership and fearless advocacy on behalf of the voiceless. Following many years struggle and hardship, his parishioners were restored to their holdings, the landlords were eradicated and the seeds of the prosperity that we enjoy today were sown.

William Casey most likely received his formal education in a small local school; the language used being the native Irish tongue to which he was so devoted. In Mount Melleray, Co. Waterford, William commenced his ecclesiastical studies, going on the St. Colman’s College in Fermoy and later completing his studies for the priesthood in Carlow. On 2/7/1868, he was ordained a priest for his home Diocese of Cloyne, though he was not to serve there. Lent to Limerick Diocese where there was a temporary shortage of priests, he served first in Banogue, being sent to Abbeyfeale for a time before returning to Banogue. From there he went to Manister but on 18/11/1872, he was sent again to Abbeyfeale.

On the death of the parish priest, Dr. Michael Coughlin, D.D., in 1883, Fr. Casey was appointed Parish Priest of Abbeyfeale: thus he remained for the rest of his life. He was, in his own words, “overpowered” by delight when Bishop Butler told him he was going to Abbeyfeale and “was never sorry” afterwards. It was a fateful and fortunate day for Abbeyfeale that the young Fr. William Casey came to the parish. He made his mark before long, completing the impressive Convent of Mercy by building wall around it. A daring horseback rescue of four young men in danger of drowning in the flooded River Feale near Port Castle gave clear indication of his selfless bravery and determination in the service of his flock. Many times throughout his years in Abbeyfeale, he would display the same courage and tenacity in the face of adversity. Fr. Casey arranged the opening of Temporary Fever Hospitals to cater for victims of a dangerous fever plague in 1883. While ministering to the sick during the fever epidemic, Fr. Casey and Fr. Byrne contracted the debilitating disease, forcing them to their sickbeds in serious ill health. Both eventually recovered, to the relief of the people.

Fr. Casey’s exploits on behalf of the tenant farmers in Abbeyfeale during the Land War are widely known. At a time when tenants were no more than rent-slaves for the landlords, a succession of bad harvests left the tenants unable to pay their rent. Disaster threatened; the prospect of eviction and destitution became a reality. In County Mayo, a new organisation, The Irish National Land League, dedicated to the defence of tenants’ rights was formed in late 1879. A returned exile, Michael Davitt, who had as a child suffered eviction and hardship, led the formation of the Land League. The Member of Parliament, Charles Stewart Parnell became its President. Its core aims were to secure for the tenants fair rents, the freedom to sell holdings and benefit from improvements made by the tenant, and to enjoy secure tenancies. These were issues that were vital to the tenants on the Abbeyfeale estates, and Fr. Casey espoused the Land League cause, setting up a branch in the town in September 1879. He ensured that the tenants joined and secured the protection of the League. He held regular Land League mass meetings in the Square, Abbeyfeale, on Sundays. He also made speeches at meetings all over Munster. He ensured that the farms of evicted tenants were not taken over by others willing to pay the exorbitant rent. The threat of boycotting was the deterrent. In this way, the evicted farms lay idle and the landlord received no rent – an untenable position over a long period.

Fr. Casey gave the tenants self-belief and encouraged them to stand together to fight for fair rents in line with Griffith’s Valuation, of which the landlords demanded far in excess – rents that tenants could not pay. In some cases, Fr. Casey was able to negotiate agreement on favourable terms to the tenants. In other cases, tenants were evicted and their homes levelled and burned. Fr. Casey was obliged to provide accommodation for the evicted families in Abbeyfeale and the Land League provided frame houses which were erected on non-evicted farms or waste ground. In these “Land League Huts” tenants were housed in the vicinity of their holdings. Some tenants on the O’Grady Estate at Ballaugh, Abbeyfeale, spent nearly twenty years in the huts before being restored to their holdings – chiefly as a result of the efforts of Fr. Casey, the Land League and later the United Irish League.

In the heightened tensions that surrounded evictions and passionate League meetings (where many hot-heads advocated strong measures), Fr. Casey maintained order and condemned outrages. More than once he prevented a potential bloody encounter between tenants and the police and military by a cool head, quick thinking, and the enormous respect in which the people held him.

He was to the forefront of every effort to better his parishioners and to further the cause of Ireland. His patriotism was practical and reasoned. He gave good example and strong leadership and was much concerned that there should be national unity among parliamentary agitators, especially following the tragic Parnell Split. He became actively involved in the many organisations, the County Limerick Committee of Agriculture and Technical Education, The United Irish League branch in Abbeyfeale, of which he was Chairman, the new Limerick County Council, especially the Roads Sessions which he attended with many proposals for bettering the roads in the parish, Douglas Hyde’s Conradh na Gaeilge, of which he was the Chairman, and its Aeríochtanna and Feiseanna which he arranged, attended and spoke at in Abbeyfeale and all over Munster, ever ready and anxious to advance the cause of the Irish language, culture and history.

Fr. Casey was a lifelong teetotaller, refusing to take alcohol even on medical advice. He had a horror of the adverse effects of intemperance on the people and founded a Temperance Society and the Abbeyfeale Brass Band in Abbeyfeale on 8/12/1872, shortly after arriving in the parish. He opened an old school as a Temperance Hall where members of the society could meet for alcohol-free recreation. Funds were raised from Irish exiles to support the society. He carefully monitored the exploits of members of the Temperance Society and their trials and tribulations in “keeping the pledge”.

The Hall also served as a band-room for the Brass Band that performed at Land League meetings, football games, political gatherings, marches and Feiseanna. Fr. Casey had founded a football team in the 21 a side days prior to the founding of the G.A.A. in 1884. The team was his pride and joy and with the Brass Band in support, gave many a thrilling display on the football field in Co. Limerick and Co. Kerry, while Fr. Casey policed the sideline.

The Abbeyfeale journalist and friend of Fr. Casey, J.D. Hartnett of Abbeyfeale (“J.D.H”), recorded many stories of the exploits of Fr. Casey and the Land League tenants during the Land War, especially the harrowing accounts of evictions and social injustices that resulted from a biased and unreasonable land system. In a lighter vein, he recorded accounts of the activities of the Temperance Society, the football team and the brass band. Mr. Hartnett was the principal and most important chronicler of those times in local publications, mainly the Kerryman and the Limerick Leader. His booklet, A Sketch of the Life of the Rev. Wm. Casey, P.P. Of Abbeyfeale, published in 1908 is a prized possession, as is the Rev. D. Riordan’s A Patriot Priest published in 1920.

Father Casey died on 29/12/1907, following a tireless campaign on behalf of his parishioners. He was beloved of the people as a priest and a patriot leader. He earned the respect of all, even those with whom he battled for the rights of the tenants. Successful in his efforts to ensure a fair system of land tenure, he had the undying gratitude of those for whom he laboured so tirelessly. In his honour, the people of Abbeyfeale, at home and abroad, erected the striking statue of Fr. Casey that stands in The Square, Abbeyfeale.

In 1957 the fiftieth anniversary of his death was commemorated and again in 2007, we celebrate the centenary of his departing this life. It is right and fitting that Fr. William Casey be remembered forever in Abbeyfeale.

Monument to Fr Casey’s Work and Times at The Square, Abbeyfeale
The monument to the memory of the late Father Casey is situated in the Square, Abbeyfeale. Following a revised layout of the Square, the monument to Father Casey is actually in a more prominent position and is now visible as people approach the town from the Killarney Road. The statue itself is seven feet six inches in height. It is proportionally well balanced, with a pleasing harmony in design. There is a strong likeness in features to the man who inspired its construction, and while the pose is classical, it is not untypical of the great Father Casey himself. The pedestal is composed of red and white granite, the red portion showing four beautiful medallions and two inscriptions – one in Irish and one in English.

The medallions portray the old Cistercian Abbey in Abbeyfeale, a sunburst round tower, a wolfhound and a harp. There are also four shields bearing sacred emblems. The medallions and statue are in bronze. Originally, a beautiful wrought – iron railing surrounded the monument. Each corner of the railing was lit by an ornamental lamp. These lamps were lit by the Pilner gas light system. The sculptor of the Father Casey statue was an M.F. Sharpe, Brunswick Street, Dublin. The architect involved in the original project was a Mr. J.D. Leahy, Newcastle West – who was a relative of the Leahy family residing at the Square, Abbeyfeale.
Inscription on the medallion

His grateful fellow countrymen at home and beyond the seas have erected this monument to the memory of the REV. WILLIAM CASEY. For a quarter of a century, prior to his death the Parish Priest of this parish. He found his people struggling in the toils of landlordism. He left them owners of the soil and freemen before his death. Religion lost a shining light, the cause of temperance – a strenuous advocate. The poor, without distinction of creed – an ever-helping friend, and Ireland a devoted son. But his memory, which will live forever in the hearts of the people, is a rich ennobling and inspiring inheritance.
The following is a reprint from the Limerick Leader 1907 (by Margaret Reidy)

An old soldier, sending his contribution from Washington, towards the erection of the monument, gloried in the fact that he fought in the American Civil War to the close, under General Sheridan. This man was born at Kilconlea, Abbeyfeale, but it is rather a remarkable co-incidence that a kinsman of his, and of the same name – Maurice O’Donnell – late of Church St., Abbeyfeale, fought in the same war, but on the opposite side – the Confederate, under General Stonewall Jackson. He lived to be over 90 and died about the year 1915. The veteran who served under General Sheridan in the American Civil War wrote the following interesting letter. It is dated May 3rd 1908, from the State Soldiers Home, Orting, Washington, and that portion of the appeal (for funds) which appears to have sent his thoughts back to his native land and Kinconlea, Abbeyfeale, where he was born, was gummed by him to the right corner of his letter; it ran as follows:

To the sons of Ireland across the seas – “The Exiles of Erin” for whom the great Sogart entertained the fondest wishes of his heart, this appeal is in an especial manner directed. That all who knew the greatness of his love for Ireland, the generous depths of his truly Celtic nature, may participate in the opportunity of raising to his inextinguishable memory, a monument worthy of his name.

He wrote, with a hand long since at rest, and considering that he was born in 1832, of parents who experienced their share of the Penal Days, he wrote well, if simply:

I am going to send for the Father Casey Monument Fund 15 dollars, through the Post Office Department. It is the surest way, for if it goes astray, I will have no bother to recover it. My countrymen, I hope that ye build a monument worthy of the Reverend Father departed, who I pray, is now enjoying the reward of his good life. Now my friends, I have a question to ask. Is the old thatched chapel where I learned Dr. Murray’s Catechism from Father Lyddy, P.P. and Miss Hayes, at Sunday School, still standing ? Are Upper and Lower Kilconlea yet free from their ruthless landlords. I do hope so, as I would wish to see the old place free before I close my eyes ? I am 76 years old and can read and write without glasses. I am over 50 years in America, and I put in four years as a cavalryman in the Civil War. I served with General Sheridan to the close. — Maurice O’Donnell

Canon P.A. Sheehan, the distinguished author of “My New Curate” and those other imperishable works, writing from Doneraile, prior to the unveiling of Father Casey’s Monument, and in reply to an invitation from the Memorial Committee wrote:

Dear Mr. H. — I am in receipt of your letter inviting me, in the name of your Committee, to unveil the Memorial to your late beloved Pastor. For many reasons, I esteem this invitation as probably the highest compliment that could be paid to one like myself, whose life is more or less hidden from the world. The people of Abbeyfeale have acted nobly and beautifully in thus perpetuating the memory of a priest who was their benefactor, as well as a distinguished patriot; and were it in my power I would look forward to the unveiling of such a monument at my hands, as an event in my life of unequalled importance. It is therefore, with the deepest regret I have to tell you, that I am quite incapacitated by imperfect health for undertaking any such solemn ceremony, and, on the other hand, I feel a certain satisfaction in knowing that the duty will therefore devolve on some more prominent public men, who are engaging the attention of the Irish people at present, but would feel as happily complimented as I have been by your invitation. Although I shall not be privileged to be present, I shall watch your proceedings with great interest; confident that the fullest justice shall be done to such an important occasion.

I beg to remain dear Mr. H. very sincerely

P.A. Sheehan P.P.

The Most Reverend Dr. John Mangan, D.D. Bishop of Kerry sending a contribution towards the Memorial, and writing from the Palace Killarney, on February 13th 1908, wrote:

I enclose an offering towards the proposed memorial to the late Fr. Casey, whose priestly character, great charity and genuine nationalism, I have always highly respected.

John Dillon, M.P., writing from London on the 20th February 1908 wrote:

Father Casey had no warmer friend or admirer in Ireland than myself, and I earnestly trust that the response to your appeal may be such as to enable the Committee to raise a memorial worthy of Father Casey’s memory.

Sincerely yours,

John Dillon

Just a few years earlier, on December 6th 1901, the Father of the Land League, Michael Davitt, writing from his home in Dalkey to Father Casey, said on the occasion of the restoration of the O’Grady tenants to their holdings in Ballaugh, after a land fight for 20 years:

My Dear Father Casey,

Just a line to heartily congratulate you on the settlement effected on the O’Grady Estate, which I see reported on this morning’s “Freeman”. It must be a great satisfaction to you to have the tenants restored to their old holdings on such favourable terms, and to see peace also restored, by this act of justice to the district. You have stood loyally and nobly by these poor people in their struggle for their homesteads, and they will owe you a debt of endless gratitude for the successful fight you have made for them. Wishing you and them many happy Christmases.

I remain, dear Father Casey

Yours sincerely

Michael Davitt

On the 29th December 1910, a monument to the memory of Father Casey was unveiled in Abbeyfeale Square by Bishop John Murphy, a native of Knocknagoshel, and Bishop of Port Louis, Madagascar. The memory of Father Casey and his outstanding contribution to the spiritual, physical and temporal well-being of his parishioners is still strong in Abbeyfeale. Commemorating the centenary of his death is but one expression of that appreciation.