Peter O’Neill Crowley and the 1867 Fenian Rising

The Fenian rising of March 1867 was yet another attempt to remove the shackles of foreign oppression. After the 1798, 1803, and 1848 rebellions, it was the fourth failed rebellion in 70 years. In this post, we’ll focus on the events of 1867 as they relate to Ballymacoda, and one of its most famous sons – the Fenian leader and Irish patriot Peter O’Neill Crowley.

Peter O’Neill Crowley was born in Ballymacoda on May 23rd, 1832 into a respectable farming family. Through his mother, he was a grand-nephew of Fr. Peter O’Neill, the Ballymacoda parish priest flogged at Youghal in 1798 and later deported to Botany Bay. After his father died when he was still quite young, Peter O’Neill Crowley came under the influence of his grand-uncle, and acknowledged later in life that his involvement with the Fenian’s was inspired by his grand-uncle. The young O’Neill Crowley was well known and respected in Fenian circles, and was known to be a man of principle and a strict pioneer. In time, he became the leader of the reportedly 100-strong group of Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) members in the Ballymacoda area.

On Tuesday March 5th, the day of the rebellion, O’Neill Crowley and John McClure, an American born veteran of the Civil War, led a party to raid the coastguard station at Knockadoon, with the objective being to secure the cache of weapons located there. Among the raiding party were Thomas ‘Bowler’ Cullinane, Jerry Aher, David Joyce and Thomas Walsh. The raid was successful, with the weapons being secured and the coastguards disarmed without a single shot being fired. Taking the coastguards hostage, the group then marched towards Killeagh with the prisoners, expecting to join up with other units from Youghal and Midleton. However, this didn’t materialize as planned, with only a handful of men being present at the meeting place when the party from Ballymacoda arrived. The group of rebels from Midleton had earlier been involved in a battle with the police in Castlemartyr while attempting to raid the barracks there, where the leader of the group, Timothy Daly had been shot and killed.

McClure made the decision to disband all unarmed men, and march with the remaining men and prisoners towards Castlemartyr, where the prisoners were released. Having observed a large group of crown forces at Mogeely about to commence a search of the area, O’Neill Crowley, McClure and others decided to march north in an attempt to merge with other pockets of fighters in the Munster region. While the raid on the coastguard station at Knockadoon was successful – John Devoy called it ‘the neatest job done by the Fenians in the Rising‘ – the wider rising was a failure, and soon the party from Ballymacoda was on the run, eventually reaching Kilclooney wood near Mitchelstown. The group spent a few weeks taking refuge in the wood until being engaged by the British on the morning of Sunday March 31st, 1867, three weeks after the rising. The British had reportedly received information that the group was hiding there, and that same problem that always plagued rebellions and rebel groups throughout Irish history – informers – was to cause the death of O’Neill Crowley.

On the morning of the 31st, Kilclooney wood was surrounded by an estimated 120+ British soldiers, made up of members of the Sixth Carbineers, two companies of the Sixth Warwickshire infantry and a company of Royal Engineers. The men were commanded by Major Bell. A gun battle ensued, with the Fenian group hopelessly outnumbered. O’Neill Crowley was initially badly wounded when he was hit by a bullet which broke a finger on one hand. A group of soldiers began to advance towards the wood, while the rest kept it surrounded from all sides to prevent escape of the group of rebels. McClure and O’Neill Crowley were captured together, attempting to cross a river, O’Neill Crowley was shot and fatally wounded as he attempted to cross. He was attended to by an army surgeon, and a priest was sent for to administer last rites before he died. He was aged just 34, a few months shy of 35.

The priest who administered the last rites, Rev. T. O’Connell, at the time curate in nearby Kildorrery, described the scene he witnessed that morning in 1867 in The Irish Standard 20 years later:

A few particulars in connection with the last moments of Peter O’Neill Crowley may not be uninteresting to your numerous readers at the present moment. I can well recall the memorable morning in March, ’67, when I was hastily summoned to administer to the patriot the last rites of that church which he loved so well. On my arrival at Kilclooney Wood, I found Dr. Segrave, surgeon to the flying column, busily engaged in staunching the wound with one hand, whilst from a prayer book in the other he read aloud – at the young man’s request – the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus. I was greatly touched by the scene, and especially by the exclamation – ‘Thank God – all is right now’, and then turning to the doctor he said ‘Thank you very much, the priest is come, leave me to him’. I saw at once the critical condition of the brave soul, whose heart’s blood was ebbing fast away. I saw that there was no time to lose, and having made him as comfortable as circumstances would permit, by means of the soldiers knapsacks, I then and there, surrounded by the military and police, administered the last sacraments. The fervor and devotion for which he prepared for death – though suffering very much – were most striking, and made on me an indelible impression. His lively faith and firm hope coupled with, if I might so write, his true heroism, so affected me that I could have wished myself in his place. It was whilst kneeling by his side and whispering to him words of consolation that he gave expression with his dying lips to that noble sentiment – one well worthy of Saint Lawrence O’Toole – ‘Father, I have two loves in my heart – one for my religion, the other for my country. I am dying today for the fatherland. I could die as cheerfully for faith’.

Rev. T. O’Connell, by then P.P. in Castlemartyr, describes administering the last rites to O’Neill Crowley, The Irish Standard, May 28th 1887
Depiction of the death of O’Neill Crowley, from the monument in Kilclooney

Peter O’Neill Crowley’s body was removed to a workhouse in nearby Mitchelstown, and a short inquest followed which found ‘The deceased was shot by troops whilst in the execution of their duty‘. His body was released to his sister, and brought to Ballymacoda for burial beside his grand-uncle Fr. Peter O’Neill in the churchyard. His funeral cortege was reported to be comprised of thousands of mourners, but it is impossible to get accurate figures. Numerous sources also indicate that his coffin was shouldered all the way from Mitchelstown to Ballymacoda, stopping overnight to rest in Killeagh.

O’Neill Crowley’s Grave in the churchyard in Ballymacoda, marked by a large Celtic Cross

Over the years numerous commemorations have taken place at Kilclooney, notably in 1898 when a memorial was erected (re-erected in 1960), at the 100 anniversary of the battle in 1967 and in the year 2000 when Derek Warfield, historian and ex-leader of the Wolfe Tones group was the guest speaker. A new viewing station was unveiled at Kilclooney Wood in 2013, in advance of the commemoration held in 2017 to mark the 150th anniversary. Peter O’Neill Crowley is also commemorated in numerous parts of Cork and further afield:

  • O’Neill Crowley Terraces in Ballymacoda, in Castlemartyr, and in Mitchelstown.
  • Peter O’Neill Crowley Bridge (formerly George IV Bridge) on the Carrigrohane road in Cork city.
  • O’Neill Crowley statue at the National Monument on Grand Parade in Cork city, erected to commemorate the Irish patriots who died during the period 1798 – 1867.
  • O’Neill Crowley Street in Youghal.
  • O’Neill Crowley Quay in Fermoy.
  • Peter O’Neill Crowley Gaelic Athletic Club formed in the Clonard area of Belfast in 1902 – they went on to win two Antrim Senior Hurling titles in 1903 and 1907.
Plaque at the viewing station in Kilclooney, erected 2013

The memory of O’Neill Crowley is also captured in the folk songs ‘Erin’s Lovely Lee‘, and ‘Peter Crowley‘, recordings of which are available in the collection of the Clare County Library (see references for links).

Peter O’Neill Crowley memorial on the National Monument on Grand Parade.

The Fenian leader John Devoy said of O’Neill Crowley: “Peter O’Neill Crowley was one of the best men in the Fenian Movement, and Ireland never gave birth to a truer or more devoted son. His devotion to the cause of Irish liberty was sublime and his courage dauntless“. It would be difficult to disagree with this opinion.

Peter O’Neill Crowley’s Gaelic Athletic Club, Belfast 1902

In a future post, we’ll look at the aftermath of the 1867 rebellion, in particular what became of the other protagonists from the Ballymacoda area who took part in the rebellion.

References and Further Information

Historical Remains of Ballymacoda and Ladysbridge, Ballymacoda / Ladysbridge Community Council Historical Society

Fenian Heroes & Martyrs, John Savage, Published by Patrick Donahoe, 1868

The Irish Standard, May 28th 1887

Recollections of an Irish Rebel, A Personal Narrative, By John Devoy.

Erin’s Lovely Lee, recording captured in the Carroll Mackenzie Collection at Clare County Library collection

Peter Crowley, recording captured in the Carroll Mackenzie Collection at Clare County Library collection

Kilclooney Wood and Peter O’Neill-Crowley, Micheál Ó’h0Aonghusa, 2012

Fr. Peter O’Neill

Fr. Peter O’Neill is perhaps the best known link to Ballymacoda and the Society of United Irishmen and the events of 1798. Arrested for his alleged knowledge of the murder of an informer in Ballymacoda, he suffered a brutal interrogation and torture, and spent a number of years in a prison colony in Australia. In this post, we delve into the life of Fr. Peter O’Neill, the events leading to his deportation, and his life afterwards.

Fr. Peter O’Neill

It is interesting to note that Fr. O’Neill was not born in Ballymacoda, but born in the parish of Conna, on June 29th 1747. He was educated first at a hedge school at Inch, with schools and education being banned for Catholics at the time. Later he attended a school at Kilworth, learning classics and mathematics. Following his education in Kilworth, he was sent to be trained for the priesthood at the College of the Lombards in Paris.

After his ordination in 1781, Fr. O’Neill returned to Ireland. For the next five years, he filled many vacant posts in the diocese of Cloyne & Ross, before being appointed Parish Priest of Ballymacoda by Bishop MacKenna in November 1786. His letter of appointment from the Bishop, dated 8th November 1786 seems to indicate that he had done a more than satisfactory job in his other parishes up to that point.

Being answerable to the great God for the choice I make to fill vacant parishes with proper pastors, as the district of Ballymacoda is now vacant, and certainly wants a pastor conspicuous for good sense, prudence, discretion, zeal, and talents for instruction, we hereby assign and appoint you as pastor, whom we well know to possess those qualifications, and charge in conscience to labour strenuously in reforming and instructing said flock, as you have done in all places you have served hitherto, and charge said flock by virtue of the obedience they owe to you their pastor, and to me their superior, to show you due obedience and respect, and charge Rev. Mr. Dinahy to induct you properly.

Letter appointing Fr. O’Neill P.P of Ballymacoda from Bishop Matthew MacKenna.

At that time, Shanagarry was part of the parish of Ballymacoda & Ladysbridge, and Fr. O’Neill first presented himself at the church there. As told in the Memoir of Rev. Peter O’Neill (Rice, 1900), he found the doors to the chapel locked and no one there to welcome him. After striking up a conversation with a blacksmith, he managed to convince him to open the church doors, and requested that those in the locality at least permit him to say a mass, which was accepted. Fr. Peter won over his parishioners, and this was the beginning of his ministry in the parish of Ballymacoda. Sources indicate that he was a very hard working priest, arising at 4am each morning and working many hours hearing confessions, saying mass, and visiting the sick. He was also involved in the building of schools in the parish, and a new church in Ballymacoda in 1796.

Stone at the entrance to St. Peter in Chains Church, Ballymacoda

Memoir of Rev. Peter O’Neill (Rice, 1900) discusses Patrick Murphy arriving in Ballymacoda, his wife possibly being a native of the area or having relations there. Murphy was an ex-sergeant and had been convicted of attempting to convince fellow officers to join the United Irishmen. He was sentenced to 500 lashes and to be deported for life to a prison colony, but this sentence was commuted on his agreement to become an informer for the authorities, and report on activities of the United Irishmen.

The leader of the United Irishmen in Ballymacoda at this time was Thomas O’Neill (no relation to Fr. Peter O’Neill). There is evidence that Thomas O’Neill and Fr. Peter O’Neill had previously had conflict, specifically relating to a disagreement regarding the proposed site of the new chapel in Ballymacoda.

Patrick Murphy integrated locally, but was at the same time passing information to Lords Shannon and Boyle regarding the membership and activities of the United Irishmen in Ballymacoda. A meeting of Murphy and the Lords was observed, and this information was passed to members of the United Irishmen in Ballymacoda. A meeting was held, to which Murphy was invited. He was arrested, and charged with being a spy, to which he admitted. It was claimed that the United Irishmen sent two members from this meeting to Fr. O’Neill to consult him on the course of action, however it seems that he didn’t give a response. The two returned to the meeting, where they concluded after much deliberation that Murphy should be shot. There is reference to the shooting happening in Ring, but it is likely impossible to pinpoint the location. Where exactly the body of Patrick Murphy was disposed of is also unclear – some sources list it as being buried in the sand in Knockadoon and others as having been thrown into the River Fanisk and covered over in a pile of stones.

Over the next number of weeks, noticing the absence of Murphy and the information which he was providing, the authorities arrested many people in the area for interrogation. It seems that Thomas O’Neill, under questioning, was the one who brought Fr. O’Neill into the fold – indicating that if he had done his duty, nobody would have been shot.

Fr O’Neill was arrested and brought to Youghal, where he was to suffer greatly. In his remonstrance in 1803, Fr. Peter O’Neill gave a first hand account of his punishment. He had ‘made up his mind not to utter even a single groan‘, as he knew that this would give satisfaction to his tormentors. The brave priest kept silent as lash upon lash was landed on his body. Lord William Loftus (1752-1831) was at the time Commander in Chief of the British forces based in Munster, and presided over the flogging of Fr. O’Neill. He was not pleased that the punishment was seemingly not having the desired effect, and indicated that he would ‘make the popish rebel groan‘. He ordered that jagged strips of tin and lead be knotted to the lashes of the whip. Fr O’Neill endured 275 lashes, and was thrown in a cell in the Clock Gate prison. Under great pressure throughout this ordeal to reveal the names of United Irishmen members in Ballymacoda, he didn’t reveal a single piece of information.

From Youghal, he was sent to Duncannon, and later put on board the transport ‘Princess Charlotte‘ in Waterford. Later taken to Cobh, he was transferred to a larger vessel bound for Botany Bay, the ‘Annie‘, where he remained for the next 10 months before being deported in 1800. While awaiting transport to Botany Bay on the ‘Annie‘, a court of inquiry was underway in Youghal, ordered by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Fr O’Neill was in no way involved in the inquiry, stating:

I was not brought nor any friend of mine summoned to speak for me. It was even a subject of sarcastic remark in the prison ship, that whilst I stood there among the sailors my trial as it was termed, was going on in Youghal. With the proceedings of that Court I am to this day unacquainted.

Fr. Peter O’Neill on his trial at Youghal, where he had no involvement, from Remonstrance to the Nobility and Gentry of County Cork, 1803

The inquiry ordered Fr. O’Neill to be removed from the transport ship, and imprisoned while the investigations were ongoing, but by the time the letter reached Cork, the ship on which Fr O’Neill was imprisoned had already set sail for Botany Bay.

Dublin Castle, 30th June, 1800.
Sir, —I have the honour to receive and to lay before my
Lord Lieutenant, your letter of the 28th instant, with its enclosure, and am directed to acquaint you, this his Excellency’s commands have been this day conveyed to Major General Myers, to take the Rev. Peter O’Neill from on board the Anne Botany Bay ship, in Cork Harbour, and to cause him to be imprisoned until further orders, but not to treat him with harshness or severity.
I have the honour, etc.,
E. B. Littlehales.

Letter ordering the removal of Fr O’Neill from the transport ship ‘Annie’. The ship had already sailed by the time this letter arrived.

In exile, the most of which he spent on Norfolk Island, Fr. O’Neill was allowed to continue his ministry. At home efforts by friends and family continued to lobby the government for his release and return to Ireland. These eventually succeeded and a recall was issued for the return of Fr. O’Neill to Ireland. Seeing the good he was doing in the colony, the governor there delayed telling Fr. O’Neill of his recall, with him first hearing of this being in a letter from a friend at home. Confronting the governor with this, the governor admitted his recall had come and that he had delayed telling him. He also offered Fr. O’Neill a yearly salary of £200 to stay on in the colony and continue his ministry there. Fr. O’Neill refused, but did promise to return later with more priests. His letter of pardon is dated 15th January 1803.

I do hereby certify that Mr. O’Neil has permission from his
Excellency, Governor King, to leave this Island, and to return to
Ireland.
Norfolk Island, 15th January, 1803

The content of Fr O’Neill’s letter of pardon, January 1803

When Fr. O’Neill arrived back in Ireland in 1803, he was reinstated as P.P. of Ballymacoda. While he was away, another priest, a Fr. O’Brien had been appointed P.P., but the bishop as a mark of respect for the suffering he had endured, reinstated him. Fr. O’Brien was later appointed P.P. in Doneraile.

In 1803, Fr. O’Neill published Remonstrance to the Nobility and Gentry of County Cork, in which he challenged the charges which were brought against him, showed that there was never any evidence, and challenged his accusers to produce any evidence against him.

Thomas O’Neill was sentenced to death for his part in the murder of Patrick Murphy in Ballymacoda, and was hanged in Cork on 13th June 1798. His ‘final confession’ is held in the National Library of Ireland, and is interesting from the perspective that he claims he was under duress to participate in the murder, and also that he had no knowledge of any involvement by Fr. Peter O’Neill, since he was previously the principal accuser of Fr. O’Neill.

From ‘The final confession of Thomas O’Neill’, National Library of Ireland

Two other local men, Patrick Shanahan and Robert Walsh, were also implicated in the murder of Patrick Murphy and hanged in Cork on 6th October 1798. A memorial was unveiled to all three at the Ballalley in Ballymacoda in 1998 on the 200th anniversary of the events of 1798.

Monument to Thomas O’Neill, Patrick Shanahan and Robert Walsh at the Ballalley in Ballymacoda

Fr Peter O’Neill died in June 1835, at the age of 88, working right up to the day he died. As per his wishes, he was buried in the churchyard at Ballymacoda. His grandnephew, the revered Fenian leader Peter O’Neill Crowley is buried at his side, but that’s another story.

The grave of Fr. Peter O’Neill in Ballymacoda churchyard

In 1906, a further memorial to Fr. O’Neill was unveiled in the 1798 memorial park in Youghal.

Fr. Peter O’Neill memorial, 1798 memorial park in Youghal

References and Further Information

Memoir of Rev. Peter O’Neill, by Rev. William Rice, Published by Eagle Works, South Mall, Cork, 1900

National Library of Ireland, The Final Confession of Thomas Neil

Historical Remains of Ballymacoda and Ladysbridge, Ballymacoda / Ladysbridge Community Council Historical Society