ADOPTED Cork man, Vincent Murphy, who has been living in the city since the 1970s and is the founder of the Cork charity, The Next Step, has been doing some extra-curricular activity.
It has resulted in a book about his granduncle, Michael Kickham, who was something of a mystery, particularly in the last years of his relatively short life.
Born in Mullinahone, Co. Tipperary in 1861, Micheal died at the age of 48 of sclerosis of the liver in Buenos Aires, having left the priesthood. There isn’t much information available about his personal life. But what evidence exists reveals an interesting life that included petitioning Pope Leo XIII and a diary of Michael’s time as a Jesuit novitiate.
Vincent started his online research into his relative by focusing on New Zealand initially, where Michael was a priest.
“I started in the diocesan archives of Christchurch. The people there sent me loads of letters from Michael and pointed me to newspaper archives. There were loads of articles written about him at different times.
“I was on to Wellington as well. There were Marist priests in the diocese there and they looked down on the Irish secular priests.”
Eighteen of these priests, including Michael, sent a petition to Pope Leo XIII in 1888 giving out about how they were treated by the Marists. The Marists saw the secular priests as merely being there to serve them.
Michael had been educated at Mount Melleray in Co. Waterford, followed by All Hallows in Dublin and Angers in France. He was young when he was professed a priest, nearly 23.
“At that time, you had to be 24 to be ordained. A dispensation allowed Michael to be ordained 17 months before his 24th birthday.”
On St Patrick’s Day in 1888, at a celebration in Christchurch where there were a lot of priests as well as lay people, Michael made a speech in which he referred to the Fenians, an organisation that was banned by the church.
“He was called to task by the bishop afterwards but he managed to persuade the bishop that he was in the clear. The following Sunday at Mass, the bishop mentioned he had asked Michael for an explanation and was satisfied with what he said. But the Bishop shouldn’t have said anything.”
Vincent says that “reading between the lines”, he feels Michael was prompted to apply to join the Jesuits in Melbourne, Australia, after an incident.
“I also think he wanted to get out of New Zealand but he probably genuinely wanted to be a Jesuit. One of the conditions of the bishop in Christchurch allowing Michael to go to Melbourne was that if he didn’t stick it out with the Jesuits, he would have to return to New Zealand.”
Michael was only in Melbourne for three months when he decided he wanted out of the Jesuits.
“It was too institutional for him, all boarding school stuff. Recreation involved going for a walk with someone. When he was in New Zealand, he was used to riding his horse 200 miles a month to visit his parishioners in the diocese of Christchurch.”
Michael left the Jesuits with the agreement of his director. But despite the agreement he had been forced to make, he decided that he definitely wasn’t going back to Christchurch. He wrote to the bishop there four times, getting nowhere with him. But in his final letter, Michael told the truth about the way he and his fellow secular priests were treated by the Marists. He also wrote that the life of a priest in Australia was so much better.
Eventually, the bishop agreed that Michael could stay in Australia, on condition that he recompense his former diocese with the sum of £200 (€31,000 in today’s value.) Michael agreed to this but didn’t know where he was going to get the money.
In the meantime, the bishop went off to Europe and when he returned to Christchurch 20 months later, he discovered that Michael hadn’t paid a penny of the money.
More letters were exchanged, with the bishop demanding payment by the end of the year. Michael went to visit the bishop. The cardinal told the bishop that he was being unfair, demanding so much money.
Michael had been working as a priest in poor parishes in Sydney so didn’t have much money. When the cardinal established that Michael had £50, he made the bishop accept that sum.
The bishop gave out yards about Michael in a letter to the cardinal, but had to accept what the cardinal said.
While serving in Sydney, Michael spent time as chaplain to the prison there.
“During that time, he attended to a murderer who was condemned to death. I’d say that was a harrowing experience.”
Vincent says that while he has no documentary evidence to back up his supposition that Michael had been thinking about leaving the priesthood for a few years before he left Australia, he believes that he sought advice from an older priest, a Fr Comerford, about his momentous decision.
But before that, Michael returned to Ireland for a while. When he was leaving, he said to his mother ‘Goodbye Kit - it may be for years or it may be forever.’ That farewell is the title of Vincent’s book. Michael ‘disappeared’ around the end of 1901.
Vincent explores, in so far as was possible, the enigma of his granduncle’s life in Buenos Aires.
“There was little enough information available. However, information from present day descendents of people he was friendly with provided context,” said Vincent.
Was Michael’s sclerosis of the liver due to alcohol addiction?
“About two thirds of people who have that condition have a drink problem. There was a lot of alcoholism among Irish priests. But there was never any suggestion that Micheal had an addiction problem. Whether his isolation and self-exile made him drink, I can’t say.”
Michael spent time in Punta Arenas, in the south of Argentina, 2,000 miles from Buenos Aires. He was signed in on January 7, 1905, to the British Club there. He was in the company of an ex-accountant and a doctor who worked with the Pacific Steam Navigation Company.
“How did he know these people?” asks Vincent, whose detective work traced them to Liverpool. He also discovered that Michael had spent time in Liverpool.
Vincent says “there’s something at the back of my mind that makes me ask, was he gay? He was a bachelor when he died.”
There had been no mention of women.
“I didn’t put that into the book as I have nothing to lead me in that direction other than the fact that Michael didn’t marry.”
For Vincent, researching his granduncle’s at times mysterious life was a fascinating project.
Goodbye Kit: It May Be For Years And It May Be Forever is available at www.flaglane.ie.