On centenary of his death, we met to remember brave Cork priest

“A pastor who went to jail for his people” - John Arnold remembers Monsignor Daniel Keller, who died 100 years ago this week
On centenary of his death, we met to remember brave Cork priest

Bishop William Crean and Fr William Bermingham lay a wreath at the grave of Monsignor Daniel Keller in St Mary’s Church, Youghal, last weekend. Picture: Michael Hussey

LAST Saturday night, there was a large gathering in the Mall House in Youghal.

Built in the late 1700s, this magnificent building is also known as the Town Hall and includes a Courthouse under its ancient roof.

Down the years, many people came to this building for different reasons. Surely, the saddest and most poignant occurrence must have been in early March, 1887. The previous November, the Ponsonby Estate, then owned by Charles Talbot Ponsonby, had gained national notoriety when ‘The Plan of Campaign’ was put into action by tenant farmers on the 10,000 acre estate.

When the Land League was suppressed and declared illegal, Charles Stewart Parnell founded the Irish National league to defend the rights of tenant farmers in their struggle with many ruthless and often absentee landlords.

With poor weather and bad prices for farm produce, hundreds of thousands of tenant farmers across the country were struggling to feed themselves and their families. Truly it was a ‘hand to mouth’ type of subsistence farming.

Despite all the climatic and economic problems, the landlords still demanded their rent, with the threat of eviction. Parnell’s new organisation came up with an ingenious and clever idea - The Plan of Campaign.

Individual farmers were to ask their landlord or his agent for a reasonable reduction in their rent -usually in the region of 25% to 35%. If the landlord agreed - and this seldom happened - the rent was paid over and the tenancy continued.

In most cases, however, the landlords refused to give any reasonable reduction in the annual rent. When this happened, the individual tenant farmers paid their rent - minus the reduction sought - into a central fund managed by an unnamed Trustee who held the money.

In many situations, the money was banked but the identity of the trustee was never revealed. If tenant farmers were then evicted, the fund could be used to financially support them.

Central to the struggle for the tenants’ rights on the Ponsonby Estate was the Parish Priest, Fr Daniel Keller. Born in Inniscarra in 1839, young Keller was educated at the Vincentian College in Cork city and the Irish College in Paris. Ordained for Cloyne Diocese in 1862, he then taught in my alma mater, St Colman’s College, Fermoy, before returning as professor of philosophy to Paris.

When the Irish College was closed due to the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the young Fr Keller came back to Cobh and was appointed Parish Priest in the seaside town of Youghal in 1885.

Talbot Ponsonby reacted angrily to the Plan of Campaign and refused meaningful reductions to his 300 tenants - offering eviction if his rent was not paid in full. As a pastor of his flock, Fr Keller backed his people in their struggle for virtual survival.

The authorities believed Fr Keller was likely the local Trustee for the Ponsonby Estate Campaign fund -though this was never proven. He was summoned to attend court in Dublin in the Spring of 1887. He refused and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

By now, Talbot Ponsonby had commenced evicting farmers and many had gone ‘lock, stock and barrel’ with their families to live in huts erected for them near Ardagh cemetery.

On Tuesday, March 8, a huge protest meeting to support both Keller and the Plan of campaign was held in the town of Youghal. The RIC attacked the crowd and 30-year-old fisherman Patrick Hanlon was bayonetted and killed in the Main Street.

Hanlon was waked for two days in the Manor House - the very room where we assembled on Saturday night last. Thousands attended his funeral to the Hill cemetery in Ballymacoda on the Friday of that week.

It was many years later, on November 8, 1922, that Monsignor Daniel Keller died in Youghal, having served his people there for 37 years. It was fitting therefore that last weekend, a century after his death, this great priest and Irishman should befittingly remembered in the town he loved so well.

On Saturday, a beautiful exhibition of memorabilia dealing with the troubled years of the Plan of Campaign was staged. It was chilling yet stirring to see an actual door from one of the houses from which a family was evicted in the 1880s. On this door they took their few goods and chattels to their new ‘home’ - the humble hut in Ardagh. When that family got their land and home back, they returned with that same door.

Fr William Bermingham, present Parish Priest in Youghal, welcomed us all on Saturday night and said it was so important to remember and honour the memory of Fr Keller.

The keynote speaker, Felix Larkin, dealt extensively and minutely with the happenings in Youghal and district in the 1880s. He said the Ponsonby estate was a kind of ‘test case’ for the Plan of campaign and therefore generated much publicity at the time in newspapers all over the world.

Brought to court, Fr Keller refused to answer any questions in relation the Campaign Funds. He was jailed for two months in Kilmainham for the so-called offence of ‘Contempt of Court’ and whilst incarcerated was appointed a Dean of Cloyne Diocese. When released, he was greeted Triumphantly in Youghal.

Listening to Felix outline the career and charisma of Keller, I thought of another contemporary cleric who battled for farmers in the Land Wars. Fr Thomas Ferris was actually born in Youghal in 1832 and, when in Castlelyons as Parish Priest, was evicted from his home.

John Walker Perrott was the Castlelyons landlord that threw the Parish Priest out on the roadside. Like the Ponsonby tenants, Fr Ferris lived in a little hut built by the League. He was just 59 when he died in 1891, having suffered terrible and cruel hardships - no doubt Fr Keller and Fr Ferris met in the late 1880s.

Evictions continued until around May, 1887, when Canon Keller was released. After this, tentative negotiations began between Talbot Ponsonby and representatives of the farmers - with Canon Keller involved.

Fearing Irish tenant farmers might actually succeed in their aims, the English Government, fronted by MP Arthur Hugh Smith-Barry of Fota, funded a syndicate which bought the estate from Clarke Ponsonby. This then proceeded to evict the remaining tenants.

The year 1890 saw troubled times in Ireland, with the ‘Parnell Split’ which really divided Irish society. Dean Keller hoped the tenant farmers would hold out, but eventually negotiations recommenced and when around 100 farmers agreed terms with the ‘new owners’ and paid their rent, Canon Keller felt they’d got a raw deal.

Felix went on to explain that eventually, under the Various Land Acts, the Ponsonby Estate farmers and farmers across the country were able to ‘buy out’ their own farms.

When Cloyne Bishop, John McCarthy, died in 1893, the clergy of the Diocese favoured Dean Keller to succeed him. The Vatican, however, saw Keller as a ‘persona non grata’ after his actions on behalf of his tenant parishioners and Robert Brown, then President of Maynooth College, got the position.

At the turn of the century, Daniel Keller was given the additional title of Monsignor.

Last Sunday, we gathered at noon in the historic St Mary’s Church where Bishop William Crean concelebrated Mass in memory and honour of Dean Daniel Keller with the priests of Cloyne Cathedral Chapter.

It was a wonderful and uplifting ceremony, giving credit and well deserved praise to a fearless priest who always put his flock and their welfare before any personal considerations.

After Mass, Bishop Crean and Fr Bermingham laid a wreath at the grave of Monsignor Daniel Keller. On the monument over his final resting place are carved these words: “A priest who shed lustre on the priesthood, a pastor who went to jail for his people”

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