“We are bound to love our own people with a special and peculiar love, a love that is not founded upon the common characteristics of the human race, but which is founded upon the special and distinctive character of our own nationality.” – Father Mícheál Ó Flannagáin
Michael Flanagan was born near Castlerea in Co. Roscommon. He was the fourth of eight children born to Edward Flanagan and Mary Crawley, who were fluent speakers of Irish and English, living on a small farm in what was known as a breac gaeltacht. His family were staunch supporters of the Fenian movement and were members of the Land League.
At the tender age of 3, he experienced the 1879 famine which swept through the West of Ireland and he lived through evictions, boycotts and shootings of the land war. He was interested in politics from a young age. He attended the local national school and went onto Summerhill College in Sligo. In 1894, he entered St. Patricks in Maynooth and flourished there academically winning prizes for theology, scripture, canon law, the Irish language, education and natural science.
Ó Flannagáin was ordained a priest of the Third Order of St. Francis for the Diocese of Elphin in Sligo Cathedral on 15 August 1900 at the age of 24. It was around this time that he began to use the Irish form of his surname. While working in Sligo Ó Flannagáin was active in his promotion of the Irish culture and language, and he gave evening language classes in Sligo Town Hall. He was a founding member and secretary of the Sligo Feis, which was first held in 1903, when Padraig Pearse was invited to give a lecture titled “The Saving of a Nation” in Sligo Town Hall. Both Pearse and Douglas Hyde were the judges of the Irish language competitions in 1903 and again in 1904.
He was an advocate of rural development and Irish self-reliance buoyed from this experience of growing up in rural Ireland on a small farm. He was a skilled public speaker and communicator and was invited to the USA to promote Irish industry and agricultural and craft industries from the west of Ireland. He was an imaginative and innovative fundraiser and used practical methods to fund raise rather than direct asking. He set up lace making craft exhibitions and gave public demonstrations all over the USA of regional Irish lace styles.
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He forged many communications and connections with the Irish American community. In 1910, he returned to Ireland, joined Sinn Féin and was elected to their standing committee. His radical influence and energy helped transform and reorganize the party after the Election in 1917. After being elected to the standing committee of the Gaelic League, he fundraised in the US for them. O Flannagáin issued a statement disassociating the Gaelic League from anything to do with William Butler Yeates, Lady Gregory or the Abbey players after Irish Americans threatened funding over Yeates’ controversial Playboy of the Western World.
He was appointed curate in Roscommon in 1912 and though the relationship with that Bishop (Clancy) was good, the same cannot be said for his relationship with the succeeding Bishop Coyne. In 1913 a protracted strike broke out in Sligo Docks and Ó Flannagáin visited the strikers in solidarity advising them to continue to fight for their rights. He was moved to Cliffoney by the Bishop and while there he actively campaigned against recruitment to the British army. The RIC attended his sermons to note what he preached. He also condemned the export of food from the area and demanded a fair and proper distribution of turbary rights. In newspaper pieces he constrasted Irish opinion makers outrage against Germanys contemporary treatment of Belgium with their indifference to England’s treatment of Ireland. He was instrumental in the Cloonerco Bog Fight and won the rights for the locals in Cliffoney access to their bogs which was being denied by the authorities. He had a local hall which was used for drilling, meeting and organizing in the area along with dances, plays and concerts. In gratitude the villagers named it the ‘Fr O’Flanagan Hall’.
In 1915 he delivered a passionate oration to a select group of Irish volunteers at the reception of O’Donovan Rossa’s remains in the lying in state of Dublin City hall. The following day, he recited the final prayers in Irish by the graveside along Pearse who then made his iconic speech.
He continued to campaign against the war recruitment and encourage the Irish to stay out of the war and keep crops at home to feed the many natives in want. His activities with reported in the local papers and Bishop Coyne had Ó Flannagáin moved to Crossna in Co Roscommon. The people of Cliffoney were so aggrieved that they locked the Church, an incident which became known as the ‘Cliffoney Rebellion’. The new priest was denied entry and villagers knelt saying the rosary outside. Both the bishop and villagers refused to back down, and this continued right up to Christmas Eve when Fr. Ó Flannagáin appealed to the villagers to open the Church for Christmas.
Fr. Ó Flannagáin standing next to Padraig Pearse at O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral in 1915
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A passionate speaker, Ó Flannagáin was speaking up and down the country in Belfast and at an anti-conscription meeting in Cork his fiery speech was recorded by the RIC and widely reported in the Press. He was sanctioned by Bishop Coyne on the 14th January 1916 withdrawing all rights to preach anywhere without the Bishop’s permission. Ó Flannagáin sometimes ignored this and spoke at smaller meetings but the sanction greatly curtailed his future works and meetings.
In December 1916 a by-election was called for Feb 1917 and Ó Flannagáin proposed Count George Noble Plunkett as a candidate and then wrote to the Count inviting him to stand for the North Roscommon seat. Bishop Coyne intervened again and threatened Ó Flannagáin with suspension if he helped with the election.
He continued to work and co-ordinate and on Count Plunkett won the seat by a large majority. The authorities of both Church and Sate were concerned with Ó Flannagáin’s activities and the RIC kept continuous note of his movements and speeches.
He continued his work with Sinn Féin, the Mansion House Committee, and working in further election campaigns which won seats in North Roscommon, South Longford, East Clare and Kilkenny.
When Thomas Ashe died while being force-fed in Mountjoy Prison on 25th September 1917, it was Fr Ó Flannagáin who celebrated the Requiem mass in the Pro-Cathedral.
He continued re-organising and managing Sinn Féin and its members and on 17 May, 69 Sinn Fein leaders where arrested and imprisoned by the authorities, Ó Flannagáin was left as the acting president of the party.
He continued to speak and organize and help Sinn Féin to win seats in elections, and gaining more and more controversy, Bishop Coyne suspended him from clerical duties. His parishioners and supports started a fund for him as he was cut off from any Church income; the ‘Fr Ó Flannagáin Fund’ was widely advertised in national and regions papers.
Relieved from priestly duties, he put all his energy now into building Sinn Féin and advocating the nationalist cause, he toured the length and breadth of the country and was one of SF’s most popular speakers. In the General Election of 1918, Sinn Féin decimated the Irish Parliamentary party winning 73 of the 105 seats available.
He was appointed as Chaplain to the First Dáil and was introduced by the Chairman Cathal Brugha as “the Staunchest Priest who ever lived in Ireland”. In May 1919 after protracted negotiations, Ó Flannagáin was restored to his full status as a priest and was sent to Roscommon Town. In 1920 as violence escalated throughout the country Fr Ó Flannagáin was arrested, his rooms ransacked and raided and the hall in Cliffoney was burnt down.
He corresponded publicly with David Lloyd George about peace moves which upset other Sinn Féin leaders and led to factions within the leadership. While Ó Flannagáin was in the US giving lectures, fund raising and pushing the cause of Irish independence, when the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed on the 6 December 1921. By the following January 1922, Sinn Féin was divided on the treaty; Ó Flannagáin and his friend Sceilg were strongly opposed and refused the accept the legitimacy of the Free State.
He continued to tour and speak all over the world from Australia to France to the US and returned to Ireland in February 1925 to help SF contest a number of by-elections. Very outspoken on what he saw was an abuse of Church power and political and ecclesiastical interference by the Church authorities, in April he was suspended and forbidden to say Mass by Bishop Coyne.
A split in SF in 1926 saw De Valera leave to found Fianna Fáil in their quest to take seats in Dáil Éireann, a move that O’Flanagan was strongly against.
When his father died, a new bishop Dr. Edward Doorly revoked the ban on Ó Flannagáin’s ministry and allowed him to celebrate the funeral mass. Ó Flannagáin seeing no career future for him in the Church turned his attention to inventions and historical research.
He now had no clerical income and supported himself by touring and speaking in the US for a couple of months a year, the published booklets and sold them to support his income.
He had a keen and agile mind and invented and patented several items including award-winning swimming googles for long distance swimmers.
He died of stomach cancer on Friday 7 August 1942, within a few days of his sixty-sixth birthday. He is buried in the republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetry.
Father Ó Flannagáin’s last letter, sent to his old friend Bernie Conway in Cliffoney, 2 August 1942.
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Buried at the republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery 1942