Thursday, 16 October 2014

Peter Elias Magennis


The following extract about Peter Elias Magennis is from the online research paper, Always Faithful The New York Carmelites, the Irish People and Their Freedom Movement by Alfred Isacsson, O.Carm.

'    Undoubtedly the most important Carmelite in the Irish Freedom Movement was Peter Elias Magennis. Peter was the name given him at Baptism after he was born on February 19, 1868 in Tanderagee, County Armagh, Northern Ireland. His father was a cattle dealer and Peter had two brothers and five sisters. He enrolled at the local national school until he was ten. Then he went to live with his uncle, Charles Magennis, in Belfast and attended a Christian Brothers’ school. Intending to be a priest, he enrolled at St. Malachy’s College, Belfast, a diocesan preparatory seminary. The story of his call to Carmel is interesting. He dreamed one night that a priest dressed in white was a sign of his vocation.

Afterwards, John P. Wheatley, a well-known Carmelite preacher, came to Tanderagee for a parish mission. Seeing the preacher in his white cloak, Peter Magennis was inclined to investigate the Carmelites and this ended by his becoming a postulant at the Carmelites’ Terenure College on the outskirts of Dublin. March 3, 1889, he made his profession of vows taking in religion the name of Elias and began his studies at the Royal University, Dublin. He obtained the Honours Bachelor of Arts degree. After studying theology with the Jesuits at Milltown Park and obtaining the ad gradum in divinity, he was ordained at All Hallows College, Dublin, September 22, 1894.

After teaching for a year at the Carmelite Secondary School on Dominick Street in Dublin and after a year there as principal, Peter Elias Magennis went at the end of 1896 or early 1897 to the Carmelite Priory at Knocktopher, County Kilkenny. He established a branch of the Carmelite Confraternity, a small library and also taught in the school there. A house like that of the Carmelites at Knocktopher was a conventual church. People attended Mass there but it was not a territorial parish. No weddings or funerals were usually permitted at such a church. The attraction of people and the resulting income usually rested on the ability and talents of the Carmelites stationed there. It would seem that in the few years of   Magennis at Knocktopher, he was a success in all these areas. Eight of his school pupils became priests, two of them Carmelites. 

The Irish Carmelites had begun a mission in Australia in 1881 and it was seven years later that Peter Elias Magennis went there. He remained in Australia until 1906 and in that period of time he tried to instil a pride of Irish culture and heritage into his flock. It seems that this was a palliative he gave to those faithful Irish people so far from home. He was exceedingly popular, a leader among his people, and so many hearts were saddened when in August, 1906 he was returned to Ireland to be the Novice Master, Master of Professed Students and the Subprior of Terenure College. The list of these positions was formidable and a challenge that he had to meet. For some reason or other, the novices and the novitiate were moved from Terenure to Knocktopher. Of course, Magennis, the novice Master, went along with his trainees.

At the General Chapter of the Carmelites in Rome in October, 1908, Elias Magennis was elected the assistant general for the English speaking provinces of the order, namely Ireland, Australia and America. His term in this office, normally six years, was prolonged to 1919 due to the First World War and its ensuing travel difficulties. Besides the Irish houses, there were in Australia but two missions and the American houses that would form eventually the New York Province also numbered four. The American Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, then centred in Chicago, had ten houses at that time. The work to be overseen in the English speaking section of the order was not extensive. 

Much if not most of his term as assistant general, Peter Elias Magennis spent in the New York area. We know for certain that in 1914, 1915 and 1916, he came early each year to do missions and then remained for a time. He was present for almost all of 1916 except for the period of the Irish provincial chapter. He was present in the United States from early 1917 to August, 1919 when he left for Ireland and the general chapter in Rome. It was at this chapter that he was elected prior general of the order.

It is interesting that Magennis became an American citizen in July, 1919 being sworn in at Brooklyn by Judge Learned Hand. Previous to 1914, we know Magennis was in the United States for periods of time but we cannot chart these visits. Christopher Slattery, when writing to the Carmelite Prior General, Joseph Llovera in 1912, mentioned the presence of Magennis in the Manhattan parish and praised the great work he was doing there. He went so far as to recommend he be made provincial and the chapter in Ireland be cancelled. Slattery mentioned the work Magennis was doing for the Irish cause. Probably this referred to the problems of the Home Rule Bill.

It is interesting that the greatest period of Carmelite activity in the Irish Freedom Movement begins in 1916 when Elias Magennis was in the United States. He along with Denis O’Connor breathed strong life into the movement and after Magennis was elected general, O’Connor was able to continue this rapid pace of activity. Just as we stated that Denis O’Connor underwent some sort of conversion to active involvement in the Irish Freedom Movement during his trip to Ireland in 1916, Magennis was similarly moved to a more active role here because of his membership in the Clan and the IRB. It was at this time that Magennis publicly espoused force as the only way freedom would come to Ireland. 


The Irish Republican Brotherhood had been founded in Dublin in 1858 but it was in the late 1800's that informers brought trouble to the group through treachery and from that time on, there was a great emphasis on secrecy. When John Redmond urged at Woodbridge, County Wicklow in September, 1914 that the Irish join the British army and fight for the rights of small nations, his popularity diminished and the idea of a nationalistic government grew. The imprisonment of many from the 1916 Rising in the Frongoch Camp provided conditions and the opportunity for the reorganization of the IRB. All the people Magennis and O’Connor were closely associated with belonged to the IRB. 

It is very possible that Peter Elias Magennis was a German agent. While he need not actually to have been, he achieved by his activities in the United States the purpose of such an agent. By rousing Irish sentiment, he rallied anti British opinion. The Woodrow Wilson administration was very concerned with this. Responding to British overtures, the Wilson administration went to great lengths to foster cordial relations with England. One threat to this was the number of Irish-German contacts on various levels. Federal intelligence agents were active in collecting information at the meetings in the facilities of the Carmelites’ New York parish. Investigation and prosecution were brought against Magennis’ friends, Liam Mellows and Jeremiah O’Leary. 

When America entered WW1 in 1917 the pro-German
messages of Peter Elias Magennis came under
scrutiny in New York with the FBI agents turning
up at meetings of the Carmelite Branch
of the Friends of Irish Freedom.
Once the United States entered World War I in April, 1917, there was an impression that no one could speak against England, an American ally. When British conscription was threatened in Ireland, some spoke out against it. Mary McWhorter wanted to express her feelings about this and England but as a member of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians whose president was cowed into silence, she feared doing it. She heard Father Magennis speak against the English at the Carmelite hall, and he convinced her never to be afraid to express her convictions. She was so moved by his speech that she wrote to every branch of the Ladies Auxiliary telling them to do the same. 

The only reports we previously have had of government surveillance of Irish activities involving the Carmelites have been newspaper reports of the presence of government agents at meetings of the Carmelite Branch of the Friends of Irish Freedom and other gatherings in which they participated. In the records of the Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice there is a series titled “Old German Records, 1908-22 (OG).” In the indices of these records, there are listings for both Peter Elias Magennis and Liam Mellows. The subject matter of these investigations are “Irish Activities.” The results for both Magennis and Mellows are not present. This is because, as the archives’ personnel pointed out, they were destroyed or were used for some legal purpose. 


Since the Magennis and Mellows reports seem to have been united, it was thought they may have been removed for use in Mellows’ court cases but their absence in these records indicates they must have been destroyed. 

The material in the area where the Magennis and Mellows reports should have been filed deals with draft dodgers, the ignoring of draft notices, seditious talk by German and Irish priests, “slackers” who did not exhibit sufficient patriotism, pro German activities, German sympathizers and glass in canned goods which was seen as a sign of espionage. This was the mix where their reports were originally filed. There was, to be sure, some fanaticism abroad. Irish activities were viewed with suspicion because to be anti English was viewed as being pro German and Germany was our enemy.

Many of the activities causing government concern and investigation took place in the Carmelite Hall and in some measure were inspired by Magennis. He was the spirit behind them and could have modified their tone or caused them to cease. 

In 1914, 1915 and 1916, Magennis crossed the Atlantic early in each year remaining in the United States until the end of the year when he crossed again to return to Ireland. He was in New York for all of 1916 except for the Irish Provincial Chapter, July 31 to August 8. O’Connor, O’Farrell and Slattery also travelled to this chapter. He was in the United States from early 1917 to August of 1919 when he went to the General Chapter in Rome where he was elected the Prior General of the Carmelite Order. Magennis fearlessly made all these Atlantic crossings which is extraordinary. Could safe passage during World War I have been guaranteed to these vessels?

The German system of radio and code transmissions was quite efficient though the British eventually broke their code. German intelligence was widespread and finely honed. They knew, for example, the Lusitania was carrying munitions and so torpedoed it. The uproar over this loss concentrated on the Lusitania being a passenger ship when in fact it was more than this. It was only many years later that the German insistence she was carrying arms was proven. Life magazine obtained the ship’s manifest in 1972 and published this proof of the presence of munitions. The continued presence of Magennis in the United States was worth any German effort to insure his remaining. 

Katherine O’Doherty called for plaques to be erected to the memory of many for their work for Irish Independence between the end of World War I and the Peace Conference. Those she named were Peter Golden and the Carmelites of 28th Street where Liam Mellows found kindred souls in Denis O’Connor and Lawrence Flanagan.



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