|Father Larry Flanagan|
Almost every year for the past twenty plus years my wife Theresa and I have visited Ireland from our home in Birmingham, UK. The primary reason for our journeys has been to visit Theresa’s mother, Catherine Dwyer, who lives near Moate, in a rural area on the border of counties Offaly and Westmeath.
Catherine (aka Kitty) moved from Birmingham back to her home town in Ireland after she became a widow over two decades ago. In 1997 the first of our own three children, Patrick, was born and from thenceforth our somewhat irregular visits to Ireland turned into annual family holidays, providing us with a reason not just to visit the rural Irish Midlands located in the middle of the great Bog of Allen, but also to venture out around the island to experience the rich landscape, culture and history of places like Kerry, Galway, Mayo and Sligo.
Having a keen interest in both family and social history, Ireland has provided me with an increasingly fascinating pool of information from which to feed my hobby as I have entered middle age. When I started researching my family tree in the mid-1990s, the world wide web was still in its infancy and searching out even the most basic UK record sources, such as the census, births, marriages and death records, meant sitting for long periods of time in libraries and public record offices trawling through microfilm reels and microfiches.
When it came to Irish records to aid the amateur genealogist, they were virtually non-existent and I remember a major breakthrough for me was sometime around 1995 when I spent 3 to 4 hours in the register office in Dublin literally turning the tattered and well-thumbed pages of huge tomes casually handed over to me by a large working-class Dubliner whose demeanor gave the general impression of a character from a Roddy Doyle story as he plonked one dusty volume after another onto the desk in front of me.
It is now a well-known fact of Irish genealogy that some 90% of 19th century census records, along with many other public records, were destroyed in a fire during the Irish civil war of 1922. I won’t go into the details of where, when, by whom or why as I am certain that frustrating the future efforts of family history geeks like me would have been low on anybody’s agenda. Though I do think there is a sad irony in the consequence of the actions of revolutionaries having been to destroy such a significant resource of their own great-grand-children’s heritage.
Thanks to a more recent revolution, the incredible and rapid development of the internet in the last two decades, family history research has not only become much easier, but has veritably blossomed and my personal research has benefitted way beyond my expectations back in 1995. This includes Irish research, the publication for instance of two virtually complete sets of census records (1901 and 1911) online by the Irish government and other interesting
records such as the Griffith’s land valuation records of the mid-19th century have been a huge source of information, particularly for those of us (ahem, the majority) whose Irish ancestors belonged to the poorer Catholic classes.
Another great source of information for the researcher of Irish family history are the county based family history centres across Ireland which remain the best repositories of records collected from local parish churches, such as baptism, marriage and burial records. These records can be as good, if not better than state registers of births, marriages and deaths, but they are not freely available and there is a cost to obtaining them. Thanks to the family history record office for the counties of Offaly and Laois, based at the Midland whiskey distilling town of Tullamore, I have managed to make significant progress in building the tree of my mother-in-law’s family in an area which takes in Moate, Tullamore, Athlone and Mullingar. The research process has been enhanced over the years by our visits to Granny, when she has imparted to me rich family anecdote and old family photos which would have been unavailable from any record office or website.
On the surface, Kitty’s ancestors at Lurgan near Moate, were typical of the generations of God-fearing, hard-working Catholic farmers not just of the Irish Midlands but throughout the whole land. Scraping an existence from land and life-stock, burning turf dug from the local bogs for heat, pulling water from the well, walking long-distances often shoeless through all weathers to school, church and market, making and mending their own clothes, enduring difficult economic times almost as a constant and keeping their heads down in times of political unrest and rumour of uprising, which have been many throughout Ireland’s history. More than occasionally there are stories of those who left Ireland for better opportunities abroad, the common destination of the 19th century being America whilst in the later 20th century it was more likely to be the UK.
Tales of great poets, radicals or political leaders are relatively rare in rural Offaly and Westmeath, where stories of hard-working farmers, hard-playing GAA men and hard-praying mothers are much more common. Intrigue, celebrity and controversy play second fiddle in the Irish Midlands to steadfast, unsophisticated, pastoral living.
Having only discovered in the past few years the wonderful story of my own great-great grandfather, John McDonnell, a blind Dublin man who shook off the shackles of a late 19th century blind asylum to become a factory owner, property landlord and elected poor law guardian, I felt that years of digging out down-trodden migrants fleeing from famines and rural depressions into the disease and poverty of urban industrial slums, had finally been rewarded with a rare genealogical gem, an extraordinary swimmer in an ocean of those around him mainly close to drowning. But was it too much to ask to find another such gem?
One evening during our most recent family holiday to Ireland, in August 2014, I once again took the opportunity to gently interrogate my dear mother-in-law on the subject of her Offaly and Westmeath ancestry. I am never disappointed and each year she has some new item of interest from the hitherto forgotten archive which lies in assorted biscuit tins, folders and boxes in the cluttered store room off her parlour. An old photograph, a newspaper cutting or a bundle of Mass cards held together by a rubber band which has seen better days. Or perhaps an anecdote recalled from her rural Irish childhood—all of which is gratefully received as I sit with finger tips poised over laptop keyboard.
This year Kitty recalled a family connection with Irish history and told me the story of how an ancestor on her mother’s side of the family, the Flanagans, had given sanctuary to Eamon de Valera shortly after his escape from Lincoln Prison. The relative was a man name Lawrence Flanagan, born in Moate, who was a Carmelite priest in New York when the fugitive, de Valera, knocked on his door one night seeking refuge.
Kitty also showed me Reverend Flanagan’s memorial mass card following his death in 1966 and pointed him out as the officiating priest in the wedding photograph of another relative who married in New York in the 1950s.
On our return from Ireland two weeks later I launched myself into trying to find out about this intriguing story. Was it purely the chance decision of a desperate fugitive to knock on the door of a Catholic priory in the Irish quarter of a foreign city? Was de Valera taken to the Carmelites by supporters in America? Or did Eamon de Valera know Lawrence Flanagan beforehand and was his place of refuge planned out in advance of his escape from Lincoln?
So began a consuming and intriguing search for more facts to substantiate this story, both online and through the pages of Irish history books. My mission was to build up the background to this potentially fantastic story, which even on its brief initial telling is like a script for a movie, the fugitive Irish leader-in-exile given refuge by a priest in the midst of early 20th century Manhattan.
The following document is the result of my initial research. What I want to say from the start is that very little of these 80 plus pages contains my original writing and the majority of pages contain long citations from other researchers. As my document is primarily a piece of genealogical research at this point in time, I have not tried to do any re-editing of citations and joined them together with minimal contextual narrative. My future intention is to author some much shorter articles to offer for publication, which condense the story, as I feel it is of much wider interest but needs to be edited into a human interest story.
I therefore publish this not-for-personal-gain work online as my initial piece of research and am keen to acknowledge and recommend all of the original sources I have cited in fairly lengthy chunks. In particular I would highlight the research work of Alfred Isacsson, O.Carm., who has four extensive histories of the New York Carmelites online, from which I have quoted in length. I would also wish to point readers in the direction of the works of Tim Pat Coogan who has written a weighty biography of Eamon de Valera as well as research about him included in other books, providing detailed accounts of his life but also useful insights into the character of ’the man who was Ireland’.
If this can be best described therefore as an anthology of citations, wandering on and off a sequential timeline as it evolved during my research, at the end of the document I have attempted to provide a summary and conclusions in my own write, which I hope brings everything together to discern fact from myth and reality from speculation, as well as offering some understanding of personalities and motives in their historical context.