athal O’Shannon, then a young reporter with The Irish Times was dispatched from D’Olier Street to report on a boycott, by then a fortnight old, which had begun in Fethard-on-Sea on the Hook Peninsula.
The year was 1957; the Eamon De Valera-led Fianna Fáil government and indeed most of the population was morally and socially ruled by the Catholic Church.
The boycotting of Protestant businesses in the Wexford village followed the departure from Fethard of Sheila Cloney, the Protestant wife of local Catholic farmer Seán.
She had, in fact, fled the family home at Dungulph Castle, bringing her two daughters Eileen and Mary, with her. Upon her leaving, there was no telling when, or if, Sheila would return, the reasons for her departure soon becoming national news.
O’Shannon, later to gain nationwide fame through his work with RTE and interviews with luminaries such as Muhammad Ali, picked up his train tickets ordered in the Times office and off he went.
Upon arrival, decades before GPS gadgets and all that jazz, the farthing (no pennies then) dropped with the reporter: he’d reached Fethard alright – only it was Fethard, County Tipperary!
This anecdote is one of the few lighter moments of reading in Tim Fanning’s recently published book, simply titled ‘The Fethard-On-Sea Boycott’, a superbly researched account of a sorry sectarian episode.
So why had Mrs Cloney left Fethard? Sheila, who wished to raise her children in an environment where they were fully aware and respectful of both religious traditions, was told she could not do so.
After all, the ‘Ne Temere’ decree issued by Pope Pius X in 1908, had made it canon law that all children born into a marriage between a Catholic and non-Catholic were to baptised and raised in the Catholic faith.
And when Rome spoke, 97 per cent of the Republic’s population (as it was at the time of the boycott) loyally listened and adhered to Papal decree.
Eileen, the Cloneys’ eldest daughter, was then aged six and due to start school later that year.
The local Catholic clergy were anxious to see Eileen educated in the Catholic faith and three priests, including Parish Priest William Stafford, made their feelings known to both parents.
All three, including the priest who had married the Cloneys in Hammersmith, London in 1949 (following a civil ceremony in Hendon earlier that year), were adamant that Eileen (and in turn Mary) be educated as Catholics.
Feeling backed into a corner, Sheila told Seán that this was not what she wanted for her children, telling both him and her father that she would leave and take the children with her if matters reached a head.
The courage of her own convictions, every ounce as determined and steadfast as the conventional Catholic thinking of the clergy who believed they knew better, had surely not been reckoned upon by Fr Stafford and co.
On Saturday, April 27th 1957, Sheila left Fethard with her daughters, with Seán returning to an empty house that lunchtime having worked the land that morning.
“Word came from the guards that the car had been abandoned in Wexford Town,” Seán would recall in 1997, two years before his death. “I had no idea where she’d gone.”
Via Belfast and Edinburgh, Sheila and her girls eventually reached the Orkney Islands, unaware of the social, religious and political storm their departure had catalysed back home.
Fanning, a journalist who first visited Fethard-on-Sea as an eight-year-old in 1984, has delved brilliantly into the archives to produce a captivating, stirring page turner.
The whiff of gun smoke, the pulpit thumping of Fr Stafford, the role of the Order of the Knights of Columbanus and the interventions by Basil Brooke and a young Ian Paisley in the tale are all expertly noted.
The telling and ultimately boycott-ending intervention by the ageing Eamon De Valera reveals an insight into Dev at odds with the notion of his complete subservience to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.
Included in the book is a letter written by Dev, but never sent to the then Bishop of Ferns James Staunton, which shows a Taoiseach ‘sticking it’ to a member of the Catholic Hierarchy in an unprecedented manner. For this alone, the book is worth reading.
Eight months after their departure, with the boycott thankfully ceased, Sheila, Eileen and Mary returned to Dungulph Castle.
Their story would later be captured on celluloid in ‘A Love Divided’, a film which introduced this sad, pathetic act of south east sectarianism to a new generation.
A decade on, Tim Fanning’s book is likely to perform a similar role and offers a timely reminder of this Republic’s blinkered, bigoted and sexist past.
‘The Fethard-On-Sea Boycott’ is published by Collins Press and is priced €14.99