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The Cloonerco Bog Fight
'The Rebel Priest' Fr. Michael O'Flanagan
Fr. Michael O’Flanagan was born in 1876 near Castlerea, Co. Roscommon to parents who were native Irish speakers. Folowing a primary education at Cloonboniffe N.S., he had his first association with Sligo when he attended secondary school at Summerhill College . On graduating there in 1894, he entered St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, where he was ordained for the Diocese of Elphin in 1900. Following his ordination he returned to Summerhill College and worked there as a teacher until 1904.
His clerical duties soon became interlaced with efforts to establish a viable basis for the movement towards Irish Independence. He firmly believed that the Irish language, rural industry and the local Church were vital elements in the achievement of this. His skills of oratory were matched by an originality and genius for fundraising. Prior to one of his trips, on behalf of Connradh na Gaeilge, to America, he cut a sod from each of the thirty two counties of Ireland ; bringing these with him, he invited Irish-Americans to walk on their native soil at a dollar a time.
Shortly he became involved in a remarkable incident that came to be known as the ‘Cloonerco Bog Fight’. Taking on the establishment, against the wishes of Bishop Coyne, he agitated for turbary rights [right to cut turf] for the local people. This situation was brought about by the Congested District’s Board’s acquisition of the Hippsley and Sullivan estate and their consequent insistence on re-distributing turf cutting rights to families who had relatives in the British Army or R.I.C.
Fr. Michael defies Bishop Coyne
Ignoring a warning by Bishop Coyne not to get involved, Fr. O’Flanagan, addressing his congregation at Cliffoney Church on June 29th, 1915 , told them to wait outside for him after Mass. Here he instructed them to assemble the next morning with their turf cutting implements. He would lead them to the bogs where he himself would cut the first of the forbidden turf. This was done and the dauntless Fr. Michael led his flock to the Cloonerco bogs. A large body of R.I.C., under Sgt. Perry, (who was to die some years later in the Moneygold ambush) followed and ordered the crowd to stop.
"OUR OWN TURF FOR OUR OWN PEOPLE"
O’Flanagan survived the actions brought against him by the authorities but Bishop Coyne, furious at this flouting of his authority, transferred him from Cliffoney to Crossna in Roscommon. The people were dismayed at the removal from their midst of a priest and leader they had come to love and respect. Walking and on horse and ass carts they made their way in procession to the Bishop’s palace in Sligo pleading with him that their priest be returned to them. When this was refused they barricaded Cliffoney Church, nailing the doors and windows shut, thus preventing Bishop Coyne from sending a replacement. They mounted a guard day and night to prevent any surprise move by the Bishop. Large crowds assembled on Sundays outside the Church to recite the Rosary.
The impasse lasted until Christmas 1915 when the Bishop agreed to provide a priest ‘who would be a good Irishman and a patriot’ to replace Fr. Michael O’Flanagan. Thus ended the remarkable saga of the ‘Cloonerco Bog Fight’.
Father Michael O’Flanagan played a prominent part in the War of Independence in the following years. The freedom of Sligo was conferred on him and an illuminated scroll presented by Sligo Corporation in June 1918 on behalf of a grateful people. Outside the Town Hall, according to reports in the Sligo Champion, enthusiastic crowds ‘cheered themselves hoarse’.
Go nDeanaimh Dia trocaire air an anam (May God have mercy on his soul)
From ‘In the Shadow of Benbulben’ © Joe Mc Gowan
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