Father Michael O'Donel: The Newfoundland Adventures of a Clashmore County Waterford Parish Priest

The links between Newfoundland and Ireland's County Waterford are well known, but attention usually focuses on Waterford City and its hinterland in Kilkenny and Wexford. However, west Waterford also had strong Newfoundland links, thanks to the fishing port of Youghal in nearby County Cork. The parish priest of Clashmore from 1815 to 1832, Fr Michael O'Donel, had served in Newfoundland with his uncle, who was the island's first Catholic bishop. Another Clashmore man travelled in the opposite direction, and political abuse of St John's merchant Laurence O'Brien can even help us identify the Blackwater quays from which he left 200 years ago.

Father Michael O'Donel was parish priest of Clashmore, County Waterford from 1815 until his death in 1832. During his time, the present Clashmore parish church was constructed.
His grave is by the church. The headstone reads:

Here lie the Remains of the Revd. Michael O Donel nephew to the first Bishop of Newfoundland for 17 years Parish Priest of Clashmore and Pilltown [sic] he died on the 13th of March 1832, Aged 54 years. May he rest in peace. Amen.

As we shall see, that inscription does not tell the full story of an adventurous life which included seven years spent in the pioneer colonies of Canada and Newfoundland.

Fr Michael's uncle, James O'Donel, was born at Knocklofty in south Tipperary in 1737. He joined the Franciscan Order and in 1784 was sent as Prefect Apostolic to Newfoundland, where there was an Irish fishing community, mainly migratory and largely drawn from Waterford City and its hinterland, but also from Wexford and the Youghal-west Waterford area. In 1795 he became the first Catholic bishop of Newfoundland, with the resplendent title of Bishop of Thyatira in partibus infidelium. It may seem surprising, but it was the British ruling authorities on the island who lobbied for this elevation to the episcopacy. The French Revolution had broken out in 1789, and the British thought the presence of a Catholic bishop would discourage revolutionary ideas among the fishermen. The fact that the south-east of Ireland was a major centre of the 1798 rebellion may be a clue to their thinking. Revolutionary France was at war with most of Europe in the 1790s, a conflict that went on until the battle of Waterloo in 1815. James O'Donel travelled to Quebec for his consecration in 1796. On his return journey to Newfoundland, the vessel he was sailing on was intercepted and he was taken prisoner by a French warship, losing all his baggage in the experience.
Released by the French, Bishop O'Donel worked in Newfoundland until 1806 when he retired to Waterford after suffering a slight stroke. (He would have preferred to spend his last years in the warmer climate of France or Italy or Portugal, but war on the continent prevented that.) In March 1811, while he was living in a house in John Street, Waterford, a candle set fire to his chair and he was badly burned. He died soon afterwards and was buried in St Mary's church, Irishtown, Clonmel. There is a fine monument to him in the Catholic cathedral in Barronstrand Street, Waterford City, erected by the Catholics in Newfoundland in 1984 to mark the 200th anniversary of his mission.
It is not surprising that Father Michael O'Donel should have been proud to be nephew of such a man, but his association with his uncle was much closer than his headstone would suggest. His life story can be reconstructed from Bishop O'Donel's letters, edited by the late Professor Cyril J. Byrne, and published as Gentlemen Bishops and Faction Fighters (St John's, Newfoundland, 1984). This source reveals that Michael O'Donel lived for seven years in Quebec and Newfoundland.

Michael O'Donel was born in the parish of Tullaghmelan, County Tipperary, on 17 April 1777. (Tullaghmelan is just south of Knocklofty and on the border with County Waterford.) His parents were David O'Donel and Mary Lafford. When Michael was 12, his father died and his uncle evidently took charge of him. Although this was the era of hedge schools and widespread illiteracy, Michael evidently received a good education, spending several years 'with Priests in Waterford' and then twelve months in the seminary at Maynooth, which had only been founded in 1795. (The 'Royal College of St Patrick' was another government scheme to support the Catholic Church as a bastion against revolutionary ideas, although it did not turn out quite as the British had hoped!) 'I've very good accounts of his moral conduct & abilities from his professors', wrote the Bishop of his nephew.

In 1799, at the age of 22, Michael O'Donel arrived in Newfoundland. He was already intended for the priesthood, with an obligation to the diocese of Waterford and Lismore. Unfortunately, 'all the money his father had left him is already expended on his education & passage', reported Bishop O'Donel, who thought it would be 'a pity' if his nephew were prevented from poverty from continuing 'his vocation for the church', especially as he was 'so far advanced in his studies'. 'He understand Lattin as well as I do' (Rome conducted its business in Latin and, as a bishop, James O'Donel needed to be skilled in the language ─ even if he could not spell it!), and Michael could also read texts in Greek. Bishop O' Donel begged help from his fellow diocesan, Joseph-Octave Plessis of Quebec. 'I, who am scarcely able to maintain myself in these bad times, must pay all the expences [sic] attending the remainder of his studies,' he pleaded. Bishop Plessis was not given much opportunity of declining to help: O'Donel sent nephew Michael to Quebec as bearer of his begging letter. Effectively, Michael O'Donel had been dumped on Plessis with the clear implication that the bishop of Newfoundland wanted a cut-price, fast-track path to ordination.

At that time, in 1799, Michael O'Donel was destined to serve at home: he was 'much wanted' in the diocese of Waterford and Lismore where 'there was a very great scarcity of priests'. Initially, Bishop O'Donel did not expect his nephew to receive ordination until 1802, 'if you & I don't change our minds before this time 3 years' as he put it to Plessis. But even in 1799, O'Donel was starting to think about keeping Michael in Newfoundland, and the first steps were taken to apply to Rome to allow him to be released from his obligations at home. The bishop was also planning to take charge of his nephew's education after ordination. 'I intend with God's assistance to file the rust from my old brains & explain some treatises of divinity to him which will be of no small use to both him and me.'
Bishop Plessis proved to be a generous patron, even providing the young seminarian with the correct ecclesiastical garb. 'I leave him intirely [sic] to your guidance, patronage & sparing economy,' wrote the grateful uncle. Best of all, there were 'very flattering & satisfactory accounts' of Michael's first year at the Laval seminary. But by August 1800, the news was much less encouraging. 'I am sorry to find my nephew is in a bad state of health', Bishop O'Donel wrote, urging Bishop Plessis 'let him want for no kind of wholesome nourishment.'

One wonders what Bishop Plessis made of this very obvious advice. References in his letters to another Quebec priest, Father Joseph Pacquet as 'Packet' suggest that Bishop O'Donel was not the most tactful of men. It was also characteristic of the bishop of Newfoundland that he turned his nephew's illness into a further argument to speed up his ordination. O'Donel urged Plessis to hurry Michael into the priesthood, '& send him thus ordained down to me to me before his health & constitution are further impaired.' Newfoundland, he insisted, had 'a healthy climate, & I hope by air, exercise & good nourishment to have this young man restored to his primitive strength & vigor [sic] in a short time.' (In reality, Newfoundland experiences a very short summer followed by months of gruelling winter. It is understandable that the bishop did not wish to leave his nephew 'any longer in a situation & climate that may deprive me intirely [sic] of him', but whether a change from snowy Quebec to cold and stormy Newfoundland would be an improvement seems doubtful.)

Bishop O'Donel also argued that Michael now had authorisation from Rome to be treated as a missionary priest who could be excused the usual interval between deaconate and priesthood. 'Let no etiquet [sic] or custom of your House or Diocess [another key clerical term that he had difficulty spelling!] prevent you from complying with my request, as he is not intended for your mission', he wrote to Plessis. Just how Michael's proposed status as a missionary priest squared with his continuing obligations to Waterford and Lismore was not explained. Perhaps Bishop Plessis felt hassled and hustled, but he complied, and by 1802 Michael O'Donel, now Father Michael, was with his uncle in the Newfoundland capital of St John's. His health was much improved, and the bishop was energetically engaged in furthering the young priest's education. With an uncle's barely suppressed pride, he pretended to believe that his pupil was no more than average student. 'He is neither dull, nor witty, but has a good memory.' The two men studied chapters from the Bible together every day, and by June 1802 had worked through eight volumes of theology and Church history. 'He is neither a bright wit nor a blockhead,' reported the bishop.
Michael O'Donel was a great deal more than a blockhead. He almost certainly spoke Irish as well as English, for the old language was still alive in country areas and Fr Michael would not have been able to minister to fishermen without it. We have his uncle's testimony that he had a good knowledge of Latin and some Greek, standard fare for seminarians. And he had spent almost three years in the French-Canadian city of Quebec, and in 1806 even cherished hopes of returning there ─ which strongly suggests that he was fluent in French as well. Not many people nowadays could master five languages.

If actions speak louder than words, it would seem that Bishop O'Donel had more confidence in the young man than he admitted. In the summer of 1803, he sent him on an important and hazardous assignment. 'My nephew is this month past on a mission about 80 leagues to the north of this Harbour', he wrote from St John's in August of that year. The distance and direction suggest that Fr Michael O'Donel had been sent to Harbour Grace, the most important fishing port on Conception Bay in north-eastern Newfoundland. Harbour Grace was a major Irish Catholic centre: later in the 19th century the community built a cathedral modelled on St Peter's in Rome, although unfortunately it soon burned down. But Fr Michael O'Donel seems to have been only the second priest to be sent to minister there. Something of the dangers he faced can be judged from the fact that his predecessor had drowned when a boat in which he was travelling was caught in a sudden storm.

By 1805, Bishop O'Donel was thinking about retiring. Approaching 70, he was in poor health. The British government had shown its appreciation by granting him a small pension, and he was very proud of this remarkable honour, 'for Priests before my arrival were liable to imprisonment, transportation, & death itself if they in a refractory manner lurked anywhere in the Island.'  (It does not appear that any priest in Newfoundland was ever threatened with execution, but times were certainly changing and the bishop gave thanks to Providence.) What would happen to Fr Michael if his uncle left? The bishop was firm that he would have to go back to Ireland, for Michael was 'too young to be left alone here'. (In 1804, Newfoundland a year-round population of about 20,000 people, almost all of them male, but the island imported over 220,000 gallons of rum from the West Indies. The dangers of living an isolated life in such a community were obvious enough.)  Fr Michael still hoped to transfer back to Quebec, and his uncle once again wrote to Bishop Plessis asking for his help. Early in 1806 Rome appointed the Reverend Patrick Lambert to succeed O'Donel as the bishop in Newfoundland, a decision that came as a horrible shock to Lambert, who had been happily running a Franciscan school in Wexford town.  The reluctant Lambert arrived in St John's in the late summer, and the change-over, which seems slow-motion to us, proved to be far too rapid for the glacial processes of Vatican bureaucracy. Michael O'Donel's attempts to secure his own transfer to Quebec came to nothing, and he arranged to hitch a ride back to Ireland with the last British warship to depart the fisheries patrol that year ─ which condemned him to a December crossing of the storm-tossed Atlantic.

In 1815, Michael O'Donel became parish priest of Clashmore and Piltown. Many of his parishioners would have worked as fishermen and he might have met some of them in St John's or on Conception Bay, for Youghal was a Newfoundland port until about 1811. (One of them, Laurence O'Brien, also a Clashmore man, is discussed below.) Most Irish fishermen crossed the Atlantic for a long summer of back-breaking work before coming home again. In Fr Michael O'Donel, they would have had a priest who had shared some of their hardships. He was a month short of his 55th birthday when he died. Presumably it was his brothers and sisters (a number of whom would be buried in the same grave: their names are still just legible on the gravestone) who decided to record Fr Michael's relationship with his famous uncle. They did not think it necessary to mention that he too had trained and worked in Canada and Newfoundland. As a result, the adventurous early life of this notable parish priest of Clashmore and Piltown almost became lost in the history books.

Fr O'Donel is not Clashmore's only connection with Newfoundland in that early period. Laurence O'Brien, born in Clashmore in 1792, left for Newfoundland about 1810. He became one of the most successful merchants in 19th-century St John's (because, his enemies said, he was one of the most ruthless). He was later said to have come 'from the lowest levels of society', confirming that it was the grinding poverty of rural Ireland that drove young men to the harsh and dangerous life of the Newfoundland fishery. O'Brien was active in politics, serving for a time as President of the island's Legislative Council, the equivalent of Ireland's Seanad. Newfoundland politics were often blatantly sectarian, pitting Catholics against Protestants. O'Brien was one of the few political figures who sought to build alliances across that divide.

The distinguished historian of Newfoundland, Dr John Mannion, has pointed out that Waterford fishermen must have begun their transatlantic journeys by using local water transport to reach the port of departure, since they always took their belongings in a chest that would have been too heavy to move even relatively short distances over land. One of O'Brien's political opponents alleged that he mobilised his political support by pressurising fishermen to vote for him, reminding them he held their IOUs in his chest. The Newfoundland economy ran on credit, and the majority of fishermen were generally in debt to merchants like O'Brien. On the plus side, it should be said that O'Brien served eleven terms of President of the charitable Benevolent Irish Society. Thus it is likely that Laurence O'Brien began his journey to Newfoundland from one of the small quays along the Blackwater, perhaps Raheen which is just a few hundred yards from the village of Clashmore, or Ballinaclash to the north. Nowadays, Raheen Quay is hemmed in by reed beds, but from the little-visited Ballinaclash there are fine views over the wide stretch of the Blackwater known as the Broad of Clashmore.

O'Brien was unusual in contemporary Newfoundland in his attempts to develop agriculture on the island generally nicknamed 'The Rock'. It is tempting to link this enthusiasm with his early years in Clashmore. However, his estate on the edge of St John's bore a County Cork name, Rostellan.
Laurence O'Brien was a ship-owner who exported dried and picked cod as far afield as Italy and Brazil. Although Newfoundland trade with Waterford fell off during the nineteenth century, he was probably able to keep in touch with his birthplace, and could easily have visited, or even returned to become a prosperous resident. However, his biographer David J. Davis regards him as one of the earliest Newfoundlanders to regard himself as belonging to the island, and not merely a transplanted Irishman who happened to be living overseas.
Laurence O'Brien died in 1870.
Sources: Cyril J. Byrne, ed., Gentlemen-Bishops and Faction Fighters (St John's, Newfoundland, 1984) and David J. Davis, "Laurence O'Brien" in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, volume 9.