22 June 2020

Two colourful curates in
Tarbert and Ballylongford:
2, Alexander Hanlon, The O’Hanlon

The church ruins in Ballylongford, Co Kerry … the Revd Alexander Hanlon worked in the parish throughout the Great Famine in the 1840s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I have been the priest-in-charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes since January 2017, which includes a large part of North Kerry, from Tarbert and Ballylongford to Ballybunion, to Listowel and Moyvane or Newtownsandes.

Officially, the name of Tarbert parish is Kilnaughtin, recalling the older church to west of Tarbert. So, there is a deeply-embedded sense of history and continuity in ministry here in Saint Brendan’s.

The list of my predecessors in this group of parishes defy the stereotypical images of Church of Ireland clergy. We are not all like the plummy caricatures of ‘the more-tea-vicars’ found on television dramas. The variety of backgrounds of my predecessors shows what a mixture we are, not only in the Church of Ireland, but throughout all society in Ireland. Each one of us is a beautiful part of the mosaic that goes to make up Irish identity, and we need every colour and tincture, every shade and hue, to make that picture complete.

I have already been talking about one of my curious, indeed eccentric, predecessors, the Revd Sir William Augustus Wolseley (1865-1950), who was the curate here for almost 20 years, from 1888 until 1906, and later in life, quite unexpectedly, inherited a family title.

But, perhaps, the most curious title claimed by any of the clergy in this parish was the title of ‘The O’Hanlon,’ an ancient title for the head of a Gaelic Irish clan. It is even more intriguing that this title was claimed by too by one of near-contemporaries, whose time in this diocese almost overlapped. Yet, these two priests seem to have had no close ties of kinship.

The Revd Dr Alexander Patrick Hanlon (1814-1898), who called himself ‘The O’Hanlon,’ was born at Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, the son of Patrick Hanlon, a local Roman Catholic farmer.

Hanlon may have become a member of the Church of Ireland through contact with the Dingle mission, although I am not quite sure about these details. In any case, he would have been seen as a ‘mature student’ when he entered Trinity College Dublin late in 1839 at the age of 23, and graduated BA in 1844. He later studied for ordination and was ordained deacon in 1846 by the Bishop of Killaloe for the Diocese of Ardfert, and priest in 1847.

He was first a curate in 1846-1848 in Murhir, 4.5 miles south of Tarbert, close to border of Co Kerry and Co Limerick, making him one of my predecessors in this parish. The main town today in what was Murhir parish is Moyvane or Newtownsandes. Hanlon seems to have lived in Ballylongford, and today Murhir and Ballylongford are part of the Tarbert group of parishes within the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes.

During his time in this parish, he was praised for his ‘unremitting’ and ‘constant’ work with local people in their suffering during the Great Famine in the 1840s and for his ‘genuine charity.’

He freely distributed milk, bread and medicine, working with orphans and the elderly, and it was said: ‘ Not a house in which fever is to be found (and they are the greater in number), but he visits in person.’

Moyvane was at the heart of the Revd Alexander Hanlon’s parish on the Kerry/Limerick border (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After his time in Ballylongford, Moyvane and Tarbert, Hanlon moved on to parish ministry in Co Meath (1848-1849), Co Tyrone (1849-1851), Mountshannon on the shores of Lough Derg, Co Clare (1851-1871), Co Waterford (1872-1875) and Co Longford (1872-1875).

At one time, it seems, he was considering an appointment back in Co Kerry, in Dingle, during a vacancy in the parish 1864. He was visiting the parish when his wife suffered an epileptic attack while swimming in Dingle Harbour with their young children. She died soon after, and she was buried in Saint James’s churchyard in Dingle.

Hanlon stayed on in Mounshannon in Co Clare for another few years, and he received the degrees LL.B. and LL.D. from Trinity College Dublin in 1865. In a speech in 1867, he defended his work with the Irish Society and the Irish Church Missions, but he was always at pains to deny he had any antagonism towards the Roman Catholic church or his Catholic family, friends and neighbours.

He married a second time in 1871; his second wife Rebecca Parker was from Ballhalmet House, Tallow, Co Waterford. A year later, he moved from Mountshannon to Tallow Parish in west Waterford, and he remained there until he became deputy secretary of the Irish Society in 1879. He was feted at a garden party in Dugort organised by the Achill Mission in 1889.

Hanlon died at Ballyhalmet House, Tallow, Co Waterford, at the age of 84 on 10 December 1898, and was buried inside the ruins of Kilwatermoy Church.

It is curious that his younger, near contemporary, the Revd William Hanlon (1849-1916), who also worked in Church of Ireland ministry in these dioceses, also claimed the title of The O’Hanlon. He was a doctor’s son from Portarlington, and he was ordained deacon in 1874 and priest in 1875.

He came to this diocese, the Diocese of Ardfert and Aghadoe, when he became the Rector of Dromtariffe in 1877. Although Dromtariffe is in Co Cork, halfway between Millstreet and Kanturk, at the time it was in the Church of Ireland Diocese of Ardfert, and in the Catholic church it remains in the Diocese of Kerry.

Hanlon’s father died on 6 July 1890, and a year later, in 1907, Hanlon assumed the title of ‘The O’Hanlon’ by deed registered in the Irish Court of Chancery. Along with the title of ‘The O’Hanlon,’ he also claimed to be chief of the Sept of O’Hanlon and Hereditary Standard Bearer of the King in Ulster.

In the bizarre pedigree he compiled in support of these claims, Hanlon said his lineal ancestor had given Saint Patrick the site in Armagh for his first cathedral.

Hanlon, who was also an honorary chaplain to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, died at Innishannon Rectory on 26 April 1916, two days after the Easter Rising broke out in Dublin.

That is all sounds fantastic. Except, for the minor detail that the last person before either of these two 19th century priests to have been accepted generally as the head of the family was the 17th century rapparee, Redmond O’Hanlon, also known as ‘the Count.’

After the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, Redmond O’Hanlon returned to Ireland and installed himself as clan chief over the old O’Hanlon territories, styling himself ‘the Count.’ He was declared an outlaw in 1674 and became a rapparee around Newry and Carlingford Lough, and was described as being ‘pre-eminent among all the Tories in Ulster.’

Redmond O’Hanlon was killed on the night of 25 April 1681 in the hills in Co Down. His head was severed and was put on display at Downpatrick prison.

After Redmond O’Hanlon’s death, other members of the O’Hanlon family and their circle were hunted down as ‘Tories,’ and his surviving family fled to Co Donegal. Local lore says his son, also Redmond O’Hanlon, exhumed his body, and reburied him in the Church of Ireland churchyard at Conwal Parish in Letterkenny … which is a long way from Ballylongford and Moyvane and a long way from Portarlington.

Buildings of the former Achill Mission in Dugort … Alexander Hanlon was feted by the Achill Mission at a tea party in Dugort in 1889 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

These notes were prepared to accompany the second of two stories recorded at Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry, as part of ‘Poetry With Paddy, Summertime on the Steeple Road’:

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