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22 April 2010 Edition

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A lesson still to be learned

Book Review
The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott
By Tim Fanning
Published by the Collins Press


The boycott of Protestants in the County Wexford village of Fethard-on-Sea in 1957 was initiated by a bigoted Catholic priest, William Stafford, enforced by a Fianna Fáil gombeen man, County Councillor Jimmy Kennedy, and sustained for months until it became such a national and international embarrassment to Church and State that it had to be ended.
Knowing what we now know about the widespread and systematic abuse of children in institutions run by the Catholic Church at the time, the Fethard-on-Sea boycott seems like a sordid but localised affair. In fact, the neglect, abuse, torture, rape and murder of children under the care of the Catholic Church – both in ‘homes’ and in the community – had the same source as the boycott. That source was the unbridled power of the totally male-dominated Church, especially over women and children.
The boycott began after Sheila Cloney, the Protestant wife of Catholic farmer Seán Cloney, refused to bow to pressure from local priests to educate the couple’s two daughters in the local Catholic school. Sheila left Wexford with the children. This led to the false accusation against Protestants in Fethard-on-Sea that they had helped Sheila to ‘abduct’ the children.
Stafford then issued his edict urging Catholics to boycott Protestant shops,  businesses and farms. Repeatedly during this shameful tale, well told by Tim Fanning, we hear defenders of the boycott saying that it was being done on behalf of ‘our children’ – meaning that the Cloney children ‘belonged’ to the Church. It is but a small step from such an attitude to one which allows children to be abused, as they were years later in the same parish by Seán Fortune. The Cloney children did not suffer abuse but they did suffer the loss of their right to education.
Bishop Staunton of Ferns backed the boycott and referred to its opponents as “Cromwellians and Communists”. Kennedy, the Fianna Fáiler, headed a ‘vigilance committee’ to enforce the boycott. It was supported by Brendan Corish TD, later leader of the Labour Party, a stance he subsequently regretted.
To their credit, local veteran republicans opposed the boycott, remembering their treatment at the hands of the Catholic clergy during the Civil War. To his credit Eamon de Valera, then coming to the end of his time as Taoiseach, also publicly spoke against the boycott. But to his discredit he had, in his long years in office, ceded to the Church its dangerous power over the lives of children.
This story is a reminder of the damage done to our society by generations of segregated denominational education. It is a lesson that still has to be fully learned. In my view, the sooner churches are removed from management of schools and dogma taken out of the curriculum, the better for our children and for our country.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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