Monday 19 April 2010

The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott: Ireland, 1957

Irish journalist Tim Fanning has just published his new book The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott about a notorious sectarian dispute in Ireland in the late 1950s, concerning a Catholic father, his Protestant wife and their two young daughters. The events were previously dramatised in the controversial movie A Love Divided (1999) and Mr. Fanning’s well-reviewed book has re-ignited interest in the scandal which rocked Ireland - north and south - half a century ago. Having had the book recommended to me, I did some research into the original case and the story of the boycott is truly a fascinating one.

On a wet Saturday morning of April 1957 in the southern Irish town of Fethard-on-Sea in County Wexford, some local people spotted the family car of their neighbour, Sheila Cloney (30), accidentally backing into her own gatepost, before speeding off out of the town. In the back of the car were Mrs. Cloney’s two daughters – Eileen (6) and Mary (3). Their journey was the 176 miles to the Irish border with Northern Ireland.

When Sheila’s farmer husband, Seán, returned from work that evening, he was confused as to his wife and daughters’ whereabouts: he called over to Sheila’s parents, who lived nearby, but they had not seen her. Then, he visited her siblings, who also lived in the town – but, again, they had no idea where Sheila was and assumed that she had been at home with the children all day. Eventually, Seán reported Sheila, Eileen and Mary as missing to the Garda Síochona (the Irish police) and a search was started for the missing Cloneys.

At the age of thirty, there was nothing about Sheila Cloney that would have led anyone to think she would cause a scandal by fleeing her hometown without telling her husband or her parents. Like her husband Seán, Sheila had been born in Fethard-on-Sea, the daughter of a local cattle dealer and his wife. Along with the rest of her family, Sheila was raised as a member of Fethard-on-Sea’s small Protestant community – attending the local Church of Ireland, until she moved to Britain in her early 20s, finding work as a domestic servant in London shortly after the Second World War.

It was in London that she met her future husband, Seán Cloney, another inhabitant of Fethard-on-Sea, who had grown up on a farm one mile from Sheila’s and who had been over in England attending the funeral of an ex-pat relative in Suffolk. Hearing that a girl from back home was living nearby, Seán did as good Irish boys are supposed to and made the effort to go and call on her. Seán and Sheila began courting and fell in love, but because he was Catholic and she was Protestant, they decided to keep their budding relationship secret from their families back home in Ireland. When news leaked that Seán was “going” with a Protestant girl, his parish priest, Father William Stafford, retaliated by banning him from any of the Catholic recreational societies in the town – beginning by expelling Seán from the Catholic amateur dramatic society (the only society he had requested to join.) Deciding that if this was as bad as it was going to get they could probably learn to cope, Seán and Sheila were married in a civil ceremony at a registry office in London on October 8th 1949.

But Ireland being Ireland meant that news travelled fast and two months into their marriage, another parish priest was dispatched to track down the young couple and talk to them about the role Catholicism should play in their marriage. On the issue of converting to her husband’s faith, Sheila Cloney refused point-blank. Seeing that there would be no persuading her about joining the Catholic faith herself, the priest then asked if she would at least consider marrying Seán in a second ceremony – this time, a Catholic one – for the sake of her husband’s family back home. Sheila was reluctant even at this request, namely because doing so would require her to sign the Church’s Ne Temere decree, by which she promised to raise any children from the marriage as Roman Catholics, but Seán apparently assured her that even if she did sign the Ne Temere, any children they had together would have as much a Protestant upbringing as a Catholic one and when they reached maturity, they could decide for themselves which denomination to attend. Sheila signed, the Nuptial Mass was celebrated and, a few months later, Seán and Sheila Cloney returned to Fethard-on-Sea to live together as man and wife.

The problems in their marriage began a year later with the birth of their eldest daughter, Eileen. With Sheila still lying in recovery from the birth, the nuns who worked in the nursing home immediately took baby Eileen away to receive a Catholic baptism. Sheila was angry at this, although apparently accepted that the nuns had probably been doing it with the best intentions in the world and had been unaware of Mrs. Cloney's wishes on the matter. However, just to be sure, when she became pregnant again the following year, Sheila specifically requested that any child she had would not immediately be baptised a Catholic. A second daughter, Mary, was born in 1953 and, again, this time deliberating ignoring the mother’s wishes, the nuns took the child away to be christened by the local priest.

When it came to Catholicism, Sheila Cloney’s back was now well and truly up and she was worried over the fact that her husband Seán had not prevented the nuns in taking both of their daughters for baptism at the maternity home, despite his earlier promises about the children's religious upbringing. Between the baptism and the children beginning school, the issue simmered but as their eldest daughter, Eileen, reached the age of five, it once again reared its head - with a vengeance. Sheila feared that if Eileen was sent to the local Catholic school, all chances of her being able to make up her own mind when she was older would be gone, since on top of receiving a Catholic baptism, she would also receive a Catholic education, which would entail going through First Holy Communion and Confirmation, as part of the school ethos. On the surface at least, Seán Cloney agreed with his wife that this would be a step too far and for a few months, they debated what exactly to do about Eileen’s education. Aside from the religious issue, Sheila Cloney was also in favour of home schooling for children and she wanted this system of education for her children.

Throughout the spring of 1957 – the months immediately preceding Sheila’s escape to Northern Ireland – Catholic priests became regular visitors to the Cloney household, pleading reason and then applying pressure on the couple to send Eileen to the local Catholic National School. Finally, one day, Father Laurence Allen visited and it was right after his visit that Sheila Cloney took the decision to leave Fethard-on-Sea. It was also during Father Allen’s visit, I think, that she finally realised she did not have the support of her husband Seán, because at some unknown point Seán Cloney had changed his mind. Seán now agreed with Father Stafford and Father Allen and felt that Eileen should be sent to the National School.

Armed with this bombshell, Father Allen called to the Cloney house in the morning and Sheila offered him a cup of tea in the kitchen. With the obligatory pleasantries out of the way, Father Allen told her that given the fact that Catholicism was the official State Religion of the Irish Republic, Eileen was going to the local Catholic school and that was that – there was absolutely nothing Sheila could do about it. The State would back the Church every step of the way, especially since her husband would now offer no opposition to the idea. And with that, he got up and left, assuming the matter was finally settled. A few hours later, Sheila sped out of her driveway, with Eileen and Mary in the back seat.

Crossing the border on April 27th 1957, and reaching Belfast a few hours later, Sheila Cloney immediately contacted associates of the Reverend Ian Paisley, knowing that she could be certain of their support. She was right: the Free Presbyterian Church, zealous in hatred of all things Catholic or "Papist," provided Mrs. Cloney with money, accommodation and tickets for her and her two children to emigrate to Scotland, where a new place to live had been prepared for them at the church's expense. In the meantime, a heartbroken Seán Cloney, discovering what his wife had done, attempted to get his children back through the courts – however, given that Sheila had removed them to the United Kingdom, it was presenting a legal quagmire, especially since the Northern Irish Courts were taking enormous pleasure in being as difficult as possible in retaliation for the Republic refusing to allow the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary - the Northern Irish police service) to arrest republican trouble-makers once they crossed the border into the South.

Whilst Seán Cloney wept, the local clergy in Fethard-on-Sea had apparently still failed to realise that honey catches more flies than vinegar. On May 12th, Father William Stafford – who a decade earlier had banned Seán from the Catholic am dram society for marrying a Prod – let fly at Sunday Mass. Before the entire Catholic population of Fethard-on-Sea, he denounced Sheila Cloney for robbing her children of their chosen Faith and their father. Then, in an astonishingly vicious and unfounded move, he accused the Protestant community of Fethard-on-Sea of having secretly provided the funds for Sheila and the girls to run off to Northern Ireland. In retaliation, Father Stafford announced that it was now up to the Catholics of Fethard-on-Sea to exert pressure on the missing Mrs. Cloney by punishing those who had helped her escape – they were to boycott every Protestant business and every Protestant person in Fethard-on-Sea, until Sheila, Eileen and Mary returned.

The next day, the majority of Catholics in Fethard-on-Sea stopped going to the two local shops owned by Protestants. On Wednesday, the local Anglican school was forced to close when their only teacher (a Catholic) walked out. An elderly music teacher living alone in Fethard-on-Sea lost her dozen pupils (all Catholics), Catholic labourers told local Protestant farmers they could no longer work for them, and Catholics refused to buy milk from the local Protestant dairy farmers. The only Catholics who continued to buy from their Protestant neighbours, ironically, were the old retired IRA members, who had fallen out with the Church during the Irish Civil War. One octogenarian ex-IRA member took to following Father Stafford around after parish hall meetings, shaking his walking stick at him and lambasting him for his lack of patriotism - after all, the Prods were Irish too.

Within weeks, the Fethard-on-Sea boycott became a scandal in Ireland, on both sides of the border. Donations from Northern Ireland flooded in to Fethard-on-Sea to relieve the economic plight of the boycotted Protestants in the village and, to the horror of Irish patriots, their charity prompted John Percy Phair, the Protestant Bishop of Ossory, to write a public letter to The Belfast Telegraph, referring to Unionists as Irish Protestantism’s “friends in the North.” In subsequent sermons, Bishop Phair segued from praising the North to lambasting mixed marriages, citing the case of the Cloneys to prove that no Protestant could ever expect to be treated as an equal if they married a Catholic.

Unlike the Church of Ireland, the Catholic hierarchy in the Republic was initially quiet, both on the subject of Mrs. Cloney’s flight and Father Stafford’s boycott. The silence ended a month later, at a High Mass celebrated by the Bishop of Galway. Speaking from the altar, the Bishop said, “There seems to be a concerted campaign to entice or kidnap Catholic children and deprive them of their Faith. Non-Catholics, with one or two honourable exceptions, do not protest against the crime of conspiring to steal the children of a Catholic father, but they try to make political capital when a Catholic people make a peaceful and moderate protest.”

However, despite his eloquence, the Bishop of Galway had badly misjudged the mood of the nation – outside of Fethard-on-Sea, the vast majority of Irish Catholics were disgusted by the boycott and embarrassed that financial assistance was coming to their compatriots from “The Black North” rather than from within. Most important of all the people who felt this way was Ireland’s leader, the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera(left), who condemned the Bishop of Galway’s speech and the boycott as “ill-conceived, ill-considered and futile.” In a speech to the Dáil Éireann (the Irish House of Representatives) on July 4th, De Valera begged people to consider what impact the Fethard-on-Sea boycott would have on Ireland’s reputation abroad.

Eight days later, on July 12th, De Valera was proved right, but far closer to home than he had ever expected. Astonishingly, the Taoiseach never seemed to question what the reaction would be in Ulster about the Fethard-on-Sea incident and he once again failed to appreciate the deep-rooted fears and prejudices of the vast majority of those who lived in “the Six Counties.” Had he been under any illusions before, however, De Valera and the entire South were woken up with a rude shock on the Twelfth of July, the high holiday of the Orange Order (below.)

The entire mood on the Twelfth that year was marked by thundering fury at the treatment of the Protestants in Fethard-on-Sea. Leading the attack was Lord Brookeborough, the aristocratic Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, who, in a fierce, venomous speech warned every Protestant in the country to look at the case of Fethard-on-Sea and realise what the fate of every single last one of them would be if Northern Ireland was ever swallowed-up into an all-Ireland Republic: every Protestant on the island would be bullied, intimidated and controlled by a Catholicism that was now less a religion and more an over-bearing, over-privileged arm of the State. It was perfectly possible for Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland to send their children to Roman Catholic schools of their own choice, but just look at what the flip side of the coin was for Protestants in the Republic of Ireland! As the Prime Minister reached the climax of his speech, he proclaimed that it would be the fate of every Protestant to become a second-class citizen if the unification of Ireland was ever brought to pass and for the first time since 1912, the cry went up from thousands of throats: “Ulster says No! Ulster says No!”

Prime Minister Lord Brookeborough, himself a life-long vicious anti-Catholic, had hit a nerve – not just with most Northern Irish Protestants, but also (unintentionally) with numerous wealthy and middle-class Catholics in the North as well. The Irish Republic was now being depicted in Northern Irish newspapers as not just economically backward (which was how it had always been presented before anyway), but also as culturally degenerate and morally spineless – a feudal, Pope-addled nightmare compared to the economic boom of Northern Ireland. Taoiseach De Valera’s plea that the Fethard-on-Sea boycott could do nothing but harm to Éire had come true to a degree that understandably horrified Irish nationalists north and south of the border.

With events spiralling out of control, a deal was organised to bring to an end the débâcle in Fethard-on-Sea, at the insistence of De Valera. The negotiations were chaired by Jim Ryan, the Irish Republic’s Minister for Finance, in his house in Dublin. By September, a solution had been reached, and one of the local priests entered a Protestant-owned newsagency in Fethard-on-Sea and bought a packet of cigarettes, signifying to the parishioners that the boycott was over.

Through the cruelty and stupidity of the boycott, including a crisis of diplomatic relations and the rising tide of sectarian tensions, Seán and Sheila Cloney, who had unwittingly started the whole thing, kept a low profile. Within weeks, it was no longer really about either of them, anyway. Instead, they had worked on saving their marriage. Shortly after Christmas, Sheila left her new house in Scotland and on New Year’s Eve 1957, she and her two daughters returned to the family home in Wexford.

In the years to come, Seán and Sheila were far more united as a couple than they seem to have been before. Eileen and Mary were home-schooled, as their mother had wished, as was their sister Hazel, born a few years after Sheila and Seán’s reunion. Seán Cloney remained a devout Roman Catholic his entire life, but in later years he began to compile a dossier on the activities of a local priest, Father Sean Fortune, who Cloney suspected had molested up to as many as seventy young people. Despite being paralysed from the neck down after a terrible road accident in 1995, Seán Cloney continued in his attempts to expose Father Fortune’s sexual and financial misdeeds. Father Fortune eventually left the area, before being arrested and committing suicide whilst awaiting trial – a few weeks before Seán Cloney’s own death, at his family home in Fethard-on-Sea. And thus - in one of those fantastically curious coincidences that history loves - this unassuming, quiet Catholic farmer stood at the centre of two of the great catastrophes to rock Irish Catholicism in the 20th century and yet never lost his faith in the religion he believed in all the days of his life.

Seán and Sheila’s middle daughter, Mary, who was three at the time of her mother’s temporary migration to Northern Ireland, died in 1998, at the young age of 44, following liver failure. In the same year, the Catholic Bishop of Ferns issued a formal apology for the Church’s role in creating the Fethard-on-Sea boycott of 1957. Eleven years later, on June 28th 2009, ten years after her husband, Sheila Cloney was buried in a quiet ceremony out of Saint Mogue’s Church of Ireland Church in Fethard-on-Sea. The two other Cloney girls – Eileen and Hazel – still live in the area.

Writing of her death The Belfast Telegraph said, “She will be remembered by many for standing up to clerical bullies and raising her children as she saw fit.” Tim Fanning, the journalist, suggested that: “In some small way, the boycott marked the waning influence of the Catholic Church in the Republic. The bishops themselves recognised that they had failed to win over public opinion.” Whatever the truth of the matter (and the case continues to provoke debate) – whether one thinks Sheila Cloney was right to take a stand or that her husband and her community’s wishes were just as valid as hers, that she was unfairly bullied by the local authorities or that she knew what she had gotten herself in for by signing the Ne Temere in the first place, that Northern Irish Unionists were capitalising to the point of tasteless gloating on a national humiliation in the Republic or that they were simply offering assistance to a stricken community when no-one else would, or whether one thinks (as many do), that Sheila Cloney’s domestic dispute and the issue of the church-ordered boycott are actually two very different issues - the story of Sheila Cloney and one community’s crisis in the summer of 1957 is undeniably a fascinating window into an ugly and often unexplored era in Irish history.


  1. Hi

    I am just after reading your article and feel I should inform you of a couple of errors. First back in the 1950's you didnt start school until the child turned six. Eileen would have been six in the April of 1957. It was not during the Summer months that the Priests started their campagin it was during the Easter holidays. As Eileen should have started school after the Easter break of 1957.
    the second thign is that Sheila Drove her car to Wexford train station and then got the train up north as her car was found by the Guards the evening she went.

  2. Thank you very much! I appreciate the information. Thanks for reading.

  3. That picture is not Fethard on Sea, but thanks for bringing it to my attention I live near it!

  4. I have just watched the movie A Divided Love. My hope is that ALL people who share this planet together will live in LOVE. JESUS wants that for us ALL.

  5. Just saw the movie and loved it! I believe that sometimes man think to have more power than they really do and they forget about God. Reality is that one should believe in God no matter what and forget the differences that we as man have created.

  6. Thanks for a beautiful piece if informative writing-I've just seen the movie in NYC and it filled in some gaps very well.

  7. Sheila, Mary and Eileen lived with us in Orkney while they waited for Sean to come for them. Sheila was excellent at everything, especially milking cows by hand.


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