John McCullagh December 21, 2007
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Despite the extreme conservatism of the Catholic Church (the United Irishmen were roundly condemned by the great majority of the Catholic hierarchy) there were a number of like-minded priests – including Father McGinnis of Dromintine – with whom Father Coigly could empathise, radicals forged in the liberty-equality-fraternity atmosphere of revolutionary France.


With them they brought home to Ireland a foreign culture and a foreign grace that did much to embellish Irish life. While Church leaders such as Troy, Moylan and Caulfield lost no opportunity to denounce Defender activities, priests like Coigly (Martin and Prendergast) had great empathy with their righteous complaints if not with many of their violent methods.

The Catholic ‘Defenders’ are now thought to have been a somewhat more complex phenomenon that previously thought. Surely they practised overt intimidation and the odd murder was perpetrated. They were reactive to the widespread land expropriations of their time and of earlier plantations – representing resistance by the dispossessed that had been declared non-citizens in their own land. They were opposed by the murderous Peep-O-Day Boys and the recently formed Orange Order. Defenderism was most active wherever landlords’ arrogance, magistrates’ partiality and (from the mid-90s) Orange harassment were at their height, for example, in Armagh. But an outline political and economic programme began to emerge.

Despite the clear tensions between Defenderist emphasis on Catholic grievance and the United Irish dictum of non-sectarianism, from the mid-1790s the two organisations were closely allied. On his return Coigly identified with the Catholics of Ulster whose security was minimal and whose disqualifications were multiple. With John Magennis of Newry and Bernard Coyle of Armagh he began to link social reform and revolutionary politics. Coigly’s main contribution may well have been to cement an alliance between the United Irishmen and the Defenders. He encouraged a ‘cordial union of affection’ between Irish people of whatever religious persuasion. Thus he came to the disfavourable attention of the Government, the local MP John Foster deeming him ‘busy and meddling’. There is evidence that Coigly enjoyed the favour and trust not just of Newry United Men (Turner amongst them, unfortunately) but of Belfast and Dublin radicals, as well as of Defender leaders.

……. more to come ………….

 

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