The Late Father Thomas McCullagh

TheFreeman’s Journal, 26th October, 1872

On Friday, all that was mortal of the late Father McCullagh, PP, Athboy, were consigned to the grave in the Catholic Church of that town. From seven o’clock in the morning up till eleven, the Holy Sacrifice continued to be offered up from some half a dozen of altars, for the eternal repose of his soul, and all the while the vast church was crowded with grief-stricken parishioners and sorrowing friends. At eleven o’clock, the hour fixed for the solemn office and grand Requiem Mass, not less than fifty priests, many of them coming from very great distances, were present in the choir, with the Lord Bishop, the Most Rev Dr. McNulty, at their head.

The High Mass was celebrated by Father Peter Clarke CC, Kilskyre; Father O’Connell, CC, Jordanstown, and Father Seary, CC, Summerhill, acting as deacon and sub-deacon, while Father Horan, CC of Navan, officiated as Master of Ceremonies. The solemn Mass ended, and the last Benediction given by the Bishop, a funeral procession, at the earnest request of the people, was soon formed, and wended its melancholy way for about three miles, in a sort of semicircle, around the southern side of the town. It was a wonderful funeral, both from its extent and, still more, from its composition. All ranks, conditions and persuasions in Meath and Westmeath sent their several contingents to swell the mournful cortege. Protestant vied with Catholic in paying the last tribute of respect, esteem, and love to a great priest, who, by his firmness, his talents, and his urbanity, had won for himself the regard and affections of nearly all those within the sphere in which he moved. And when the bell of the Protestant church was heard at the funeral solemnly tolling — as indeed it had tolled from Father McCullagh’s death on Wednesday morning – it might well be regarded as the death-knell of proselytism and religious rancour, and reflecting on the different temper of the times in Athboy when he who is now no more became its pastor. The chiming of that bell made his burial, indeed, a triumphant one.

Little more is left to be told of that day’s sad story. The remains, on returning to the church, were received by the Bishop and the clergy at the entrance door, and the usual prayers and hymns having been said and sung, the coffin was lowered into the grave amid a scene of solemn silence, far more awful than any of the lighter and noisier demonstrations not unusual on such occasions.

Although ailing for five or six weeks, there was in the public mind no apprehension of Father McCullagh’s death, and so cheerful had he been, so full of life and spirits, people found it difficult to associate at all with the idea of death. And when the tidings of such a cruel and unexpected bereavement spread rapidly through the parish on Wednesday, every cheek grew pale, and a mingled feeling of consternation and almost incredulity seized firmly on the minds and hearts of all. And so, around the grave of their dear and beloved pastor, men, and even women, stood transfixed in silent trance of thought and grief that could find no fitting expression for itself.

The Rev. deceased died in the 64th year of his age, and the 41st of his sacred ministry. It will, therefore, be seen that he was ordained at the early age of 23. During his collegiate career in Maynooth he was highly distinguished, and it is said that, but for the delicacy of his constitution, he would have been among the foremost men of his time in the college. He laboured as curate in Trim for 12 years, and was greatly beloved and highly esteemed by the good people of that parish. For the last 24 years of his life he filled with ease, dignity, and efficiency the office of pastor of Athboy, where he erected the present magnificent parochial house. During O’Connell’s long struggle for Repeal he took that prominent part for which his great talents and ready eloquence so pre-eminently prepared him. And, all through the dismal period of the famine, no priest in Ireland toiled more zealously to relieve or alleviate the wants and sufferings of the poor. And, when rising out of the terrible scenes of extermination accompanying, and subsequent to the famine, the great movement for tenant rights began, Father McCullagh, together with the priests of Meath, threw himself heart and soul into it. That holiest of national movements he lived to see crowned with a partial success. However, the noble county that returned the immortal Lucas has better reason to be satisfied with the sort of legal protection at present afforded to the honest tillers of the soil. And as evidence that here, at least, the struggle is still carried on, it may be mentioned that up to the day of his widely lamented death, Father McCullagh acted as one of the treasurers to the Meath Tenant Protection Fund.

In truth, the late Father McCullagh was in many respects a memorable character. Endowed with a rare combination of gifts both of head and heart, a quick and penetrating judgement, a refined taste, the readiest flow of choice and forcible language, and a wit that forever flashed and dazzled but never wounded, he was at once the ornament and delight of every circle in which he moved. Yet it was in the society of his brother priests that Father McCullagh shone out most brilliantly. He loved his brethren in the ministry, and was by them beloved in turn, for many a load of care was lightened on their bosoms by his genial eloquence and the wonderful powers of repartee which he never failed to display at their social gatherings. His people will long miss him who was their faithful and trusty counsellor in every emergency; and the poor householders of Athboy may well mourn the loss of a pastor whose alms were doled out to them on a large and generous but perfectly unostentatious scale, as the curates who lived with him and loved him will freely testify.

The piety and fervour with which he received the last sacraments, together with his unaffected resignation to the Divine Will and the moral courage with which he confronted death inspire a certain hope that he is gone to a better and brighter world.

May he rest in peace.

In his Will, Father McCullagh left most of his worldly goods for the benefit of the Church and the poor. As part of the legal process in carrying out his charitable bequests, his will was published, also in the Freeman’s Journal.

Charitable Bequests

NOTICE is hereby given, pursuant to the 30th and 31st Victoria, chapter 54, Sec 10, that The Rev. Thomas McCullagh, late Parish Priest of Athboy, in the County of Meath, by his last will and testament, bearing date the 10th day of December 1867, bequeathed to the Roman Catholic College of All Hallow’s, Drumcondra, in the County of Dublin, the sum of £200, or the purpose of having Masses offered up for testator’s intentions.

To the Right Rev Thomas Nulty, R C Lord Bishop of Meath in trust for the following charitable purposes, viz.

£100 for the Convent of Mercy, in the Parish of St. Mary’s, Drogheda.

£100 for the Convent of Mercy in Trim, County Meath

£100 for the Convent of Mercy in Navan, County Meath

£100 for the use and benefit of the Roman Catholic Institute for Deaf and Dumb at Cabra, near Dublin.

£100 to be distributed by his successor, the then Parish Priest of Athboy, County of Meath, amongst the Roman Catholic poor of the Parish of Athboy and Rathmore, County of Meath.

£100 to be given to his successor, to assist him in building a Parochial Residence for the Roman Catholic Pastor and Curate or Curates for the time being of said parish of Athboy.

£100 to assist the Bishop of Meath in building a College or Educational Establishment in any part of the Diocese of Meath; or should he not undertake such building to be expended by him in any other Diocesan Work which he may undertake for the promotion of the Catholic Religion.

And Testator gave, devised and bequeathed to his Executors, all other money or property of every kind which he might be possessed of, after payment of his lawful debts, funeral expenses and the above legacies, bequeathed by said Will, In Trust, to be by them applied to such charitable purposes as they might deem advisable, and the said Will Testator appointed The Rev. Patrick Kealy, PP of Ballinabrackey, and his cousin, Mr. John McCullagh, of Staleen, Drogheda, farmer and miller, his Executors and residual legatees.

Father McCullagh was buried inside St. James’ Church, in front of the altar. A brass plaque marks the position of his tomb. A stone slab, outside the church, among the large headstones which mark the graves of three other priests, was probably the original marker of Father McCullagh’s tomb but was most likely moved to its present position during some past church renovations and replaced by the much smaller brass plaque just mentioned. The inscription on this stone slab reads:

“Rev. Thomas McCullagh, PP Athboy, died 16th October 1872,in the 64th year of his age, the 40th year of his Ministry, and the 25th of his Pastoral Charge, May the Lord have mercy on his Soul.”

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