The Story of
O'Toole by Katharine Tynan
On the wall of the Island Chapel there is a tablet which strangers
read curiously. The inscription runs:
FATHER ANTHONY O'TOOLE
FOR THIRTY YEARS THE SHEPHERD OF
Died 18th December 1812
Aged 80 years.
'He will avenge the blood of his servants, and will be
merciful unto his land, and to his people.'
Many a time has a summer visitor asked me the meaning of the Old
Testament words on the memorial tablet of a life that in all
probability passed so quietly.
Any child in the Island will tell you the story of Father Anthony
O'Toole. Here and there an old man or woman will remember to have seen
him and will describe himtall despite his great age, with the frost
on his head but never in his heart, stepping down the cobbles of the
village street leaning on his gold-headed cane, and greeting his
spiritual children with such a courtesy as had once been well in place
at Versailles or the Little Trianon. Plainly he never ceased to be the
finest of fine gentlemen, though a less inbred courtesy might well rust
in the isolation of thirty years. Yet he seems to have been no less the
humblest and simplest of priests. Old Peter Devine will tell you his
childish memory of the old priest sitting by the turf fire in the
fisherman's cottage, listening to the eternal complaint of the winds
and waters that had destroyed the fishing and washed the potato-gardens
out to sea, and pausing in his words of counsel and sympathy to take
delicately a pinch of the finest snuff, snuff that had never bemeaned
itself by paying duty to King George.
But that was in the quite peaceful days, when the country over there
beyond the shallow water lay in the apathy of exhaustionhelpless and
hopeless. That was years after Father Anthony had flashed out as a man
of war in the midst of his quiet pastoral days, and like any Old
Testament hero had taken the sword and smitten his enemies in the name
of the Lord.
Father Anthony was the grandson of one of those Irish soldiers of
fortune who, after the downfall of the Jacobite cause in Ireland, had
taken service in the French and Austrian armies. In Ireland they called
them the Wild Geese. He had risen to high honours in the armies of King
Louis, and had been wounded at Malplaquet. The son followed in his
father's footsteps and was among the slain at Fontenoy. Father Anthony,
too, became a soldier and saw service at Minden, and carried away from
it a wound in the thigh which made necessary the use of that
gold-headed cane. They said that, soldier as he was, he was a fine
courtier in his day. One could well believe it looking at him in his
old age. From his father he had inherited the dashing bravery and gay
wit of which even yet he carried traces. From his French mother he had
the delicate courtesy and finesse which would be well in place
in the atmosphere of a court.
However, in full prime of manhood and reputation, Father Anthony,
for some reason or other, shook the dust of courts off his feet, and
became a humble aspirant after the priesthood at the missionary College
of St. Omer. He had always a great desire to be sent to the land of his
fathers, the land of faith and hope, of which he had heard from many an
Irish refugee, and in due time his desire was fulfilled. He reached the
Island one wintry day, flung up out of the teeth of storms, and was in
the Island thirty years, till the reveille of his Master called
him to the muster of the Heavenly host.
Father Anthony seems to have been innocently ready to talk over his
days of fighting. He was not at all averse from fighting his battles
over again for these simple children of his who were every day in
battle with the elements and death. Peter Devine remembers to have
squatted, burning his shins by the turf fire, and watching with
fascination the lines in the ashes which represented the entrenchments
and the guns, and the troops of King Frederick and the French line, as
Father Anthony played the war-game for old Corney Devine, whose
grass-grown grave is under the gable of the Island Chapel.
Now and again a fisherman was admitted by special favour to look
upon the magnificent clothing which Father Anthony had worn as a
colonel of French Horse. The things were laid by in lavender as a bride
might keep her wedding-dress. There were the gold-laced coat and the
breeches with the sword-slash in them, the sash, the belt, the plumed
hat, the high boots, the pistols, and glittering among them all, the
sword. That chest of Father Anthony's and its contents were something
of a fairy tale to the boys of the Island, and each of them dreamt of a
day when he too might behold them. The chest, securely locked and
clamped, stood in the sacristy; and Father Anthony would have seen
nothing incongruous in its neighbourhood to the sacred vessels and
vestments. He generally displayed the things when he had been talking
over old fighting days, to the Island men mostly, but occasionally to a
French captain, who with a cargo, often contraband, or wines and
cigars, would run into the Island harbour for shelter. Then there were
courtesies given and exchanged; and Father Anthony's guest at parting
would make an offering of light wines, much of which found its way to
sick and infirm Island men and women in the days that followed.
Father Anthony had been many placid years on the Island when there
began to be rumours of trouble on the mainland. Just at first the
United Irish Society had been quite the fashion, and held no more
rebellious than the great volunteer movement of a dozen years earlier.
But as time went by things became more serious. Moderate and fearful
men fell away from the Society, and the union between Northern
Protestants and Southern Catholics, which had been a matter of much
concern to the Government of the day, was met by a policy of goading
the leaders on to rebellion. By and by this and that idol of the
populace was flung into prison. Wolfe Tone was in France, praying,
storming, commanding, forcing an expedition to act in unison with a
rising on Irish soil. Father Anthony was excited in these days. The
France of the Republic was not his France, and the stain of the blood
of the Lord's Anointed was upon her, but for all that the news of the
expedition from Brest set his blood coursing so rapidly and his pulses
beating, that he was fain to calm with much praying the old turbulent
spirit of war which possessed him.
Many of the young fishermen had left the Island and were on the
mainland, drilling in secrecy. There were few left save old men and
women and children when the blow fell. The Government, abundantly
informed of what went on in the councils of the United Irishmen, knew
the moment to strike, and took it. The rebellion broke out in various
parts of the country, but already the leaders were in prison. Calamity
followed calamity. Heroic courage availed nothing. In a short time
Wolfe Tone lay dead in the Provost-Marshal's prison of Dublin; and Lord
Edward Fitzgerald was dying of his wounds. In Dublin, dragoonings,
hangings, pitch-capping and flogging set up a reign of terror. Out of
the first sudden silence terrible tidings came to the Island.
At that time there was no communication with the mainland except by
the fishermen's boats or at low water. The Island was very much out of
the world; and the echoes of what went on in the world came vaguely as
from a distance to the ears of the Island people. They were like enough
to be safe, though there was blood and fire and torture on the
mainland. They were all old and helpless people, and they might well be
safe from the soldiery. There was no yeomanry corps within many miles
of the Island, and it was the yeomanry, tales of whose doings made the
Islanders' blood run cold. Not the foreign soldiersoh no, they were
often merciful, and found this kind of warfare bitterly distasteful.
But it might well be that the yeomanry, being so busy, would never
think of the Island.
Father Anthony prayed that it might be so, and the elements
conspired to help him. There were many storms and high tides that set
the Island riding in safety. Father Anthony went up and down comforting
those whose husbands, sons, and brothers were in the Inferno over
yonder. The roses in his old cheeks withered, and his blue eyes were
faded with many tears for his country and his people. He prayed
incessantly that the agony of the land might cease, and that his own
most helpless flock might be protected from the butchery that had been
the fate of many as innocent and helpless.
The little church of gray stone stands as the vanguard of the
village, a little nearer to the mainland, and the spit of sand that
runs out towards it. You ascend to it by a hill, and a wide stretch of
green sward lies before the door. The gray stone presbytery joins the
church and communicates with it. A ragged boreen, or bit of lane,
between rough stone walls runs zigzag from the gate, ever open, that
leads to the church, and wanders away to the left to the village on the
rocks above the sea. Everything is just the same to-day as on that
morning when Father Anthony, looking across to the mainland from the
high gable window of his bedroom, saw on the sands something that made
him dash the tears from his old eyes, and go hastily in search of the
telescope which had been a present from one of those wandering
As he set his glass to his eye that morning, the lassitude of age
and grief seemed to have left him. For a few minutes he gazed at the
objects crossing the sandsfor it was low waterin an attitude tense
and eager. At last he lowered the glass and closed it. He had seen
enough. Four yeomen on their horses were crossing to the island.
He was alone in the house, and as he bustled downstairs and made
door and windows fast, he was rejoiced it should be so. Down below the
village was calm and quiet. The morning had a touch of spring, and the
water was lazily lapping against the sands. The people were within
doors,of that he was pretty well assuredfor the Island was in a
state of terror and depression. There was no sign of life down there
except now and again the barking of a dog or the cackling of a hen.
Unconsciously the little homes waited the death and outrage that were
coming to them as fast as four strong horses could carry them.
'Strengthen thou mine arm,' cried Father Anthony aloud, 'that the
wicked prevail not! Keep thou thy sheep that thou hast confided to my
keeping. Lo! the wolves are upon them!' and as he spoke his voice rang
out through the silent house. The fire of battle was in his eyes, his
nostrils smelt blood, and the man seemed exalted beyond his natural
size. Father Anthony went swiftly and barred his church doors, and then
turned into the presbytery. He flashed his sword till it caught the
light and gleamed and glanced. 'For this, for this hour, friend,' he
said, 'I have polished thee and kept thee keen. Hail, sword of the
justice of God!'
There came a thundering at the oaken door of the church. 'Open, son
of Belial!' cried a coarse voice, and then there followed a shower of
blasphemies. The men had lit down from their horses, which they had
picketed below, and had come on foot, vomiting oaths, to the church
door. Father Anthony took down the fastenings one by one. Before he
removed the last he looked towards the little altar. 'Now,' he said,
'defend Thyself, all-powerful!' and saying, he let the bar fall.
The door swung open so suddenly that three of the men fell back. The
fourth, who had been calling his blasphemies through the keyhole of the
door, remained yet on his knees. In the doorway, where they had looked
to find an infirm old man, stood a French colonel in his battle array,
the gleaming sword in his hand. The apparition was so sudden, so
unexpected, that they stood for the moment terror-stricken. Did they
think it something supernatural? as well they might, for to their
astonished eyes the splendid martial figure seemed to grow and grow,
and fill the doorway. Or perhaps they thought they had fallen in an
Before they could recover, the sword swung in air, and the head of
the fellow kneeling rolled on the threshold of the church. The others
turned and fled. One man fell, the others with a curse stumbled over
him, recovered themselves, and sped on. Father Anthony, as you might
spit a cockroach with a long pin, drove his sword in the fallen man's
back and left it quivering. The dying scream rang in his ears as he
drew his pistols. He muttered to himself: 'If one be spared he win
return with seven worse devils. No! they must die that the innocent may
go safe,' and on the track of the flying wretches, he shot one in the
head as he ran, and the other he pierced, as he would have dragged
himself into the stirrups.
In the broad sunlight, the villagers, alarmed by the sound of
shooting, came timidly creeping towards the presbytery to see if harm
had befallen the priest, and found Father Anthony standing on the
bloody green sward wiping his sword and looking about him at the dead
men. The fury of battle had gone out of his face, and he looked gentle
as ever, but greatly troubled. 'It had to be,' he said, 'though, God
knows, I would have spared them to repent of their sins.'
'Take them,' he said, 'to the Devil's Chimney and drop them down, so
that if their comrades come seeking them there may be no trace of
them.' The Devil's Chimney is a strange, natural oubliette of
the Island, whose depth none has fathomed, though far below you may
hear a subterranean waterfall roaring.
One of the dead men's horses set up a frightened whinnying. 'But the
poor beasts,' said Father Anthony, who had ever a kindness for animals,
'they must want for nothing. Stable them in M'Ora's Cave till the
trouble goes by, and see that they are well fed and watered.'
An hour later, except for some disturbance of the grass, you would
have come upon no trace of these happenings. I have never heard that
they cast any shade upon Father Anthony's spirit, or that he was less
serene and cheerful when peace had come back than he had been before.
No hue and cry after the dead yeomen ever came to the Island, and the
troubles of '98 spent themselves without crossing again from the
mainland. After a time, when peace was restored, the yeomen's horses
were used for drawing the Island fish to the market, or for carrying
loads of seaweed to the potatoes, and many other purposes for which
human labour had hitherto served.
But Father Anthony O'Toole was dead many and many a year before that
tablet was set up to his memory. And the strange thing was that Mr.
Hill, the rector, who, having no flock to speak of, is pretty free to
devote himself to the antiquities of the Island, his favourite study,
was a prime mover in this commemoration of Father Anthony O'Toole, and
himself selected the text to go upon the tablet.
In a certain Wicklow country-house an O'Toole of this day will
display to you, as they display the dead hand of a martyr in a
reliquary, the uniform, the sword and pistols, the feathered hat and
the riding boots, of Father Anthony O'Toole.