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The Story of Father Anthony 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

                     HIS FLOCK

                   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 him—tall 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 exhaustion—helpless 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 soldiers—oh 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 sea-captains.

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 sands—for it was low water—in 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 assured—for 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 ambush.

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.


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