Father Cornelius O’Mullan, the rebel priest of Derry’s Long Tower Church

Ivor Doherty who uncovered the story pictured at Bishop O'Donnell's grave in the Long Tower church graveyard, right next to the Wee Nun's School.
Ivor Doherty who uncovered the story pictured at Bishop O'Donnell's grave in the Long Tower church graveyard, right next to the Wee Nun's School.

Local amateur historian Ivor Doherty has brought to light the unusual story of a priest from the Long Tower who was involved in a riot in the church 200 years ago this week.

Mr Doherty was in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin some years ago when, by chance, he came across a booklet written by the editor of the ‘Londonderry Journal’ of 1814.

In this booklet, he found the astonishing story of the trial of a parish priest of Templemore and some of his parishioners who were charged in connection with a riot which took place in the grounds of the church on November 4, 1813.

During the riot, the then Catholic Bishop of Derry was forced to flee the church in fear for his life.

“The priest in question was Father Cornelius Mullan,” explained Ivor, “and he was sentenced to one month in prison.

“The story surprised me because, while I do have fairly extensive knowledge of the Long Tower site, this story had escaped me completely.”

The Derry man, who sits on the working committee of the new Aras Colmcille centre on the site of the former Wee Nuns School, decided the story needed further research.

He explained: “Given the work which presently continues at the Wee Nuns School in Long Tower to turn it into a Columban Interpretive Centre, and given that the building of the little school commenced the same year as the infamous riot, I decided to investigate this story further.”

Ivor’s research through the old Journals uncovered an advertisement in the ‘Londonderry Journal’ of July 1810 when the Long Tower Church was seeking expressions of interest from building contractors towards the enlargement of the old church which in those days was just an oblong shape.

The work was contracted out and the building completed by 1812 to a T-shape form.

The following year, Ivor found another interesting report in the ‘Londonderry Journal’ of a disturbance during a dinner to celebrate the election win of a Col. Ponsonby.

This incident took place in the King’s Inn, a local hotel, in Pump Street, what was eventually to become the Convent of Mercy.

The disturbance occurred due to the toast being made to the memory of King William and the Glorious Revolution. Fr. O’Mullan got up from his chair at the table and left the room.

This story is splashed all over the Dublin Evening Post and also over the local Journal, with conflicting accounts. Sir George Hill, claims that a toast after the King William toast was made to the Catholic people wishing them every success in improving their situation in the country.

The next piece of information on Father O’Mullan was when the priest was centrally involved in a proposal to erect a school in the grounds of the old Long Tower.

In July 1813, the Journal printed a letter from O’Mullan to the Church of Ireland Bishop, Dr Knox, appealing for financial assistance towards the erection of a new schoolhouse in the grounds of the Church.

The reply, a curt refusal from Dr Knox, was also printed.

On July 17, 1813, an advertisement appears seeking builders to submit tenders towards the building of the school.

In July 1913, the Journal reported how Father O’Mullan travelled to Dublin to solicit subscriptions towards the erection of the school.

Ivor takes up the story: “Father O’Mullan is reported as staying in 11 Gloucester St. stating that anyone wishing to contribute may contact him there.

“The article is critical of conditions for Catholics in Derry regarding the education of their children. It states that the city is ruled over by a group of bigots and Orangemen and that ‘to obviate this wide spreading evil, the clergy have set about building a school attached to the chapel’.”

“The piece was answered by the then R.C. Bishop of Derry, Rev Charles O’Donnell, who was known locally by the nickname of ‘Orange Charlie’ due to his comfortable relationship with the authorities. In those times, local Catholic Church policy seems to have been to co-operate with the authorities.

“This policy served the church well as they were being permitted to build their churches and were able to worship in a public place after many years of the Penal Laws.

“The Bishop claimed Father O’Mullan’s appeal was full of falsehoods.

“He commented on the decency and liberal attitude of the Church of Ireland’s Bishop Knox and his congregation, referring to the help the Catholic people received from Protestants, firstly in erecting the first church in the city of Derry since the ending of the Penal times, and, secondly, in enlarging the same building. The letter is signed off by the bishop himself, another priest, and two students from the seminary in Derry.

“The following week, the paper is again full of comment and some letters between the parties and comments that the build has already begun and well advanced.”

However, a meeting held in 1813 would change everything.

Ivor continued: “In 1813, there were meetings held in Long Tower around the Catholic Committee which had connections to Daniel O’Connell and the emancipation movement. One meeting, on November 4, resulted in Bishop O’Donnell being assaulted and having to exit the church in fear for his life. The following day, the Roman Catholic Bishop withdrew spiritual jurisdiction from Fr. Cornelius and he was dismissed from the parish.”

“In the Londonderry Journal, of November 9, 1813, it is reported how Father Cornelius is charged with riotous behaviour along with a number of his parishioners: James Doherty, Con O’Donnell, Edward McAlister and Bryan Doherty.

“When the trial begins in January 1814, the jury is composed entirely of non-Catholics.

“The defence claimed that Fr. Cornelius was not even present when the riot broke out but attended the church an hour later having heard about the disturbance.

“He pressed the crowd to go home now in safety for ‘fear of murder lurking in the ditches and hedgerows.’

“A number of the defendants were found guilty, including the clergyman and he was sentenced to one month imprisonment, whilst the other parishioners were given two weeks.”

However, interestingly, before the trial, Ivor explained how, on November 28, the Bishop came to say Mass in the church at Long Tower and is greeted by his parishioners with the question: “Has Mr. O’Mullan come?“ - a comment the Bishop ignores.

“At times, during the service, there are calls from the floor of: “Mr. O’Mullan”.

After Mass, the Bishop addressed the people as usual from the pulpit and, on his descending, the cry was renewed.

He took a chair near to the rails of the altar and a crowd rushed forward, still crying Mr. O’Mullan. He saw men waving their hats and acting in a violent manner on the floor and in the galleries and heard a person exclaim: “the old rascal of an Orange bishop.”

The Bishop could not say how near they approached to the altar as he sat with his back to the rails, being afraid of violence he did not fear their laying violent hands on him, but was afraid they would crush him to death. He remained within the rails for about an hour, and was afraid to come out, as the shouting still continued.

“At last he made an effort to gain the vestry room but, when observed, a number of people rushed forward with great violence and drove him towards the vestry room.

“It was shut but not as he thinks, against him, but the mob who were endeavouring to force their way in.

“He eventually made his way in and went out at the lower gate. From these events, three parishioners were sentenced to 12 months, nine months, and six months.

“Oliver Rafferty S.J. would contend, in his article from the book “Derry/Londonderry”, that Bishop O’Donnell was against the school preferring that the Catholic children attend what we might call the system of “integrated education” at the mixed school run by the Church of Ireland. This belief is also strengthened by the suspension of work on the school after Fr. Cornelius O’Mullan was suspended from his priestly duties and imprisoned, before leaving the diocese. Nothing seems to have been done until Bishop Charles O’Donnell had left the scene.

“The next time we hear of Fr O’Mullan is in Dublin in 1815. Daniel O’Connell is having great issue with a man called John Narcot D’esterre.

“Eventually, it boils over and D’esterre challenges Daniel to a duel. On the day in question, O’Connell, because of his great friendship with Fr. Cornelius, requests the presence of our Derry (Wee Nuns) clergyman just in case he might be fatally injured and would require the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church. Fortunately, for Dan, he is unharmed but he mortally wounds D’esterre who dies two days later.

“Although duelling is illegal in 1815, the authorities take no action against O’Connell who begins to realise what he has done and deeply regrets it for the rest of his life.

“Bishop Charles O’Donnell died on July 19, 1823 and his body removed from the seminary - which stood in McLaughlin’s Close, off Ferguson St. - via Strand St. (now Foyle Road) over Foyle St. to climb Shipquay St., Bishop St, to stop at Henrietta St. The coffin was removed from the hearse at this point and carried by the clergy to the church for the funeral Mass and interment.

“The funeral is attended by all classes of Derry society and included many Protestant citizens and clergymen. Due to all these local troubles, building of the Wee Nuns was delayed for ten years and was not completed until 1825.

“The following January they were opened as Catholic Parochial Schools.

“We take our leave of Fr. Cornelius when he joins with General Devereux as chaplain to an expeditionary force that sails for Venezuela to fight in Simon Bolivar’s war of independence.

“He was accompanied on this expedition by Morgan O’Connell, the son of Daniel O’Connell.

“Our clergyman died in Venezuela in 1821 and we do not know his last resting place.

“It seems somewhat sad that these two men, Bishop Charles O’Donnell and Fr. Cornelius O’Mullan, had the best interests of their flock in mind but in different ways.

“One lies outside the door of the Wee Nuns School and the rebel priest lies somewhere in a grave 3,000 miles from these shores.”