While many clerics have supported the armed struggle of the IRA since 1916, the Capuchin Friars have been particularly noted for their republicanism.
One such Capuchin was Fr Aloysius Roche, the son of an Irish father and English mother, born in Scotland in 1886. He studied for the priesthood and, following his ordination, he was transferred to Dublin where he was attached to the Capuchin Order in Church Street.
Easter 1916, after almost a week of fighting Dublin city centre lies in ruins and the hopes for a Republic are in tatters. The garrisons of the GPO and the Four Courts have already surrendered though the other Volunteer garrisons remain under arms. A British Army staff car belonging to Brigadier General William Lowe makes its way through the ruins and rubble under a white flag. But there is no British officer inside. Remarkably the passengers consist of a Volunteer officer, Commandant Thomas MacDonagh and two Irish Capuchin friars.
Like many others, not least the British, the Capuchin Friars of Dublin were caught completely by surprise by the outbreak of the Easter Rising. Fierce fighting took place on the very doorstep of their Friary in Church Street located, as it was, between the Volunteer garrison of the Four Courts on one side and a field hospital set up by the Volunteers in the Fr Mathew Hall on the other. The friars were immediately involved in ministering to the wounded and dying and as the week progressed their involvement became greater and a lot more dangerous. A chance encounter between a friar and Elizabeth O’Farrell catapulted them into a central role in the surrender. Acting as intermediaries, they assisted in conveying Pearse’s orders for surrender to isolated Dublin garrisons and helped to bring the bloodshed and the loss of life to an end. However, the Capuchins will best be remembered as the priests who ministered to the leaders of the Rising in Kilmainham Gaol prior to their execution.
During Easter Week 1916, Fr Aloysius along with Frs Albert, Augustine and Dominic brought spiritual aid to the Volunteers in the numerous garrisons and outposts throughout Dublin. Following Pádraig Pearse’s surrender on Saturday, 29 April 1916, Fr Aloysius spent the next day carrying the surrender order to the main garrisons on the south side of the city.
Three Capuchin Friars, Fr Aloysius, Fr Augustine and Fr Columbus answered a call of faith and duty, helping bring the Easter Rising to an end and changing the course of Irish history.
In the early hours of the morning of 3 May, Fr Aloysius administered the last sacraments to Pádraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Thomas Clarke, the first three leaders of the Rising to be executed.
Immediately after the executions of Pearse, Clarke and MacDonagh the Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond, warned the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, that “if any more executions take place in Ireland the position will become impossible for any constitutional party or leader”.
Asquith himself warned Sir John Maxwell that “anything like a large number of executions would… sow the seeds of lasting trouble in Ireland”.
On 7 May, Fr Aloysius met John Dillon, a leading member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who agreed to do all in his power to persuade the British government to stop the executions. And it was largely due to his efforts that Dillon, five days later, during a debate on the Rising in the House of Commons, launched a blistering attack on the British government’s handling of the situation in Ireland. Earlier that day, Fr Aloysius accompanied James Connolly by ambulance from Dublin Castle to Kilmainham Gaol for execution and stood behind the firing squad as they fired the final volley.
During the Tan and Civil Wars he was an enthusiastic and practical supporter of the national struggle and continued his republican allegiance throughout the following decades. The tall figure of Fr Aloysius was a familiar sight along Dublin’s quays for over fifty years.
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