Illuminations: Father Paul Francis Kehoe, Farwell to Wexford

Illuminations:  Father Paul Francis Kehoe, Farwell to Wexford
By:  J. Michael Finn

Paul Francis Kehoe was born at Moortown, Ballymitty, County Wexford, Ireland on March 2, 1858.  He was the son of Paul Kehoe and Elizabeth O’Leary. Little is known regarding his early years of life. His religious education was at St. Peter’s College, in Wexford, where he began his studies for the priesthood.
Students for the priesthood at St. Peter’s did their theological and philosophy studies at the College of St. Patrick at Maynooth, Ireland.

During his years at St. Peter’s, Paul Kehoe became interested in Irish politics. As an Irish speaker, he was very interested in the promotion of the Irish language. He was a supporter of the Irish National Land League and its president, Charles Stewart Parnell, who was also an elected member of the British Parliament representing Ireland.

When the Land League began in 1879, the Catholic Church in Ireland officially stood in opposition to the League, largely due to the League’s close association with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (late in 1880 the Church changed her position on the Land League and was actively advising priests to support the organization).

On Easter Sunday, March 28, 1880, Charles Stewart Parnell made an appearance at Enniscorthy in County Wexford to speak on behalf of a candidate he was supporting in an upcoming election.  Parnell had just returned from a speaking tour of the US.

At Enniscorthy, Parnell’s political opponents pelted him with eggs and rotten vegetables when he rose to speak. A riot ensued and Parnell was nearly dragged from the speaker’s platform. His clothes were ripped and he was about to be physically assaulted. He was rescued from the angry mob and helped from the platform by a young clerical student – Paul Kehoe.

The Land League
Kehoe wrote a letter to the newspaper, Wexford People, and stated his strong support for the Land League political movement and for Parnell. Because of the Church’s opposition to the Land League, the publication of the letter caused the young student difficulty with the college administrator at St. Peter’s.  Kehoe was given the choice of either going home or transferring to a seminary that prepared priests for the foreign missions.

Serving in the United States
He chose to transfer to All Hallows College in Dublin. Priests from All Hallows were sent to such far away missions as South Africa, India, Australia or the United States. Father Kehoe graduated from All Hallows College and was ordained to the priesthood in Dublin on Wednesday, June 24, 1885 by the Bishop of Ardagh, Bartholomew Woodlock.  Father Kehoe was sent to the United States to serve as a mission priest in Columbus, Ohio. He was ordered to report to Bishop John Ambrose Watterson in Columbus for his first assignment. 

It was a clear day in Wexford, Ireland when his ship pulled out of Wexford Bay bound for the United States.  Like thousands who left their home in Ireland for America, Father Kehoe was reluctant to leave his native land. He told a friend, “I envy the poorest man in the poorest cabin in Wexford who has not to leave his county.”

As the ship pulled out he penned a poem about his feelings at leaving his beloved County Wexford for the unknowns awaiting him in the US.  The first verse of his poem “Farewell to Wexford” expressed his feelings: 

Upon the vessel’s deck I stand,

And watch the shore recede from view;

I see the hills and mountains grand,

The distant spires, the skies of blue.

While speeds the goodly ship away

The burning tears come trickling down.

And deep within my heart I say

Farewell, farewell, sweet Wexford town!

He landed in New York City and made the journey by train to Columbus, Ohio, where he arrived in November 1885. Upon arriving in Columbus, he learned from Bishop Watterson that his assignment would be as Chaplain at the Ohio State Penitentiary. 

The massive gray-walled state prison on Spring Street was just about the bleakest, coldest, and darkest place in town.  It was the exact opposite of the “mountains grand” and the “skies of blue” of his native Wexford.  The assignment must have presented quite a shock to the 27 year old Irish priest.

Father Kehoe did not let his surroundings interfere with his job. He celebrated his first Mass as prison chaplain on November 22, 1885. After the Mass, 1,500 convicts and 200 prison officials and visitors assembled in the main hall of the prison to welcome him.  

Although he was the tenth priest to be assigned to serve at the prison, he was only the second priest in the diocese to be given that job on a full-time basis. On April 4, 1886, Father Kehoe baptized eleven prisoners at the penitentiary and six days later he arranged the first Confirmation service ever held at the prison.

Father Kehoe served as prison chaplain for approximately a year, until October 2, 1886. He was then assigned as Assistant Pastor at Holy Family parish in Columbus. There he served as chaplain to both the Convent of the Good Shepherd and to Mt. Carmel Hospital. In 1887 Father Kehoe was assigned as assistant pastor at St. Lawrence O’Toole Parish in Ironton, Ohio.  He served at St. Lawrence from 1887 until early in 1888, when he left the diocese to return to Ireland due to illness (attributed to lung disease). 

Father Kehoe returned to his home in County Wexford, Ireland where he was assigned to various parishes within the Wexford diocese of Ferns. He continued to experience health problems after his appointment at the parish of Cloughbawn, in the village of Clonroche.  His doctor recommended he take a long sea voyage. He made a voyage to New Zealand in 1913. There he stayed with his lifelong friend, Bishop Henry William Cleary, also a native of County Wexford, who was the 6th bishop of Auckland, New Zealand.

Upon his return to Ireland in 1916, Father Kehoe resumed his assignment as Parish Priest in the parish of Cloughbawn. By this time he was one of the senior parish priests of the diocese and was known as Canon Kehoe. Throughout his career as a priest he continued to write poetry.  He was also well known as a historian.

Paul Francis Canon Kehoe died at the parish house in Clonroche, County Wexford, Ireland on Friday, October 23, 1931, at the age of 73.  He is buried in the Cloughbawn Parish Cemetery.

On October 26, 1931 the Wexford County Council presented the following condolence resolution at their meeting:  “By his demise the church has lost a worthy son and the people of Cloughbawn a Pastor whose every hour was concerned for their spiritual and temporal welfare. In the forefront of every Nationalist movement his ability and foresight proved invaluable, while his work for the advancement of our native language has earned the gratitude of every Gael.”

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.

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