On a Saturday morning in April 1957 a 30-year-old woman by the name of Sheila Cloney from the village of Fethard-on-Sea in County Wexford left home with her daughters, six-year-old Eileen and three-year-old Mary, bound for Northern Ireland.
Such was her anxiety to get away before one of the neighbours spotted her that she hit a gatepost as she tried to manoeuvre the heavy family car out of the entrance to the farm where she lived.
When her husband Seán returned from working in the fields, he called on Sheila’s parents and siblings to see if they knew where she was, before he alerted the Garda Síochana.
What led an ordinary woman from a quiet farming community in rural Wexford to flee home with two small children?
Sheila, the daughter of a well-liked farmer and cattle dealer and his wife, was a member of Fethard’s small Church of Ireland community.
In 1948 she was working in London as a domestic servant when a neighbour from Fethard – on his way back home from attending to the affairs of a deceased relative in Suffolk – called on her.
Seán Cloney, a Catholic farmer, had grown up less than a mile from Sheila. Seán and Sheila started going out together but because he was a Catholic and she was a Protestant their relationship caused difficulties in Fethard.
The local curate, Fr William Stafford, made known his displeasure at Seán for going out with a Protestant by banning him from the dramatic society in the Catholic parish hall.
Despite opposition at home, on 8 October 1949, Seán and Sheila were married in a registry office in London.
But two months later, a priest tracked them down to Bury St Edmunds and persuaded Sheila to get married in a Catholic church.
As stipulated by the Catholic Church’s Ne Temere decree, Sheila agreed to raise any children from the marriage as Catholics and signed a document to that effect.
It was this act which was cause such trouble later on. In 1950 Seán and Sheila returned home to Fethard. Eileen was born in 1951; Mary two years later.
The events leading up to Sheila’s decision to flee home began at the beginning of 1957 with the approach of Eileen’s sixth birthday. The Cloneys had not yet decided where Eileen would go to school. The couple had a broad understanding that the children would be raised in both religious traditions. Despite this, Sheila believed that her wish that they be partly raised as Protestants was being undermined.
For example, the nuns in the Catholic nursing home where Eileen and Mary were born had had them baptised immediately.
This removed the possibility of them also being baptised in the Church of Ireland, because, whereas the Church of Ireland did recognise baptisms carried out by a Catholic priest, the Catholic Church did not recognise Church of Ireland baptisms as valid.
During the spring of 1957, Catholic priests were regular visitors to the Cloney household, putting pressure on the couple to send Eileen to the local Catholic national school.
Finally, the parish priest, Fr Laurence Allen, pushed Sheila too far.
One day he landed in her kitchen and told her that Eileen was going to the Catholic national school and that there was nothing that she could do about it. Sheila had other ideas and on April 27, 1957 she fled across the border with the children.
Sheila’s decision to seek help in Northern Ireland was probably influenced in some small part by coverage of the Maura Lyons case, which many recall as the first time they heard Ian Paisley’s name.
It was associates of Paisley, who were also involved in the Lyons case, who were responsible for hiding Sheila and the children in Belfast and later smuggling them across the Irish Sea to Scotland.
Sean later followed his wife to Belfast to try, unsuccessfully, to recover his children through the courts.
At the same time, the clergy in Fethard, especially the apoplectic curate Father Stafford, hatched their own plan to force Sheila and the Cloney children to return home.
On May 12, Fr Stafford let fly at Sunday mass. He denounced Sheila of robbing her children of their faith and groundlessly accused the Protestants of Fethard of having financially aided her departure.
He announced that it was now up to the Catholics of Fethard to exert pressure on the missing woman and her co-religionists to make sure the children were returned, and that this was to be achieved by a boycott of Protestant-owned businesses and farms.
The next day the majority of the Catholics in Fethard stopped going into the two Protestant shops. On Wednesday, the Church of Ireland school was forced to close when the Catholic teacher walked out.
An elderly music teacher living alone in Fethard lost her dozen Catholic pupils. Catholic labourers told Protestant farmers that they would no longer be able to work for them and Catholics no longer bought their milk. Shots were also fired outside the homes of Protestants in the area.
Most Catholics obeyed the priest — many out of fear — but some, mostly old IRA men who had fallen out with the Church during the Civil War, opposed the boycott.
One in particular would heckle the vigilantes — organised by Fr Stafford to make sure the boycott was enforced — as they came out of their weekly meetings to discuss tactics in the parish hall.
The boycott became a national scandal in Ireland and was reported abroad — there was even a mention in Time magazine. Donations flooded in to a relief fund set up to provide financial assistance to Fethard’s distressed Protestant community, especially from Northern Ireland.
The huge response from northern Protestants prompted the Church of Ireland Bishop of Ossory, Ferns and Leighlin, John Percy Phair, to write to the Belfast Telegraph thanking ‘our friends in the North’ for their financial assistance. About £1,000 was deposited in the relief fund in total.
The Catholic hierarchy was initially tight-lipped about the boycott.
But at the end of June, about a month and a half into the boycott, during a solemn high mass in Wexford town, the Bishop of Galway, Michael Browne, thundered from the altar: “There seems to be a concerted campaign to entice or kidnap Catholic children and derive them of their Faith.
“Non-Catholics, with one or two honourable exceptions, do not protest against the crime of conspiring to steal the children of a Catholic father, but they try to make political capital when a Catholic people make a peaceful and moderate protest.”
Despite the hierarchy’s support for the boycott, many ordinary Catholics were disgusted at what was occurring in Fethard-on-Sea — most significantly, the Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera.
On July 4, less than a week after the intervention of the bishops, de Valera condemned the boycott in the Dail “as ill-conceived, ill-considered and futile” and repudiated “any suggestion that this boycott is typical of the attitude or conduct of our people”.
De Valera was instinctively appalled by the actions of the Fethard boycotters but also furious at the damage it was doing to the reputation of the state.
His worst fears were confirmed on the Twelfth when speakers on Orange platforms across Northern Ireland denounced the treatment being meted out to the Fethard Protestants.
The Prime Minister Lord Brookeborough said the boycott was a reminder of what would happen if Northern Ireland was subsumed into an all-Ireland Republic. Eventually, a deal to bring the dispute to an end was brokered in the house of the Republic’s Minister for Finance, Jim Ryan.
That September, the parish priest went into the Protestant-owned newsagent in Fethard to buy a packet of cigarettes to signal that the boycott was over.
Sheila and the children returned home on New Year’s Eve. But though the boycott was now officially over, old wounds remained and the Protestant shopkeepers found that many of their old customers never returned.
Life was certainly never the same for the Cloney family.
Eileen and Mary never went to school. Instead they received lessons from their parents at home and helped on the farm. In some small way, the boycott marked the waning of the influence of the Catholic Church in the Republic. The bishops themselves recognised that they had failed to win over public opinion.
As for the Church of Ireland, many critics were quick to point to a lack of leadership. Certainly, Bishop Phair was quick to blame ‘mixed marriages’ and Sheila Cloney for leaving her husband and refusing to honour her promise to raise the children as Catholics, rather than concentrating on the injustice of the boycott.
In 1998, the Catholic Bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey, apologised for the Catholic Church’s role in the boycott.
It was some small consolation for the Cloney family who have had to deal with a significant amount of tragedy down the years.
In 1998, Mary died of a rare liver disease. Sean died in 1999, four years after being left paralysed from the neck down after a road traffic accident. Eileen and her sister Hazel, who was born a few years after the boycott, still live locally. On June 28, 2009, Sheila Cloney’s funeral service was held in the tiny St Mogue’s church at the entrance to Fethard.
It was a low-key affair: there was no eulogy, no death notices in the newspapers. Sheila wished to draw a veil over those extraordinary events of 1957 but she will be remembered by many for standing up to the clerical bullies and raising her children as she saw fit.
Tim Fanning is a journalist and author of The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott, Collins Press, £12.99, available from all good bookshops and also at collinspress.ie