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It's time daylight was shed upon these knights of the Catholic faith

By Nelson McCausland

Published 27/08/2015

Father James K O'Neill formed the Knights of St Columbanus
Father James K O'Neill formed the Knights of St Columbanus

We are in the midst of a decade of centenaries, running from 2012 and the centenary of the Ulster Covenant through to 2021 and the centenary of Northern Ireland. Along the way many events are being commemorated but one centenary seems to have escaped the attention of the media and the historians, and that is the centenary of the Order of Knights of St Columbanus.

The knights were founded in Belfast in 1915 as a secret society for Roman Catholic men. Its membership is exclusively male and exclusively Roman Catholic.

In view of the number of books and articles written about the Orange Order, it is somewhat surprising that so little has been written about the Knights of St Columbanus and that there has been so little research on the organisation, either by investigative journalists or by academic historians. The only book about the history of the Knights of St Columbanus was written in 1979 by Sister Evelyn Bolster, a Roman Catholic nun, and that very sympathetic account contrasts with the dozens of books written about the Orange Order.

It shouldn't have been too hard to discover that there is a centenary because the Knights of St Columbanus have a centenary website and they have organised a programme of events, which will end with a special Mass in Belfast on Sunday, October 11. We are, therefore, just weeks away from the end of their centenary year.

The origins of the order can be traced back to Father James K O'Neill, parish priest of the Sacred Heart parish in north Belfast, who was born in 1857 and educated at St Malachy's College in Belfast and at Maynooth. He was appointed to the Sacred Heart parish in 1906 and formed the Knights of St Columbanus "to cherish fraternal charity and… to promote and foster the cause of the Catholic faith and Catholic education".

It was a fraternal society with a system of 'lodges' known as 'councils of knights' and was formed with its regalia, secret signs and rituals in the same manner as other brotherhoods, such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Orange Order.

The new order was announced in the Irish Catholic on April 10, 1915, and by early 1916 there were four councils of knights in Belfast. More councils were soon formed in Armagh, Cork, Londonderry, Dublin, Lurgan, Newry and Portadown.

There was already in existence another organisation called the Columban Knights, which had been founded in Dublin in 1909, and was similar to the Knights of St Columbanus. At the insistence of Archbishop Byrne, one of the first priest members of the Columban Knights, the two orders were amalgamated in June 1922 as the Knights of St Columbanus.

By 1951, 16 Roman Catholic bishops were members of the order and some notable politicians were also members.

They included Oliver J Flanagan, a controversial Fine Gael TD, Cahir Healy, a nationalist MP at Stormont and Westminster, and the Irish Labour MP Brendan Corish.

Thomas McLaughlin, a nationalist member of the Northern Ireland Senate, was a supreme knight of the order.

The presence of the knights has also been seen in the legal system in the Republic, where supreme knight Martin Maguire was a judge of the Dublin Supreme Court.

The knights featured in a number of controversies in the Republic, including the Meath Hospital takeover, and they were accused of organising anti-Protestant discrimination. So there is plenty of material for researchers and authors.

The centenary of the knights has almost passed unnoticed and this is probably because the order is not as visible as some other orders. Nevertheless, it is a vibrant organisation with some of its members in influential positions in Northern Ireland society. Unfortunately, it has been under-researched, so perhaps the centenary will at least stimulate some of our students and academic historians, albeit belatedly.

Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee.

Belfast Telegraph

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