In the long history of the national struggle, tensions between the Catholic hierarchy and those opposed to British rule were never far from the surface. The Church was, by and large, pro the ruling administration and deeply opposed to violent rebellion. There were individual exceptions, but the institutional church was firmly in favour of the status quo.
It was for that reason that many paid a high price for their dedication to the cause of Irish freedom, not least Belcarra teacher Henry Curry, whose patriotism led him to an early grave and the impoverishment of his family.
Henry Curry was born in the village of New Dublin in 1828, where his parents were tenants of a small holding under under Colonel Cuffe of Elmhall. The death of his father when Henry was a year old left his widowed mother and siblings struggling through the Famine years in what was described as ‘a hut by the roadside’.
Curry, an intelligent youngster, attended the school at Errew Monastery where he was taught by the Franciscan brothers, many of whom had strong nationalist views, which they passed on to their young pupils. Henry Curry became an apprentice teacher and, when the position of teacher at Belcarra National School became vacant, he was appointed to the post.
It was about this time that Curry enlisted in the Fenian Brotherhood, the secret society dedicated to achieving Irish independence through force of arms. He became an important organiser of the movement throughout Connacht, travelling the province by foot and preparing the movement for the revolution which he knew would soon take place. It is recorded that, leaving his school on a Friday evening, he walked to Ballaghaderreen and walked home again, in time to resume his teaching duties on the Monday morning.
However, his republican activities were not going unnoticed by the authorities and, one morning, a detachment of RIC constables from Castlebar arrived at his school, handcuffed him, and had him transported to Spike Island in Cork, where he spent several months. It was only through the influence of the Daly family of Belcarra that the authorities in Dublin Castle were persuaded to release him and let him return to Belcarra.
Because the Fenians were a ‘secret society’, its members were automatically excommunicated by the Catholic Church. As a result, on his release, the Parish Priest of Balla, Canon Gibbons, refused to allow him to return to his teaching post.
Henry Curry then opened a private ‘hedge school’ in his own home, where the pupils paid one shilling per quarter for their tuition. However, the Fenian rising of 1867, for which he had laboured so diligently, proved to be a failure, due mainly to poor planning and British infiltration. Deeply disappointed at the failure of his dreams, Henry Curry died at the age of 48.
On his death bed, the local Catholic curate was asked to administer the last rites. As a precondition, the priest insisted that Henry Curry renounce his revolutionary Fenian ideals. This he refused to do, and died without receiving the last rites.
His funeral at Elmhall Cemetery was attended by Fenians from over a wide area, but the mourners were left waiting in vain for the arrival of the priest to bless the final resting place. Three times, messengers were sent to the curate’s home requesting his presence, and three times he refused.
Finally, the graveside prayers were led by James Daly, cofounder of the Land League, who was later roundly criticised by Canon Gibbons for his action.
After Curry’s death, the humble cabin of his widow and children was ransacked on several occasions by the authorities until eventually the entire family emigrated to the United States.