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The Story of Father Prout

by Michael Fitzgerald, Thurles

Fr. Daniel Prout, who was born in Gragaugh in the year 1757, achieved fame for an unusual reason – his name was assumed and used as a pen-name by another man after his death. Father Francis Mahony, author of the “Bells of Shandon” and many other fine poems, had been very friendly with Fr. Prout in his youth, when the old priest was P.P. of Watergrasshill, Co. Cork and adopted the name.

The Prout family, of Norman origin can be traced in this area as far back as 1550, when a Gregory Prout appeared as a juror at a court in Mullinahone. Only a slight trace now remains of the house where Daniel was born, but the house was on the hill which still is called Prouts Hill.

Daniel was, like many Irish priests of his time, educated at the Irish College in Paris, and here he got into trouble for having engaged in a faction fight. Faction fighting seems to have been a family failing. As a result his Archbishop refused to accept him, but later relented and the young priest was appointed curate at Moycarkey where the elderly Fr. Cashin, who was probably his grand-uncle was P.P.

Photograph shows the late Michael Dorney of Gragaugh and New York at Father Prout’s tomb in Ballynalty, Watergrasshill. Michael’s mother was a member of the Prout family.

After the death of Archbishop Butler and Fr. Cashin, Dr. Bray the new Archbishop, appointed him to take charge of the parish of Annacarty, probably as an administrator. Five years later, the Archbishop created the new Parish of Kilcommon, made up of parts of Upperchurch, Rossmore, Doon, Murroe and Newport. All the P.P.s agreed except Fr. Prout who resisted strongly and asked some influential people to intervene. Dr. Bray ordered him to desist from this, but Fr. Prout described his action as the “Greatest injustice since the partition of Poland”, and resigned rather than give up a small area of Hollyford.

Dr. Moylan the Bishop of Cork was a friend of Fr. Prout’s and appointed him to the parish of Ballynalty and Ardnageehy – now Watergrasshill, in 1806. It had neither church nor house for a priest. He took up residence in a small lean-to cabin and without funds embarked on the building of a church. To raise funds he operated a sort of unofficial turnpike on the main Cork to Dublin road which passed the door, by stretching a rope across the road when the mail coach was due. The passengers had to contribute to the building fund. The church he built no longer exists – a supermarket stands on the site – but a holy water font bearing his name remains in the present church.

Fr. Prout was a good priest, a man of simple piety by all accounts but many stories of his eccentricities are still told in the area. Once he preached a blistering sermon on sheep stealing in his parish, but to no avail for he soon received a report of another theft. On the following Sunday he spoke again. “Here in my hand”, he said, “I have a holy stone. When I throw that stone it will crack the skull of the man who stole that sheep. No innocent person need fear; it will only strike the guilty”. He then made a sudden movement as if throwing the non-existing stone. One man only ducked!

Perhaps it was about this time he is alleged to have remarked of his flock “I’ve been cursing them off the altar for twenty years, and they’re still not one bit better.”

Fr. Prout’s niece, Mary, went to Watergrasshill to become his housekeeper. Here she married a local man named Barry and their son also became a priest. His tomb stands beside that of Fr. Prout in Ballynalty graveyard. The Barry family were still in Watergrasshill up to about forty years ago.

Fr. Prout’s tomb, a large table tomb, was erected by his nephew in law, David Barry. It gives his date of death as 25th July 1830 and his place of birth as Gragaugh, which it mistakenly describes as a parish.

Father Francis Mahony, who was to make Fr. Prout’s name famous was himself an eccentric genius. A member of the family who owned the Blarney Woollen Mills, he had studied in several seminaries. In every case his superiors advised him that he had no vocation. In spite of that he persevered and was ordained and ministered for some years in Cork City.

Then, apparently following a mild difference with his bishop, he left and went to London where he soon became well known as a writer, poet, and journalist. Later he moved to Paris. He was a linguist of great ability, a wit possessed of a gentle sense of humour. He always remained a priest, although no longer a working one.

At first he published his work under Fr. Prout’s name, pretending that these poems had been found in Fr. Prout’s trunk after his death. “The Bells of Shandon” is his most famous poem, and is said to have been written when he was a student in Rome. Another, the “Elegy for Father Prout” almost certainly was written about the real man. It refers to his fondness of fishing, his rebuke to sheep stealers and how “Rogues feared more the good man’s single look, than forty peerlers!” Another essay “Fr. Prout’s Sermon” was first published around 1860. Mahony was probably the real author.

Fr. Prout’s nephew, Fr. Robert Prout was a curate in Upperchurch, who died as a result of a fall from his horse. The last Prout to live in the old home, Michael, died in the 1940s.

— Michael Fitzgerald, Thurles.

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