Father O'Neill's Two Hundred Children

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXI (7) start of chapter

Father O'Neill lost and won the good graces of a Protestant lady by an admission of paternity, which, well understood in a Catholic country, was rather startling in the America of that day. He and the Rev. Mr. Byrne, afterwards Bishop of Arkinsau, were travelling from Fayetteville to Cherau, in South Carolina, and stopped for the night at the house of a respectable Protestant lady. The lady being elderly, used the privilege of her sex, and made many enquiries respecting her guests. Having satisfied herself on various points, she at length asked Father O'Neill if he had a family. 'Yes, madam,' replied the priest. 'How many children have you, sir?' enquired the lady. 'Two hundred, madam,' as the astounding answer. 'Two—two—hundred, sir!' gasped the bewildered hostess. 'Yes, madam—two hundred,' coolly replied her guest. Had there been Mormons in those days, she might have imagined she had afforded hospitality to Brigham Young himself; but as Joe Smith had not then made his famous discovery, she possibly had a vague idea of the Grand Turk, or some such polygamous potentate, being beneath her modest roof. She became silent and reserved, displaying an icy civility to the minister with the appallingly large family. On a subsequent occasion Mr. Byrne travelled alone, and stopped at the same house. The old lady rather hesitatingly enquired after 'the other minister,' and then, with more marked hesitation, asked if it were really true that he had so enormous a family as he said he had. Father Byrne laughed heartily at the question, but more at the manner in which it was asked, and explained that Catholic priests did not marry; that by his 200 'children' Father O'Neill meant his congregation—whom he regarded in that light. The old lady's face brightened with pleasure at the explanation of what had been a source of serious and constant perplexity to her ever since she had heard the startling statement from the lips of 'the other minister.' 'Well, sir, he must be a good man!' she said; 'I am sorry I did not understand him at the time. That's just the way a minister should speak and think of his flock. Be sure, sir, to give him my respects when you meet him, and tell him I shall be always happy to have him in this house.' For the future the good old soul felt no embarrassment when enquiring after the two hundred children of the Irish priest.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America