Fr PJ Hughes outside Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Mullahoran on Monday.

‘I’ll go to jail if I have to’

Priest insist he will not turn people away from their Church

A Cavan priest is adamant he will “go to jail” sooner than pay a €500 fine for breaching Covid regulations by hosting Sunday Mass earlier this month.

“I’ll go to jail before I pay that,” Fr P.J. Hughes, parish priest in Mullahoran, told The Anglo-Celt this week. “Cromwell must’ve risen from the dead. Queen Elizabeth brought in the Penal Laws and Cromwell tried his best to enforce them. But now this Government is enforcing them no problem at all.”

Despite repeated warnings from gardaí and advice from his bishop, Bawnboy native Francis Duffy, Fr Hughes insists he will not turn people away from their local church.

The cleric was shocked to hear members of the parish community are now considering a whip-round on his behalf.

“I wouldn’t even consider it. This is my problem here, not theirs. I’m only doing what they’d expect of me.

“The Church is letting people down now. We are forbidden from celebrating the sacraments with the people now... that is a terrible thing to have happen.”

Fr Hughes was slapped with the €500 fine after allowing parishioners attend Mass despite being on his “last warning” for breaching public health regulations.

Around 40 people attended on March 7, after which Fr Hughes received the fine notice by post on March 18, the day after St Patrick’s Day.

“I was being fined for holding an organised event with people present, is what I was told. [Gardaí] came in before mass and told me I was breaking the law, and the people present were breaking the law, but it was my fault because I allowed them in,” recalls Fr Hughes, who is unaware if gardaí issued fines to anyone else that same day.

The outspoken priest, who first expressed his frustration at the prohibition of public masses during Level Five restrictions with this newspaper in November last year, is particularly aggrieved by the continued restrictions in light of Holy Week and Easter approaching.

Fr Hughes, who declined media interviews elsewhere, spoke to this newspaper, saying: “They’re taking away our civil liberties, our freedom to practice religion. We either believe in God or we don’t. He’s the highest power or he’s not. If he’s not, then let the Government come out and call a Referendum and vote God out of the Constitution,” says Fr Hughes, a former parish priest in Athlone, who served as Missionary priest in Ecuador, before returning to Ireland. He relocated from the Leamonaghan parish in Offaly to become parish priest in Mullahoran in August 2019.

“I think it’s crazy because we have a situation where the Government and NPHET are now playing God. I mean, they’ve abandoned God!

“If I go to court, or anyone else, we swear on the Bible to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They might as well scrap the Bible... and God! That’s what I’d suggest... we’re only paying lip service this way, it’s only a joke! This Government and this country is mocking God now!”

Fr Hughes published his views in last weekend’s parish bulletin for Mullahoran and Loughduff, which was posted on Facebook. In it, the priest said it is hard to believe that, for a second year, that people are unable to partake in the ceremonies of Holy Week.

‘Despite the size of the church and the holy place that it is because of the presence of Jesus in the Holy Tabernacle, the church has been deemed a hot spot for the spread of the virus by the gardaí,’ he wrote. ‘The majority of people are healthy and able to go shopping, bring their children to school and many are working in enclosed environments,’ continued Fr Hughes under a note headed ‘Holy Week’.

‘We are committing a grave mistake by rejecting our Lord and God Jesus Christ by staying away because government officials say we must. I do not accept and will not accept this demand by people who do not realise the wrong they are doing’, said the parish priest.

Constitutional right

Fr Hughes wrote in the newsletter his belief that it was people’s ‘constitutional right’ to protest so long as it was done peacefully. ‘It is our constitutional right to practice our faith and assemble to pray together.

‘For those who are afraid of catching the virus in the church, then they have the free choice to stay at home and live their lives as they think it best to do. I have been reported again and the gardaí have issued a fine because I celebrated Mass with people present. I will exercise my constitutional right even though people are complaining, even though I am not obeying my bishop when I go against his advice.

‘We can’t just reject Jesus in the Holy Eucharist,’ concluded Fr Hughes.

Located within the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, Fr Hughes acknowledges his Masses came to the attention of authorities, including Bishop Francis Duffy, a native of Bawnboy, after “somebody reported me”.

Fr Hughes maintains the current Covid regulations contradict his interpretation of Article 44 of the Constitution, which deals with rights to practice religion freely.

“I’ll go to jail if I have to. I don’t care. If this government continues to act in a Pagan fashion, they have demoted God to irrelevant and unnecessary.

“The only thing I am not obeying is [Bishop Duffy] at this stage. He’s my superior here... but I’m not afraid of people... I’m more afraid of God! I don’t accept we have to stop saying Mass because NPHET says so. The guards said I’m creating a hotspot for Covid. There’s no proof of that. I asked them to prove it and they couldn’t.”

Contacted by The Anglo-Celt, the Garda Press Office refused to confirm or deny that a fine was issued to Fr Hughes, saying it is not policy to “comment on named individuals”.