Fr P.J. Hughes says mass in Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Mullahoran last Sunday with people present. PHOTO: LORRAINE TEEVAN

Tensions grow during Holy Week as priest takes a stand

Gardaí remain on high alert this Holy Week amid concerns anti-lockdown protestors may stage a demonstration at one of two churches in County Cavan where a parish priest continues to say Mass with parishioners present.

Fr P.J. Hughes, parish priest in Mullahoran and Loughduff, insists he will not turn people away from the church despite a prohibition on public worship in Level Five restrictions. He has already been issued with at least one €500 fine for breaching Covid regulations.

More than a dozen members of the force were dispatched to the Mullahoran area last Sunday, March 28, where, once again, Fr Hughes celebrated Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in the presence of around 20 members of the public in defiance of gardaí and against advice from his bishop, the Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, Bawnboy native Francis Duffy.

There is a fear now, according to local garda sources, that more people will try to travel to attend ceremonies on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and the celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Acting on information that a protest was planned by groups outside Mullahoran Church in support of Fr Hughes last Sunday, gardaí set up checkpoints in the south Cavan parish. They stopped all traffic on approach roads to the rural church and questioned motorists.

It’s understood that gardaí became aware of chatter on social media back-channels earlier in the week that a protest, similar in nature to one staged outside St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford last November, was planned for Cavan.

The names, details and car registrations of several dozen people who appeared on the day were noted, The Anglo-Celt has learned. The “vast majority”, it was later confirmed by local gardaí, who travelled to Mullahoran, lived more than five kilometres from the church, some originated from as far away as Leitrim and Roscommon.

It is expected they will be issued with Fixed Charge Penalty Notices (FCPNs) for breaching Covid rules in due course.

Last month Fr Hughes himself was slapped with a €500 fine for facilitating the alleged breach of public health regulations.Around 40 people attended Mass on Sunday, March 7, after which Fr Hughes received the fine notice by post.

“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!” said Fr Hughes in a front-page interview with The Anglo-Celt last week.

It is not known if Fr Hughes will face further sanctions as a direct result of last weekend’s Mass attendance. He doesn’t believe he is breaking the law and says people have a constitutional right to practise their faith.

Around 20 people made it into the building of Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Sunday where, though they remained socially distanced, few opted to wear masks. Some had arrived up to an hour before Mass began, the start of which was delayed by as much as 20 minutes.

The outspoken cleric told this newspaper, in a previously unpublished section of interview, his ardent belief is that nobody has died in the parish of Mullahoran as a direct result of Covid infection.

When pressed on the idea of martyrdom in reference to his own actions in the run up to Easter he replied: “It would be a great opportunity to help people understand what life is about. There is a lot of suffering in life and we have to make huge sacrifice in life. But do it with God. We must do it with God.”

Fr Hughes insists he will not pay the €500 fine he received.

“I’ll go to jail if I have to, I don’t care. If this government behaves in a pagan fashion the way it is as far as I’m concerned, they have demoted God to irrelevant and unnecessary. How much more pagan can you get? They are the only government in Europe to say that it is dangerous for people to go into the church. This is the only government in Europe, and I’d say one of the only governments in the world. I don’t know too many other countries in the world that have banned religious practice.”

A native of a Mount Temple, Co Westmeath, Fr Hughes was appointed parish priest in Mullahoran in August 2019.

An Garda Síochána issued a statement following Sunday’s deployment of officers to the locality, saying they were “aware” of a religious service taking place.

“Gardaí did attend the scene and engaged with those present.”

In supporting COVID-19 public health guidelines, they say gardaí attempt to police by consent. “This has seen Gardaí engage, educate, encourage and, as a last resort, enforce.

“Where Gardaí identify potential breaches of the public health regulations, a file is prepared for the DPP in each case or a fixed payment notice is issued where appropriate.”