Ex-Priest Joseph Slattery who toured with his wife Mary Elizabeth.

The Slatterys: An ex-priest and a ‘bogus’ nun

This is an intriguing tale of an ex-priest and a fake nun, who claimed to be from Cootehill and formerly from the Sisters of the Poor Clares, who caused havoc on their travels around the world publishing books and sermons containing all sorts of characters and stories proven to be false. It is the first in a three-part series on the pair's exploits by our historical columnist, Jonathan Smyth.

When it was confirmed that Mary Elizabeth Slattery and her husband Joseph were on their way to Scotland, the first thought of the religious orders was, ‘here comes trouble!’ The editor of the Glasgow Observer was happy to expose the ‘peripatetic pair’ in a fascinating article published on October 28, 1898, while the Slatterys' speeches were still causing havoc among the working classes in Glasgow City. Thousands of miles away, the New Zealand Tablet warned its citizens with directness that ‘Mrs Slattery’s bold lying began with the very first sentence of her auto-biography’, a book in which she claimed to have been born near Cootehill, Co Cavan. The Glasgow Observer investigated the duo, firstly by questioning the slanderous pen of Mrs Slattery.


Mrs Slattery claimed that she was born close to Cootehill on March 2, 1867. However, an examination of the registry books, then held at the local Workhouse, brought the following response from James J. Hennessy, assistant superintendent registrar (the letter counter-signed by Thomas Mackey), stating on January 21, 1890: ‘I hereby certify that I have examined the registrar books in this office from 1 January 1864, to the present date, and that they do not contain anything of the birth of Mary E. McCabe (Mrs Slattery), daughter of James McCabe and Catherine O’Neill.'

Poor Clares Cavan

Mrs Slattery’s autobiography blatantly lied about her life as ‘a nun’ in the Catholic Church; her statements were easily disproved of by the Glaswegian paper, assessing that ‘the serpent runs through the whole of her evil tale’, which extended throughout Scotland, England, Australia and as far as the United States of America.

A letter from Dean Patrick Lynch published in the Manchester Guardian on January 1, 1898, recalls the Slatterys so-called lecture tour of the UK, in which he stated: ‘Naturally people sought at once to verify the lecturers' statements’. But the Dean did not discover a James McCabe in Cootehill with a daughter called Mary Elizabeth, an ‘escaped’ nun. The story didn’t smell right and soon began to unravel. Other characters referred to in the book, are Mrs John Brandon of Cavan, and she too, was discovered to be fictitious. The newspaper noted, the Slatterys' visit to Manchester, England, followed an established routine of disturbing the peace among catholics and protestants by their ‘inflammatory harangues’.

The Bishop of Kilmore, Edward McGennis, was written to by Dean Lynch, and in his reply, the bishop gave his assurance that there never was a ‘Mary E. McCabe from the neighbourhood of Cootehill’ nor had anyone of that name ‘ever entered the Poor Clares in Cavan’. Sister Mary Baptist, (Abess) at the Poor Clares Convent was with the order from 1867 and never heard tell of Miss M.E. McCabe nor any of the nuns talked of in the auto-biography. There was never a Mother Joseph, Sister Justine, or Sister Ursula, the Order said.

The Dean believed, that like her husband, Mrs Slattery had become a dab hand at inventing characters, but was careful not to use real people in her books, to avoid the law. Another nun who served 32 years in the convent went on record, rejecting Mrs Slattery’s claim that she was a ‘postulant and novice’ in Cavan and, in a letter to an American gentleman, Michael Lynam of St Louis, Kansas, she requests from him printed copies of the Slatterys' lectures that the Poor Clares might pursue them through the libel courts of America.

Bishop McGennis did his best to clear up all doubts regarding these vindictive con-artists, especially the accusations made by Mary Slattery a ‘sham’ nun whose wildly exaggerated tale of barbarity in the Poor Clares Convent, had left the order stunned. Mary’s ‘book of lies’ includes a Sister Mary Tola, addicted to Guinness stout, amongst other unprintable accusations that must have deeply offended the nuns. The bishop was determined that newspapers in every country should know the truth and, having researched all records available to him, including an investigation into Mrs Slattery’s claim to aristocratic family connections. It too was proved false by McGennis who consulted Burke’s and Debrett’s guides to peerage where nothing was found.

‘Escaped’ Nun

The autobiography of the ‘fake’ nun and her dramatic rescue from the Poor Clares Convent, Cavan, spoke of an aristocratic cousin, Lady Morton, the wife of the Rev Robert John Morton, later to become the Right Rev Morton. This Lady Morton was credited with having gallantly rescued the ‘damsel in distress’ at the convent. As stated by Mrs Slattery, Lady Morton sat down upon (metaphorically) the wicked superior, to allow the novice escape. Robert J. Morton, she wrote, became a bishop and baronet in the Anglican church in Devonshire, England. But as Bishop McGennis of Kilmore’s investigation shows, the existence of Lady Morton, and the bishop Morton were non-existent.

Two of Mrs Slattery’s pamphlets actually depict her dressed in a nun's habit on the covers, thereby creating the proper effect and persuading the gullible to buy her stories. She also concocted another anti-Catholic book, called ‘Women and Rome: a book for ladies only’. Many newspapers suggested that her husband was the true author of her books, and that they may have met someone from Cootehill on which to base their story.

The true author of Mary Elizabeth’s awful autobiography was eventually confirmed to be Fr Slattery, that is, according to his nephew John Slattery, who said it was simply a money-making exercise. The New Zealand Tablet on February 1, 1900, backed the nephew’s claim saying that the ‘doctrinal claptrap’ was certainly his uncle's handywork. During one of the Slattery’s riotous tours of Australia, only one printer dared print one of the Slattery's slanderous pamphlets. He was an Orangeman, a Mr Burford of Melbourne, who also published the Victorian Standard newspaper. He was quoted saying, Mrs Slattery’s message was far 'too strong’ even ‘for his nostrils', and yet, he still published it.

When lecturing, the ex-priest billed his wife as ‘Mrs Slattery, aka. Sister Mary Elizabeth, of the Poor Clares Convent, Cavan’. Bishop McGennis of Kilmore’s view of the Slatterys was quite simply, that it was a gospel of 'pounds, shillings, and pence’ that they preached. Indeed, it became a lucrative trade for the despicable duo, earning them thousands of pounds each year.

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