While researching my family, particularly my great-grandfather, John McLoughlin, Knocknagee, Sooey, Co Sligo, I found Patrick Aloysius McHugh (known as PA), my great grandfather’s close friend and political ally.
The more I read, the more I wanted to know about this larger-than-life personality. My late mother, Frances Gethins McLoughlin, often spoke about her grandfather, and she mentioned that he and PA McHugh were close friends from their Land League days.
She remembered seeing the Sooey United Irish League Banner in the house, with a portrait of Wolfe Tone on one side and a portrait of
PA McHugh on the other. She also recalled that a framed photo of PA graced the parlour wall in Knocknagee.
Patrick Aloysius McHugh was born in 1854 at Annagh, Glenfarne. After his education, he went to Paris for a year and, on returning to Sligo, became a teacher at Summerhill College. In 1880, he married Mary Harte from Castle Street. Sadly, his wife Mary died in 1894, and PA later married her sister, Katie.
PA subscribed to the principles of the Land League, set up by Michael Davitt in 1879, “the land for the people,” and he joined the Sligo Borough Branch of the Irish National League in 1885.
That same year he became the owner/editor of the Sligo Champion, a position he retained right up to his death in 1909. In his newspaper, he was true to his Nationalist ideals and never missed an opportunity to further those aims.
PA was secretary of the first Gaelic Athletic Association Branch in Sligo town, which was established in August 1885.
In 1892 he became the Member of Parliament for the constituency of North Leitrim. His representation of his constituents’ grievances caused the Coercion Act’s repeated invocations to silence him and his newspaper.
He served six sentences under the Coercion Act in four separate terms of imprisonment. He served time in Sligo, Derry and Tullamore jails. On each release, he emerged undaunted and was hailed a hero by his loyal followers.
PA was elected Mayor of Sligo in 1888, again in 1895, 1896, 1897, 1898 and 1900. He was an MP at Westminster from 1892 to 1906, representing North Leitrim and sat for North Sligo from 1906 until his death.
In 1898, PA was involved in the commemorations of 1798 and the establishment of the Bartholomew Teeling monument at Collooney, Co Sligo, and the Lady Erin Statue at the Market Cross in Sligo Town.
In April 1901, he was imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail and was granted the freedom of Dublin City on his release in October. In the 1906 General Election, PA was returned for both constituencies of North Leitrim and North Sligo. However, he eventually chose the Sligo seat.
On May 31, 1909, PA died in hospital in Dublin. His long work hours and time spent in jails undermined his health, and the Sligo Champion described his death as “A Nation's Loss.”
The Sligo Champion noted that “Ireland had lost a fearless and unflinching advocate in the vindication of their just rights.”
It was observed that PA was always prepared to make any personal sacrifice to defend the Irish people. He was an “able, eloquent and strenuous worker in the nationalist cause” and “there was no more amiable, tolerant, and kindly Irish gentleman than Pat McHugh, as he was known to his friends.”
He was “one of the most high-minded and pure-souled of Irish patriots, the most devoted and affectionate of friends, and the noblest and most upright of men.”
On October 29, 1916, the memorial statue in honour of PA McHugh was unveiled in Sligo by John Redmond. Mr Redmond said no greater compliment was ever paid to him than to be asked to participate in the ceremony to honour P A’s memory.
“He was a patriot and a scholar, a fearless comrade and a faithful friend,” said Mr Redmond.
He went on to say that if he were asked what Mr McHugh’s chief attributes were, he would say: courage, sound common sense, and absolute unselfishness.
“Ireland is the poorer for the death of McHugh. I wish we had more of his stamp. If we had, there would be less of false sentiment and more of practical patriotism in Ireland,” he said.
“I trust that this monument will teach future generations the lessons of Pat McHugh’s life – lessons of patience, wisdom, and common sense; lessons of utter unselfishness, lessons of courage and practical patriotism. These are the lessons this statue should teach.”
In 2019, I visited Sligo Cemetery, hoping to find the grave of PA. However, I was surprised and saddened to see no headstone on his grave, so I resolved to find a way of marking his grave.
There was a small stone there, but it was illegible. I later found out that it had been put on by PA’s daughter-in-law, Rachel, in honour of her husband, Alfred McHugh (son of PA and Mary McHugh/Harte) in 1966. Therefore, with the most profound respect to Rachel and the McHugh family, this headstone will be restored and placed alongside the new gravestone.
My next task was to find the family of PA. I posted a request on March 17, 2019, on the Sligo Heritage and History Club Facebook page, hoping for any family to get in touch. I had given up hope when eventually, I noticed a post in May 2019 from Breda Downs, also looking to connect with the family of PA McHugh. She is married to Michael, the great-grandson of PA.
We met in front of PA's statue outside the Town Hall in Sligo. It was the start of a great friendship. We made plans, but then Covid arrived, and it is only now that we can revisit those plans.
I also met Moira Dolan, the grandniece of PA, the start of another great friendship. Moira, Michael and Breda met through the page and are fully invested in this project.
Michael Downs recalls: “PA was my own, my brothers Philip and Christopher and first cousins Kathleen, Peter and Helen’s great grandfather. His daughter Kathleen was our grandmother. I was aware of his public persona and the good he had done, having in 1966 been shown his statue in its original setting.
“Mary Lehane answered Breda’s post and has become a great friend of ours since. A similar exercise on the Leitrim Old Photos Facebook page drew the attention of our cousin Moira Dolan and her husband Jackie, siblings Pauric and Jacinta, and cousin Frank and his wife Martina, all of whom we were delighted to meet earlier this year. We look forward to getting to know our new relatives and having a headstone to mark PA’s resting place.”
Moira Dolan says: “It is beyond a privilege for me to be involved in my Granduncle, PA’s grave restoration project. So many people know of his statue, which stands outside of Sligo City Hall, but few are aware that his resting place is an unidentified grave.
“I think this project is an acknowledgement and a very fitting appreciation of the work and sacrifices he made for the people of his beloved North Leitrim and Sligo. It is also an acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by his family in supporting his great work.
“Visitors to Sligo, distant relatives visiting from abroad, or people who have an interest in Sligo history, will now have an identified grave to visit, spend a little time and say a prayer for PA and his family, who share this most peaceful and tranquil spot with him”
A GoFundMe appeal has been launched to put on a new headstone and restore the old stone on PA McHugh's grave.
Adrian O’Neill has kindly offered to run the GoFundMe appeal on his Sligo Heritage and History Facebook page and without Adrian's Facebook page, I would never have been able to trace the members of PA McHugh's family and this project would never have started.
A visit has already been paid to CK Monumental Headstones Company, Sligo, and received professional advice regarding headstone material choice and style.
CK Monumental Headstones Company have kindly offered to do the work involved for the price of materials only, labour free, which is exceptionally generous, and we are very thankful, so our appeal is for the cost of materials.
We think it is long past time to honour and show appreciation for the work done by PA McHugh and the prominent part he played in our Sligo and Leitrim Heritage and History.
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