Parade Rathmullan Bō Staff

The Story of the Rathmullan Bō Staff

-a journey in time from Rathmullan to Leuven to Brussels


The Saint Patrick’s Day Committee, on deciding to appoint Fr. John Kealy as the First Saint Patrick’s Day Parade Grand Marshal in Brussels in 2009, raised the question:  “what should the Grand Marshal carry or wear in the Parade as a sign of his authority”?  The Committee agreed to have a tricolour sash made for him to wear. This task of making the sash was assigned to Mary Jo Mullarkey.


The Committee also felt that the Parade Grand Marshal should carry some form of Baton.  Recognising that Fr. John Kealy was the last Franciscan of the Irish College of Louvain, the Parade Committee Chairman, Denis J. Buckley, came up with the novel idea of linking the Irish College of Louvain to the history of its foundation dating back to the Flight of the Earls in 1607.  The year 1607 was a turning point in Irish history.  It marked the defeat of the Irish native ruling class and the start of mass Irish emigration that has resulted in the 70 million Irish world-wide Diaspora that we have today.


The Irish Earls sailed out of Rathmullan Harbour in Lough Swilly, County Donegal on the 14 September  1607 and set sail for Spain to seek refuge from the Spanish monarchy. They were blown off course and landed in Spanish Netherlands and what is now Belgium. On arrival in Louvain, the Earls and their entourage including the Franciscans were granted refuge and hence started the Irish College of Louvain.


The story of Louvain (Leuven) started all those years ago in Rathmullan. It was hence decided that the Bō Staff would be cut from the hills overlooking Rathmullan harbour - the harbour that witnessed one of the saddest events in Irish History. On February 23, 2009, Denis J. Buckley made contact with Ms. Donna McGroarty, Assistant Social Inclusion Coordinator, Donegal County Council and outlined his plan (to Donegal County Council). Donna consulted with senior executives. The Mayor of Donegal, recognising the historic significance, set in motion an action plan to cut the staff and to have a cutting and presentation ceremony in Rathmullan on Friday March 6th. 2009. It was arranged that Fr. John Kealy would be presented with the the Bō Staff. Fr. John had returned to Ireland in 2008 and was available to travel to Donegal from his monastery in Multyfarnham, Westmeath.


The freshly cut Staff was presented to Fr. Kealy by the Mayor of County Donegal, Cllr. Gerry Crawford, accompanied by members of the Rathmullan Historical Society, Members of the Milford Electoral Area of Donegal County Council and Deputy Joe McHugh. (see photo below)


This is the account of  Father John’s visit:


Father John Kealy reported that all went very well with his trip to Rathmullan.  He got to Rossnowlagh at 12.00 hrs on Friday 6 March, 2009 and Donna McGroarty of Donegal County Council picked him up him  up at 12.30hrs.  He arrived at Rathmullan at 13.15 and was very hospitably received by Jim and Anne Deeny. They went up a hill to cut the sapling which had already been  chosen for the occasion. Then to the John Behan monument* at the pier

where Gerry Cosgrave, Mayor of Donegal, made the official presentation of the Bō Staff and said  a few words to honour the occasion and Fr. John in turn replied. The ceremony was well photographed – see photo parade.


Jim Deeny gave him a conducted tour of points of interest in Rathmullan.  He was brought back to Rossnowlagh by taxi where he stayed the night and returned to Multyfarnham early on Saturday.  All in all, he had a lovely experience of friendship and hospitality.  Mr. Charles McSweeney took charge chosen for the occasion.  Then to the John Behan monument* at the pier of Fr. John Kealy later came to Brussels and had the honour of been the Bō Staff after the ceremony and it was delivered to the Irish Embassy in Brussels for safe keeping for use in the Parade.


Hence Fr. John Kealy became the Grand Marshal of the first Saint Patrick’s Day Parade to carry the Rathmullan Bō Staff, reinforcing the long history of relations between Ireland and Belgium and also symbolising the struggles of all emigrants and missionaries that left Ireland to overcome adversity and hardship in the true pioneering and missionary zeal that reflects the spirit and creativity of the Irish people down through the centuries and up to this present day.


Brian O’ Donnell, Parade Committee Member and Donegal liaison Officer for the 2010 Saint Patrick’s Day Parade carried the Bō Staff back to Donegal in the Summer of 2009  for engraving and embossing by Donegal County Council. It was envisaged that this ornamental work would be completed in time to have a completion and blessing ceremony at Rathmullan on Monday 14 September, 2009 to coincide with the anniversary of the Flight of the Earls. This has now been deferred to a later date. The Rathmullan Bō Staff will then make its final journey to Brussels, where it is envisaged that it will be eventually stored in a glass case surrounded by Irish bog oak in a local museum for safe keeping. It will be taken out every year to be carried by all Parade Grand Marshals and the story of Rathmullan and Irish emigration will be told for many generations to come.



*The John Behan monument to mark the 400th anniversary of the Flight of the Earls was unveiled by President Mary McAleese. The John Behan sculpture commemorates the leaving of 99 of Ulster’s Gaelic aristocracy from Rathmullan, Co Donegal. It features three men with their arms stretched in the air walking a gangplank, the bronze statue represents the plight of the men who were led by Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and Rory O'Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, at noon on September 14, 1607.  See below  Remarks by President McAleese at the unveiling of a statute to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Flight of the Earls, Rathmullan, Co Donegal, Friday 14th September 2007


** The former Irish College of Louvain now houses the Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe .  See at end of page address by President McAleese at the launch of the Louvain 400 celebrations, Louvain Institute for Ireland in Europe, Belgium, Monday 19th March 2007   

*Remarks by President McAleese at the unveiling of a statute to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Flight of the Earls, Rathmullan, Co Donegal, Friday 14th September 2007

A Mheara, A Shoilsí, A Chairde Uilig.

Is mór dom bheith anseo le bheith páirteach libh ar an lá stáiriúil seo. Ceithre céad bhliain ó shin, i ngar leis an lathair seo, tharla eachtra mór i saol agus stair na hÉireann. Imeacht a chuir deireadh de sort de ré Gaelach na hÉireann.

It is a pleasure to be here on this day, to mark a key and cathartic episode in our island's history. I am grateful to the Rathmullan and District Historical Society for their kind invitation and for the work they have done to ensure a fitting commemoration of that far-off but long-remembered time when Ireland's destiny was so cruelly altered. Even today we struggle to fully comprehend the downstream consequences of the loss, the driving out of our great native leaders. Back then the monumental impact of their leaving was summed up in the simple but telling words of Eoghan Ruadh Mac a' Bhaird, poet to O'Donnell, 'Anocht is Uaigneach Éire', Tonight Ireland is Desolate.

He travelled on that ship that left at 12 noon on the 14th of September 1607 from Portnamurry, not far from where we stand today, part of that legendary group of ninety-nine of Ulster's Gaelic aristocracy, led by Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and Rory O'Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell. The Flight of the Earls, Teithe na nIarlaí, took them across continental Europe where a virtual Ireland-in-exile was established at Louvain and in Rome. They precipitated the development of a military, religious, economic and intellectual Irish Diaspora in continental Europe but their absence from Ireland created the vacuum that became the Plantation of Ulster. And so the scene was set for the Ireland of unfinished business, of unsolved problems we were to inherit all these years later. O'Donnell and O'Neill were to die in exile and we can barely imagine their grief at being unable to return to their native land, not to mention the grief of those who waited in vain for their triumphant return.

This is a year of shared and interlocking anniversaries, for the Irish College in Louvain came into being in the same year as the Flight of the Earls and this is also the 350th anniversary of the death of the great Franciscan, Luke Wadding, remembered among other things as the founder of the Irish College in Rome. Both institutions continue to flourish today but today they showcase in different ways an Ireland that is very comfortable in Europe and increasingly at ease with her complex, turbulent past. Now a proud, peaceful and prosperous nation it is good that we gather on this day to remember what was sacrificed for us and what our struggle for freedom has cost.

The replica famine ship, the Jeannie Johnson, set sail from Portnamurry earlier this morning re-enacting that fateful departure of long ago. She belongs to an Ireland no longer desolate, an Ireland sorting out at last the twisted mess that history left us - a new ship built by children of native and planter stock, symbolic of the new Ireland we are at last building together.

It has been a long and harsh scattering for most of these four hundred years but now we gather the memories of all those who left our shores whether through military force or economic deprivation and we can see in them an unmatchable contribution made by Irish men and women and their descendants to cultures and countries from one end of the globe to the other. They would, I hope, be reassured and vindicated by this Ireland we are privileged to be part of, this place to which migrants come in search of opportunity, this place that for all its success and faith in the future still makes time to look back in gratitude.

The Earls did not return, it is true but their going did not rob us of their spirit, their heart or their hope. Locked into silent, patient hearts those things slowly grew new and fresh shoots. They inspired generations to dream of and to work for an egalitarian Ireland free from oppression, in control of her own destiny and fully engaged with the rest of the world. They did not live to see it. We did. Now we bring their memory home, back to the lonely shore from which they set sail and through John Behan's magnificent sculpture we welcome them warmly to the Ireland that at last vindicates their sacrifice and our loss.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.





**Address by President McAleese at the launch of the Louvain 400 celebrations, Louvain Institute for Ireland in Europe, Belgium, Monday 19th March 2007

Louvain 400 - Shared Histories

Director General, Rector, Bourgmeister, Governors, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

What a joy it is to be part of the Louvain 400 celebrations and to have the privilege of opening the exhibition of paintings by Professor Breda Ennis whose acclaimed work in Rome as artist and teacher continues at the highest level the venerable tradition of Irish cultural interaction with mainland Europe.

This College is itself a fascinating part of that historical, cultural interaction and we gather in honour of the 400th anniversary of the foundation of St Anthony's College or the Irish College in Louvain as it is usually affectionately called.

We are the most privileged, educated and liberated of all generations to cross the College's threshold, the one with the most peaceful and prosperous present, the most exciting future. We arrived to this point by a tortuous road, a wasteland of broken human hearts but here in this place four hundred years ago a stand was made, a haven created that would harbour hope and build for the future with faith. This is also the centenary year of the birth of one of Ireland's finest poets, Louis Mac Neice, in whose famous poem Carrickfergus he crisply alludes to those contrasting fates that have pervaded Ireland's history since the early 17th century and even earlier:

I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries

To the hooting of host sirens and the clang of trams:

Thence to Smoky Carrick in County Antrim

Where the bottleneck harbour collects the mud which jams

The little boats beneath the Norman castle,

The pier shining with lumps of crystal salt;

The Scotch Quarter was a line of residential houses

But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the blind and halt.

And in his Validiction the same Mac Neice declares:

From Phoenix Park to Achill Sound,

Picking up the scent of a hundred fugitives

That have broken the mesh of ordinary lives,

But being ordinary too I must in course discuss

What we mean to Ireland or Ireland to us;

That line 'What we mean to Ireland or Ireland to us' could aptly encapsulate what today's commemoration of events 400 years ago means to all of us who live on the island of Ireland in the 21st century.

1607 was a cathartic year for Ireland for, if the foundation of this College was a forceful statement of intent, it and faith in the future was in the teeth of overwhelming evidence of failure. The great Gaelic chieftains on whom so much depended fled Ireland in what has been romantically termed the "Flight of the Earls" but there was nothing romantic about it. As they left the English and Scottish Planters moved in.

Together, these events signalled the end of the old Gaelic order in Ireland and the opening of a critical phase in the shaping of modern Ireland with the emergence of the complex mix of identities and competing political philosophies that underpin the structures of Irish society today, North and South. They also helped embed a culture of Ireland in exile as the Earls scattered to places like Lisbon, Rome, Louvain.

The Louvain they came to following the 7th century footsteps of Saint Foillan and his fellow Irish monks was a city of note for trade and scholarship, boasting the oldest remaining Catholic university in the world. And their coming here was no accident of history for Louvain was central to the Counter-Reformation movement in Europe and an obvious choice for the Franciscans who, through the petition of Irish Franciscan, Flaithrí Ó Maoil Chonaire (or Florence Conroy), persuaded King Philip III of Spain and his brother-in-law Archduke Albert, co-ruler of the Spanish Netherlands, to support the foundation of an Irish College linked to the University.

Pope Paul V added his sanction in April 1607 and the scene was set for our rendezvous four hundred years later. Conroy himself was no accidental player on this stage. For a theologian he had a colourful life history as a former aide to the Earls of Tyrone and chaplain to the Spanish invasion force in Ireland so tragically defeated at Kinsale in 1601. So it was no surprise when the Earls and their entourage arrived in Louvain to spend the winter here before the onward journey to Rome. They were among friends and Ireland would have need of such friends in the generations ahead when the penal laws drove waves of Irish migrants from their homeland to exile throughout Europe, joining the armies of France, Austria and Spain, making their names as merchants, especially in the wine trade.

With the brutal suppression of Catholicism in Ireland, there developed a network of 35 Irish Colleges stretching from Lisbon to Prague, providing seminary training under the auspices of the major religious orders. Not only did they contribute largely to the maintenance of the Catholic faith in Ireland but that network was itself underpinned by a wealth of well-placed Irish soldiers, diplomats and scholars working right across Europe and together they ensured the cause of Irish freedom stayed at the centre of the European political and cultural agenda.

In the Spanish Netherlands, modern Belgium, itself a zone of military and confessional conflict at the time, the Irish communities tirelessly worked to affect the outcome of events in their homeland. In Louvain, the historian Micheál Ó Cléirigh directed a colossal programme of collecting materials relating to the history of Ireland, effectively assembling the collective memory of Gaelic Ireland. The resulting Annals of the Four Masters gave Ireland a national, island-wide history for the first time, allowing it to take its place among the nations of Europe. It is also worth remarking that in this scholarly achievement Ó Cléirigh remarkably had the help of the Church of Ireland Archbishop James Ussher (an antiquarian of note in his own right) in accessing ancient manuscripts. A fine early example of ecumenical endeavour!

What is striking about the new seminaries was the high educational standard seminarians were expected to reach and the fact that Irish priests became steeped in continental Europe's intellectual discourse, in fact it was through that very discourse that Gaelic-speaking Irish Franciscans gave to the Irish language the word 'náisiún' for ‘nation' for the first time.

Louvain became not just an educator of Irish priests and a place of Irish scholarship but an important repository of medieval Irish manuscripts and a seminal influence on the evolution of the Irish language. It was here in Louvain that an Irish font was developed and the earliest printed books in Irish were produced.

The Irish Franciscans in exile became the conservators and champions of an ancient culture and indeed it is thanks to their care that many of these priceless treasures have been given into the care of the Micheál Ó Cléirigh Institute for the Study of Irish History and Civilisation at University College Dublin. It is wonderful to see the arrival on Louvain's early summer scene of the first Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Summer School and to know that these four hundred years of sacred stewardship of Ireland's heritage and Ireland's hopes will be celebrated in many diverse and exciting ways throughout the Irish universities and museums, the media and our National Library this year.

All these generations later and the imprint of that fateful era is still traceable across Ireland's physical and emotional landscape. We have laboured long under its dark shadows and in truth are only really beginning to emerge into something resembling light. Through our thirty-year membership of the European Union we have recalibrated our fraught relationship with Great Britain, transforming it into a respectful and effective collegiality. From that new mood came the shared impetus which helped consolidate the peace process and bring about the Good Friday Agreement whose fulfilment we will shortly see reveal itself.

With investment in widespread access to education, Ireland started to harness and harvest effectively its greatest natural resource - the brain power of its men and its women. This new generation with, as Seamus Heaney memorably describes, 'intelligences brightened and unmannerly as crowbars', took on and overcame Ireland's longstanding problems - mass emigration, endemic poverty, underachievement, poor investment, little industrialisation.

Today Ireland is the success story par excellence of the European Union, a story whose opening chapters start with education and with Europe. The first generation to know a combination of peace and prosperity is enjoying a level of sophistication and confidence unimaginable a short few years ago. It is, of course, still a work in progress for there is much still to be accomplished in consolidating the peace, promoting reconciliation, in building a comfortably multicultural Ireland, in sustaining a high standard of living and in making it accessible to all. And of course St. Anthony's is part of the discourse that is driving modern Ireland, having metamorphosed into the Louvain Institute for Ireland in Europe, thanks to the generosity of the Irish Franciscans who in 1983 made the College available for development as a secular resource for the benefit of Ireland as a whole, north and south. I take this opportunity to congratulate the board of the Institute under its Chairman Tom Jago and its Director-General Malachy Vallely for these years of passionate work of keeping Louvain deeply implicated in Ireland's well being.

The Louvain 400 celebrations in Europe as well as in Ireland have needed many energetic champions and long, long hours of work. Those who deserve thanks are too numerous to mention individually here though I thank each one of them with a heart and a half but I would like to single out Drs Edel Breathnach and John McCafferty of University College Dublin for the extraordinary intellectual leadership they have provided.

So here we are four centuries later and after many twists and turns, many wasted lives and much courageous effort Ireland has at last come into its own but not on its own. Today, standing in the former chapel of St Anthony's Irish College, how do I begin to find words to thank the Irish Franciscans, past and present, for the immense contribution they have made to the history we all share as citizens of Ireland and of Europe? We may never know the full extent of our indebtedness but we certainly do know, to paraphrase Mac Neice's phrase, 'What they mean to Ireland and Ireland to them'.

Go raibh céad maith agaibh, fáinne oir oraibh.

May Ireland's heartland in Louvain continue to flourish for many centuries to come.