Cavanagh, Bartholomew (1821–97), catholic priest, was born in Kilcahill, Annaghdown, Co. Galway, one of thirteen children of John Cavanagh, affluent leaseholder of some 1,000 acres, mainly on the Blake estate, and Kate Cavanagh (née Browne). He studied first at a private school in Galway before completing his studies at the Tuam diocesan seminary, and matriculating (30 August 1842) into logic class (third year) at Maynooth college. Made deacon at Maynooth in 1847, Cavanagh was assigned to the mensal parish of Oughaval (Westport), in Tuam archdiocese, where he was probably ordained later that year, and took up duties as one of four curates under the formidable Dean Bernard Burke (1789–1861); he was senior curate in the parish from 1848. His concern for famine orphans, and for women drawn by poverty into prostitution, led Cavanagh in 1850 to set up a Magdalen asylum in Westport, one in a series of such ventures by the local catholic clergy since the early 1830s. He took no part in the turbulent electoral campaigns of 1852 and 1857 in Mayo.
Cavanagh was instrumental in establishing the Christian Brothers in Westport, on Castlebar St., in April 1865. Appointed parish priest of Knock–Aghamore in 1867, at the age of 46 (the normal age for promotion at the time), he settled into what was at first an uncontroversial pastoral ministry, with the aid of one curate in the 1870s and three curates in the 1880s and 1890s. Given that he apparently lacked forceful nationalist sentiment, and never held any office in the archdiocesan chapter before 1878, it was rather a surprise that he was raised to archdeacon of the diocese that year. Though local Fenians and Land Leaguers protested in early June 1879 against Cavanagh's denunciations of agrarian militancy from the pulpit, he chose to attend a large League meeting in Claremorris later that month.
Many have been perplexed that Cavanagh chose not to look immediately into reports of an apparition of the Virgin Mary at the gable of Knock church, witnessed by fifteen to twenty persons, including his housekeeper, on the evening of 21 August 1879: there was no scepticism or embarassment in his later response to the alleged event. Within a fortnight he commenced a diary of reported cures at Knock. In the sometimes overwrought atmosphere in which multiple sightings of pious phenomena occurred during 1880–81, Cavanagh vexed many of his fellow clergy by his open enthusiasm for these manifestations of popular worship. Parishioners generally regarded him as saintly in disposition. He was one of eight priests sitting at various times on the first commission of inquiry by the diocesan authorities in 1879 and 1880, at which no definite conclusion as to the authenticity of the events was reached. Having first invited the dynamic Sr Mary Cusack (qv) of Kenmare to found a convent dedicated to the Virgin Mary at Knock in November 1881, Cavanagh soon turned against her plans. Mutual antagonism over her efforts to set up a pilgrim hostel and an extensive industrial school (local opinion was distrustful) eventually halted the construction of a convent, begun in May 1882 and left unfinished when Cusack retreated to Nottingham in November 1883. Parish work expanded enormously after pilgrimages to the shrine began in March 1880, and Cavanagh refurbished the church and erected a hostel for male pilgrims in the village during the decade. Interest in Knock was more subdued by the 1890s. He died (9 December 1897) in his room at the Knock pilgrim hostel, and was buried in the western transept of the parish church. No will was proven and it seems that he died penniless.