Conefrey, Peter (1880–1939), catholic priest and social critic, was born 9 June 1880 in Mohill, Co. Leitrim, son of James Conefrey, publican, and his wife Mary McGivney. There were many priests on both sides of the family. His uncle, Fr Thomas Conefrey, parish priest of Drumlish, Co. Longford from 1879 to 1900, led the Land League and Plan of Campaign on the estate of Lord Granard. Shortly after Peter Conefrey’s birth his parents sold their public house. Conefrey was brought up by his paternal grandparents at Drumgowna, Co. Leitrim and educated at Drumgowna national school, St Mel's College, Longford, which he entered in 1894, and St Patrick's College, Maynooth. Conefrey was ordained priest in June 1906 and appointed curate in Ferbane, Co. Offaly, that August.
Conefrey was transferred to St Mary's parish, Athlone, Co. Westmeath in January 1907. The parish included a woollen mill. Seeing its employees working long hours in bad conditions and developing tuberculosis, Conefrey came to hate factories. He chaired the Athlone branch of the Gaelic League from 1911 to 1914 (though he could never speak Irish), and formed the Athlone Irish pipers’ band. He befriended the local Franciscans, becoming a tertiary, and often walked barefoot through Athlone in reparation for sin. Imitating ancient austerities he walked barefoot to Lough Derg in July 1914; but this eccentricity displeased his bishop, who transferred him in October 1914 to Mullinalaghta on the Longford/Cavan border. Here he wrote two one-act comedies about matchmaking. In August he was appointed curate at Killoe, Co. Longford (where his uncle Thomas had been parish priest since 1900; he died a month after Conefrey's arrival).
In Killoe he encouraged the revival of spinning and other handicrafts, wearing homespun himself where possible. From 1920, Conefrey's Killoe spinners gave annual displays of handcrafts at the RDS spring show, for which the RDS awarded a silver medal in 1920. Conefrey revived local flax cultivation, and persuaded Barbour & Co. of Lisburn to donate a Jacquard handloom for home weaving. He denounced jazz and cosmetics, zealously belabouring real or suspected courting couples. However, he was unusual among contemporary priests in his love for traditional Irish music. He sought local performers, revived old dances, and integrated them with his cottage industries by reviving such festivities as a scutchers’ camp. His spinners, weavers and dancers toured agricultural shows across Ireland.
Throughout the 1920s, Conefrey contributed to the militant catholic press in Dublin. He wrote articles for D. P. Moran's (qv) Leader in which he ascribed to denationalising foreign influences the abandonment of home industry for factory goods. Intolerant of criticism, he ceased to write for the Leader when other contributors suggested that abolishing the factory system was less straightforward than he maintained. In the Catholic Pictorial he wrote of jazz as ‘an African word meaning the activity in public of something of which St Paul said “Let it not be so much as named among you” . . . borrowed from Central Africa by a gang of wealthy Bolshevists in the USA’. He claimed that modern ladies’ fashions imitated African costume; if these ladies liked to bare themselves, they should go barefoot to Lough Derg. (One advantage of homespun stockings was their lack of transparency.) A cabinet minister was excoriated for attending a Clongowes union dance where waltzes and foxtrots were played and ladies ‘exposed their backbones’.
He became curate of Dromard, Co. Longford in September 1924. Here, too, he tried to revive the local community with cottage industries, traditional music, and the improvement of the local goats by importing Nubian stock (donated by Lady Aberdeen (qv)). He was a founding member of Longford VEC (March 1930) and became its chairman in 1935. A fall from his horse (November 1932) injured his hip and left him permanently lame. Nevertheless, when appointed parish priest of Cloone, Co. Leitrim, in April 1933, he brought to the parish his characteristic projects and enthusiasms. Soon after his arrival he organised a public meeting at Mohill supporting a campaign by the Gaelic League (of which he was county chairman in 1935) against the broadcasting of jazz on 2RN (later Radio Éireann). Soon after he founded Cloone ceilidhe band, which made a number of broadcasts, introduced by Conefrey himself. He organised annual feiseanna at Cloone from 1936 and employed a traditional dancer from Killoe, Bernard Casey (1916–40), as his servant (Casey became OC Longford battalion, IRA, and later died at the Curragh internment camp).
Conefrey wanted farm households to become self-sufficient in food and to revive traditional dishes such as boxty. He encouraged the production of home-cured bacon and campaigned for local mills to be reopened so that flour could be ground locally, rather than by a milling combine. He lobbied government for the establishment of day training schools where farmers’ and labourers’ sons could learn cultivation and domestic production, while their sisters were trained in domestic science. He also campaigned for improved land drainage and was praised (but not imitated) by Dublin journalists like Gertrude Gaffney (qv) and Aodh de Blácam (qv). His exchanges with government departments were often stormy.
Conefrey suffered from high blood pressure, and died suddenly on 24 April 1939. A memorial committee erected a stained glass window in his honour at Cloone new church in 1971, and built a monument in Cloone in 1983; the local Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann branch was named after him. But without his presence his projects died away and outside Cloone he is remembered humorously as an anti-jazz campaigner. His anti-urbanism and puritanism were extreme developments of views held by many contemporary clerics and neo-traditionalist Irish Irelanders, though few put these views into practice with such sincerity and zeal. He was a striking example of the priest as community leader, striving zealously, if often wrong-headedly, for his parishioners’ welfare. His greatest achievement was perhaps earning the title ‘saviour of Leitrim's music' (Irish Music Magazine, Dec. 1998–Jan. 1999).