Hayes, John Martin (1887–1957), priest and catholic social activist, was born 11 November 1887 in a Land League hut at Murroe, Co. Limerick, youngest among ten children of Michael Hayes, a small farmer from Moher, Limerick, and Hanorah Hayes (née McCormack) of Maclaboy, also in Limerick, who had married in 1872. That he was born in such dire circumstances, ‘on the side of the road’ as he put it, undoubtedly fuelled his determination to improve the lot of rural inhabitants, and also remained a proud nationalist boast. The family had been evicted from Lord Cloncurry's estate in 1872 for non-payment of rent and spent twelve years in the hut, during which seven of the children died. They returned to the estate in 1894, two years after Michael Hayes had given evidence to the evicted tenants commission in Dublin. John was educated at the local national school in Murroe before moving to the Crescent College in Limerick, where he received a solid secondary education, particularly in Latin and Greek, from the Jesuits, for whom he retained a lifelong affection. After deciding he had a vocation for the priesthood, he went (1905) to St Patrick's ecclesiastical college in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, where he remained till 1907, despite his dislike of its austere regime. He then secured a free place at the Irish College in Paris. Hayes developed a great love of Paris, where one of the highlights of his stay was the beatification of St Joan of Arc (1909), and he also saw a great deal of provincial France and took a leading part in college dramatics and debates. He escaped a typhoid epidemic at the college, which claimed the lives of some close friends, and was ordained a priest on 1 June 1913.
As a curate he was sent to the parish of Kilbeg and Staholmog, Co. Meath, where he immersed himself in organising a better social life for parishioners as well as tackling drunkenness, decrying rural snobbery, and urging support for the Irish Volunteers. In 1915 he was transferred to Liverpool, to the parish of Mount Carmel, where he was to remain till 1924. Again active in looking after the social needs of the locals, he also encouraged membership of sodalities and discouraged sectarianism among the protestant and catholic dockers in the city. During this period he also formally applied for leave to become an army chaplain, but nothing came of the application. In 1924 he returned to Ireland, having missed much of the political and military trouble of the period, in which his brother Mick had played a leading part as an IRA member in Limerick. A short stint as chaplain to the Mercy nuns in north Tipperary left him utterly unchallenged, and in March 1925 he was appointed a curate at Ballybricken in east Limerick, where he found more scope for his social and charitable endeavours, provocative and challenging sermons, and promotion of the Pioneer association, of which he was to remain a life-long advocate. In January 1927 he was appointed to the united parishes of Loughmoe and Castleleiny in Tipperary, where he successfully raised funds for church renovation and dabbled in the promotion of rural industries, including tobacco- and wheat-growing schemes. His reputation as a promoter of rural self-help and self-sufficiency was growing, and he had contact with Éamon de Valera (qv) and James Ryan (qv), minister for agriculture from 1932.
During a visit to Rome for an Advent course in San Silvestro, he was granted an audience with the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, for whom he had an almost sycophantic admiration, seeing him as a man ‘with the grace of God shining through his eyes’. He informed him that ‘we in Ireland love and admire what you have done in Italy’, an indication that Hayes – like other catholic social activists such as the Jesuits Edward Cahill (qv), Edward Coyne (qv), and academic Alfred O'Rahilly (qv) – was a strong advocate of the corporate state or vocationalism, particularly as it related to the organisation of rural communities. Although there was much confusion about what exactly vocationalism was, Hayes was influenced by continental movements such as the Belgian Boerenbond league, which involved rural inhabitants in forming cooperative groups to promote the interests of their districts. In March 1931 he convened a meeting in Dublin to facilitate the formation of an Irish organisation for similar purposes, Muintir na Tíre, registered as a friendly society. In 1934 Hayes was transferred to Tipperary town and also attended the 34th International Eucharistic Congress in Argentina, where he presided over mission retreats and gave lectures. At home, he lobbied the Department of Agriculture over the lack of agricultural industry in the Tipperary region and began organising rural weekends where activists and educators debated rural issues, based on the French semaines rurales.
However, Muintir na Tíre's membership remained dominated by farmers, and in 1937 the organisation was reconstituted and based on the parish unit with all members of rural communities involved. The first guild was formed in Tipperary in February 1937. It was to act as a rural self-help group based on collective parish organisation with a strong emphasis on the teaching of the papal encyclicals Rerum novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo anno (1931). Hayes quickly became a national figure, using newspapers and radio to spread the gospel of rural self-help. Insisting on a non-sectarian association, he memorably reminded those who advocated an exclusive catholic membership that ‘this country is becoming so catholic it forgets to be Christian’, and he began relentlessly to organise social weeks, vocational education, and summer schools. Cooperating with groups such as the Irish Countrywomen's Association, Muintir na Tíre was instrumental in promoting parish councils during the 1939–45 emergency and assisting in turf and food production. Hayes also served as a member of the commission on vocational organisation, which he used to further his extensive contacts. In 1946 he was appointed parish priest of Bansha, Co. Tipperary.
Although Hayes liked to present Muintir na Tíre as an extension of the Land League and Sinn Féin movements, and used a fair share of rhetoric criticising large farmers and out-of-touch bureaucrats making decisions on agriculture, the reality was that the organisation's concerns remained largely local, and it tended to flourish in the more prosperous parts of the country, in time leading to the formation of more than 400 branches. It was also legitimately criticised for lack of a specific policy, which was not helped by Hayes's bold but bland mantra that ‘real Ireland is rural Ireland, and rural Ireland is Ireland true to Christ’. As a leading member of the Knights of Columbanus in the 1940s, he also sought to cultivate links between the two groups, and it was a constant recommendation of the supreme council of the Knights that members should adopt the aims of Muintir na Tíre as a means through which they could externalise and implement many of their activities. A more practical and enduring achievement was the implementation of Muintir na Tíre's parish plan for agriculture in 1948, which involved the appointment of expert advisers from the Department of Agriculture to work in various parishes, promoting farm improvement and introducing modern machinery. A Muintir na Tíre credit union was also established.
One of the highlights of Hayes's career was his address to the Pioneer Association in Croke Park in June 1949 on the occasion of the Pioneers’ golden jubilee – the largest catholic gathering seen in Dublin since the eucharistic congress in 1932. Although not the association's first choice as speaker, he was considered a huge success, and it gave him a platform that suited his considerable oratorical skills. He also travelled to the US to speak at the National Catholic Rural Life Congress. In 1951 he spoke in Rome at the International Congress on Rural Life, and in April 1954 was appointed a canon. Hayes did not conceal his disappointment that there remained a certain opposition to and cynicism about the effectiveness of the movement, and the fact that it was not seen to be tackling particular problems such as excessive taxation and social inequity. The scale of emigration from rural Ireland in the 1950s perhaps also made a mockery of some of Muintir na Tíre's pretensions. In a sense Muintir na Tíre was involved in a vast exercise in damage limitation – concentrating on improving the lives of those who remained on the land at a time when social and economic circumstances dictated that so many leave. To his credit Hayes did not rely solely on rhetoric, and provided inspiration to many other groups such as Macra na Féirme and the Irish Countrywomen's Association. His gregarious, energetic, and inclusive approach was refreshing, ensuring that he did more than any of his contemporaries to promote catholic social principles in a practical way, even if he was fighting a losing battle. He died 30 January 1957 in a Tipperary nursing home and was buried at Bansha.