Kavanagh, Patrick Fidelis (1838–1918), Franciscan priest and historian, was born at Wexford on 14 March 1838, son of Lawrence Kavanagh, shipowner and merchant; his mother's family, the Prendergasts of Knottown, took part in the 1798 rebellion with their relatives the Prendergasts of Newpark. Kavanagh's only brother, Edward, became a priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and taught mathematics at Liverpool; one of his sisters joined the Sisters of Mercy and served at their Drogheda convent. Kavanagh's connections with such families as the Rowes of Ballyrahan and the Redmonds of Harveystown embed him in the group of merchants and large-scale farmers from which came the leadership of the nineteenth-century catholic community in Wexford. The rebel leader Father Michael Murphy (qv) was a maternal great-uncle; both his grandfathers fought on the rebel side at Oulart and throughout the campaign – Kavanagh later published his recollections of his maternal grandfather's reminiscences of the campaign. Kavanagh was also related to Myles Murphy (1787–1856), founder of St Peter's College, Wexford, the diocesan seminary, who was subsequently bishop of Ferns (1849–56); a maternal uncle, Father Patrick Prendergast, was parish priest of Askamore, and two cousins named Healy were parish priests of Castlebridge.
Kavanagh was educated at the CBS, Wexford, and St Peter's College. Here he showed great academic distinction: he won several prizes and was active in local literary societies. The last years of Daniel O'Connell (qv) and the appearance of the Young Ireland movement formed his political attitudes; although he continued to revere the Liberator and left open the possibility that O'Connell might have taken the wisest course under the circumstances, he decided that the militant Young Irelander John Mitchel (qv) represented his beau idéal of patriotism, and always declared himself a separatist. Kavanagh left Ireland for Rome to enrol at the Irish Franciscan college, St Isidore's. His presence in the city during the final phase of the Italian nationalist assault on the Papal States left a permanent impression on Kavanagh; his 1914 pamphlet Patriotism, while presenting patriotism as a religious duty and declaring that subject nations had an inalienable right to freedom, contains passionate denunciations of continental liberals and socialists, while praising the French military and political leader Marshal MacMahon (1808–93). In 1866 Kavanagh was ordained in Rome and returned to Wexford. While ‘questing’ (fund-raising) in the parish of Tagoat, he expressed pro-Fenian views in conversation with the parish priest; representations were made to his superior and he was transferred to the order's Cork friary. At different times in his career Kavanagh was stationed at Cork, Limerick, Athlone, Carrick-on-Suir, and Galway.
In 1870 Kavanagh produced the first edition of the book for which he is chiefly remembered, A popular history of the rebellion of 1798. A revised and enlarged edition appeared in 1874 (reprinted in 1884), and the centenary edition (1898, reprinted in 1916) added a lengthy appendix consisting of items published by Kavanagh and other correspondents in the Wexford People during the late 1880s and 1890s. The book combines oral evidence gathered by Kavanagh from participants (or their children) in north Wexford with material drawn from earlier apologetic works by catholic writers such as Edward Hay (qv), Thomas Cloney (qv), and Francis Plowden (qv). Kavanagh joins these writers in arguing that the United Irishmen barely existed in Wexford and that the rising represented the spontaneous outburst of a people driven to desperation by government repression; he differs from them in his unequivocal endorsement of, and emotional identification with, the rebels (he ridicules Hay, in particular, as a servile catholic loyalist).
Kavanagh's book played a decisive role in creating the popular image of Father John Murphy (qv) as pre-eminent hero–leader of the Wexford rising, and of its leadership as predominantly priestly; it would be impossible to learn from it that only eleven of eighty-five priests in the county joined the rebellion, and that the bishop of Ferns denounced them as ‘the faeces of the church’. In later editions Kavanagh added a footnote denouncing the bishop for befriending pitch-cappers while his flock was fighting for survival. Kavanagh's ‘faith and fatherland’ history sees Irish identity in essentially catholic terms, albeit with a Young Ireland overlay. Claiming that middle-class protestants (as opposed to the aristocracy and their plebeian hangers-on) are generally tolerant, he declares that ‘Grattan's parliament’ had conferred immense benefits on Ireland and, left to its own devices, would have passed catholic emancipation; he praises protestant patriots and declares that his denunciations of Orangeism are based on political, not religious, grounds. At the same time Kavanagh describes virtually all Wexford protestant loyalists as ‘Orange’ and discounts considerable evidence of religious hostility to protestants among rank and file rebels as the product of fearful protestant bigotry and government propaganda. While rightly emphasising the outrages perpetrated by government forces, he partly justifies the killing of prisoners by rebels on Wexford Bridge and Vinegar Hill as the legitimate execution of criminals, and adopts Cloney's argument in denying mainstream rebel responsibility for the indefensible atrocity of Scullabogue. It is impossible to establish how far these positions reflect careless scholarship or misapprehension as distinct from deliberate distortion, but it is generally agreed that his dismissive view of Miles Byrne (qv), followed by no other historian of the rebellion, reflects unease at Byrne's stress on the prior existence of a United Irish organisation in Wexford.
Kavanagh's view that the United Irishmen, like all secret societies, were demoralising and ineffective similarly combines catholic ecclesiastical prohibitions (which were reinforced as a result of the plots of the Italian Carbonari against papal government) with a Mitchelite belief in open defiance and spontaneous popular revolt. The view, sometimes advanced, that Kavanagh was simply a mouthpiece for the political views of Cardinal Cullen (qv) ignores the complexities of his political position (not least the fact that the publication of his book brought him into friendly contact with both Mitchel and Charles Kickham (qv)).
In the late 1870s and early 1880s Kavanagh spent several years on missionary work in North and South America and in Australia (where he wrote for the Sydney Freeman's Journal). Cardinal P. F. Moran (qv) took exception to his advanced nationalist views, and in 1885 brought about his return to Ireland. While in Australia, Kavanagh performed the marriage ceremony in 1883 for John Redmond (qv) and Johanna Dalton; he maintained a lifelong friendship with the Redmond brothers, whose family background resembled his own.
Kavanagh was profoundly depressed by the factional divisions within Irish nationalism in the 1890s (when he was stationed in Galway). He took a leading role in the Wexford centenary celebrations of 1898, unveiling most of the monuments erected in the county and giving lectures at which he declared his separatist views. During the Boer war Kavanagh issued a statement giving his opinion as a theologian that anyone who died fighting in the British army against the Boers would be damned for fighting in an unjust cause. He spent the first years of the twentieth century in Cork city, where he was on friendly terms with William O'Brien (qv); his primary political loyalty, however, was to Redmond.
In 1908 Kavanagh was transferred back to Wexford, where he spent his last years. When the Board of Erin faction of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (linked to the Redmondite party) was established in Wexford, the aged Kavanagh accepted the position of honorary divisional vice-president, which he retained until his death. After the outbreak of the first world war Kavanagh issued a letter to the press supporting John Redmond's recruiting policy. (This did not prevent separatists from invoking his pronouncement from the Boer war era to claim that Irish recruits to the British army were destined for hell.) According to his obituarist in the Redmondite Wexford Free Press, Redmond's ‘betrayal by British statesmen’ subsequently led Kavanagh to wonder privately if this policy had been wise, but he never publicly disowned Redmondism.
Despite the reclusive habits of his old age, Kavanagh took a strong interest in the 1918 general election and visited the polls more than once on election day; it is unclear whether he supported the Irish Party or Sinn Féin. On the morning of 17 December 1918, he died suddenly while praying in his cell at the friary in Wexford town. The news produced general mourning in Wexford, and several public bodies voted condolences. A selection of his verse (generally of indescribable banality) was published in 1917 as The Wexford rebel and other poems; the collection does not include his widely publicised ‘Erin's address to her recreant children’, which appeared in the New York Irish World on 21 March 1876.
By contrast with the centenary celebration of the Wexford rebellion, over which Kavanagh had presided, the bicentenary in 1998 treated him as a baneful presence to be exorcised; he was regularly denounced for submerging the authentic secular nationalism of the United Irishmen beneath a synthetic clericalist propaganda. But Tom Dunne's comment that Kavanagh's popularity derived from the fact that he built on the existing folk tradition rather than inventing it provides a truer account of his significance. In the volatile mixture of his Young Ireland tolerance, faith and fatherland rhetoric, and anti-protestant resentment, his friendships with Kickham and Redmond, his admiration for O'Connell and Mitchel, and his combination of tactical constitutionalism with separatist declarations of principle, Kavanagh embodies the painful ambivalences of late-Victorian Irish nationalism.