Lavelle, Patrick (1825–86), catholic priest and agitator, was born at Mullagh, a townland between Westport and Louisburgh, Co. Mayo, the eldest child in the family of three sons and two daughters of Francis Lavelle (d. 1862) and his wife Mary (née MacManus). Francis Lavelle held a 25-acre farm from Sir Roger Palmer and had other sources of income; his brother, Patrick Lavelle (1801?–37), was owner of the Freeman's Journal. It appears that the early death of Patrick Lavelle the elder made money available for the education of Francis's sons. Patrick Lavelle the younger was taught locally before entering St Jarlath's College, Tuam (1840), and Maynooth (1844); he went on to the Dunboyne establishment for further study, gave, while still a student, evidence to the Maynooth commissioners (1852) and was ordained priest (21 June 1853). His first appointment was as professor of philosophy at the Irish College, Paris (1854–8). On arriving in Paris (December 1854) he found himself caught up in a quarrel between the rector, John Miley (qv), and the Irish bishops in which, tacitly supported by his own bishop, John MacHale (qv), he became an open enemy of the rector. Eventually Miley, sorely harassed by Lavelle, succeeded in getting him expelled from France (April 1858).
Briefly he was administrator of the rural parish of Mayo Abbey (1858). It was as administrator or parish priest of Partry (Ballovey), a poor rural parish on the west shore of Lough Mask, that Lavelle became prominent in Ireland (from October 1858). The principal local landlord, Thomas Span Plunket, 2nd Baron Plunket (qv), was protestant bishop of Tuam and, like the local rector, Hamilton Townsend, a supporter of the Society for Irish Church Missions, the purpose of which was to convert catholics to protestantism. Plunket expected his catholic tenants to send their children to local schools maintained by the society. Lavelle denounced from his pulpit those who did so, intimidated those who persisted and wrote public letters to the landlord-bishop. A public debate on the situation in Partry ensued in the newspapers (December 1858–March 1859). Lavelle's assertion that five tenants had been evicted for not sending their children to a protestant school went unanswered. Lavelle proved a prolific writer of letters to the press, national and local. He intimidated local scripture-readers employed by the society, for which he was fined at Ballinrobe petty sessions, and one suffered an arson attack on his house.
The recurrent conflict between catholics and protestants deteriorated into lawlessness and ceased only during Lavelle's absences in Britain to collect funds. A protestant was murdered (January 1860) and the district was proclaimed under the Crime and Outrage Act. More evictions, assisted by police and military (November 1860), worsened the situation. The so-called ‘war’ in Partry made Lavelle a household name; it was reported in the press locally, in Dublin and abroad; it was debated in parliament (May 1861). With financial support from Archbishop MacHale and admirers abroad, Lavelle opened several catholic schools to counter those of the protestants. By the end of 1861 the ‘war’ was over. For as long as he was parish priest of Partry (until October 1869) he was a reliable friend of tenant farmers in dispute with their landlords or facing destitution as a result of a series of bad harvests (1862–7); he continually exposed himself to prosecution and was incorrigibly litigious. One dispute was with the National Land and Building Investment Co., which purchased the Gildea estate at Port Royal and evicted tenants (1866–9); another was with Robert Lynch Blosse (1867–9). Consequently Lavelle sought money not only for the relief of his parishioners but for the payment of his own debts.
Financial need as well as political conviction and natural bellicosity were no doubt reasons for his turning to national, radical politics. He was one of only nine priests who defied the papal legate, the archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen (qv), by joining the long cortège and saying prayers at the funeral of Terence Bellew McManus (qv), an event organised by Fenians (November 1861). This connection with Fenians soon brought him money from Britain and America for relief of distress at Partry and to pay debts arising from litigation. Lavelle created another sensation by delivering an address, ‘The Catholic doctrine on the right of revolt’, at a meeting at the Rotunda, Dublin, presided over by a Fenian sympathiser, Thomas Ryan (5 February 1862). He became a vice-president of the National Brotherhood of St Patrick, a Fenian front body, and toured Britain addressing its meetings despite its being condemned in a pastoral letter issued by Cullen (March–April). This proved a means of raising more money for Partry. MacHale, despite requests from Cullen that Lavelle be disciplined, protected him. Another Connacht bishop, John MacEvilly (qv), an enemy of MacHale, informed on Lavelle to Cullen. After the intervention of the papacy, Lavelle publicly expressed regret for attending the MacManus funeral and supporting the Brotherhood of St Patrick without MacHale's permission (16 October 1863). By this time Lavelle was already losing interest in the brotherhood. The papacy intervened again in December by instructing MacHale to suspend Lavelle, who went to Rome to put his case (January 1864) but was persuaded to retract much of what he had said. The retraction was published in Irish newspapers, beginning with the Connaught Patriot (5 March), accompanied by a letter from Lavelle criticising Cullen. The papacy responded by instructing MacHale to suspend Lavelle from priestly duties (18 April), but instead, it seems, he forewarned Lavelle, who took refuge among Irish catholics in Britain, some of them Fenians (May–August). On his returning to Partry a petition was got up by fellow priests in the Tuam diocese (no doubt at MacHale's behest) for the lifting of his suspension; his ardour for the Fenians cooled, and the suspension was, after a visit to Rome by MacHale, lifted (November 1865).
Lavelle did not resume his attacks on Cullen until July 1866 when he began a column in the Irish People (New York), which caused Cullen no concern and ceased in May 1868. He also criticised, in the Connaught Patriot (Tuam), the archbishop of Westminster, H. E. Manning, for stating that Fenians were lax catholics (February 1867). A pamphlet, Patriotism vindicated: a reply to Archbishop Manning (1867), resulted. The highlight of the ‘Fenian’ phase of his career was a banquet held in his honour at the Rotunda, Dublin (16 October 1867). He was a member of the committee of the Amnesty Association, set up under the presidency of Isaac Butt (qv) to campaign for the release of imprisoned Fenians (28 June 1869). His swan-song was a letter to the Irishman, published (28 November 1869) when most Irish catholic bishops were in Rome attending the Vatican council; it defended Fenians for their ‘profound religious convictions’ and ‘unaffected piety’ whilst characterising Freemasons as ‘human monsters’. He forwarded an Italian version to the bishops, who then spent more time discussing Lavelle and the Fenians than they did on the business of the council (December). The outcome – despite Lavelle's attempt to ingratiate himself with Rome by vilifying Freemasons – was that the pope condemned the Fenians in both Ireland and North America and declared them excommunicate (12 January 1870).
Already Lavelle had turned to constitutional politics, attaching himself to George Henry Moore (qv), for whose return as MP for Co. Mayo (23 November 1868) he was largely responsible. He was an arbitrator in a dispute between Moore and his tenants at Ballintubber, Co. Mayo (1868–9), and on another catholic-owned estate, that of John Philip Nolan (qv) at Portacarron, Co. Galway (1871). He took part with Moore in renewed tenant-right agitation (1869–70), during which he brought out a book, The Irish landlord since the revolution (January 1870). Like Moore he accepted Gladstone's Irish land bill as a first measure to give tenants some security. Like almost all Irish catholics he took the French side in the Franco–Prussian war (1870–71), and acted for the French authorities by buying 5,000 cavalry horses. He joined in September 1870 the Home Government Association, which became the Home Rule League (November 1873), and remained throughout the 1870s a correspondent of Butt, its principal leader.
The Co. Galway by-election of 1872, in which Nolan was the candidate supported by MacHale, was another opportunity for Lavelle to campaign; he did so in moderation but, after the defeated candidate petitioned successfully for Nolan's unseating on grounds of malpractice by priests campaigning for him, Lavelle was – probably because of his past reputation – censured by the trial judge, William Keogh (qv), as worse than ‘those profligate priests of the French Revolution’. When a general election was called Lavelle and other priests decided (5 February 1874) on two local landlords, Thomas Tighe and George Ekins Browne, as their candidates in Co. Mayo in preference to a local Fenian, John O'Connor Power (qv), whom Lavelle disliked as an adventurer. A heated contest followed. The Fenians proving powerful in the county, Power withdrew; Tighe and Browne having been elected, a petition was lodged and they were unseated, which allowed Power to be returned in a by-election (29 May). Lavelle's local popularity ended. The Fenian element that had supported him in the 1860s deserted him. He could no longer rely on the protection of MacHale, who seems to have favoured Power as a former student at St Jarlath's. He appeared less in public. Lavelle did, however, defend Power's obstructive tactics in the house of commons as a means of advancing Irish home rule.
Increasingly Lavelle became politically apathetic. From October 1869 he was parish priest of Cong, on the borders of Galway and Mayo. The owner of the place, Sir Arthur Guinness (qv), was a philanthropic landlord greatly loved by his tenants. The adversity on which Lavelle's combative attitude thrived was absent in Cong. His attitude changed. Social contact with the Guinnesses and the alacrity with which Sir Arthur gave him a new residence, at Pidgeon Park, just outside the village, and 13 acres of free grazing at Caherduff, completed his transformation from violent agitator to inoffensive country priest. Lavelle disliked the Land League, as it destroyed the social harmony of Cong and was led in Castlebar by an old enemy, P. W. Nally (qv). When his belligerence revived it was against two active Land Leaguers, James Daly (qv), owner of the Connaught Telegraph, and Walter Conway, the priest in charge of the adjacent parish of Clonbur. Lavelle worked actively with the Mansion House Relief Committee to relieve distress caused by harvest failure (1879–80). He was strangely silent about the agrarian crime that particularly affected his part of Mayo, not even denouncing the murder of Joseph Huddy (February 1882), a bailiff of Lord Ardilaun (as Guinness became in 1880).
In his last years, in poor health, he was unhappy to be under a new archbishop of Tuam, his old enemy MacEvilly. Patrick Lavelle died, an enigma, on 17 November 1886. His funeral was attended by Ardilaun, the local protestant minister and several local catholic priests but not by MacEvilly or any Fenians or agitators. His brother Francis (d. 1862) was also a priest.