MacFadden, James (1842–1917), priest and nationalist, was born in 1842 in Dunmore, Carrigart, Co. Donegal, fourth of five children of John McFadden, a prosperous farmer, and his wife (whose surname was McGettigan). Daniel McGettigan (qv), bishop of Raphoe and subsequently archbishop of Armagh, was an uncle; Michael Logue (qv), McGettigan's successor in both dioceses, was a cousin.
MacFadden was educated locally and at Maynooth from 1863 to 1871, including a period of postgraduate study in the Dunboyne establishment. Ordained to the priesthood on 1 January 1871, he was appointed curate of Upper Templecrone parish, where he served as administrator in 1872. He became administrator of the impoverished parish of Gweedore in 1873 and parish priest in 1875. Here, as throughout his career, he became known as a successful ‘bricks-and-mortar’ priest: he constructed several national schools and a large parochial house, financed by an extortionate system of ‘offerings’. MacFadden was a proponent of tight social discipline, which included pressurising the people to keep their houses clean and personally beating up real or potential transgressors against sacramental catholicism. He was a zealous opponent of elements of traditional folk-culture, such as house dances, which he saw as occasions of sin and is alleged to have gathered together all the fiddles in the parish and burned them.
MacFadden took an active role in relief works during the semi-famine and land crisis of 1879–81. Initially, a proponent of the strategy of political quiescence and charitable activity promoted by Cardinal Logue, from mid-1881 he emerged as the most prominent and aggressive Land League activist and supporter in the region. (His sister, who acted as his housekeeper, led the local branch of the Ladies' Land League.) MacFadden's authority rested on a mixture of patronage and managerial skills, organising well-disciplined rent strikes; he achieved considerable success presenting parishioners' cases for rent reduction to the land court. He also relied on personal charisma and self-confidence, and on folk-belief in the supernatural powers of the priest, heightened by social and economic crisis.
From 1887, MacFadden's outspoken advocacy of the plan of campaign and conflicts with north Donegal landlords, such as Wybrandts Olphert, attracted nationwide attention. Many reporters and observers, both sympathetic and hostile, visited Gweedore to report on MacFadden's activities. Nationalist newspapers presented him as a selfless pastor defending his sheep, while unionists saw him as a specimen of the lawlessness and clericalism likely to prevail under home rule. In April 1888 he was sentenced to six months' imprisonment for criminal conspiracy to prevent the payment of rent; this further raised his reputation, and after release he made several speeches to Liberal meetings in England.
In January 1889 he ignored a court summons to stand trial for incitement, and on 3 February 1889 RIC District Inspector William Martin was beaten to death by rioters when he tried to arrest MacFadden after Sunday mass. Loyalists responded with outrage (Edward Saunderson (qv) called him a ‘murderous ruffian’), while many nationalists claimed Martin had precipitated his own fate. MacFadden and nine of his parishioners were charged with murder, while thirteen others were charged with conspiracy. The trial ended in a deal whereby MacFadden was released while other defendants pleaded guilty to manslaughter and obstruction.
As with other clerical activists in the plan of campaign, MacFadden attracted some criticism from those, including rival clerics, who suspected him of driving his people into a hopeless struggle. Maud Gonne (qv) who admired MacFadden and helped him to resist evictions and build Land League huts, found that many priests, including Bishop Patrick O'Donnell (qv), kept a certain distance from him. For a time in the 1890s O'Donnell tacitly forbade MacFadden from engaging in politics, but he remained active in organising relief works funded by the Congested Districts Board. His rehabilitation was symbolised by two US speaking tours to raise funds for Letterkenny cathedral. He was transferred in 1901 to the richer parish of Inis Caoil, which included Glenties.
Here MacFadden maintained his previous activities, extorting offerings, building schools, and establishing a clerically-supervised dancehall. He was an early recruit to the United Irish League in 1899 and served on its national directory for the remainder of his life; he was also prominent in the AOH. One of his last major public appearances was in July 1916 in support of the abortive compromise proposed by John Redmond (qv) to Lloyd George, accepting partition in return for immediate home rule. He corresponded extensively with the Congested Districts Board, fulfilling the traditional priestly role of communal leader and powerbroker, though some of his proposals – such as the extension of a piped water supply which served, inter alia, his expensive new water-closet – were resented as raising the rates for the benefit of a privileged few. He was prominent in the Gaelic League and while he appears to have been a genuine Irish-language enthusiast (he used the language in correspondence with other priests), he was prepared to compromise on occasion in the interests of clerical nepotism and jobbery, and his vision of Irish culture was drastically expurgated in the interests of respectability.
Local folk-tradition in Gweedore and north-west Donegal remembers MacFadden as a heroic figure, the Moses who led his people out of slavery. In Glenties and the south-west, however, a rival tradition, expressed in the novels of Patrick MacGill (qv), which MacFadden denounced from the altar, recalls him as arrogant, avaricious, and fond of luxury. Breandán Mac Suibhne suggests that his lifestyle was similar in both areas, but that in Gweedore, inhabited by a fairly homogenous population of smallholders and fishermen with a small and undifferentiated catholic middle class, a priest living in a manner previously reserved for protestant landlords and state officials was a source of communal pride. Glenties, however, was more socially differentiated and the Irish-speaking hill folk in remoter areas of the parish identified McFadden's lifestyle with the ‘swanky’ anglicised and often exploitative urban middle class.
MacFadden acutely represents the twin images of the ‘devotional revolution’ parish priest as egoistic tyrant and managerial voice of the voiceless; debate continues over how far the benefits of the ‘civilising process’ he represented were worth their costs. He died 17 April 1917 of a chill contracted at a public event. The NAI contains much MacFadden material, including his extensive correspondence with the Congested Districts Board and reports on his 1880s agitation.