Sweetman, John Francis (1872–1953), Benedictine monk and educator, was born 2 February 1872 at Clohamon, Ferns, Co. Wexford, third son of Walter Sweetman, a prosperous landowner, and Mary Sweetman (née Butler). Educated at Downside School, Bath, Somerset, he entered Downside Abbey in 1891, receiving the religious name Francis. He spent from 1893 to 1897 studying theology in Rome, where he showed himself interested in ecumenism. He returned to Downside in June 1897, and, after teaching in the school for two years, was ordained priest in Downside on 15 October 1899.
In May 1900 he volunteered to go to South Africa as a catholic chaplain to the British forces fighting against the Boers. His experiences in South Africa left him with three lasting legacies: a limp, the result of being badly wounded in the leg; a realisation that he was Irish, and not English, for he hated to think that his army (the British) was fighting against an Irish brigade, led by Maj. John MacBride (qv); and an interest in tobacco growing – he claimed to have risked his life crossing the Boer lines to study the technique of growing tobacco.
After his return to Downside in 1901, he taught in the abbey school for a number of years. His mind, however, was turned towards Ireland, where he hoped one day to form part of a monastic foundation. In 1905 Abbot Ford of Downside accepted the offer from the Sweetman family of a house in Ballinapierce, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, with a view to starting a Benedictine school there. Sweetman was appointed superior and headmaster, and was joined by three other monks from Downside. Permission for this undertaking was readily given by the bishop of Ferns, James Browne (1842–1917). Within two years the number of boys increased to such an extent that the Downside monks were forced to move to a larger establishment, called Mount Nebo, near Gorey, Co. Wexford. This property had been bought by the Sweetman family and presented to the Downside monks. Sweetman rechristened the place ‘Mount St Benedict’, though in time it became familiarly known simply as ‘The Mount’.
The school never became a large establishment. At its peak it had a staff of only six teachers and some fifty pupils, presided over by the ever-present and powerful personality of Sweetman. It succeeded in attracting an array of brilliant students, among whom were Seán MacBride (qv) and James Dillon (qv). The regime in the school was somewhat unorthodox and austere. One of the main principles instilled in the pupils was self-esteem. Rules were few, games were not compulsory, and examinations were of little importance. A gentle touch was lent to the school in the persons of Aileen Keogh, the matron-nurse, and Maire Comerford (qv), her assistant.
During all this time, Sweetman became involved in growing tobacco and producing his own brand of cigarettes, called ‘Kerry Blues’. The boys of the school worked as volunteers from time to time in the Ballyowen cigarette factory. In later years, Sweetman got into trouble with the customs and excise over his tobacco growing, and the enterprise was closed down.
All went well in the school up to the Easter rising of 1916, after which Sweetman became strongly anti-British and pro-Sinn Féin. In 1917 he attended the funeral of Thomas Ashe (qv), the first Irishman to die on hunger strike in an Irish jail. He publicly supported the anti-conscription campaign of 1917–18, and attended the first meeting of Dáil Éireann on 21 January 1919. During the war of independence (1919–21), he was accused of harbouring Sinn Féiners in Mount St Benedict. The school matron, Aileen Keogh, was arrested and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in Mountjoy, from where she escaped. As a result of this political activity, many parents, who were not sympathetic to the Sinn Féin movement, began to remove their boys from the school. This caused serious financial loss, and the school was forced to close its doors in 1925. Pressure to close the school also came from the local bishop, William Codd (1864–1938), who became bishop of Ferns in 1917. Bishop Codd disapproved of Sweetman's political involvement and appealed to Rome to have him removed from Mount St Benedict.
Sweetman found himself under an ecclesiastical ban for the next fourteen years, 1925–39, during which time he was not allowed to celebrate mass or the sacraments. He spent most of this time in Liverpool and only returned to Mount St Benedict in 1939. Thanks to the influence of the papal nuncio in Dublin, Paschal Robinson (qv), he eventually had his priestly faculties restored. He lived on in Gorey for another fourteen years, and died 28 March 1953. He is buried in the grounds of his beloved Mount St Benedict. His funeral was attended by the president of Ireland, Seán T. O'Kelly (qv), and many of the old boys of the school.