Bannon, John (1829–1913), catholic priest and Confederate chaplain, was born 29 December 1829 at Rooskey, Co. Roscommon, son of James Bannon, a Dublin grain dealer, and his wife, Fanny (née O'Farrell). Bannon had a brother and at least one sister. He was educated locally in Dublin, at Castleknock College (1845–6), and at St Patrick's College, Maynooth (minor seminary, 1846–50; theology course, 1850–53). He was ordained to the priesthood on 16 June 1853; some months later he received permission to transfer to the archdiocese of St Louis, Missouri.
Bannon arrived at St Louis early in 1855; after serving as assistant pastor at the cathedral for some months he became assistant pastor of the church of the Immaculate Conception, and in January 1857 pastor. He appears to have been recognised as a man of ability, for in September 1858 Archbishop Francis Patrick Kenrick (qv) made him secretary to the Second Provincial Council of St Louis (a meeting of the bishops of the American midwest), and the following November appointed him pastor of St John's parish in the west end of St Louis, with a commission to build a large new church and auxiliary bishop's residence. Bannon proved an effective pastor and fund-raiser; the church was largely complete by March 1861. He also became chaplain to a Missouri state militia company.
Missouri was a slave-holding state, and as the southern states threatened to secede from late 1860 tension developed between supporters and opponents of secession. In May 1860 the St Louis militia units (which had been mustered in camp by the pro-southern governor) were surrounded and forced to surrender to Federal troops supported by union volunteers. Father Bannon may have been among the prisoners (who were subsequently released on parole). During the fighting between Confederate and Federal forces in autumn 1861, many of the disbanded militia made their way south to join the Confederate army. On 15 December 1861 Bannon joined them (without the permission of Archbishop Kenrick, who maintained strict neutrality); Bannon had earlier expressed Confederate views from the pulpit, which placed him in danger of arrest. Bannon's admirers tend to emphasise his pastoral concern for his militiamen and his abandonment of bright chances of promotion in St Louis. In his writings and sermons he presented the Confederacy as defenders of Christian–agrarian civilisation against an aggressive, materialistic North.
Bannon reached the Confederate army near Springfield, Missouri, on 23 January 1862. He was attached to the Missouri light artillery but served as a chaplain-at-large to catholic soldiers; since he was not a regimental chaplain he did not receive official recognition (or a salary) until 12 February 1863, when his appointment by the Confederate war department was backdated to 30 January 1862. He kept a diary of his experiences as a chaplain, which he gave to an American historian in 1907; it is now in the University of South Carolina archives and formed the basis of Philip Tucker's The Confederacy's fighting chaplain (1992). He also wrote ‘Experiences of a Confederate chaplain’ (published in Letters and Notices of the English Jesuit Province, Oct. 1867, 202–6).
Bannon was present at the battle of Elkhorn Tavern, Missouri (7–8 March 1862), and accompanied his unit through the fighting around the strategic rail depot of Corinth in northern Mississippi in 1862–3 and on its posting to Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi river, in March 1863. Broad-shouldered and standing over six feet tall, Bannon was a conspicuous figure on the battlefield and many sources testify to his zeal and physical courage in performing his religious duties during the fighting. (He also served as an artilleryman at moments of crisis.) He remained at Vicksburg throughout the siege until the fortress surrendered on 4 July 1863 and its occupants were taken prisoner. After his release on 4 August Bannon went to Richmond, where on 30 August he was asked by Jefferson Davis and the Confederate secretary of state, Judah Benjamin, to undertake a mission to Ireland to discourage recruitment for the Federal forces.
Bannon arrived in Ireland in November 1864. He wrote to the Nation under the pen name ‘Sacerdos’, supplied John Martin (qv) with material for a series of pro-southern letters, and circulated to parish priests and intending emigrants documents defending the southern cause and quoting pro-Confederate statements by prominent nationalists. In February and March 1864 he toured Ireland giving political lectures. His reports to Benjamin (preserved in the Pickett papers, Library of Congress) claim considerable success in discouraging emigration. The Confederate congress voted him its thanks.
In June 1864 Bannon accompanied Bishop Patrick Lynch (qv) of Charleston on a visit to Rome seeking papal diplomatic recognition. By the time his mission was completed it was clear that the Confederacy faced defeat, and neither the civil nor ecclesiastical authorities in St Louis were likely to look favourably on Bannon. He therefore undertook the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius Loyola (in a thirty-day retreat) and at their conclusion successfully petitioned for admission into the Irish province of the Jesuit order. He spent a year in the Jesuit novitiate at Miltown Park, Dublin (1865–6), and studied dogmatic and pastoral theology at Louvain (1866–7). In 1867–70 he travelled Ireland as part of the Jesuit team of missionary preachers. Thereafter he founded several sodalities in Dublin. The best-known of these was the Young Businessmen's Sodality, to which he remained attached until 1911; he may have been the model for the preacher Father Purdom in the story ‘Grace’ by James Joyce (qv). Bannon was regarded as a particularly eloquent preacher and continued to travel widely within Ireland, holding retreats and giving sermons on special occasions. He served as minister at Tullabeg College in 1880–81 and at the UCD residence in 1882–3, but he proved to lack administrative ability. He may have been the John Bannon who wrote a short life of John Mitchel (qv) published in 1882.
Bannon was superior of the Jesuit community in Upper Gardiner Street, Dublin (1883–9), where he spent the remainder of his life. He never returned to St Louis but continued to correspond with, and receive visits from, old military acquaintances and southern historians. In November 1910 he suffered a slight stroke, which left him partially paralysed. He died 14 July 1913 at the Jesuit residence in Upper Gardiner Street and was buried in the Jesuit plot at Glasnevin cemetery.