If the Banim brothers are Kilkenny’s most famous men of literature of the 19th century, the Hackett family are arguably its most distinguished in that field of the 20th century. But the Hackett family added medicine, politics and religion to their contribution. There were nine in the family. They lived where the Hibernian Hotel now stands.
The father, Dr John Byrne Hackett, descended from a Cork family which had owned a distillery there and could be deemed among the merchant princes of that city. The doctor himself was born in Crosspatrick and his wife was from Liss near Tullaroan. He fell for her in her milking a cow – cailin deas cruite na mbo-.
Dr John is best remembered for licking wet plaster of paris out of Parnell’s eye when he was assaulted during a bye-election meeting. The incident happened at Castlecomer in December 1890. Emotions were running high following Parnell being cited in a divorce case involving Capt O’Shea and his wife Catherine. Dr Hackett was fiercely loyal to Parnell. His actions are said to have saved Parnell’s sight. What is less well known is that at a subsequent bye- election in Carlow in July 1891 a further assault on Parnell, a week after his wedding to Catherine, resulted in his friend Dr Hackett being hit in the eye by a thrown stone and losing the sight of his eye.
Dr Hackett fell foul of the clergy for his support of Parnell. He was denounced from the altar by the parish priest of St Patrick’s parish, Kilkenny City. While not named, there was no denying the person alluded to, quote – “A doctor who pretended to help the poor, but let his workhouse patients live on skin, bone and offal supplied by a Parnellite butcher”. The priest then denounced Mrs Hackett for joining a Parnellite women’s committee “The women on that committee should be tied to an ass’ back and driven from the city with their faces towards the ass’ tail”. Hackett, father and mother and all the little Hacketts rose up from their pew and left the house of God.
The reverend mother of the Loreto Convent wrote to the Hacketts saying the girls Kathy, Fan and Florence aged 10, 9 and 6 need not come to school on Monday. The doctor replied that if they were denied access he would send them to the Model School which was Protestant. The Reverend Mother promptly retracted the ban.
Despite the friction with the local clergy, the Hacketts sent five sons to Clongowes Wood Jesuit College. The attitude there was more enlightened than that of the local religious. They are said to claim “Give me the child … and I will give you the man”. Dr Hackett had difficulty paying the fees to such a celebrated educational establishment, so they were often waived as a result.
Francis Hackett, one of the younger members was educated in St Kieran’s College, where Thomas MacDonagh, the future signatory of the Proclamation lectured him. He clearly imbibed much of MacDonagh’s nationalism as he emigrated to USA in 1901, dissatisfied with the British Government’s ruling of Ireland. He became a famed writer, writing “Personal History of Henry VIII” in 1929, “The Story of the Irish Nation” and “The Green Lion” in 1936 – a novel of his youth in Kilkenny. He published articles in Standish O’Grady’s “All Ireland Review” and Arthur Griffith’s, “United Irishman”.
In “The Green Lion”, the child Jerry speaks of Kilkenny Castle, quote – “It stood proud over the river. It meant nothing to him at first. Not till he saw it in moonlight, when its old stones revealed themselves in naked massiveness and the towers were moulded into majesty, did Jerry feel its presence”.
The literary Francis, explaining why he felt he had to exile himself from Ireland wrote; “Any Irishman who was born with a silver spoon (like the Hacketts) has had to learn to go his own way. Speaking for himself he couldn’t be a member of the County Club, if it meant running down his own people in the tedious way that all County Clubs have, and he couldn’t be at home in the Working Men’s Club or Catholic Truth Society”.
Florence Hackett was the only member of the family who stayed at home to look after her mother and father. Many in Kilkenny still remember her. She was a famous novelist and wrote “With Benefit of Clergy” and also wrote for “Studies” magazine. It was she who sent on the voluminous Hackett correspondence to Doug Boyd, a Jesuit in Australia from whence Brenda Niall wrote “The Riddle of Father Hackett”, ie Willie Hackett. She had known this Australia based priest of the Hackett family in her youth and felt him worthy of a biography. To her we are greatly indebted for a wonderful story. Assistance from Kilkenny to her came from Mary Flood of Rothe House and the late Frank McEvoy. I shall be happy to interpret Fr Willie’s amazing life for you in my next talk.
- Francis Hackett: The Green Lion
- Brenda Niall: The Riddle of Father Hackett
- Ann Murtagh of Kilkenny
- Mary Flood