FR John MacNeill
I only have photos of FR John MacNeill as a young man but one can see straight away that he is strong and determined, forthright but, it is said, a gentle character.
He was born in Barra in 1880, the son of the lighthouse keeper at Barra Head lighthouse, Iain Mhicheil. After studies at Blairs and in France, he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop George Smith in 1903. He served first in Eigg (1903-1905), then in Eriskay (1905-1920) From 1914-1919 he served as a chaplain, first to the 5th Queens Own Cameron Highlanders, then, after being invalided out of the Army, he served as a naval chaplain. He was in Daliburgh (1920-1923); Morar (1923-1958). He became a Canon in 1926 and Vicar General in 1946 to Bishop Grant. He died at Morar in 1958.
He was twice ‘mentioned in dispatches’ and received the Military Cross and Bar for bravery in attending to the wounded in battle during World War I. He won his first award at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 and the second at the Battle of Passchendaele in October 1917.
The Battle of Loos was a disaster for the 5th Camerons, They were in the front line but were delayed by ten minutes. Chlorine gas was spread by the British in advance of the attack but the wind changed and the gas blew all over the Camerons waiting to attack. In addition, those who managed to get ‘over the top’ were mown down by enfilading fire. It is estimated that eighty men were left standing from the battalion at the end of the day. That was the action in which thirty or more men from Eochar alone were killed, amongst them Donald MacKay, a member of the Church of Scotland. On the night before the attack, Fr MacNeill had heard the Confessions of the men, celebrated Mass for them, and had given them Holy Communion. Donald asked if he could have the same as the rest despite not being Catholic. MacNeill said that he could but if he survived, he was to go back to what he once was. In other words, he was not to become a Catholic. He then asked MacNeill for a rosary and Fr MacNeill gave him his own. This rosary was placed in the hand of Canon MacQueen’s mother on the night before she died and was buried with her in Ardivachar. Donald had kept it for almost fifty years and he knew very well who had given it to him.
The second award was given to Fr MacNeill for his bravery at the Battle of Passchendaele in October 1917. He was saved by Charlie Lyons, from Mallaig, who married a lady from Vatersay. Father MacNeil was himself very badly wounded and left for dead on the battlefield. It is recorded that, once the fighting bad died down, Charlie Lyons was walking past a group of dead. He noticed, simultaneously, a flicker of life from one of them and that it was the Padre, Father MacNeil – very severely wounded and on the point of death. Charlie lifted the Padre and carried him to the nearest Field Station, where Father MacNeil was treated – and survived. For his actions on that day, Fr MacNeill received a Bar to his Military Cross. The citation read: ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, in going out in front of our lines under intense machine-gun fire to dress the wounded and bring them in. He saved many lives and only gave up when wounded in the lung, left leg and right arm.”
MacNeil was invalided home, he was greatly missed by the whole battalion. The history of the 5th Camerons records: – “He would go over the top with the front line, usually with “A” or “B” company, in which were to be found most of his own flock, and there he would remain day and night until they were relieved.”
Charlie Lyons should not be forgotten. He, too, was a war hero, receiving the Military Medal and Bar for actions of conspicuous bravery.
After a period of recovery and convalescence, Fr MacNeill, his army career over, served as a naval chaplain for the rest of the war. He remained indebted to Charlie Lyons all his days and the two are buried together in the same grave in the cemetery at Morar.
Fr MacNeill was appointed to Daliburgh in 1920 and built the first church at Garrynamonie, a photo of which is included here and dedicated it to ‘Mathair na Dorainne’ ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’. In 1923 he was appointed to Morar. There he built St Patrick’s in Mallaig, opened in 1935. It is one of the most beautiful and well kept churches in our Diocese. He served on Inverness County Council for many years and was very proud to be invited each year to the Regimental Dinner held in Cameron Barracks, Inverness.
Fr MacNeill was to be the parish priest of Morar for 35 ye
ars, held in great esteem and deeply loved by his people. For the last few years of his life a number of young priests were sent to stay with him and help him. Amongst these, Fr Angus MacQueen stayed with him for three years. For the young Fr MacQueen, MacNeill was the mentor and guide.
Article by Fr. Michael J. MacDonald