Cannon Joseph Canton was born in 1850 in the parish of Aglish, Castlebar Co. Mayo in Linenhall Street. His father Michael Canton, who was a teacher in the 1850s in a small school prior to the De La Salle School. He was the eldest of five children.
Cannon Canton went to school in the Diocesan College, St. Jarlath’s, Tuam.
In order to study for the priesthood, he travelled to the Irish College in Paris in September 1871. This college had been closed for some time because of the Franco- Prussian war, and had just re-opened on the day Joseph Canton arrived.
He was ordained by Archbishop John McHale in Tuam Cathedral on the 8 November 1874 and immediately became Professor of the Second Department of the Humanities in St. Jarlath’s College where he taught Science, History and French. Fr. Canton was sent to the parish of Killascobe – Menlough in 1876, Cong in 1877 and back to the Cathedral in Tuam 1878 – 1890 where he was Curate and was appointed Administrator in 1888.
Archbishop McHale died on 7 November 1881 and was succeeded by his Co-Adjutor and Bishop of Galway, Killmachduagh and Kilfinora, John McEvilly, a native of Louisburgh, County Mayo.
Fr Canton, because of his activity in the Irish Land League and the position he took with the tenant farmers’ cause and his involvement with the GAA, was sent out to Connemara as PP of Ballinakill in 1890 where Archbishop McEvilly had set up the industrial school in Letterfrack in that parish.
Canon Mac-Andrew who was there was appointed to Athenry but after a few months there he requested to be sent back to Connemara so Fr Canton found himself in Athenry in 1891 where he lived for the next 19 years. In 1893 he was appointed Canon.
In Athenry he found himself in the middle of a land war. The division of land through the various Land Acts was a slow process and many tenants in the Athenry area were very impatient and often took the law into their own hands. He continued to advocate for their rights and in 1893 became president of the Athenry Branch of the Irish National Federation. Canon Canton, known locally as “The Canon” rowed in behind the Athenry Town Tenants League and many of the tenants in Athenry town were successful in getting houses and land in 1908.
He worked strenuously for the welfare of Athenry and its inhabitants and made numerous representations to the authorities on their behalf and as a result he got improvements to the infrastructure of the town and is credited for the start of the water and sewerage works. During the process of renovating the Parish Church he acquired the entrance gates and railings of Tiaquin House and they adorned his church until the new church was built by Cannon Conor Heaney in the 1960s.
He was responsible for inviting the Presentation Sisters to establish a school in Athenry. When they came, in 1908, he gave them his parochial house, Cullairbaun, as a convent and rented a house in the town until his new house was built.
The Cannon was very fond of music and played and sang and the church choir was renowned for its very high standard.
After a very eventful life in the Parish of Athenry he died on 14th August 1920 and the huge crowds at the funeral showed the esteem in which he was held by his parishioners.
The Tuam Herald of August 21st,1920 gave an account of the funeral – … “His Grace the Archbishop presided at the Solemn Requiem Mass for the late Canon Canton at Athenry on Tuesday, and his Lordship Most Rev. Dr. O’Dea, Bishop of Galway, and about 50 priests were present in the choir. The celebrant of the Mass was Rev E. J McGough, C.C., Athenry; deacon, Rev John Greally, P.P., Abbey; sub-deacon, Rev Ml. Daly, S.T.L., Diocesan Inspector: master of ceremonies, Rev. Thomas Lynch, C.C Athenry…”
“The funeral took place after Mass to the Boyhill Cemetery about half a mile from Athenry. The Archbishop and Bishop, in their purple robes and the surplice’d priests headed the cortege, chanting the “Miserere” and “De Profundis”. The Archbishop performed the last rites at the graveside”.
Two of his sisters lived with him in Athenry and one of them died before him. After his death Mary Canton lived in Caheroyan until her death in 1927. They are both buried with him.
Normally priests of the parish were buried in the church cemetery but the Canon choose to be laid to rest with his flock who gave him the highest honour by burying him in Rathcruacha overlooking the town of Athenry. Here, from this ringfort, the chieftains of B’láth ‘n Rí ruled the town for a thousand years before the Norman invaders set foot in the territory.
Written by Finbarr O'Regan
Published here 16 Aug 2021
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