Obituary: Michael J Cassidy, 84

Canon Michael Cassidy helped rescue Irish migrant workers. Picture: contributed
Canon Michael Cassidy helped rescue Irish migrant workers. Picture: contributed
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CANON Michael J Cassidy, a priest who helped rescue Irish migrant workers being exploited in East Lothian, has died, aged 84.

Canon Cassidy was born on August 26, 1929, in Brackloon, near Swindon, County Mayo. The son of headmaster John F Cassidy and his wife, teacher Mary Kate Rooney, he was born into a family of 11 children.

He was initially taught at the local schools but moved to study for the priesthood at St Peter’s College, Wexford. There, in 1954, he was ordained for the archdiocese of Edinburgh and St Andrews by Bishop James Staunton of Ferns in the elegant college chapel designed by Augustus Welby Pugin.

His first parish was St Francis Xavier’s in industrial Falkirk (1954-55) and then at St John Vianney’s in Gilmerton, Edinburgh.

Six years followed in East Lothian, first at the mining heartland of Tranent from 1960-64, and then in the seaside resort of North Berwick from 1964-66. His first appointment as parish priest was then at St Mary’s, Pathhead to allow him to focus on his ministry to migrant workers. In 1976 he was appointed parish priest at St Margaret Mary’s, Granton in Edinburgh.

The then Father Cassidy was given a roving commission to care for the Irish migrant agricultural workers. In the spring of 1971 attention was focussed on the activities of 18 contractors or “gaffers” in East Lothian who employed around 600 men and women in the potato fields.

Along with Fr Michael Walsh of Dunbar, Fr Cassidy became active in highlighting the plight of the potato workers, many of them, alleged Fr Cassidy, the victims of “old slave-type tactics” and intimidation, allegations that he gave substance to in a report submitted to Cardinal Gordon Gray of Edinburgh and St Andrews.

As a result of this report, Gordon Campbell, Secretary of State, directed the Department of Agriculture’s Wages and Safety Inspectorate to investigate the matter.

East Lothian MP John P Mackintosh, Alex Eadie MP and Tom Oswald MP also took a keen interest in the potato workers and what the press referred to as “slave camps”.

By now, the Irish authorities were poised to take action. Stephen Coughlan TD informing the Secretary of State for Scotland that bothies at Humbie Mill in East Lothian and Dunglass Mill in Berwickshire were overcrowded and separate quarters for men and women not provided. The Dalkeith Presbytery of the Church of Scotland expressed grave concern at the ill-treatment of the workers.

Although no prosecutions were ever brought, the public pressure forced changes to be made, and Fr Cassidy, who received death threats for his work to help the migrant workers, was later honoured by the Irish government for his services to his fellow-countrymen.

He retired in 2005, and passed away in his home in Edinburgh on April 8, 2014.