Born in 1821 in Annaghdown (better known as Anach Cuain), Co. Galway, Bartholomew Cavanagh was born to John Cavanagh and Kate, née Brown. One of thirteen children, he had four brothers and eight sisters. Bartholomew attended school in Galway and showed early signs of a vocation to the priesthood. On reaching a suitable age, he attended Tuam Diocesan Seminary and then Maynooth College where he was ordained in 1846.
His first appointment was as curate to Westport, which was in the grip of famine. He ministered there for twenty-one years and on his departure the Convent records for the Sisters of Mercy in Westport noted:
‘This beloved priest was so good to the poor, so full of charity for all. He had not only nothing of the world’s wealth but was greatly in debt.’
The Rev. Bartholomew Cavanagh was appointed Parish Priest of Knock-Aghamore in 1867 where he took up residence in the townland of Carramore, Knock. His parochial duties consisted of celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, sick calls and assisting hungry families and evicted parishioners.
Following the Apparition, however, the Archdeacon’s workload increased enormously. His correspondence suddenly grew to 80 letters a day (many of these are on display in Knock Museum), he gave regular interviews and heard the ever-growing number of
pilgrims’ confessions. A Daily Telegraph correspondent, in a newspaper report early in 1880, wrote the
‘We drove to the cottage of the Parish priest and found him in his garden… Archdeacon Cavanagh is reputed along all the countryside as a man of simple piety, gentle manners, and a modest retiring disposition. This character is justified by his appearance. He at once makes a favourable impression…’
Archdeacon Cavanagh was known to practice special devotion to the Mother of God. Some months before the Apparition, he made known to his parishioners his plan to say one hundred masses for the souls in purgatory which our Blessed Mother wished released. Many people think it highly significant that the Apparition occurred within one week of his having said the last of the 100 masses. Archdeacon Cavanagh undoubtedly played a significant role in the rise of Knock Shrine. In October 1879, he began keeping a diary of all cures reported at Knock and in March 1880 the Weekly News began publishing extracts from his Diary. By October of that year the published list of cures had reached 637. His Diary of Cures is on display at Knock Museum.
Cavanagh died on 8th December 1897 and was laid to rest in Knock Parish Church. The Memorial Tablet to his memory reads (Translation from Latin):
‘Pray for the soul of the Venerable Archdeacon Cavanagh, Archdeacon of the Chapter of Tuam, and parish of Knock – Aghamore, whose fame, on account of the extraordinary sanctity of his life and his devotion to the Mother of God, was diffused thus far and wide. Unwearying in the Confessional, assiduous in works of piety, he died, full of years and merits, December 9th, 1897, R.I.P.’