Tom Wall writes: John Toland was a leading figure in the early Enlightenment, although, as Fergus Whelan notes in his incisive Dissent into Treason, he is little known ‑ and even less celebrated ‑ in his native land. This may partly explain why mystery surrounds his parentage and the manner of his conversion to Protestantism. All we know is that he was born in the townland of Ardagh in Inishowen in 1670 and converted at the age of fourteen or fifteen. He was enrolled in Redcastle School on the shores of Lough Foyle before attending universities in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Leiden in the Netherlands, all apparently financed by Protestant patrons. Ardagh was, at that time, remote from English or Scottish settlement and there were few Protestants in the wider district. However, there was one significant Protestant contemporary living in his parish, a fellow Gaelic-speaking convert, Rev Daniel (Domhnall) McLaughlin.
Domhnall McLaughlin features in Gaelic folklore. As described in Anthony Nugent’s delightfully eclectic self-published book Legends of the Dispossessed, he and his brother Peadar were on their way to study for the priesthood when they were shipwrecked and given shelter by an English gentleman. Their host offered to pay for their education if they would agree to convert to the established religion. Domhnall accepted but Peadar didn’t and continued on his journey and was ordained. Domhnall became an Anglican minister and the brothers both subsequently returned to Inishowen as rival pastors. There are a number of versions of the story which gave rise to the Gaelic lament “Fil, fil, aroon”, but, whatever about the details, it is beyond doubt that the brothers were real people who both ministered in Clonmany, the parish in which Ardagh was situated, during the time of John Toner’s childhood and adolescence. Domhnall, a university-educated minister, who adapted the name Daniel, was the most likely person to have been the earliest contributor to what Toland later called “the happy instrument of my conversion”.
The two brothers are mentioned in Charles McGlinchey’s reminiscence The Last of the Name. More substantial evidence of their existence is contained in Three Hundred Years in Inishowen, written by Amy Isobel Young and published in 1929. The Young family lived in Culdaff, about ten miles from Clonmany, since the seventeenth century and one of Amy’s forebears, George Young, married a daughter of Domhnall. Based on her ancestor’s notes, Amy confirmed that Daniel McLaughlin was rector of Clonmany from 1672 to 1711 and that his brother, Peter (Peadar) was a priest there also. She wrote:
Daniel had a large well-built church, but no congregation; for even at the present day [1920s] the Protestant population of the parish is practically non-existent. Peter, on the other hand, had a congregation numbering thousands, but their only places of worship were ‘little altars’ which stood by the seaside or on the mountaintops.
Ardagh was in the parish of Clonmany, where the McLaughlin brothers ministered during the time of John Toland’s conversion in 1684 or ’85. It is inconceivable that they would not have known of the child prodigy within their midst, especially as he is likely to have been a pupil in the parish school.
A well-researched paper by the historian Catherine McWilliams, herself a native of Clonmany, adds greatly to the sum of our knowledge on this subject (it is obtainable on https://stcolumbasstraid.com/history/). We learn from her that Daniel McLaughlin was not the first minister of the established church in the parish, although he was the first indigenous Irish-speaking rector. Although largely bereft of worshippers, Domhnall had substantial resources at his disposal. He married into a wealthy family, the Skiptons, of Skipton Hall in Derry, and built what is described by McWilliams as “one of the finest mansions in Inishowen” in nearby Dresden. More relevant to our investigation, the combination of his good fortune and the tithes extracted from the inhabitants allowed him to employ a schoolteacher, John Deniston. Not many schools were attached to rural Church of Ireland parishes with predominantly Catholic populations and Toland would most likely have been schooled there as a boy. Assuming he was, he would have learned English from Mr Deniston, who is likely to have informed Rev McLaughlin that they had a gifted child in their care. The choice of Redcastle as the location for Toland’s further education is further evidence of a link with McLaughlin. Redcastle was the ancestral home of the McLaughlins and Domhnall is believed to have been born there. Their land had been confiscated and was now in the possession of the Cary family. But Domhnall, due to his conversion, had good standing within the Protestant community and is likely to have had friendly relations with the Carys and with Chichester, the primary landlord, who would have been in a position to have a promising student and fellow convert educated there.
There is a story, possible emanating from Toland himself, of an adolescent disputation with a priest on aspects of theology. If such occurred, it is likely to have been with the other McLaughlin brother, the Catholic priest, Peadar. Whatever, the relationship between the two siblings, the Catholic one would not have been happy to lose a member of his flock to heresy. It would be unthinkable for him not to appeal to the lad to reconsider his intent and a dispute may have ensued. Peadar was a Franciscan friar and, as a member of a religious order and not a registered priest, he was likely to have had a price on his head. The fact that he was never arrested, despite, according to contemporary sources, saying Mass outdoors with large crowds in attendance, suggests that his Protestant brother could have protected him to some extent. Daniel was not entirely cut off from his family; his mother, by all accounts, never gave up hope of his return to the true faith and often appealed to him directly. The brothers could not have avoided each other ether, even if they wanted to. There is a story that, on passing each other one day, Domhnall remarked about “one going east the other going west” to which Peadar responded by saying that “one is going up and the other going down”. Amy Young’s version of the story has Peadar adding “and may God judge between us which is which”. It appears that both died in 1711, with Domhnall predeceasing Peader. All accounts describe the priest as being deeply mournful for his brother. This implies that the relationship was not entirely adversarial, and it might explain an unusual episode in Tolland’s life.
Toland was frequently assailed with the accusation that he was a priest and the son of a papist priest; a slander that Jonathan Swift was happy to broadcast. With a view to debunking the libel, Toland visited a Catholic seminary in 1708 where he obtained a written testament, signed by a number of Irish priestly academics, confirming that he was descended “from an honourable, noble and most ancient family”. The institution he visited was the Irish Franciscan College in Prague. The question that is not explained is why there? It may be that he knew in advance that some who taught there were Donegal natives who might know a thing or two about Gaelic genealogy. Two of the signatories were O’Neills, who might have had some connection with the O’Neills of Tyrone and Donegal. But could his knowledge have had something to do with his past relationship with Fr Peadar McLaughlin, a Franciscan friar, who was likely to know, and be known of, in Prague?