John Martin Hayes, Irish Catholic priest and the founder of Muintir na Tíre, a national rural community development organisation, is born on November 11, 1887, in an Irish National Land League hut at Murroe, County Limerick.
Hayes is born into a family languishing in poverty. One of ten siblings, seven of Hayes’ brothers and sisters die of malnutrition and disease over a twelve-year period. The family had been evicted from Lord Cloncurry‘s estate in 1872 for non-payment of rent, forcing them into destitution. The family returns to the estate in 1894.
Hayes is educated by the Jesuits at Crescent College, Limerick and thereafter studies for the priesthood in St. Patrick’s College, Thurles. In 1907 he goes to the Irish College in Paris where he is ordained in 1913. He enjoys this time in France greatly, a period highlighted by the beatification of Saint Joan of Arc in 1909. From 1915 to 1924 he works in Liverpool before returning to Ireland to serve as curate in Castleiney and later in Tipperary Town. Previous to 1916, he is a supporter of the Irish Volunteers, and his brother Mick becomes a leading member of the Limerick Irish Republican Army, however, he effectively misses the Irish revolutionary period as he is sent to work in Liverpool between 1915 and 1924.
During the 1920s Hayes becomes an admirer of Benito Mussolini, with whom he is granted an audience during a visit to Rome in 1930. He is intrigued by corporatism and comes to believe it can uplift rural communities. Similarly, he is influenced by continental movements such as the Belgian Boerenbond league, which encourages rural inhabitants to form cooperatives.
Hayes comes to national prominence with the foundation of Muintir na Tíre in 1931, a rural development organisation which has core principles of neighbourliness, self-help and self-sufficiency. It is to act as a rural self-help group based on collective parish organisation with a strong emphasis on the teaching of the papal encyclicals Rerum novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo anno (1931). He is successfully able to draw on the power of the media, Irish newspapers and radio, to promote Muintir na Tíre and quickly becomes a figure of national prominence in doing so. In promoting and developing Muintir na Tíre Hayes resists calls in some quarters to limit the membership to Catholics, remarking “this country is becoming so Catholic it forgets to be Christian.” Nonetheless, under his leadership, there is eventually an overlap in membership between Muintir na Tíre and the Catholic fraternal organisation the Knights of Saint Columbanus.
Hayes is appointed parish priest of Bansha and Kilmoyler in County Tipperary in 1946. Due largely to his endeavours, a factory, Bansha Rural Industries, is started and enjoys some success producing preserves for the Irish home market. Bansha is to the forefront in developing many Muintir na Tíre initiatives and for a time in the 1950s enjoys the soubriquet of The Model Parish.
A lifelong teetotaller, a highlight of Hayes’ career is his address to the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association in Croke Park in June 1949 to celebrate their 50th year of operation. The event is the largest Catholic gathering in Dublin since the Eucharistic Congress of 1932.
Hayes spearheads many initiatives including rural electrification, the “Parish Plan for Agriculture,” and the setting up of small industry in rural areas in an attempt to stop emigration. He is later made a canon of his cathedral chapter.
Hayes dies on January 30, 1957 in a Tipperary nursing home following a minor operation. His funeral in Bansha is a national occasion, attended by leaders of Church and State. His grave is at the rear of the Church of the Annunciation, Bansha. He is later commemorated on an Irish postage stamp.