Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich, 30 Years on

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Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, 30 Years On  

John Cooney

Tuesday May 8, 1990 had been quiet in the Irish Times newsroom. A colleague and I were preparing to leave ahead of closing time to enjoy a few pints in Bowes Bar when an anxious-looking Renagh Houlihan, news desk duty editor,  came over and whispered to me: ‘We are getting reports that Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich has died suddenly in France. Will you check this out?’

Immediately, I rang Fr Raymond Murray, the cathedral administrator in Armagh, to find out if the rumour was true, but before I could even pose the question, he said with palpable grief in his voice:  ‘Yes, John, I’m afraid the Cardinal has died of a heart-attack.’ 

I signalled to Renagh that the cardinal was indeed dead, and as she began organising a team of reporters who included Mark Brennock, Jim Cusack and Kate Holmquist to assist in next day’s lead story. I obtained from Fr Murray details of the circumstances surrounding the cardinal’s premature passing, at age 66, while leading Armagh’s diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes.[i]

In the days that followed the national and international media gave massive coverage to the cardinal’s untimely death. The Irish Press group despatched Aidan Hennigan and Tom O’Mahony to Lourdes, while the Irish Independent group sent Joe Power. I remained in Dublin to coordinate coverage primarily based on reports from the Irish Times Paris Correspondent, Katherine Hone, who travelled to the Marian shrine. Photographs showed a strained-looking cardinal addressing the Armagh pilgrims at his last Mass in Lourdes grotto before he was taken to hospital in Toulouse, where he died.  

I was among the journalists at Cardinal Ó Fiaich’s funeral on Tuesday May 15 in Armagh Cathedral who heard Bishop Cahal Daly, later cardinal primate, declaring to a huge congregation which included President Patrick Hillery, Taoiseach Charles Haughey, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, and Sinn Fein leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, that ‘Cardinal Ó Fiaich was totally opposed to all use of violence purporting to advance nationalist aims.’ [ii]


His stature as one of the most significant figures of twentieth century Irish Catholicism was affirmed by the range of tributes. He was the first priest for 100 years to become archbishop of Armagh without having been bishop in between, and the first local priest for 800 years. ‘No Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh was more embroiled in politics this century than Cardinal Ó Fiaich,’ wrote Maurice Manning, ‘Yet no cardinal was less of a traditional ecclesiastical politician than he. For many Unionists his enthusiasms for the Irish language, Gaelic games, his republican views and his concern over republican prisoners in the Maze Prison, confirmed their deep-seated suspicions about his long-term motives.  He had to deal consistently with Margaret Thatcher’s Government which was sometimes insensitive, arrogant or simply uninformed.’

Professor Manning, a Fine Gael T.D., acknowledged that most Fine Gael and Labour politicians viewed him (fairly or unfavourably) as an instinctive Fianna Fáiler.’ [iii] This observation struck me as accurate when I reported for the Irish Times de Valera’s funeral in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral on September 23, 1975 at which the homily was preached by Monsignor Ó Fiaich, then President of Maynooth.[iv] 

Fellow Armaghman and deputy leader of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, said that had he known it was to be the last farewell when they met in Mullaghbawn on the Friday before his suddent, he would  have told him that that people had listened and turned their backs on violence in response to his pleas. ‘But most of all I’d have told him that we admired and respected him.’

Recalling that Ó Fiaich’s elevation to Armagh in 1977 was a traumatic shock to the British Government which ‘bit its stiff upper-lip, and studiously denied that it had turned every diplomatic stone to prevent the appointment’, and that in the North, unionists found it easy to respond to those vibes – after all, wasn’t he a GAA fan who spoke Irish and came from Crossmaglen.’


Mallon also noted that ‘Northern nationalists saw it all differently. Tom Fee was one of their own, a Northerner, the first Armagh man since St Malachy to be Cardinal. He was of their soul; he shared their roots; he knew their pulse. He was aware of their suffering – economically and socially yes, but perhaps more deeply their political and cultural isolation from the rest of Ireland. To them he epitomised that unique fusion of religious allegiance and political identity which goes to make up the Northern Catholic nationalist. From the day of his appointment he was their man – and to hell with the begrudgers. As murder followed murder, he was to be found in the homes of the bereaved. When the trauma of the hunger strikes moved inextricably towards stark tragedy he was in the prisons, in 10 Downing Street, in Rome, trying to save lives and to prevent the emotional haemorrhage which he knew would follow. After the slaughter of worshippers in the Mountain Lodge Pentecostal Church, he was in their homes too, offering sympathy and consolation.[v]  

Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, Robin Eames, stressed Cardinal Ó Fiaich’s commitment to ecumenism. ‘His ecumenical spirit and a yearning to understand other Christian traditions were never really appreciated by Protestants. In private conversations he would say “Can you tell me what really worries Protestants?”’ [vi] 


In a coincidence which would have elicited a chuckle and a puff of his pipe from Cardinal Ó Fiaich, his death was recorded in the 150th anniversary edition of the international Catholic weekly journal, The Tablet. Enda McDonagh, professor of moral theology at Maynooth, observed that becoming a cardinal ‘did not alter in any way his relations with people. He remained what he had been when he was ordained in 1948, a people’s priest, a more contemporary, more engaging and, above all, a more democratic version of the traditional Irish pastor, the sagart aroon.’

For McDonagh, Ó Fiaich broke with episcopal remoteness and the image of the authority figure. In his egalitarian attitudes he was a quintessentially modern man and a truly Christian disciple, as he met with rich and poor, powerful and powerless. From Unity Secretariat in Rome to Dublin Castle reception for the King of Spain, to Gaelic football match in Croke Park or Travellers’ site or prison, Cardinal Ó Fiaich moved confidently and kindly, knowing people’s names and remembering their interests, their joys and their sorrows. The pompous, authoritarian image of bishop could not survive the impact of a cardinal so much at ease in the convivial company of Irish musicians or footballers or Lourdes pilgrims. Episcopacy and apostolicity were finally restored to the people.

In all that nature and grace combined beautifully. His more systematic contributions to Irish Catholicism derived from his early commitment to Irish (Gaelic) language and culture and his later specialisation in the history of early Irish Christianity. Le catholicisme du type irlandais, which has benefited from the robust pastoral engagement of Irish priests had largely lost touch even in Ireland with the substance of its early Gaelic spirituality. This rich heritage was no longer nourishing a modern faith. Tomás Ó Fiaich strove throughout his life to give back to the Irish people something of this remarkable rich heritage.

It was not all the fault of his critics. The cardinal was intuitive in judgement, in action impulsive and given to improvisation; the limitations of a warm and imaginative human being. He was not systematic in his thinking or strategic in his planning and activity. He had little of the managerial skills and tactical mind of his predecessor, Cardinal William Conway, whose management of the Irish Church through the difficulties of post-Vatican II reform and the early years of the Northern Troubles could not be emulated by his much warmer but less calculating successor. On a number of occasions he accepted the principle of the separation of Church and State in Ireland and indicated that the constitutional provisions on divorce, would change in the context of a united Ireland. He did not follow this through in the public debates in the Republic, yielding, it would seem, to the more conservative views of the two Dublin archbishops, Dermot Ryan and Kevin McNamara.’ [vii]   

Within three months of the cardinal’s death, a slim book was written by former priest and head of religious programmes at RTÉ, Billy FitzGerald, drawing on their production of television documentaries made in the footsteps of Ireland’s wandering missionaries across Europe, particularly Sts Columbanus, Kilian and Oliver Plunkett.[viii]  

Tom O’Mahony and I planned a joint biography of the cardinal. With a view to obtaining a British publisher I contacted our Oxford-based friend, Peter Hebblethwaite, for recommendations about how to approach the London market. Peter, a former Jesuit and editor of The Month, was the premier Vaticanologist. Unfortunately, Peter shared the British Establishment’s negative view of Cardinal Ó Fiaich as being pro-IRA and a theological lightweight. So nothing came of our initiative. For our prospective project, however, I compiled a hefty file of speeches, interviews and anecdotes on Cardinal Ó Fiaich which, three decades on, provides invaluable source material unavailable on the internet.


Indeed, few Irish prelates have left more tangible monuments dedicated to scholarship than Cardinal Ó Fiaich as the founder-editor of Seanchas Ard Marcha, the journal of the Armagh Historical Society. It has published memories by colleagues such as Seán Brady, recalling that when Rector of the Pontifical Irish  College in Rome in the 1980s, he enjoyed picking up Cardinal Ó Fiaich at Fiumicino Airport, hearing from him the latest GAA results as ‘he struggled usually unsuccessfully to light his pipe and recover from the smokeless flight.’ [ix] 

In 1999 the splendid Ó Fiaich Library and Archive was opened in the cathedral grounds in Armagh containing his books and papers as well as those of his primatial predecessors. Plans for the opening of his personal papers as Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland from 1977 to 1990 under the 30 years rule have been delayed not least on account of the Corona Virus Epidemic but also as a result of slippage in opening the papers of Cardinal William Conway, 1963-1977. This may prove no great disadvantage as the extensive collection of the papers of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, which I first explored in the Dublin archdiocesan archives for my 1999 biography Ruler of Catholic Ireland, have at least another two years of extractions before this rich minefield is declared officially exhausted. Not open for inspection yet are the papers of McQuaid’s successors, Dermot Ryan, Kevin McNamara and Cardinal Desmond Connell. No doubt, too, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, has been preparing his bulky papers for posterity, now that he reached the obligatory date for offering his resignation to Pope Francis in April 2020.


Exactly 30 years on from Cardinal Ó Fiaich’s death, his legacy as one of the most significant figures of twentieth century Irish Catholicism is growing. In 1997, with the publication of Paul Routledge’s perceptive and significant biography of John Hume, focus was placed on Cardinal Ó Fiaich’s exceptional influence on the shaping of the future Nobel Laureate’s political philosophy. Hume came under Ó Fiaich’s spell in 1953 when the Armagh man became the Derry seminarian’s history tutor at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. Routledge spotted how the sociable Ó Fiaich was to the fore in removing traditional barriers which had distanced professors from students. ‘First The Tablet appeared,’ Routledge wrote, opening up Hume’s mind beyond the narrow horizons of pre-Vatican II theology,  and then in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, seminarians were allowed to read the Irish Independent and the Irish Press.

Again, under Ó Fiaich’s supervision Hume’s M.A. thesis, entitled ‘Social and Economic Aspects of Growth of Derry, 1825-50’, became the basis of his plan for Derry’s development in the post-1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement era. Furthermore, Ó Fiaich’s specialist expertise on Ireland’s missionaries in Europe such as St Columbanus is detectable in Hume’s decision in 1979 to run for membership of the European Parliament; and even before Hume broadened ‘the Irish Question’ through his engagements with President Jimmy Carter and the ‘Four Horsemen’ –  House of Representatives Speaker, Tip O’Neill, Senators Ted Kennedy, and Daniel Moynihan and New York Governor, Pat Carey – Ó Fiaich had visited America regularly, speaking out, time and time again, against Irish-Americans sending financial support to the Provisional IRA. It was Hume who brought this diplomacy with America to political fulfilment with President Bill Clinton.[x] 


In 2011 Bishop Edward Daly published an important memoir on the preparations for the 1979 visit to Ireland by Pope John Paul during which a strong bond was forged between the Polish pontiff and the Irish primate through their interest in early Irish missionaries, and of how during those days from September 29 to October 2, Cardinal Ó Fiaich ‘never stopped smiling. He was happy and radiant, beaming all over’.[xi] 

It was in September 1975 that I first met then Monsignor Ó Fiaich at a launch by Veritas Publications of his Columbanus and my No News is Bad News. For me, he embodied the ideal that ‘A Catholic intellectual formation requires more than a knowledge of philosophy and church teaching. History is also needed,’ as expounded by Christopher Dawson in The Making of Europe, an Introduction to the History of European Unity.  He invited me to lunch and placed me on his right hand side at his top table in Maynooth.

Reopening my Ó Fiaich file, 30 years on, I discovered a cache of seven letters from him to me as Humbert School director. The last time we met was in January 1990 at Ara Coeli where assembled scholars discussed developments in Irish ecclesiastical history: an encounter re-establishing Armagh as a centre of historical exchanges in the manner of the studia of medieval Europe.

His last letter thanked me for informing him that his paper on The Irish Colleges in France, delivered in Castlebar in 1989, would be published during the 1990 August Humbert School. ‘The Bishop Stock lecture will be an interesting experience for me.’[xii]

Rather than have an empty pulpit where the cardinal would have surely opened new ecumenical horizons, I recounted my contacts with him, saying the next step in our relationship was for him to become the Humbert School patron.  That baton was taken over by John Hume.

My abiding memory is of Cardinal Ó Fiaich, pipe in mouth and glass in hand, in Bessie’s bar, overlooking Kilcummin Strand, giving an impromptus lecture on Irish priests in Mayo politics, a moment immortalised by Alan Murdoch in The Independent.

John Cooney, historian and a former religious affairs correspondent, is preparing Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, Ireland’s Lost Peacemaker


[i]. Irish Times, 9 May 1990.

[ii]. Irish Times, May 16, 1990.

[iii]. Sunday Press, May 13, 1990

[iv]. See Nollaig Ó Muraile, Homily at Eamon de Valera’s Funeral Mass, 1975, Seanchas Ard Macha, Volume 26, No. 2, 2017.

[v]. Sunday Press, May 13, 1990.

[vi]. Sunday Press, May 13, 1990.

[vii]. The Tablet, May 19, 1990

[viii]. Billy FitzGerald, Father Tom, An Authorised Portrait of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, Collins, Fount Paperbacks, 1990.

[ix]. Seanchas Ard Macha, Volume 26, No. 2, 2017.

[x]. John Hume, Harper-Collins Publishers, 1997.

[xi]. Edward Daly, A Troubled See, Four Courts Press, 2011.

[xii].  Cardinal Ó Fiaich to John Cooney, 26 January 1990. See John Cooney and Bernard Treacy O.P. Dialogue towards Peace & Justice, The Bishop Stock Addresses, Dominican Publications, 1990. Cardinal Tomas Ó Fiaich, The Irish Colleges in France, Foreword by John Cooney, Veritas Publications, 1990.

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