Retired Church of Ireland Archbishop led his community to places they had not been

Donald Caird presented Irish language as offering possibility for mutual understanding

‘Dr Donald Caird’s  first curacy in east Belfast in the 1950s brought him face to face with the working-class community of the shipyards.’  Photograph: Jack McManus

‘Dr Donald Caird’s first curacy in east Belfast in the 1950s brought him face to face with the working-class community of the shipyards.’ Photograph: Jack McManus


If “the child is the father of the man” we may trace influences in Donald Caird’s career to his schooldays in Wesley College in the 1940s. Following a paltry showing in Irish, an Irish-speaking friend of his father, George, advised the boy be dispatched to the Gaeltacht.

This led to Co Kerry, where stays with local families (including Kruger Kavanagh’s) and experience of cuartaíocht (house-visiting) opened his eyes to an ancient, yet living, culture and led to an encounter with Blasket islands storyteller Peig Sayers.

Back in Dublin, he attended services of Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise, meeting members such as 1916 veteran Kathleen Lynn, who “spoke Irish with an Oxford accent”.

Lodging on the Blaskets with the Ó Guithín family and observing its people as they sailed across a stormy sound to Sunday Mass on the mainland wrought a deep impression on the soul and mind of the middle-class Church of Ireland boy from Dublin suburbia.

He realised that: “To learn another language is to gain another life, or at least to enter another world where the spirit may be refreshed and invigorated . . .”

Voice of moderation

His first curacy in east Belfast in the 1950s brought him face to face with the working-class community of the shipyards.

When the Troubles erupted in the 1970s, he was a consistent voice for moderation and reconciliation, prophetically warning in 1974 (when Bishop of Limerick): “History cautions (non immemor in pace vivere), do not forget that at some time you will have to live in peace and face the consequences of your action and live with those with whom you now fight.”

As Bishop of Meath he lauded Pope John Paul II’s plea for peace in Drogheda in 1979 and became the first Anglican bishop to preach in the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral. While Archbishop of Dublin in the mid-1980s he worked alongside Archbishop Robin Eames of Armagh, the pair complementing each other in reflecting, respectively, the anxieties and concerns of the nationalist and unionist communities over the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and later, the peace process and decommissioning of IRA arms.

Donald sought to present the Irish language as offering possibilities for mutual understanding rather than division, pointing to the Church of Ireland’s history of engagement with it. His hero Douglas Hyde had lamented the coming of politics into the Gaelic League in 1915. Prior to that there had been much revivalist interest among Ulster’s Protestants, one Richard O’Kane signing the minutes of his local Orange Lodge Ristéard Ó Catháin.

Cross-section of friends

Echoing his Blasket experiences, friendly relationships with those from differing backgrounds were founded upon shared interests: with Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, the Irish language (himself and Bishop Walton Empey enjoying soirées hosted at Ara Coeli in Armagh); with Archbishop Desmond Connell, philosophy; with Archbishop Kevin McNamara, process theology; and with president Patrick Hillery, cold-water swimming (near Corbawn Lane, Shankill, while Donald was rector at Rathmichael in the 1960s).

A traditionalist by instinct, Donald suggested in 1989 that a precipitous decision by the General Synod to ordain women might liken the assembly to a herd of lemmings. When it disagreed, he loyally rowed in behind the decision, and ordained one of the first women in the Republic, Ginnie Kennerley.

He privately regretted the introduction of divorce, but was a realist about marriage breakdown. Steering the church through debates on divorce, abortion and contraception, he referred to the “inalienable right” of married couples to plan their families.

Rather than issue diktats, he sought to plant a seed for his listeners (which ranged beyond the Church of Ireland). His Archdeacon, Gordon Linney, speaking of him, echoed Henry Kissinger’s definition of leadership: “someone who leads his people to a place where they have not been”.

Aonghus Dwane is author of a new biography, Donald Caird, Church of Ireland Bishop, Gaelic Churchman: A Life, published by Columba Press

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