Obituary: Bishop Donald Caird

During the ‘peace process’ Caird reflected the outlook of Southern members of the Church of Ireland

Born: December 11th, 1925

Died: June 1st, 2017

Born in Dublin in the early years of the Free State, Donald Caird took pride in his ancestry in the capital, in a rich and varied life that reached beyond its city limits in scope and effect.

He had a conventional upbringing as a Church of Ireland boy in the middle-class suburb of Ranelagh. As a pupil at Wesley College facing State examinations in the early 1940s, his father George dispatched him to the west Kerry Gaeltacht of Dún Chaoin to improve his Irish. There he met legendary characters such as Peig Sayers (who had a "face alive with amusement") and an ancient civilisation revealed itself to him: a living tradition which he had never suspected during his struggles with textbooks.


Subsequent stays with the Ó Guithín family on the Blasket Islands wrought a profound impression: “To learn another language is to gain another life, or at least to enter another world where the spirit may be refreshed and invigorated.”

He was enthralled to discover his coreligionists worship through Irish at Kilmalkeadar church in Dun Chaoin. Back in Dublin he began attending services run by Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise, encountering Dr Kathleen Lynn, a veteran of the 1916 Rising, whom he recalled as wearing pince-nez spectacles and a long fur coat which she struggled to keep out of the spokes of her bicycle wheel.

He studied philosophy in Trinity College, and had a distinguished academic career, winning a number of prizes.

His first curacy in Dundela, east Belfast, in the 1950s brought him face to face with the shipyards' mainly Protestant working class community, whose integrity and forthrightness he came to admire. He relished an encounter with an illustrious son of Dundela parish, the great Christian apologist CS Lewis, whom he found to be "refreshingly free from self-absorption" and keen to know the other person's position.

Belfast, and a subsequent chaplaincy at Portora Royal School (in Enniskillen), afforded him an insight into the other side of partition: a state dominated by the unionist interest where he perceived an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in the minority community. A brief period of lectureship in Wales followed in the late 1950s.

It was while rector in Rathmichael parish in the early 1960s that Cupid intervened and Caird made the acquaintance of a visiting American, Nancy Ballantyne Sharpe. They married, and Nancy opened up a new perspective on life for Caird, proving a wellspring of love and support throughout his life and ministry, their partnership radiating happiness to friends and colleagues.

After serving briefly in Kilkenny as dean of Ossory, Caird was called to episcopal office. His time as bishop of Limerick coincided with the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and he became a consistent advocate for moderation, warning in 1974: "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."

Like his hero Douglas Hyde, he encouraged the depoliticisation of the Irish language. A committed ecumenist, he enjoyed warm relations with Cardinal Ó Fiaich and Archbishops McNamara and Connell. He advocated greater Protestant participation in the Army, Garda and local authorities; themes which he continued as bishop of Meath and Kildare.

As archbishop of Dublin from 1985 to 1996, in the era of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and subsequent peace process, Caird complemented the leadership of archbishop of Armagh Robin Eames in reflecting the outlook of Southern members of the Church of Ireland.

As archbishop he was also ipso facto leading spokesperson for the Southern minority during the era of the great “liberal agenda” debates on divorce, abortion and contraception in the 1980s and early 1990s.

He advocated a clear distinction between the scope of church teaching and the reach of the civil law. It was not his style to issue diktats to those in his flock and beyond who might be listening; he sought rather to plant a seed for his listeners – the philosopher coming through.

A traditionalist instinct lay behind his wariness of women’s ordination: he worried about relations with other churches: “we are Anglicans not lemmings”. But once the Synod made its decision, he accepted it and ordained one of the first woman priests in the Republic, the Rev Ginnie Kennerley.

Caird maintained a lifelong association with Kerry, buying a cottage there while bishop of Limerick, to which he would repair en famille in the summer, visiting local people and enjoying their company.

His wit and gentle sense of humour delighted his episcopal colleagues. Juggling a schedule which frequently involved attending events in parishes until late at night, he was a renowned "power-napper", settling into his armchair for a brief snooze after lunch. He would relax watching Dad's Army, reading biographies, and sitting at the kitchen table catching up on family news.

He is survived by his wife Nancy, children Ann, John and Helen; and his grandchildren.