A courageous voice for the underprivileged


BISHOP JAMES KAVANAGH: Bishop James Kavanagh, a former auxiliary bishop of Dublin who died on August 8th aged 88, was for a time the most outspoken member of the Catholic Hierarchy on social injustice.

He mediated in industrial disputes as well as in a hunger strike by Provisional IRA prisoners at the Curragh. He was academically gifted, a charismatic figure, a courageous voice for the underprivileged and apparently a most suitable choice to lead the archdiocese but was probably too old when vacancies occurred.

He was a popular figure with fellow priests as well as his flock and he never lost touch with his northside Dublin roots. It was noted that even after his years in Oxford and Cambridge acquiring higher degrees "he still came back with his Dublin accent".

James Kavanagh was born in Dublin on March 3rd, 1914, one of a family of four boys and five girls. His father, John, was a tradesman who lived on the North Circular Road with his wife Brigid (née Kearney). James showed early intellectual prowess by winning scholarships for his results from the Intermediate and Leaving Certificates. He attended O'Connell Schools from 1928 to 1932, where he captained the senior hurling team and played for the Dublin minor team.

He entered the diocesan seminary, Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, from school and at University College Dublin won a first class honours BA in philosophy and the Pierce Malone scholarship in 1935. He was ordained a priest in Maynooth in 1939 and was appointed to teach philosophy in St Patrick's Missionary College, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow.

He was recalled to Dublin in 1942 to serve as an Army chaplain at Clancy Barracks until 1945. Archbishop John Charles McQuaid took what was then an unusual decision to send one of his priests to Oxford University to study economics. James Kavanagh studied at Campion Hall from 1945-47, and obtained a diploma in economic and political science with distinction. While there his sporting talent flourished and he played soccer for Jesus College the year it won the Oxford League.

After working in Dublin's Crumlin and Westland Row parishes for several years, in 1951 he was appointed the first director of the Dublin Institute of Adult Education, which provided theological training for lay teachers to give religious instruction.

In 1954 he was sent to Cambridge University where he was awarded an MA (Hons) in economics. This led to his appointment as a lecturer in UCD in 1956 and he was promoted to professor of social science in 1966.

Two of his colleagues on the college staff, Dermot Ryan and Desmond Connell, were to become archbishops of Dublin. In 1973 it was Dermot Ryan who as archbishop was instrumental in securing the appointment of James Kavanagh as his auxiliary bishop to help him and the two existing auxiliaries, Bishops Patrick Dunne and Joseph Carroll, in running the widespread diocese.

Bishop Kavanagh, as is the tradition, was also appointed Titular Bishop of a defunct diocese, in his case Zerta, Algeria. His wit was illustrated when during a meeting with Cardinal Conway and other bishops he nodded off. The Cardinal suddenly asked: "And what does the Bishop of Zerta think?" The reply came: "The bishop does not know what to think but the people of Zerta are very happy that I am here to represent them."

With his new responsibility for social services in the diocese and president of the Hierarchy's Council of Social Welfare, Bishop Kavanagh lost no time in speaking out on controversial issues. He criticised the Constitution for undue emphasis on individual rights at the expense of the community. He rebuked Dublin Corporation for its approach to inner city development resulting in "Georgian slums" and for the lack of community facilities in new estates in Darndale and Clondalkin.

While usually on the side of the workers in pay disputes and a close friend of several trade union leaders, including James Larkin jnr, he did not hesitate at times to denounce abuses by strikers. On one occasion he said: "The awe of the average Irishman before the fairy fort has been transferred to the strike picket in modern life. Any half-wit by holding up a placard will get hundreds of men to stay away from work." He drew down the wrath of the teachers' unions when in the depressed 1980s he described a proposal for a public sector series of strikes as "national sabotage when so many are without work at all".

He took issue with then Taoiseach, Dr Garret FitzGerald, for his criticism in 1981 of the Republic as a "sectarian state". The bishop said he was "a little hurt and disappointed" at the criticism which would not lead to harmonious discussion. In 1977, he was invited by relatives to mediate in a hunger strike by 14 Provisional IRA members at the Curragh military hospital which had lasted 47 days over conditions at Portlaoise prison. The men agreed to give up their hunger strike . The bishop also added his name to those expressing concern over the convictions of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. In 1984, he urged the then minister for justice, Michael Noonan, to release Nicky Kelly because of the doubts surrounding his conviction for the Sallins train robbery in 1976.

In 1989, he offered his resignation when he reached 75. It was accepted two years later but he remained active in the diocese celebrating confirmations until 1998 and attending meetings of the Dublin Diocese Council of Priests, of which he was a former chairman, and the Dublin Metropolitan Chapter, of which he was dean from 1973 to 1999.

He was a fluent Irish speaker who holidayed in Ballyferriter Gaeltacht. He kept up his interest in soccer and was vice-president of Home Farm club in the 1970s. He liked to golf at Portmarnock and established the James Kavanagh Shield competition for the annual golf outing of priests in the Dublin diocese.

He is survived by his brother, Father Mark and three sisters, Margaret, Teresa, and Breda.

Bishop James Kavanagh: born 1914; died, August 2002