OBITUARY: Cardinal Cahal Daly


Cardinal Cahal Daly was born in the village of Loughguile, near the Glens of Antrim, on October 1st, 1917.

He was the third of seven children. His father, a primary school teacher, originally came from Keadue, Co Roscommon, while his mother was from Co Antrim.

The family background was happy and devout with a strong emphasis on education. As a boy he was educated at the local national school and St Malachy's College in Belfast, one of Northern Ireland's foremost Catholic schools. Novelist Brian Moore was a contemporary there. He took a classics degree at Queen's University under a man he greatly admired, the Presbyterian nationalist Professor of Latin, R.M.Henry.

Cahal Daly then attended the Catholic Church’s national seminary at Maynooth. He was ordained in June 1941 for the diocese of Down and Connor. He said he did not remember a time when he did not want to be a priest.

In 1945 he received a doctorate in divinity from Maynooth and in the early 1950s he did post- graduate studies in philosophy at the Institut Catholique in Paris. It was the beginning of a lifelong affection for France where he spent most of his holidays in later life.

Back in Belfast he became classics master at his old school, St Malachy's, for a year before being appointed lecturer in scholastic philosophy at Queen's University in 1946. It was a job he was to do for 21 years.

In the early 1960s he attended the Second Vatican Council, firstly as an adviser to Bishop William Philbin of Down and Connor, and then as theologian to the then Catholic Primate, Cardinal William Conway.

By then he was already establishing himself both as an authority on Vatican II and as one of the Irish Catholic Church's foremost intellectuals, with a particular interest in social studies and moral philosophy.

He also showed an early interest in the media, becoming a member of BBC Northern Ireland's religious advisory committee, the British Independent Television Authority's advisory committee and then an RTÉ Catholic television interim committee.

In 1967 he was appointed Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, a midlands diocese covering parts of seven counties including Longford where St Mel’s cathedral and the bishop’s house is located. St Mel’s was badly burned in a fire on Christmas Eve. It was while he was based there that Cardinal Daly become one of the hierarchy's most outspoken and widely-quoted members, producing a addresses on subjects as varied as emigration, industrial disputes, socialism, abortion, education and the gap between rich and poor.

But in 1969, with the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland, he turned to the theme which would dominate the rest of his clerical career, political violence in Ireland.

One typical such year where this pre-occupation of his was concerned would be 1972. In his New Year's Day address that year he urged a more balanced reading of history which would do greater justice to the contribution made to Irish freedom and democracy by peaceful and constitutional movements for change.

In May he spoke on a related theme, which he would emphasise again and again over the years, the impossibility of coercing nearly a million Northern Ireland unionists into a united Ireland. He believed, however, that they could be persuaded, although it would be a "demanding, slow, difficult" task.

In August he said British and world opinion, which in 1969 had been convinced of the injustice of the Stormont regime, were by then sickened and alienated by the ruthlessness and intransigence of the IRA's campaign of violence. Such forthright denunciations of the IRA were to make him something of a hate figure among republicans.

In that same address, however, Cardinal Daly also showed the same strict orthodoxy which always marked his position on socio-sexual questions in the Republic. He rejected arguments for removing the constitutional ban on divorce and opposed any change in the law banning artificial means of contraception. He also forcefully argued against any secularisation of education in the Republic.

When it came to any controversy involving faith and practice in the Irish Catholic Church, Cardinal Daly stood out as its most forceful and coherent spokesman. He always stressed that his primary concern, in his condemnations of republican violence and sexual permissiveness, was the dangers of moral degeneracy and corruption among his flock.

This compass, however, would fail him when it came to the emergence of the clerical child sex abuse scandals towards the end of his period in office during the mid-1990s.

Still, in 1974 he said there was "probably no greater factor of de-Christianisation at present at work in Ireland than the continuing violence'', adding that the Provisional leaders were dragging Irish republicanism into the gutter and making it "a synonym of shame'.'

Such scathing and indeed courageous denunciations did not prevent him from being at the receiving end of bitter criticism from unionist politicians and the British media. An instance occurred in August 1976 when, during yet another appeal to the IRA to end their violence, he said they were not psychopaths or criminal types, but were sincere, and had shown courage, endurance and ability.

The Cardinal always emphasised the importance of ecumenical dialogue. In 1976 he was co-chairman, with former Methodist president Rev Eric Gallagher, of the inter-church working party which produced the report Violence in Ireland. It proposed some practical ideas for improving inter-community relations, such as a committee to examine ways of improving contacts between the North's religiously-divided schools.

In 1979 he wrote an open letter to Northern Protestants in which he appealed to them "to believe that no community in Western Europe is likely to be as sympathetic and supportive towards your Protestant religious beliefs and principles as are Irish Catholics. Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants can and must help one another to stay faithful to Christ in a world where more and more people walk away from him.''

However, he spoke with the authentic voice of Roman Catholic orthodoxy when he restated firmly the Church's opposition to women's ordination at the world Anglican Lambeth Conference in July 1978. His address came barely a week after a report by a working group of senior Anglican and Catholic theologians had not excluded the possibility of progress towards mutual understanding on this issue.

By then Cardinal Daly was widely recognised as the main intellectual force behind, and usually the actual writer of, the Irish Bishop's most important statements. And it is widely believed it was he who wrote the Pope's appeal to the IRA to lay down their arms during John Paul’s Mass in Drogheda in September 1979.

In February 1982, Cardinal Daly suffered a heart attack, necessitating several months rest and recuperation. It did not prevent his appointment the following September to succeed Bishop William Philbin as Bishop of Down and Connor, which takes in most of the Belfast region.

He said at his first press conference that ecumenism would be one of his dominant pre-occupations in the post. The All Children Together group, which advocated shared schools for those Catholic and Protestant parents wanting them, expressed the hope that he would see the need to provide a Catholic chaplain to the North's first integrated secondary school, Lagan College. It was not to happen.

Bishop Daly's most publicised political intervention came in 1984, when he presented the Catholic Bishops’ submission to the New Ireland Forum. Among others to accompany him there, as part of the Catholic Church delegation, was President Mary McAleese.

Cardinal Daly told the forum that the bishops did not seek "a Catholic state for a Catholic people'', but re-emphasised the Bishops' opposition to divorce and again rejected the view that joint schooling could contribute to a solution in the North. At one point he raised cheers from the assembled nationalist politicians when he said the bishops would resist any constitutional proposals which might endanger the civil and religious liberties of Protestants in the North.

In the late 1980s, his calls for political dialogue between Northern Ireland's politicians became increasingly frequent and urgent and the British government started to listen very carefully to him as one of its principal barometers of Northern Catholic opinion. It is known, for example, that his strictures about the heavy policing of IRA funerals persuaded the RUC to adopt a lower profile on several such occasions.

During his time in Belfast he was also the prime mover behind a Catholic Church-inspired initiative to try to bring jobs to the unemployment blackspots of north and west Belfast. Taking advantage of the Northern Ireland Office's anxiety to channel money into community employment projects with no republican involvement, he encouraged priests and Catholic businessmen to set up a network of job creation and training schemes which were generously funded by the British Government.

In December 1990 he became Archbishop of Armagh and spiritual leader of Ireland's then 3.7 million Catholics in succession to Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich, who died suddenly. At 73, he was the oldest Catholic primate for 170 years, and just two years away from the usual retiring age for bishops and archbishops.

His stature as by far the Irish Catholic Church's most outstanding spiritual and intellectual leader meant that most people expected the Pope to keep him in Armagh well beyond that date. In June 1991 he was made a cardinal, and his high standing with the Vatican was underlined by his appointment to three of its congregations, those dealing with evangelisation, ecumenism and the clergy.

In the event, he was to preside over the Irish Catholic Church's most testing and difficult period this century. The two developments which would dominate that period would be the IRA ceasefire and its aftermath in Northern Ireland, and a series of scandals starting with the resignation of Bishop Casey and continuing with an eruption of clerical child sex abuse cases throughout the island.

The Belfast priests who were involved in mediation efforts with Sinn Féin and the IRA through the early 1990s, particular Fr Alec Reid and others at the Redemptorist congregation’s Clonard monastery in Belfast, kept Cardinal Daly informed of the changing attitudes of the republican leadership.

By early 1992 he was beginning to change his tune about the republican movement, saying that if the IRA called off its campaign of violence, Sinn Féin would be entitled to a place in talks about the country's future.

In December 1993, two weeks before the Downing Street Declaration, he was telling British parliamentarians that for the first time in 20 years a realistic peace was attainable in Northern Ireland, with the Irish Government accepting the continuance of the North's constitutional status unless it was changed by the democratic choice of a majority there.

In August 1994 his information appeared once again to be superior to that of the politicians when, on the eve of the IRA ceasefire, he said that the goal of taking the gun out of Irish politics "may now be very near'' and the opportunity to achieve it should not be missed.

In January 1995, he made his own striking gesture to the cause of reconciliation between Britain and Ireland. Invited to become the first Irish Catholic Church leader to speak from the pulpit of Canterbury Cathedral since the Reformation, he used the occasion to ask the British people for forgiveness for the wrongs and hurts inflicted upon them by the Irish people. He also warned British politicians that political expediency should not be allowed to jeopardise the peace process.

Despite the end of the IRA ceasefire in the following month he continued, in public and behind the scenes, to urge politicians in the strongest language to engage in dialogue, warning that to miss this historic opportunity for a permanent peace would be an "unforgivable political disaster''. Similarly, he urged the IRA to reinstate its ceasefire so Sinn Féin could enter talks.

However his frustration was evident after the failure of Church leaders to mediate a solution to the Drumcree Orange parade stand-off in July 1995. Using language of anger and betrayal, which he has always tried to avoid, he said the decision to force the parade down the Garvaghy Road had "totally shattered'' mutual trust and confidence between Catholics and the RUC.

In parallel with the rise and fall of hopes for peace in Northern Ireland, the Irish Catholic Church was experiencing its own deep crisis. It began discreetly, with nearly all dioceses on the island following the lead of the then Archbishop of Dublin Kevin McNamara who took out insurance against possible claims by clerical abuse victims in March 1987.

Then in May 1992 there was the resignation of Bishop Eamonn Casey following revelations that he had a 17-year-old son in the US, which Cardinal Daly knew nothing about until days before the story broke.

A little over two years later came the jailing of Fr Brendan Smyth, a Norbertine priest, on charges of sexually abusing children for 24 years, and revelations that the head of his order had known about Smyth's propensity to molest children for many years. Although Cardinal Daly, as Bishop of Down and Connor, had approved the rapid reporting of the first allegations against Smyth to the RUC, there remained a public perception that more could have been done by senior churchmen to bring Smyth to book. That would become a familiar story.

At Maynooth in November 1994, Cardinal Daly said he did not remember in his lifetime "a more painful, a more worrying and distressing time. We feel the hurt of all those who have suffered, who have been hurt, and all those whose trust in priests or religious has been abused".

Court cases and media revelations about priests sexually abusing children followed and continued. Cardinal Daly issued public apologies and expressed his distress and horror at the crimes of a small number of priests. A year later he was warning that experience abroad showed that the Irish church could expect another two or three years of "very, very difficult and distressing experiences''. It was a most optimistic forecast.

The summer of 1995 saw another blow to the traditional and usually unanimous moral authority of the Catholic hierarchy with an unprecedented public clash between Bishop Brendan Comiskey of Ferns and Cardinal Daly over the former's comments about the need to keep open the debate on clerical celibacy.

For many Irish people their lasting memory of Cardinal Daly from this period was his unprecedented extended appearance on a Late Late Show devoted to the problems of the Catholic Church in November 1995. During it he was publicly challenged by Fr Brian Darcy on the Church’s handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations. He came over as a defensive elderly man out of touch with an audience which occasionally heckled and hissed at him.

He continued as Catholic primate until October 1996, when he was 79. He was succeeded by Archbishop, now Cardinal Séan Brady.

If Cardinal Daly's numerous public interventions made him by far country's best-known cleric in Ireland at the time, the private man was hardly known at all. His spare-time pursuits were almost entirely intellectual. His early single-minded devotion to his studies set a workaholic pattern for life. Indeed contemporaries have said it was not so much his intellect which set him apart as his work ethic.

He had no real hobbies. His idea of relaxation was a serious intellectual conversation or to settle down with a book of philosophy, poetry or a novel by Dostoyevsky or John McGahern. He was a also a regular attendee at the annual International O'Carolan International Harp Festival in Keadue, Co Roscommon, where his father had come from.

He ate little, keep to a rigid regime based on boiled chicken and fruit prescribed by his doctor after heart surgery in the early 1980s. It may have been why he has such a long life.

However, in retirement he has suffered ill health, missing the funeral of Pope John Paul in April 2005 on the advice of doctors for instance. But he attended the subsequent conclave which elected Pope Benedict. He was ineligible to vote as he was over 80 by then.

In retirement he continued to give talks, take part in discussions and write. He published his last book The Breaking of Bread: Biblical Reflections on the Eucharist in 2008.

"Cahal's a bit of an old saint," the former Archbishop of Tuam Joseph Cassidy, was heard to remark. Fellow bishops and priests never claimed to know him well. Some of them remarked in the past on how appropriate was his nickname in Belfast, that of ‘ET’, with its connotations of a strange, other-worldly, but in the end rather likeable old wizard.