Major change is imminent in the leadership of the Catholic Church in Ireland as bishops in some of its most significant dioceses approach the mandatory retirement age of 75.
On reaching that age, every bishop must submit a letter of resignation to Rome. However, he may remain in office after 75 at the discretion of Pope Francis.
An example is Bishop of Clonfert John Kirby, who was 80 last October. Clonfert mainly covers east Galway and is one of the smallest dioceses in Ireland, with 24 parishes and 36,000 parishioners.
Bishop Leo O’Reilly of Kilmore diocese, which lies mostly in Co Cavan and has 36 parishes and 57,024 parishioners, will be 75 next April.
Bishop Denis Brennan of Ferns diocese will be 74 next June. The diocese mainly covers Co Wexford and has 49 parishes and 101, 244 parishioners.
One of the major dioceses on the island is Cork and Ross, with 68 parishes and 222, 000 Catholics. Its bishop, John Buckley, was 79 last month, meaning he is already four years post retirement age.
Then there is Tuam in the west. One of just four Catholic archdioceses on the island, it has 56 parishes and 122,352 adherents. Its archbishop, Michael Neary, will be 73 next April.
His neighbour in Galway diocese, with 39 parishes and 105,707 parishioners, is Bishop Brendan Kelly, who will be 73 next May.
But the most dramatic change of all is likely to take place in Dublin, where Archbishop Diarmuid Martin will be 74 in April, and the two auxiliary bishops will both be 75 in 2019.
Bishop Ray Field will be 75 in May and Bishop Eamonn Walsh will be 75 in September. It means that within two years there could be, Pope Francis allowing, complete change at the top in Dublin.
It is far and away the most influential diocese in Ireland, with 197 parishes and a Catholic population of 1.6 million, more than a third of the Catholics on the island.
It is said that Archbishop Martin’s letter of resignation was submitted to Rome in 2015 when he reached the age of 70. This is taken as an indication of his desire to stand down, a surprise to few, as his has been a particularly gruelling period in office since he assumed the post, reluctantly, in 2004.
Until 2003, when he was appointed Coadjutor (with a right to succeed) Archbishop of Dublin to Cardinal Desmond Connell, he had been the Vatican's permanent representative at the UN Geneva and was asked, twice, by Pope John Paul II to accept the Dublin posting.
His period as archbishop of Dublin had been dominated by the clerical abuse crisis, manifested in particular by the 2009 report of the Murphy Commission, which investigated the handling of clerical child sexual abuse allegations by the Dublin archdiocese between 1975 and 2004.
Preparation for – and fallout from – that commission of inquiry has heavily coloured his period as archbishop, particularly when it came to strained relations with his priests and fellow bishops, many of whom remain critical of his handling of the issue.
On Christmas Eve 2009, both his auxiliary bishops submitted letters of resignation to Pope Benedict following publication of the damning Murphy report the previous month.
They had been auxiliary bishops of Dublin during the period investigated by the Murphy Commission.
In 2010 their letters of resignation were refused by the pope. Supporters of both auxiliary bishops felt that, had Archbishop Martin been more supportive of them, it would not have been necessary for them to submit letters of resignation in the first place.
This less sympathetic view of Archbishop Martin in clerical circles contrasts with the far more positive light in which he is seen by wider Irish society, where his forthright and sympathetic handling of the abuse crisis has been praised consistently by survivors, commentators and the broader public.
However, it means that, unless requested by Pope Francis to stay on or to take up service elsewhere, he will stand down in spring 2020. It could mean his successor may be appointed as coadjutor in 2019, a year prior to assuming full control, as happened in his own case.
Since he assumed office in 2004, he has appointed no auxiliary bishop in Dublin, and as the two men who currently hold those roles are due to retire before him, neither can succeed him were they even likely to. So a successor from those ranks is out.
Translated to Dublin
There are 22 other bishops in Ireland – both Achonry in the West and Dromore in Northern Ireland remain vacant – from whom, theoretically, a successor to Dublin might be found.
The average age of all bishops in Ireland now stands at 66, the statutory age of retirement. One of the younger bishops is also the most senior in title: Archbishop of Armagh and Catholic Primate of All Ireland Eamon Martin is 57.
It would not be without precedent were he to be moved (“translated”, to use the church term) from Armagh to Dublin. It happened with Ireland’s first cardinal, Paul Cullen, who had been Archbishop of Armagh before being translated to Dublin in 1852.
But Eamon Martin is from Derry, and generally speaking archbishops of Dublin tend to be southern, if not also from the archdiocese itself.
Some have speculated that the Bishop of Down and Connor (Antrim, including Belfast), Noel Treanor (67), could be in the running. He is from Monaghan and served for almost 20 years with the Commission of the Bishops Conferences of the EU in Brussels, while also fluent in French, German, Italian, Spanish and Irish.
Indeed, on his appointment to Down and Connor in 2008, it was widely expected he would succeed Cardinal Sean Brady as Catholic Primate and Archbishop of Armagh in 2014.
Although from the Republic, he is not from the Dublin archdiocese, which would have fitted with Rome’s policy until recently in Ireland, of not appointing any priest of a diocese as its bishop.
That policy was breached last month, however, with the appointment of Msgr Larry Duff as the new Bishop of Clogher. He is from near Carrickmacross in the diocese, which straddles Co Monaghan.
However, the man many believe most likely to succeed to Dublin is Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy (58), who grew up in Crumlin and Rathfarnham and has been a popular and proactive bishop since his arrival in Limerick in 2013.
He is also a barrister and was professor of systematic theology at Maynooth. Before appointment to Limerick, he also played a very active role in interfaith relations in Dublin.
Another possible contender is thought to be Msgr Ciaran O’Carroll, currently Rector of the Irish College in Rome. From Mount Merrion in Dublin, he holds a doctorate in ecclesiastical history and lectured in Maynooth before becoming Rector of the Irish College in Rome in 2011.
Then there are those Irish priests in the Vatican's more immediate service, including Bishop Paul Tighe, secretary to the Council for Culture, and Msgr John Kennedy, head of the disciplinary office at Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. However, both are quite senior at the Vatican and it is not considered likely either would be appointed to Dublin.