Diarmuid Martin remains a maverick among the clergy

Archbishop’s criticism of Maynooth seminary latest example of individuality

A friend resorted to the Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel this week in response to all the talk of "strange goings-on" at the national seminary in Maynooth. "Si j'étais Dieu en les voyant prier/ Je crois que je perdrais la foi." Or: "If I were God seeing them pray/I believe that I would lose my faith." It was not an untypical reaction.

More typical was the perplexed guy at a train station on Thursday morning. “What’s he at?” he roared at me from a platform across the tracks, referring to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, “Is he mad? He sounds like a drunk in a pub: ‘I don’t like this place. . .the atmosphere. . .I’m outta here!’.”

He believed the Archbishop was just throwing a tantrum. From regular observation over the past 13 years, since his arrival back in Dublin in 2003, this reporter has yet to witness Archbishop Martin throw a tantrum despite some trying circumstances.

It wasn't always so. In his highly entertaining 2008 memoir Good Times and Bad the Archbishop's only sibling, older brother Séamus, recalls how the younger "Diarmuid had not been the 'holy' type of person one associated with those who had a vocation for the priesthood. As a child he might have been far more accurately described as a 'holy terror'. He was noted throughout the extended family for throwing tantrums – in a family in which tantrum-throwing had been brought to a fine art."


Fits of temper

Séamus recalled an incident involving himself and his brother. “Mam was something of a collector of antiques and she once bought a


Glass jug of ancient provenance, which my brother threw at me during one of his fits of temper.” The younger brother “continued to be a menace well into his teens, but after he entered Clonliffe (seminary) in Dublin, his temperament calmed. He became more considerate of other people’s feelings and has remained so to this day.”

Undoubtedly this week there are some among his brother bishops, and among the Irish Catholic clergy generally, who would hesitate before agreeing.

It is just not done for senior prelates to say publicly of any Catholic institution, whatever their private feelings, that “there seems to an atmosphere of strange goings-on there, it seems like a quarrelsome place. . .I don’t think this is a good place for students,” as he did this week about Maynooth. Or say publicly there was a “poisonous atmosphere” there, created by anonymous correspondence and blogs.

Or discuss publicly allegations of gay sexual activity at the seminary. And in their wildest dreams none of them could imagine admitting they were even aware of a gay dating site such as Grindr, never mind saying on national television that it was being used by seminarians at Maynooth.

Where did this guy come from?

The truth is he is a maverick among the Irish bishops. Outside Catholic clerical circles he is probably the most widely respected church leader in Ireland, certainly among the wider public. His relationships with Protestant churches in Dublin are probably the warmest between a Catholic archbishop of Dublin and the non-Roman Catholic community since the Reformation. Similarly with other faith groupings, old and new, in the city.

Among survivors of clerical child sex abuse, no other Catholic Church leader comes close in their esteem. He has been passionately, consistently supportive of them personally and in policy since appointment to Dublin. It remains the case, and he has been central to making the Catholic Church in Ireland one of the safest places for children today. It has come at a cost where his relationship with brother bishops and priests are concerned. He co-operated fully with the Murphy Commission which investigated the handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations in the Dublin archdiocese.

He handed to it over 80,000 files from archdiocesan archives, including 5,000 documents which his predecessor Cardinal Desmond Connell deemed personal to him and who initiated a High Court action to stop that. The Cardinal was persuaded by other church authorities in Ireland and Rome to drop his action.

Devastating findings

When the Murphy report and its devastating findings were published in November 2009, instead of circling the wagons around fellow bishops with questions to answer, he said they should look into their own consciences and decide themselves what they should do. He will never be forgiven by some for that stance.

He said the same when it emerged in 2010 that then Catholic Primate Cardinal Sean Brady had sworn two teenagers to secrecy in the early 1970s when investigating allegations that they had been sexually abused by the notorious Fr Brendan Smyth. For such reasons he is considered not to be a team player among the priests and bishops of Ireland. Added to which he can be brusque in manner, and he is not particularly clubbable among fellow clerics or close to colleagues in the episcopal conference.

He may be respected by them but with a guarded wariness because they have no idea what he will do next. He does not play by their understood rules. He is independent, a solo runner, who stands by what he believes to be right.

It does not help that Archbishop Martin has an easy relationship with the media, that estate which is seen by most bishops and priests as the enemy at worst or, at the least, something best avoided.

They tend to interpret this ease which he has with media as being because his brother Séamus was a journalist, indicating a touching naivety given people in the media are among the least collegial of practitioners.

The truth is the Archbishop’s ease with media is rooted in a belief among reporters that he is being honest, straightforward, and doesn’t trot out tired, cooked-in-advance phrases prepared by communications professionals. He is as he is.

But he is culturally different to his brother bishops and many of his fellow priests also. He didn’t go to Maynooth so, clearly, feels none of the emotional attachment evident among so many on the episcopal conference this week as they rushed to bolster the seminary as rumours came home to roost.

Drinking culture

Some of these rumours, incidentally, concerned The Roost, that large public house in Maynooth village so favoured by seminarians and other students alike. A former seminarian recalled to

The Irish Times

this week how the drinking culture in the pubs of Maynooth had “resulted in several seminarians being barred from a public house because the staff were offended by the seminarians pretending to consecrate their drinks and bread rolls”.

Nor did Archbishop Martin attend the Irish College in Rome. It makes him something of a rara avis, or rare bird, among his fellow bishops.

He attended Clonliffe College which trained priests for the Dublin archdiocese from 1854 to 2001, when it closed.

After ordination in 1969 he studied moral theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.

He was back in Dublin for a brief period in 1973-74 as curate in Cabinteely and was then made responsible for the pastoral care of Dublin pilgrims during the 1975 Holy Year in Rome.

Unlike most young Irish priests in Rome, however, instead of living at the Irish College he resided smack bang up against St Peter’s Basilica at the Teutonic (German) College. This was because the then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, did not want his priests to become part of an Irish ghetto in Rome but to have a larger experience of the Catholic world.

Archbishop Martin went on to become vice-rector at the Teutonic College in his eight years there where a weekly visitor was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, who would celebrate Mass and have lunch with the German seminarians on Thursdays. Even now Archbishop Martin regularly stays at the Teutonic College on trips to Rome.

The year 1976 saw a major turn in his life when he entered the service of the Holy See at the Council for the Family. In 1986 he became under-secretary of the Council for Justice and Peace and in 1991 he helped draft Pope John Paul's great social justice encyclical Centessimus Annus, becoming secretary at the Council in 1994.

In that role he represented Rome at various UN international conferences as well as to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank dealing mainly with debt and poverty reduction. He was flying high.

In December 1998 Pope John Paul II appointed him Titular Bishop of Glendalough and in March 2001 he became an archbishop and nuncio and was appointed the Vatican's permanent observer at the UN in Geneva, as well as to various specialised agencies, to the World Trade Organisation there, roles he relished.

Then John Paul II came calling. He wanted the new Archbishop to go back to Dublin as successor to Cardinal Desmond Connell. The Archbishop demurred. He had to be asked twice, he has said publicly, before being appointed Coadjutor Archbishop (with a right if succession) of Dublin in May 2003.

Too direct

It was agreed in Rome that he would remain on some of the Vatican’s international councils and committees. That has meant he is away from Dublin quite a bit. It is why, early on in his tenure as Archbishop – he succeeded Cardinal Connell in April 2004 – he was dubbed “Martin of Tours” by priests in Dublin.

From the beginning there was resistance to him among some Dublin clergy. He seemed to behave more like the chief executive of a large corporation than the indulgent spiritual father so many priests felt was their entitlement.His approach was all a little too direct, too cut and dried. Possibly Northern (his father's family were from Donegal and had lived in Derry). Teutonic, even.

He does not do “pamper”.

It meant that, despite his frequent and genuine public protestations of his admiration, appreciation, and praise for his priests they kept him at a distance.

It didn’t help that he failed to fit the template so many of them had expected in an Archbishop worthy of their loyalty. His background is working- class Dublin. His family had 13 addresses as he grew up, including a single room in a tenement building on Digges Street in Dublin city centre.

Eventually the family moved to Ballyfermot. His father, who had been a mechanic with Dublin Corporation, got a job with CIE at the Works in Inchicore and, after primary school in Ballyfermot, the Archbishop attended the Oblates in Inchicore, then the Marian Brothers in Ballsbridge. It wasn't your usual passage to the Catholic priesthood in early 1960s Dublin.

Stark contrast

To compound matters, the Archbishop, as his brother Séamus recalled in his autobiography, “completed his doctorate in moral theology (in Rome) but never got round to doing the public defence of his thesis that is part of the continental system. He is probably not entitled, therefore, to be described as Dr Martin, but Irish newspapers insist that all bishops are automatically ‘doctored’.”

This experience was in such stark contrast with his three immediate predecessors. Archbishop Dermot Ryan had been professor of oriental languages at UCD before becoming Archbishop of Dublin in 1972. Archbishop Kevin McNamara had been professor of dogmatic theology in Maynooth before becoming Bishop of Kerry in 1976 and Archbishop of Dublin in 1984. Cardinal Desmond Connell was dean of the faculty of philosophy and sociology at UCD before he was ordained Archbishop of Dublin in 1988.

All three, however, had abysmal records when it came to dealing with clerical child sex abuse. The Murphy report found that all had “handled child sex abuse complaints badly” and that “not one of them reported his knowledge of child sexual abuse to the gardaí . . . until November 1995.”

Archbishop Martin becomes emotional when addressing child abuse and during an interview for the US current affairs 60 Minutes programme in 2012, he broke down when discussing the subject. Recording had to stop and later his communications staff made strenuous efforts to have it deleted from the programme. He was embarrassed by it.

A segment was broadcast across the US nevertheless. It spoke more eloquently than volumes of apologies from the institutional church.

As a churchman he is not a dogmatist. He was heard once to remark of people at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which polices church teaching, that he did “not hang around with them” in Rome.

While always loyal to church teaching, his emphasis is never on the hard line, whether that be on sexuality issues or education.

He has a mischievous Dub sense of humour and clearly feels very much at home in the company of ordinary Dublin people. At Drumcondra he is surrounded by a small but very loyal staff at Archbishop’s House where he lives in a small apartment and does his own cooking. It seems to be all he needs.

He works hard, writing all his own homilies and address, though he has complained publicly over recent years of feeling tired. This is hardly surprising given his various roles. Recently he took up a new role with the Vatican’s new Secretariat for Communications.

It has been speculated since his arrival back in Dublin in 2003 that it was only a matter of time before he was called back to Rome to take up some senior appointment. But this now seems increasingly unlikely. He is 71 and bishops retire, generally, at 75. It is said his letter of resignation is already with the Congregation of Bishops in Rome.

The belief is that in retirement he will return to the Eternal City. Some of his oldest and trusted friends are there and many say that it is there he feels most at home.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times