A defiant bishop – An Irishman’s Diary on Edward O’Dwyer, Limerick and 1916
Bishop Edward O’Dwyer: a controversial figure among his fellow bishops, the authorities and the media of his time
A hundred years ago on May 17th, a Limerick bishop became a somewhat unlikely hero for advanced nationalists in Ireland because of his spirited reply to a letter from Gen Maxwell. The bishop was Edward O’Dwyer who, as Thomas Morrissey’s 2003 biography shows, was at times a controversial figure among his fellow bishops, the authorities and the media of his time.
Edward Thomas O’Dwyer was born in Holy Cross, Tipperary, in 1842 but the family moved to Limerick shortly afterwards. He was educated by the Christian Brothers in the city and proved a bright student. Having applied to the diocese of Limerick to become a priest, he spent a year at the Jesuit St Munchin’s College before entering Maynooth in 1860. His academic excellence again shone through there and he was ordained in 1867 in St John’s Cathedral, Limerick.
He served as a curate in eight parishes in Limerick city and county and became active socially and politically. For example, he supported Isaac Butt as he initiated his campaign for home rule. He was also very involved in the temperance movement and his St Michael’s Temperance Society promoted sporting and cultural events. He championed the cause of the poor, setting up the Artisans’ Dwelling Company, which built houses in the city. His Limerick Catholic Literary Institute aimed to educate the poor by means of lectures, newspapers and a library.
Elevated to the See of Limerick in 1886 at the relatively young age of 44, O’Dwyer soon clashed with his fellow bishops, especially Archbishops Walsh of Dublin and Croke of Cashel, whom he criticised for not doing enough to bring about a Catholic university. He also differed with them over their support of the Irish Parliamentary Party’s (IPP) Plan of Campaign in the late 1880s; although he was a convinced nationalist, he opposed anything that might lead to violence. The IPP leaders strongly criticised his stance.
The education of Catholics, at all levels, was his central concern as a bishop. He realised that for the poor, a good primary education was vital to give them any chance of improving their lives, and he established Mary Immaculate Teacher Training College in 1898 to greatly increase the availability of primary teachers.
DisputesIn some conflicts he did not distinguish himself, such as those with Church of Ireland authorities over access to some primary schools, with the Jesuits over their wish to educate lay as well as seminary students at St Munchin’s Diocesan College, and with the Christian Brothers when, in a row over a reform school at Glin, he forbade the congregation from continuing their public collections of food and clothes for their poorer pupils. In addition, he was involved in public disputes with many notable figures in Irish life, such as historian WEH Lecky, Conservative leaders Arthur and Gerald Balfour, Michael Davitt and many newspaper editors.
After the Easter Rising, Gen Maxwell wrote to Bishop Dwyer on May 6th, demanding that he restrain two priests in his diocese, whom the general regarded as a “dangerous menace”; he accused of them of involvement in subversive activities and threatened to arrest them.
In his letter of reply (which he had published), the bishop defended his priests and rejected Maxwell’s appeal “to help you in the furtherance of your work as a military dictator of Ireland. Even if action of that kind was not outside my province, the events of the past few weeks would make it impossible for me to have any part in proceedings which I regard as wantonly cruel and oppressive.”
He then pointedly reminded Maxwell of the Jameson raid, before the second Anglo-Boer War (Maxwell was one of the officers who took part in the illegal raid), “when a number of buccaneers invaded a friendly state and fought the forces of a lawful government”. The raiders, said the bishop, “deserved the supreme punishment” but got off scot-free thanks to the influence of the British government. “You took care that no plea for mercy should interpose on behalf of the poor young fellows who surrendered to you in Dublin. The first information, which we got of their fate, was the announcement that they had been shot in cold blood.
“Personally, I regard your action with horror, and I believe that it has outraged the conscience of the country. Then the deporting of hundreds and even thousands of poor fellows without a trial of any kind seems to me an abuse of power as fatuous as it is arbitrary and your regime has been one of the blackest chapters in the history of misgovernment of the country.”
The letter attracted widespread support and the freedom of the city of Limerick was conferred on Bishop O’Dwyer on September 14th, 1916. His speech on the occasion was strongly nationalistic in tone. He died in August 1917.