Cardinal Cahal Daly (1917-2009)

Well, a happy MMX to all readers, and may either the deity of your choice or the random outworkings of probability smile on you. It’s a time for renewal and rethinking; and it’s a time for catching up on all the things you’ve been meaning to do. Moreover, there is a book on the corner of the desk nagging me that, if I only adopt a few sensible dietary rules, I could drop a dress size in two weeks; and if I stick with the programme, I could have the same fabulous figure as TV’s Anna Richardson. Given that, if I did have Anna Richardson’s figure I would look funny, I can only assume that Santa is having a laugh.

Anyway, there’s some catching up to do on the blog, and a project or two to be floated in the next wee while. But first, there is another imperative, the same imperative that used to drive my granny to open up the Irish News of a morning and exclaim “Guess who’s dead?” Yes, it’s obituary time.

Most readers will have heard that Cardinal Cahal Daly has just passed away at the age of 92. I never knew Cahal personally – there have been warm tributes from those who did – but, as he was a significant figure in our public life, I’ll offer a few reflections on his contribution.

One thing that surprised me about Cahal when I was reminded of it was that he came from rural north Antrim. This was because he didn’t sound like a culchie – nor, despite living in Belfast for many decades, did he have the sharp edges of a native Belfastman, whether the ghetto Catholic or the brash Malone Road nouveau riche. He was, I suppose, representative of a particular social layer and generation that has almost disappeared by now – a world of that peculiarly Irish form of Catholicism that’s identified especially with the McQuade regime, though it goes back much further; a world where an aspirational family might encourage a bright son to go into the priesthood, rather than making money; and a northern Catholic environment very much of the pre-1969 dispensation.

There have been the inevitable contrasts drawn with his immediate predecessor as primate, Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich. Too much can be made of that. It’s worth remembering that, during the troubles, there were a grand total of three priests in the north who dissented from the Church authorities. One of those was Fr Pat Buckley of Larne, who doesn’t count as he was a southerner and the causes of his dissent, largely to do with sexuality, would have arisen wherever he was. The others were Fr Joe McVeigh of Fermanagh, whose critique of the hierarchy was straightforwardly republican, and Fr Des Wilson of west Belfast, whose critique was basically republican but also brought in elements of class analysis and a stance for more democracy in the Church. In the episcopate, such differences as there were were largely a matter of nuance and style. Crudely, you could be scholarly or populist.

Cahal was, of course, scholarly, much like Bishop Philbin though with a bit more obvious humanity. And he was a genuine scholar, having been a distinguished lecturer in Scholastic Philosophy at Queens for many years. He was a big Aquinas man; acted as a peritus at Vatican II; and his writings on moral philosophy are really good and worth investigating. But his public persona was reserved, austere, even a little stand-offish. In comparison, Cardinal Ó Fiaich was also a distinguished scholar but wore his learning lightly. His public image was of a gregarious, passionate man with a song in his heart, and an uncomplicated south Armagh sense of Irishness that endeared him mightily to those further north for whom it could never be uncomplicated. The other outstanding Catholic cleric of the period, Bishop Eddie Daly of Derry, was another populist with a record as tribune of the people that made him an ideal figurehead for that insular city where everybody knows everybody else. This perhaps explains the great and spontaneous affection the people had for Tomás and Eddie, while it might be more correct to say that Cahal was respected.

There was of course the political aspect of all of this too. Obituaries of Cahal have stressed his record as a strong opponent of physical force republicanism, with him being credited with having written JP2’s famous Drogheda homily of 1979. And yet, this was an absolutely unifying factor amongst the Catholic hierarchy, and had been so since the mass excommunication of republicans during the Civil War. Cardinal Ó Fiaich, his Crossmaglen background notwithstanding, was also an opponent of physical force, although – and this is critical – he had a good understanding of that tradition and was able to address its adherents on their own level; he was also willing to let respectable opinion be damned, as in his interventions on the H-Block issue and standing up to Mrs Thatcher. Cahal’s approach was very different, as his occupancy of the Down and Connor diocese showed.

If Catholic bishops had the spoofing ability of estate agents, Down and Connor – with the huge working-class ghetto of west Belfast at its core – would be described as a challenging diocese. It would be fair to say that Cahal’s tenure there during the 1980s was not universally popular with his flock, and earning plaudits from British ministers and D4 liberals did not help. I think a lot of this had to do with him coming from a particular northern Catholic culture that was formed, in a political sense, by the old Nationalist Party. That was in the rural areas; Belfast, of course, was different. In the earlier decades of the last century, west Belfast was run, rather than represented, by Joe Devlin, with a potent mix of social populism, electoral sharp practice and on occasion naked sectarianism. This tradition was carried on into our era by the late Gerry Fitt. This was consitutional nationalism, by the way. Republicanism in Belfast had always been a minority interest, and the pogroms of the 1920s had reduced it back to a handful of extended families with names like Burns, Hannaway and Adams who kept the flame in the barren decades. Devlinism was something the Catholic authorities in Belfast were comfortable with; the re-emergence of physical force republicanism on a mass scale after 1969 was something they couldn’t really deal with.

What complicated matters further was the development of British strategy. By the early 1980s, the Dublin government had done some heavy lifting to try to turn the SDLP into a respectable leadership for northern nationalism. Then Douglas Hurd came over here, and decided to turn the pre-existing “bread and leisure centres” policy into something much more ambitious, inspired by the Heseltine inner city strategy in Britain. This was the explosion of the funded community sector, alias the grantocracy, with the aim of not only alleviating chronic social problems in places like west Belfast, but also developing a civil society leadership in those communities. And, to keep the project in safe hands, this was largely funnelled through the agency of the Catholic Church. Even some impeccably anti-Provo priests began muttering discreetly about the Church being made to look like an agency of pacification. Even worse, it sometimes looked like an unofficial support network for the SDLP.

In retrospect, I think a lot of this is unfair on Cahal, who had to work with the tools he was given. Take the stress he placed on condemning republican violence, much greater than anything he said about violence from other sources. Now, it could be argued that for a lot of the time the Provisionals were doing the lion’s share of the killing. And from the viewpoint of Cahal’s own moral philosophy, he had a greater obligation to address the sinful deeds of his own flock than of others. But it indisputably did not go down all that well in a community that felt itself very much under siege. There were walkouts from his homilies, which was almost unheard of in those days. Even his fastidiousness in not dealing with party politics didn’t entirely help – Gerry Adams used to offer to talk to Cahal, which Cahal invariably refused. Even if Gerry was playing silly buggers, it still seemed to confirm what many people thought about Cahal being rigidly anti-republican. In a diocese with more than its quota of burly men with bomber jackets and Mexican moustaches, it often seemed like the small, elderly academic with the quiet if steely voice didn’t quite fit the environment. Then again, if there was a more street-savvy candidate for the job, he never emerged.

And so it was in 1990 that Cahal got the Armagh gig, followed by his red hat, both of which were only right for a man of his distinction. It’s been said that he was appointed at too advanced an age, but that would only make sense if he needed time to implement some agenda of change. Cahal didn’t really do change, he was the proverbial safe pair of hands. But in some ways his timing was lucky. Having had a bruising time of it at Down and Connor, he did get to hold the primacy during the winding down of the Troubles and the development of the peace process – it’s well known that he was sceptical of the diplomatic efforts of the Clonard Redemptorists, but he didn’t obstruct them, and most chroniclers will judge him kindly for that. And he was doubly lucky to retire before the full fury of the clerical abuse scandal broke – but that’s another story, and I’ll get to Catholic politics after the Murphy report in due course. Finally, he got to enjoy a long and quiet retirement in Belfast, mostly spent reading and writing. Whatever criticisms can be made of his actions, he was a fundamentally decent man who had to operate in very difficult circumstances.

Following on from this, I’d like to just pause a moment to also acknowledge Helen Lewis, who has just died aged 93. Helen was born in Czechoslovakia, and as a young woman survived Auschwitz. After the war she made her way to Belfast of all places, where she made a new life as a dance teacher, and – via her work with the Lyric Theatre – as a choreographer. In later life, and with growing interest in Holocaust education, she’d taken time to speak and write about her experiences. A genuinely amazing and inspirational woman, and an irreplaceable loss to our community.


  1. ejh said,

    January 2, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    I don’t suppose that’s where Colin “Colin” Bateman got the plot for his (not very good) Mystery Man?

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    January 2, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    I haven’t read it. But you know, you can take the boy out of the Bangor Spectator…

  3. Fredaintdead said,

    January 2, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    According to TLR leading stick Jim Flynn was a big fan and football friend of Daly IIRC

  4. Fredaintdead said,

    January 2, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    Also did he not know kids were being raped and done fuck all? Fuck him and church he rode in on.

  5. Brian Hanley said,

    January 2, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    It was the Armagh man Cardinal Tomas O Fiach that Flynn was mates with Fred. They were both from Crossmaglen after all. According to a close friend of Flynn’s anyway. Flynn apparently reacted badly to a cartoon lampooning O Fiach in the Irish People.

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