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Tomás Ó Fiaich

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His Eminence 
Tomás Ó Fiaich
Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh
and Primate of All Ireland
See Armagh
Enthroned 1977
Reign ended 1990
Predecessor William Conway
Successor Cahal Daly
Ordination 6 July 1948 (Priest)
Consecration 2 October 1977 (Archbishop)
Created Cardinal 30 June 1979
Rank Cardinal priest of S. Patrizio
Personal details
Born 3 November 1923
Cullyhanna, County Armagh, Northern Ireland
Died 8 May 1990 (aged 66)
Toulouse, Haute-Garonne, France
Buried St Patrick's Cathedral Cemetery, Armagh
Denomination Roman Catholic Church

Tomás Séamus Ó Fiaich (3 November 1923 – 8 May 1990) was an Irish Cardinal Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and the Primate of All Ireland from 1978 until his death.[1] He was born in Cullyhanna,[2] and raised in Camlough, County Armagh, a staunchly nationalist/republican area of Northern Ireland in 1923.

Priest, president to archbishop

Tomás Ó Fiaich was ordained a priest on 6 July 1948; he spent his first year of ordination as assistant priest in Clonfeacle parish. He undertook post-graduate studies in University College Dublin, (1948-50), receiving an M.A. in early and medieval Irish history; he also studied at the Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium, (1950-52), receiving a licentiate in historical sciences. He joined the faculity of St. Patrick's College, Maynooth in 1953. Tomás Ó Fiaich was an academic and noted Irish language scholar, folklorist and historian in the Pontifical University in St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, the National Seminary of Ireland.[3] From 1959 to 1974 he was Professor of Modern Irish History at the college.[4] In this capacity he suggested to Nollaig Ó Muraíle that he begin research on Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh and his works. He served as vice president of the college from 1970 to 1974; in 1974 he was appointed college president, a post that traditionally precedes appointment to an episcopal position in the Irish Church. He held this position until 1977.[5]

Following the death of Cardinal William Conway in 1977 Monsignor Ó Fiaich was appointed Archbishop of Armagh by Pope Paul VI on 18 August 1977. He was ordained bishop on 2 October 1977. The Principal Consecrator was the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Gaetano Alibrandi; the Principal Co-Consecrators were Bishop Francis Lenny, the Auxiliary Bishop of Armagh, and Bishop William Philbin, the Bishop of Down and Connor.[6] Pope John Paul II raised Ó Fiaich to the cardinalate on 30 June 1979; he was appointed Cardinal-Priest of S. Patrizio that same day.[7]

Years as Archbishop of Armagh

Although Cardinal O’Fiaich spent all of his formative years in academic circles, he proved to be an adept pastor.[8] His tenure as Primate is often associated with the political strife rampant in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s. One incident often closely associated with the late Cardinal is the Hunger Strikes that occurred in 1981.

Papal visit 1979

The first major event in O'Fiaich's cardinalate was the first ever papal visit to Ireland after 1,400 years of Christianity from 29 September to 1 October 1979 by Pope John Paul II. The Pope celebrated Mass before one million people in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. His major speech at the border with Northern Ireland called on all the organizations that were prolonging The Troubles to end their activities, and this was followed by a visit to the Marian Shrine at Knock, County Mayo.

Criticism by Irish politicians

Politically he was also criticised for his less critical stances on Irish republicanism than those taken up by his predecessor, Cardinal Conway, and the Bishop of Down and Conor, Cahal Daly (later O'Fiaich's successor). Successive Irish governments under Taoiseach Jack Lynch and Garret Fitzgerald criticised him for what they claimed was excessive closeness to republicans. Unionists in particular were critical of Ó Fiaich.

Praise from Republicans

Republicans, however, praised the cardinal for his criticism of British policy in Northern Ireland and for his open championing of a united Ireland.

Media criticism

Some of Ó Fiaich's sternest critics were in the Irish media, notably the (anti-republican) Sunday Independent and the (liberal) Irish Times. He was however strongly defended on occasion by the (more radical nationalist) Irish Press and An Phoblacht.

Hunger strikes

During the IRA hunger strikes Ó Fiaich was believed by many to have been a privately influential figure among republican supporters, credited with helping end the first hunger strike through direct contact with republicans in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland.[9] He visited the Maze and witnessed the "Dirty Protest" (where prisoners rubbed their faeces on the walls of their cells and left food to rot on cell floors, while just wearing blankets and refusing to wash, in protest at the withdrawal of Special Category Status from republican prisoners). He stated:

"I was shocked at by the inhuman conditions . . . where over 300 prisoners are incarcerated. One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions let alone a human being. The nearest approach to it that I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta."[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_Maze]

When hunger striker Raymond McCreesh died, Ó Fiaich said:

"Raymond McCreesh was captured bearing arms at the age of 19 and sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment. I have no doubt that he would have never seen the inside of a jail but for the abnormal political situation. Who is entitled to label him a murderer or a suicide?"

While the Cardinal showed deep concern for the treatment of prisoners, he was equally critical of those who used violence to further the cause of Irish nationalism.[10]

Reverend Armstrong situation

In 1983, Reverend David Armstrong was forced to leave Limavady due to his wishing Father Kevin Mullan's congregation "Happy Christmas". Cardinal Ó Fiaich gave the Reverend a cash donation to help him resettle in England.[11]

Activities at the Vatican

During his tenure, Cardinal Ó Fiaich attended many synods and meetings of the Sacred College of Cardinals. The main meetings were

  • First Plenary Assembly of the Sacred College of Cardinals, Vatican City, 5-9 November 1979
  • World Synod of Bishops (Ordinary assembly), Vatican City, 26 September - 25 October 1980
  • World Synod of Bishops (Ordinary assembly), Vatican City, 29 September - 28 October 1983
  • World Synod of Bishops (Extraordinary assembly), Vatican City, 24 November - 8 December 1985
  • World Synod of Bishops (Ordinary assembly), Vatican City, 1-30 October 1987[12]

Sex abuse cases

Cardinal O Fiaich was the last head of the church in Ireland in the decade before the discovery of hundreds of pastoral sex abuse cases up to the 1990s. While not directly responsible in each case, his lack of supervision is notable. Other abusers such as Monsignor Micheal Ledwith were promoted by the Cardinal. Such was the number of cases exposed by 2008 that in hindsight he could not be said to have been in supervisory control of many of his priests.

Reordering of Armagh Cathedral

Styles of
Tomás Ó Fiaich
CardinalCoA PioM
Reference style His Eminence
Spoken style Your Eminence
Informal style Cardinal
See Armagh

Ó Fiaich's re-ordering of the high Victorian gothic St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh proved contentious. He had the highly decorated high altar and screen replaced by a plain white Wicklow granite altar table.

Though Ó Fiaich himself wrote approvingly of the new design for the sanctuary, many others were highly critical, arguing that the new sanctuary design defaced what had been a particularly fine nineteenth century building, with the brutal simplicity of the white oval altar contrasting with the original features surviving. One critic, writing in the Sunday Independent, compared Ó Fiaich's altar to something from the set of Star Trek.

Ó Fiaich's altar piece was subsequently removed by Archbishop Seán Brady and a more classical replacement installed. Although the current sanctuary is incorrect and the Tabernacle has been removed to a side altar. It is something many believe should be corrected asit is thought inappropriate for the Cathedral not to have the Tabernacle in the centre where Christ should be present. Also the Canons stalls have been removed and chairs place in a semi-circle behind the Altar with the Bishops throne in the middle. This is thought to be highly inappropriate. Also the Canons of the Archdiocese have lost their famous Canons robes. The Archdiocese and St. John Laterns are the only Diocese to have the special robes given by the Pope. These should be restored.

Sudden death

Ó Fiaich died of a heart attack on the evening of 8 May 1990 while leading the annual Armagh diocesan pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Lourdes in France. He had arrived in France the day before and had complained of feeling ill shortly after saying Mass at the grotto in the French town. He was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Toulouse, 125 miles away, where he died. He was aged 66. He lay in state at the cathedral in Armagh, where thousands of people lined up to pay their respects.[13]

He was succeeded as archbishop and cardinal by a man six years his senior, Cardinal Cahal Daly, then the Bishop of Down and Connor.[14]

Cardinal Ó Fiaich Library

The Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Memorial Library, a registered charity, was opened in Armagh in the years after his death.[15] Named after the cardinal to honour his academic interests, it contains extensive archival material about local and national Irish folklore, heritage and history. Cardinal Ó Fiaich's private papers covering his period as archbishop and cardinal are held by the library, as are those of nine previous Roman Catholic Archbishops of Armagh dating back to the mid-eighteenth century.

Ancient Order of Hibernians

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an exclusively Roman Catholic organization largely (though not exclusively) based in the USA, has named its #14 Division in Massachusetts and #7 Division in New York City after the late Cardinal.


  1. ^  Then Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Garret FitzGerald, on behalf of the Government, raised Alibrandi's position directly with Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Benelli at a meeting in 1975. (FitzGerald in The Irish Times)
  2. ^  Garret FitzGerald, All in a Life (Gill and Macmillan, 1991) p. 337.)
  3. ^  Statement by Tomás Cardinal Ó Fiaich, quoted in Tim Pat Coogan, The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace (Arrow, 1996)



  • Edmund O'Reilly, Archbishop of Armagh 1657-1669, in Father Luke Wadding Commemorative Volume, pp. 171–228 (Franciscan Fathers), 1957.
  • Irish cultural influence in Europe, 6th to 12th century, Dublin, 1967.
  • The Irish Bishops and The Conscription Issue 1918, in The Capuchin Annual, 1968.
  • Columbanus in His Own Words (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 1974)
  • Virgil's Irish background and departure for France, in Seanchas Ardmacha, ix (1985), pp. 301–17.
  • Gaelscrínte san Eoraop. Dublin, 1986.
  • Irish monks in Germany in the late Middle Ages, in The Church, Ireland and the Irish, (ed. W.J. Sheils and Diana Wood), Oxford, 1989; studies in Church history, xxv, pp. 89–104.
  • The early period, in Rémonn Ó Muirí (ed.) Irish Church History Today, pp. 1–12, Armagh [1991?]
  • Virgils Wededegand in Irland und sein Weg auf den Kontinent, in Virgil von Salzburg, pp. 17–26 (date unknown)
Religious titles
Preceded by
William Conway
Archbishop of Armagh
Primate of All Ireland

Succeeded by
Cahal Daly

Template:1981 Hunger Strike

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