Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich: 'The only unity worth having is a unity of hearts'

The regular diners in the Roman trattoria close to the Irish College didn’t know it then, but the cleric joining in a chorus of The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee was none other than Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, who died suddenly in Lourdes on this day 30 years ago.
Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich: 'The only unity worth having is a unity of hearts'

The complexities of cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich are worth remembering, writes TP O'Mahony.

Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich, unveiling a plaque to poet Sean O'Riordain, in February of 1980. Pic: Donal Sheehan.
Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich, unveiling a plaque to poet Sean O'Riordain, in February of 1980. Pic: Donal Sheehan.

The regular diners in the Roman trattoria close to the Irish College didn’t know it then, but the cleric joining in a chorus of The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee was none other than Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, who died suddenly in Lourdes on this day 30 years ago.

We were a small group and we had arranged to host a dinner for the Cardinal. Genial and gregarious by nature, he soon put church matters aside and the conversation switched to the GAA. In that context, the Cardinal said that one of his regrets was that he had never been at a Munster hurling final.

In was 1987, and we were all in Rome for a Synod of Bishops, and we soon sensed that the Cardinal was relieved to be away from the formal settings of ecclesiastical or diplomatic gatherings in the Irish College, in an embassy or in the Vatican itself.

It was at this same Synod that an interjection of his caused a rare outburst of laughter (in which Pope John Paul II joined) with his wry comment that Irishmen will sing much quicker in a pub than in a church.

Apart from the thrice-yearly meetings of the Episcopal Conference in Maynooth, I was to see him one more time before his untimely death from a heart attack at the age of 66. He actually died in a hospital in Toulouse, having been rushed there by helicopter after collapsing at the Marian shrine in Lourdes where he was leading a diocesan pilgrimage.

It was in Ara Coeli, his residence in Armagh, just behind St Patrick’s Cathedral, that we met again. It was March 1989, and he had agreed to do an interview with me for the Sunday Press. By this stage he was no stranger to controversy, having lived with it ever since his appointment to Armagh on August 18, 1977 in succession to Cardinal William Conway.

That appointment raised all sorts of hackles. Prior to it, O’Fiaich had been President of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. But having been raised in the passionately nationalist village of Crossmaglen, the new Archbishop was never going to be shy about pinning his colours to the mast.

It was in anticipation – or fear – of this that led elements within the British establishment to initiate a campaign to block O’Fiaich’s elevation. Things got to a stage where the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, felt it necessary to tell Irish journalists that “I have never stood in his way”.

O’Fiaich’s pronounced nationalist leanings were always going to infuriate not just the Rev Ian Paisley but a lot of others. He was not one for dissembling. He believed in a united Ireland, and felt deeply that the wheel of history was inexorably turning in that direction.

His outspokenness on a range of issues caused annoyance, anger and resentment in the Northern Ireland Office in Stormont and in Westminster. After a visit to Long Kesh/Maze Prison in July 1978, O’Fiaich decided to prepare a report on prison conditions for the Pope. He concluded: “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 homeless people living in sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta”.

This prompted the Times of London to accuse him of supporting the IRA.

When Bobby Sands died on May 5, 1981 Cardinal O’Fiaich happened to be on a visit to Cork. He was staying in the old Jury’s Hotel on the Western Road, and I, along with several other journalists, went there. We wanted his reaction. The strain that the moral dilemmas caused by the hunger strikes, and the distress over Sands’ death, were etched on his face.

He had made several approaches to Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, urging her to make concessions to the H-Block prisoners.

Afterwards in her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, she wrote the following: “Cardinal O’Fiaich was not a bad man; but he was a romantic Republican, whose nationalism seemed to prevail over his Christian duty of offering unqualified resistance to terrorism and murder”.

Despite his reputation as a “green” Cardinal, O’Fiaich said more than once that nothing would give him more satisfaction, or would be a greater manifestation of God’s grace, than to see an end to the communal violence and the reconciliation of two peoples in whose ability to enrich each other he fervently believed. “The only unity worth having,” he told the Sunday Press, “is a unity of hearts."

When the news of his sudden death came through, I was despatched at very short notice to Lourdes to cover the tragedy. Examiner photographer, Des Barry, would be waiting for me with a car at Dublin Airport.

One of the most noteworthy features of the Requiem Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral was the presence in the packed congregation of the Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, as well as the SDLP’s John Hume. In the homily during the Mass, Bishop Cahal Daly said: “Cardinal O’Fiaich was totally opposed to all use of violence purporting to advance nationalist aims”.

There was a little coda to the solemn events of the day of the Cardinal’s funeral in Armagh. After I had filed my story, and Des Barry had wired his pictures, we set out for Newry en route to Cork. Somewhere along the way, due to tiredness perhaps, we took a wrong turning onto a secondary road and were stopped by a British Army patrol.

After showing our press cards we were waved on, but not without having first received directions from a British soldier to get us back on the road to Newry. The man from Crossmaglen, whom we had just buried, would no doubt chuckle at the irony of that.

More in this section

Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up