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Sunday 26 February 2017


Former Archbishop of Dublin was a good man forced into the wrong job

The academic's life was ruined by a move into Archbishop's House, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Desmond Connell in 1993. Photo: Declan Cahill
Desmond Connell in 1993. Photo: Declan Cahill

In 1989, seeking ecclesiastical support for the British Association for Irish Studies, which I chaired, I met the deeply unhappy Archbishop Desmond Connell. I had begun my tour of clergy one morning in Armagh city in an office, where Archbishop Eames of the Church of Ireland listened carefully and offered practical help, then directed me across the way to his opposite number.
My father taught Archbishop Tomas O Fiaich at University College Dublin and always referred to him as "poor Tom Fee", as he felt compassion for someone he thought had always been an amiable man out of his depth as an historian and archbishop.

The cardinal was not yet up, so I wandered about his cheerless living room and read the engravings on the innumerable gifts of Waterford glass. When he finally surfaced, he was so anxious I should have an alcoholic drink that I realised he was in dire need himself. Neither of us could open the tonic bottle, thus yielding the unforgettable image of the jovial Primate of All Ireland trying to prise off the cap between door and frame.
He was very affectionate about my recently deceased father and insisted on ringing Very Reverend Godfrey Brown, the Presbyterian Church Moderator, another historian, who agreed to see me that afternoon.

The cardinal had been so lavish with the vodka that I had to stop the car and have a nap on my way to Belfast. I wasn't surprised when he died of a heart attack in 1990 at only 66. He had terrible stress during his 13 years as prelate, caught between his dislike of violence and the republican sympathies so evident in many of his public statements which made him anathema to unionists and a source of vexation to those who took a tough line on terrorism.

Next day, I drove to Drumcondra to see Connell, who was appointed the year before and was not yet a cardinal, and whom I knew slightly from UCD, where he had been a professor.

He was shy, modest and kind and had integrity, and even the many academic colleagues who would not have been sympathetic to his extreme conservative Catholicism liked him a great deal as a human being.

I hated Archbishop's House, which was bleak and lino-ridden. We sat in a depressing room and I got nowhere with what I wanted to talk about, as he began to tell me how much he missed UCD, his friends and his academic work. He wasn't self-pitying. Just lonely.

I then called on Dr Donald Caird, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, who lived in a charming family home and was full of enthusiasm about Irish culture and life in general. I saw some other denominations along the way, but my abiding memory of that tour was how sad seemed the lives of O Fiaich (despite all the conviviality) and Connell, and how brutal the Catholic Church was in choosing bishops, who were conscripts, not volunteers.

I didn't know then both had been chosen by Gaetano Alibrandi, a meddling, aristocratic Sicilian with limited English who was Papal Nuncio from 1969 to 1989, and was the key person in the appointment of 34 Irish bishops and archbishops. Alibrandi was a holder of doctorates in divinity and civil and canon law and favoured academics rather than pastors, and so romantic was he about what he described as "the most Christian country in the world" that he deliberately promoted those with no bent towards modernisation.

Garret FitzGerald would write of Alibrandi's tendency to "confuse Catholicism with extreme republicanism", which made him pro-IRA and antipathetic to any reforms designed to make the Republic more pluralist and unionist-friendly.

O Fiaich and Connell led sheltered lives and had almost no pastoral experience. And though Connell proved to be deeply sympathetic to the disadvantaged - including Travellers, the unemployed and asylum seekers - like O Fiaich, he hadn't a clue about child abuse. O Fiaich was lucky to have died before it came out that he had taken no action when told about the prolific abuser Father Sean Fortune, but Connell, whose predecessors had dodged dealing with allegations, became consumed with what he later called "the issue which has devastated my period of office".

Having listened too much to bad advice from canon law and civil lawyers, he would become - in his own words - "a lightning rod" for public anger when the scandal broke in the early 2000s. At a Dublin Mass, he was heckled and jeered.

Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin Eamonn Walsh told the congregation at the Pro-Cathedral last Thursday of Connell's reaction to the Mary Raftery documentary Cardinal Secrets, broadcast on RTE in 2002: "His countenance visibly changed, contorted in shock and horror at the unspeakable, depraved, degrading abuse unfolding before his eyes." It was "a watershed moment that came too late for many".

Connell had been setting up strict child protection measures, but henceforward he was tormented by the recognition of his own historic inadequacies.

In 2004, at 78, just before his retirement, he publicly asked for forgiveness: "I ask pardon of all whom I have offended, especially of those who suffered unspeakable abuse by priests of the diocese and experienced a lack of the care that ought to have been provided."

Unlike Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin, who had the grace to praise some of Connell's many virtues, President Higgins - so forgiving of the sins of Latin American dictators - only expressed his condolences.

I hope the public will be more generous-hearted about this good, innocent man forced into a job beyond his competence.

Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards