Pluralism requires open and honest dialogue – Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

04 Nov 2015


First Chancellor of the National University of Ireland – 1908-1921

Some personal reflections of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin


Old Physics Theatre, Newman House, 4th November 2015

I speak as someone who is not a professional historian and I hope that you are not expecting a lecture which brings new and detailed scientific research on the figure of Archbishop William J. Walsh.  There are two well-known biographies of Archbishop Walsh, one published by his Secretary in the 1920’s (which was the first volume of what was to be a two volume biography, but was never completed) and the definitive biography of Archbishop Walsh by Father Thomas Morrissey, S.J, which was published in 2000.  Any substantial volume or serious historical article on the history of Ireland or on Church State relations in Ireland in the ninetieth and early twentieth century will contain ample treatment of the extraordinary role played by Archbishop Walsh, especially on the Education question.  I have no intention of repeating the detailed and in general undisputed content of these works.

I speak as a busy Archbishop who has a general interest in history and especially about history’s relationship with the present.  I speak as an Archbishop who has a special interest in the role of the Church in society and in a particular way in the area of education.  Obviously I have an interest in my predecessors who, like Walsh, were true giants in their times.

William J. Walsh, First Chancellor of the National University of Ireland was born in Dublin in 1841 and was Archbishop from 1885 until his death on 9th April 1921.

That might seem a routine opening to a Conference on the life of Archbishop Walsh, simply stating basic facts.  But when you reflect on those dates a little more closely, and especially the dates regarding his episcopate, you can see that that episcopate spanned an extraordinary period of Irish history.  It covered what we would have to call totally different worlds.  Born just before the Great Famine, his episcopate covered then a period of the emergence of a new sense of Irish Catholic identity as for the first time Irish Catholics became more confident and yet aware of the discrimination which they still faced even sixty years after emancipation.  They embrace the movement for Home Rule, the Parnell crisis, the Land Question, the 1913 lock-out, the period prior to and including the 1916 uprising and looks forward almost to the Treaty negotiations and the Civil War.  Despite ill-health, Walsh’s presence in Irish society remained significant at different historical moments right up until his death.

Who was William J. Walsh?  Walsh was an all-round man.  His first biographer noted that “he was enthused by mathematical conundrums, legal arguments and government blue books, rather than by great imaginative writing or poetry”.  He had an orderly and methodical mind and a retentive memory and he could grasp even obtrusive arguments rapidly.  He was a distinguished theologian.  He was extraordinarily well travelled for a person of his times.  He was a musician of note.  Frequently he arranged his holidays in Germany to correspond with the performance of the Wagnerian “Ring” at Bayreuth.  He was a photographer and left behind a vast collection of photos taken on his journeys around Europe, all carefully catalogued and ordered.  He was an innovator, supervising all the details of the installation of electric light in Archbishop’s House and heating in Clonliffe College.  He was a cyclist at a time when it was considered that cycling was noy decorous for the clergy.  He was an educationalist who studied the latest methods of instruction including those for the blind and the deaf and he had a special interest in German universities.  He followed theories of memory training and was a skilled controversialist.  He conducted a vast personal as well as business correspondence with a wide range of people, from Newman to Gladstone and Lloyd George, from Michael Davitt to Padraig Pearse and General Maxwell, to Archbishop Croke and Cardinal Manning.

He lived in troubled times and his ministry was made more difficult because his predecessor, Cardinal MacCabe, was, even by his one admission, unsuitable for being a bishop and leader in troubled times.  One of Walsh’s secretaries, Monsignor Curran, an able historian, writing shortly after Walsh’s death noted that “McCabe was a truly apostolic priest and an efficient Vicar General, but he was not fitted for the See of Dublin in troubled todays. Cardinal Cullen had never wanted MacCabe as his auxiliary much less as his successor”.  McCabe honestly aimed at doing what he thought Cullen would have done, but Walsh noted “If McCabe only thought and acted for himself he would have acted rightly, but the unfortunate outcome of his good intentions was that he did what Cullen never would have done”.  It is interesting that on hearing rumours that Archbishop MacCabe might be elevated to the Cardinalate, the Rector of the Irish College, Tobias Kirby, directly approached the Pope to speak against the possibility.

Walsh had then to face the challenge of providing new leadership within the Church on two major questions: the Land Question and the Question of Educations and especially the access of Catholics to education at University level.  His 1890 exposition of the grievances of Catholics: Statement of the Chief Grievances of Irish Catholics in the Matter of Education and his The Irish University Question of 1897 form a valuable summary of his position and had significant effects.

He had ready access to the political administration, but was always cautious and suspicious in his dealings with Dublin Castle and the Vice-regal Lodge and this openness marked with suspicion was reciprocated by the authorities.  He was the candidate of the Dublin priests to succeed to the Archdiocese of Dubbin on the death of his predecessor Cardinal McCabe, gaining the support of 46 of the 63 Parish Priests.  Yet there is no doubt that he was not the candidate of the British authorities.  The British authorities and their allies in Rome would have preferred a less political figure than Walsh and one more closely aligned with British interests.  They set out to block his possible appointment even before MacCabe’s death when McCabe confidentially sought the appointment of an assistant bishop.  Propaganda proposed a coadjutor with the right of succession.  McCabe felt that this would involve an election among the parish priests, as was the practice, and he felt that the names that might emerge would not be of his own choosing.  Finally Rome appointed Dr Donnelly as Auxiliary Bishop.  Immediately the British authorities began an attempt to have Donnelly made Coadjutor and to succeed, thus blocking any hopes for Walsh.  Their agent on this occasion was an Irish landed gentleman, Mr Errington, who spent his winters in Rome and who was not a professional diplomat.

This lack of diplomatic training became evident when his plans to have Donnelly made coadjutor came to a sorry end, as verifiable evidence revealing the plot began to emerge.  The source of this evidence was an examination of the blotting paper of Mr Errington.  It seems that Vatileaks were being ably practiced more than a century ago.

On the death of McCabe, Walsh’s appointment was considerably delayed.  The British authorities preferred the names of Archbishop (later Cardinal) Moran of Sydney (a nephew of Cardinal Cullen) and Bishop Donnelly.  When the decision was made, Walsh proceeded to Rome where Pope Leo XIII greeting him saying: “I stood strong against them”.

Similar pressures took place some years later concerning the possible nomination of Walsh to the Cardinalate.  His two predecessors in Dublin had been Cardinals.  There is interesting correspondence in the Dublin diocesan archives coming from Irish sources in Rome around this failed nomination, but there is no indication of the reaction of Walsh himself.  Initially there seemed certainty within informed sources in Rome that it was the Pope’s intention to nominate the Archbishops of Westminster and Dublin as Cardinals in the consistory of 1893.  Cardinal Vanutelli told the Rector of Saint Patrick’s that 9 out of 10 of the Cardinals favoured Walsh.  The Rector of the Irish College, Kirby, however, said the he had noted that the Pope had been speaking about honouring the Bishop who occupied the Seat of Saint Patrick.   Others claimed that these were simply rumours spread by some, in the spirit of “the malice for which they were distinguished”.

In the end the Archbishop of Armagh was appointed Cardinal.  The change of mind was interpreted by Walsh’s Roman friends as reflecting the judgment of the Apostolic Visitation of Archbishop Persico which took place in 1888 and which had found British favour.   Persico’s judgment on Walsh was harsh.  He described him “as disgracefully vain and secular”, adding that he meant secular “in the sense of being more occupied with politics than with religion”.  In an annex to his Report on the situation of the Church in Ireland, Persico noted that:  “Having always been a professor in the seminary of Maynooth and president of said seminary when he was appointed, [Walsh] possesses eminent qualities of knowledge, quickness and energy.  An excellent worker and a facile writer, he can sustain great fatigue and difficult enterprises, but he lacks the pastoral spirit and that dignity which is proper to his high ecclesiastical status”.

Persico continued:  “One sees him every day in the public press with either letters or manifestoes and he has espoused the National League and the Plan of Campaign. Very popular with all the nationalists in Ireland, he has imposed himself on all the bishops and the greater part of the clergy.  Some bishops admire him, many bishops criticise him and consider him to be more secular than episcopal, but none have the courage to resist him in the meetings or episcopal conferences.  The archbishop is conscious of his popular support and the bishops fear to confront the idol of the people”

The education question had been smouldering for almost a generation when William Walsh became Archbishop.  His predecessor, Archbishop Daniel, Murray was one of the few bishops in Ireland who felt that the Queen’s Colleges could be considered a suitable vehicle to provide university education of Catholics.  However he faced strong opposition from the other Irish Bishops and eventually the Holy See came down against such a solution.

Cardinal Cullen then led the campaign to establish the Catholic University of Ireland looking at the fact that a Catholic University had been established in Louvain which had government support and financing. Cullen had the courage to call John Henry Newman, who was perhaps the leading Catholic intellectual in the English-speaking world, to Dublin to found the university.  This building and University Church next door are living reminders of that project.  Hopefully it will be possible in the years to come for these two buildings to become places where the true legacy of Newman will be kept alive and deepened through creative initiatives.

My admiration of Newman’s lofty idea of the university has been tempered a little when I read some of the more mundane problems that  Newman, as Rector, had to deal with, such as the reaction to students throwing a bucket of water from Newman House over a passing constable and this being interpreted not as a student prank but as a political gesture; or the complaint from a good Catholic lady, not substantiated I must add, that students of the Medical School in Cecilia Street were frequenting a nearby restaurant which seemingly plied also another business upstairs.

The project of the Catholic University failed not simply because of quarrels and strained relations between Newman and the Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Cullen.  There was intransigence on the part of the government authorities who did not want an exclusively Catholic university to flourish.  It was not, it should be noted, that they were against an exclusively denominational university, in the terms in which our contemporary secularist thought would today.  The authorities had no difficulty with the denominational character of Trinity College.  Their position was a sign of a strong vestige of anti-Catholicism and fear of Catholicism and of what the emergence of an Irish nationalist political Catholicism might entail

There was also intransigence on the part of the Church and especially of Cardinal Cullen and the other bishops.  One of the characteristics of the new university in Louvain was the fact that it had a governing board composed of lay persons and this was something that Callen vehemently opposed for the Dublin Catholic University.  Had there been some flexibility on this point, then it could be argued that the response from the government authorities might have been more conciliatory.  Government opposition however to anything that might be construed as a clerical university was unflinching.

Newman’s vision of his university was a modern one.  University Church was not just to be the place where the students might be able to attend Mass.  It was to become a true centre for dialogue between faith and the academic life of the university.  It was to be a place where faith was to find its place within the overall reflection of the university.  Today there are many willing to claim the inheritance of Newman and his idea of the university.  I find it hard to accept however that one might claim the mantle of Newman and yet not be willing to take up in a serious academic context his notion of the dialogue between faith and religion.

There is no evidence that the newly arrived immigrants into Ireland are less religious than the rest of us.  The opposite is probably true. Therefore it is curious that there are those who would play down the place of faith in today’s more pluralist Ireland whereas such pluralism would seem to me to require a more intense and rigorously serious scientific reflection not just on the mechanics of inter-religious dialogue but on the very notion of faith in a pluralist society.

One does not have to be a believer to engage in interreligious dialogue or in reflection on religion as a social phenomenon.  But a study of religion which is entirely limited to the history and the sociology of religion may well be blinkered in its ability to understand the nature of faith and its relevance in the personal life of individuals and it relevance to public life.

There is no evidence that a totally “religiously neutral secularist society” is the best space in which to foster dialogue between religions.  There is indeed a sense in which, when it comes down to religious diversity, a more secularist society may not be the best one to be able to understand and guide the phenomenon. Pope Benedict XVI has noted that:  “The pathology of religion is the most dangerous sickness of the human spirit. It exists within the religions, yet it exists also precisely where religion as such is rejected and relative goods are assigned an absolute value”.

There are forms of secular society worldwide in which hostility to religious values forces some religious groups into a dangerously narrow perception of their culture, into religious fundamentalism, and thus sharpen religious differences and misunderstanding of a pluralist society.

The desire of a secularist society to reduce religion to the private sphere may make it hard for some to embrace fully the strong religious commitment of others.  My belief is that inter-religious dialogue requires the commitment of persons who are strongly rooted in their own faith, and not just by persons who have confused religious commitment or by people who are not religious at all.  What is important, however, is that we all address the situation with a sense of mutual knowledge and respect.

All faiths have to avoid any form of fundamentalism, fundamentalism in their own faith, fundamentalism about the role of religion.  Religions are obliged to respect the legitimate autonomy of the secular order and of reason.  Imposing a specific political programme in the name of God is to make yourself into God.

This question of where religion can find its place in the overall picture of education is a renewed question in the Ireland of today.  Walsh had to fight for equitable access for Catholics to an educational system which was in accord with their convictions. Catholics felt they were a majority which was excluded.   Today the question is about the relationship between faith- based education and the rights of those whose viewpoint is different and who feel that they are excluded by a majority which is Catholic.

Archbishop Walsh as Chancellor of the National University lived out the challenges of his time in a very modern manner. Daire Keogh wrote an interesting article on Archbishop Walsh as Chancellor for the occasion of the centenary celebrations of NUI in 2008.   What is striking is the manner in which an Archbishop-Chancellor respected the independence of the university, recognising its Catholic roots and composition, but refusing as Keogh notes to “baptise” it.   Walsh rather encouraged the establishment of a university true to the origins of the concept of university, that of being at the service of the thirst for knowledge and of the truth.

In 1908 it seemed that the teaching of theology and ecclesiastical subjects was to excluded from the realm of the National University. I think that both the then Chancellor of NUI, Garett Fitzgerald, and myself derived some amusement in him presenting the Archbishop of Dublin with a degree in laws, which included Canon Law.

The study of theology within a university must be subject to the same academic rigour as any other discipline.  The fear of Cardinal Cullen regarding the establishment of any governing body outside the control of the bishops was in fact fear and lack of trust in lay persons, a form of clericalism that cannot be defending today after the Second Vatican Council.  Yet it is still present in the Catholic Church today and is something that as a bishop I have to keep always on my own radar screen lest I fall back into older ways.  That said, the teaching of Catholic theology always has an ecclesial dimension and the teaching authority in the Church has its role as guardian of the integrity of that teaching.  There is no magic solution to resolving the tension between these two dimensions, but that does not mean that we do not seek creative solutions to such tensions adapted to our times.

Let me come back to Walsh and to his search for solutions to the exclusion of Catholics in his time.  His language was strong.  In his five yearly Report to the Holy See in 1905 on the status of the diocese he spoke about the university question.    His description of Trinity College was interesting: “The denominational Trinity College is by far the wealthiest in lands and funds, in libraries and museums, in scientific instruments … all funded for years by the government”. Walsh recognised the privileged position enjoyed by Trinity College and saw that in a very pragmatic way, knowing that this would not easily change.

He engaged in research which indicated that there was a juridical distinction between Dublin University and Trinity College.   Walsh then – while stressing in his public writings his preference for an independent publicly funded Catholic University – also quietly favoured a solution of the establishment of a new Catholic College within the overall framework of Dublin University.   This – though he was careful not to stress this publicly – would have appealed to his idea that in some way there was an advantage in Catholics and Protestants studying within one university even if in different colleges.  The Dublin archives do not hold any documentation concerning how he wished to see such an institution governed.

Unrest about Home Rule, the possibility of a General election, opposition from Trinity College and Northern Protestants and divisions among the Catholic Bishops meant that this solution did not succeed. Walsh wrote of the Secretary of State for Ireland‘s lack of courage in facing the strong hostility of a small fraction of protestants.  But Walsh vowed to keep the fight going: “questio nondum finita est, nec finietur unquam nisi facit iustitia”

Three years later a political solution was found through the determination of the First Secretary for Ireland, Augustine Birrell.   The National University Act 1908 established the National University of Ireland and the Queen’s University in Belfast and dissolved the Royal University of Ireland.  Walsh was unanimously elected as Chancellor as a recognition of his commitment to equality in education and it was universally accepted that he brought to his task a personal dignity and a commitment to place NUI constructively at the service of an emerging new Irish society.   Walsh happily took up his new appointment but without any great fanfare.  His diary for the day simply noted “National University” and he pencilled out a later engagement that he has planned for the rest of the day.

As I have already noted, Walsh respected the independence of the university, recognising its Catholic roots and composition, but refusing to “baptise” it.  Our pluralist Ireland of today needs a new theory of pluralism and the university is the typical space where pluralism can be nurtured.  Pluralism requires open and honest dialogue.  The truth is never served by mere polemics.  We need a society where people who believe, people who are searching, people who doubt and people who reject religious values can live in a new mature relationship of dialogue and seeking.  Enlightened secular society does not need to fear dialogue with men and women who believe or vice-versa.  The questions which belief proposes in society are fundamental questions and cannot be passed over.  The challenges of the message of Jesus Christ are challenges to all.

Our pluralist Ireland of today needs a new theory of pluralism.  Our young people need to be helped to attain the science of intellectual searching and dialogue on the deeper questions for life and society.  The young person in today’s Ireland is called to grow towards responsibility within the realities of the culture of the day, influenced by ideas, by life styles, by the basic self-understanding of this concrete society.  The young person must learn how to discern within that world where true progress is to be found in his or her own personal life and in society as a whole.  At the same time, the young person has to learn that society is not an abstraction or a force which is absolutely determinant regarding his or her own values and life style.   Education will take place in a particular context, but all of us have the ability and indeed the responsibility to change the context within which education can take place.  To think or act otherwise is the recipe for fundamentalism.

Who was Archbishop William J Walsh?  He was an Archbishop who lived through many changes and challenges in his times.  He was a modern man who knew how and when to change.  He was courageous in denouncing injustice against Catholics.  He was far-seeing as Chancellor in seeing that Catholicism should not be institutionalised within the framework of a changing society.

To some he appeared somewhat a man of intellect rather than of heart.  He was a reserved man but also a generous and concerned man. He was, for example, sensitive to a situation of poverty and homelessness in a Dublin which was at the same time a prosperous city of business and commerce and culture.  In 1915 he supported the establishment of the Homeless Hostel in Back Lane which still provides invaluable service today. The statistics about homelessness at that time ring a note that is sadly familiar to us today.  The number of the homeless was high, compared to the smaller population of the time.  The political ups and downs of the time, the historic moments which we will commemorate in the coming years, were also marked by a sharp rise in homelessness.  The uprising, the civil war, the slow economic growth of the new Irish State, were accompanied by increased homelessness almost unbeknown to the city.  It is sad to see how even at a time of intellectual, political and nationalistic ferment, the Dublin of that time had a harsh parallel experience of burgeoning poverty and homelessness.

He placed great trust in the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.  He had founded the Catholic Boys Home in Abbey Street a little earlier, a sign of the fact that there were many children and teenagers sleeping rough at the time.

Walsh had a great interest in music and was an accomplished organist, violinist and pianist.  He entertained himself through playing his favourite piano works and when he powers began to fail he installed a Pianola which reproduced his favourite pieces.    Almost his last gesture as he lay dying and could no longer speak clearly was to call for some paper on which he scribbled that the pianola should be sent to the asylum for the blind on Merrion Road “as an addition to the enjoyment of the all but helpless affliction of the blindness of the young”.


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