Joseph MacRory

Contributors: TOR.


Joseph MacRory (1861-1945), Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, was born in 1861 near the town of Ballygawley in South Tyrone. One of ten children of Francis MacRory, a small farmer, and his wife Rose Montague. The young Joseph went to school locally at Glencull. MacRory went on to study at St. Patrick’s, the Diocesan Seminary in Armagh and later St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. During this time he established his name among the theologians as a brilliant student. At the close of his studies to be a priest he entered Dunboyne establishment. This was a college endowed for the pursuit of higher ecclesiastical studies. MacRory was ordained a priest in 1885 and he became the first president of St. Patrick’s Boys Academy, Dungannon. In 1887, he was invited by Archbishop Ullathorne to become Professor of Sacred Scripture and Modern Theology at the Birmingham Diocesan Seminary at Olton College. MacRory had been two years at Olton, when he was appointed to fill the Chair of Sacred Scripture and Oriental Languages at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. After lecturing in various subjects in 1912 he eventually became vice-president of the college. During his time at Maynooth, MacRory produced many works, including a commentary on the Gospel of St. John (1897) and the Epistles of St Paul to the Corinthians (1934). One of his most valued works was his book on the New Testament and Divorce (1934). He also co-founded the Irish Theological Quarterly in 1906. He also wrote for the Catholic Bulletin of America and the Irish Ecclesiastical Record.

In 1915 MacRory was called by the Holy See to take his place in the ranks of the Irish hierarchy as bishop of Down and Connor. He was consecrated on 14 November 1915, by Cardinal Logue. MacRory was placed in a spiritual jurisdiction over a diocese that was then described as the most ‘turbulent in the country, which had as its centre the whirlpool of Belfast with its seething troubles, both religious and political’. Belfast was inflamed with the hatred of Rome and Ireland, and on many occasions MacRory’s life was threatened. He longed for spiritual and material welfare for all his people and was anxious to see all Irish people living and working in harmony. He was opposed to Catholic discrimination in the work place. At the outbreak of World War One he was called upon to lead the hierarchy of the north in signing the declaration against conscription. He highlighted the expulsion of Belfast Catholics from their employment in the summer of 1920, assisting them through appeals for aid and subscriptions of his own to relief funds. MacRory’s patriotic spirit dominated important speeches he made in his capacity as a public figure. He publicly denounced the Partition of the country on many occasions:

‘It is an outrage that Partition should continue ... It was a terrible thing for any outside Power to come in and split up this country and leave it split up with lasting injury to the nation.’

He regarded dealings with the new government as collaboration with the enemy. Although he was slow to condemn IRA activities he served on the Catholic-police liaison committee set up under the Craig-Collins pact.

MacRory lent his patronage to the Gaelic revival. A fervent patriot he saw the value of Gaelic games and Irish dancing in building up the morale of the Irish people. He supported the Feiseanna, notably to the Tir-Eoghain and to the Feis Ard-Macha. The Gaelic Athletic Association in Ulster owes a great deal to MacRory. He purchased Shaun’s Park, later renamed MacRory Park. The yearly competition for the Dr. MacRory Cup raised the standard of Gaelic football in Ulster during the 1930s and 1940s. Although he wasn’t fluent in Irish, he admired the language and praised the Gaelic League for their attempts to promote it ‘If there is a Parliament in Dublin today, it is due to the spirit of self-respect and patriotism and independence nurtured and called forth by the Gaelic League.’ As a man of the people and not one to forget his own humble beginnings, MacRory spoke out against social and economic injustice, which he saw arising out of ‘the perversion of the doctrine of private property by materialistic finance capitalism’.

In 1928, on the death of Cardinal O’Donnell, MacRory was elevated to the Archdiocese of Armagh, otherwise known as the Ancient See of St Patrick. The following year he was raised to the Cardinalate with the title of St. John and assigned the titular church of San Giovanni a Porta Latina. He was awarded an honorary degree of LLD by Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1929, but declined an invitation to attend the awards ceremony. MacRory took a constant and practical interest in the cause of social and economic reform. He was acquainted from his earliest youth with the hard realities of the economic struggles of farmers, craftsmen and factory workers. In June 1942, he received a deputation from the Irish Farmers’ Federation at Maynooth. The memorandum presented claimed that farmers were victims of social injustice. The Cardinal expressed his sympathy with their aims and objects, which included a demand for a just price based on the cost production for all agricultural produce.

MacRory focused his attention on the difficulties of Catholic Schools under the Stormont Government. He expressed concern about the lack of funding towards denominational schools in northern Ireland. MacRory spoke lucidly and supported organisations that worked with youths, for example The Society of St John Bosco. He assisted the dependents of the six county political prisoners and internees. He was foremost in promoting the ‘Cause’ of Beautification of Oliver Plunkett, the martyred Archbishop of Armagh. He was also devoted to the work of the foreign missions.

MacRory travelled widely. He was appointed Papal Legate in 1933 at the laying of the foundation stone of Liverpool’s great Cathedral; and again in 1934, as Legate to the National Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne where he met an old friend from Maynooth, the Irish-born Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Mannix. He led a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Blessed Oliver Plunkett at Downside Abbey in Somerset and he travelled to America. In 1938 he spoke out against pagan philosophy of the then triumphant national socialism. During the Second World War his voice was added to many other religious leaders in calling for peace. He approved of de Valera’s policy of neutrality and resented the presence of allied troops in Northern Ireland. On the diamond jubilee of his ordination he was presented with a marble altar for his private oratory. Cardinal MacRory died of a heart attack at his residence in Armagh on 13 October 1945. His funeral, which was broadcast by Radio Éireann, was attended by representatives from both sides of the border. He was buried in the primate’s plot of St Patrick’s Cemetery, Armagh. His Episcopal motto was Fortis in Fide (Strong in Faith).

Writings, Biography, & Studies. Joseph MacRory, The Gospel of St. John (Dublin 1914). Joseph MacRory, The New Testament and divorce (Dublin 1934). Joseph MacRory, The Epistles of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Dublin 1935). Emmet J. Larkin, The historical dimensions of Irish Catholicism (New York 1976). Kate Newman, Dictionary of Ulster Biography (Belfast 1993). Louis McRedmond, Modern Irish Lives: Dictionary of 20th-century Irish Biography (Dublin 1996). Stewart J. Brown & David W. Miller (eds.), Piety and power in Ireland, 1760-1960: essays in honour of Emmet Larkin (Belfast & Notre Dame 2000). D. J Hickey & J. E. Doherty, A New Dictionary of Irish History (Dublin, 2003). Brian Lalor, The Encyclopedia of Ireland (Yale 2003).

Tomás O'Riordan