Cassidy, Joseph (1933–2013), archbishop and preacher, was born on 29 October 1933 in Charlestown, Co. Mayo, the only son of seven children of John Cassidy, national school headteacher, and Mary Cassidy (née Gallagher). His maternal uncle, Canon Eddie Gallagher, was parish priest of Charlestown, and Cassidy recalled the unobtrusive piety of his parents as influencing his early desire to be a priest. He was educated at Charlestown Boys’ National School and St Nathy’s College, Ballaghadereen, Co. Roscommon. In 1952 he entered Maynooth where he graduated BD and BA in English and literature, and he also secured a higher diploma in education at UCG. During his schooldays he developed a love for drama and oratory, and participated in school and college plays, ranging from musicals to Shakespeare, as an actor and later a producer. He was also a skilful teller of ghost stories.
On 21 June 1959 Cassidy was ordained to the priesthood for his native Achonry diocese but was immediately ‘loaned out’ to the Clonfert diocese (which mostly covered east Co. Galway) to teach English literature in St Joseph’s College, Garbally, Ballinasloe. (He formally transferred to Clonfert in 1964.) He was a popular and effective teacher, known for his love of his subject and of sport (he was a proud Mayo GAA fan) and his ability to befriend pupils, in contrast to the traditional view that teachers should keep their distance to maintain their authority. Encouraging pupils to ask questions rather than passively accept authority, he introduced student debating and founded a well-received student magazine. Even students who later disagreed with some of his beliefs, such as Labour party leader (2007–14) Eamon Gilmore, recalled him as an inspiration and maintained friendly relations. In 1972 Cassidy became vice-president of St Joseph’s College and in 1977 was appointed president.
In 1962 he co-wrote a play, ‘In wild earth’, with another teacher at Garbally, Fr James O’Donnell. Shortly afterwards Cassidy composed a three-act comedy, ‘That family feeling’, which became a favourite with local amateur drama groups and was adapted by P. P. Maguire for broadcast on RTÉ radio in 1972. He became a regular contributor to the theological magazine The Furrow and contributed brief reflections to the RTÉ programme The living word. A talented preacher, he devoted hours of preparation to sermons.
On 23 September 1979 he was installed as coadjutor bishop of Clonfert with right of succession to Thomas Ryan (qv); his episcopal ordination was brought forward so that he could participate in the bishops’ reception of Pope John Paul II to Ireland six days later. He became bishop of Clonfert on 1 May 1982 and, intent on implementing the liberal vision of the Second Vatican Council, developed a variety of diocesan services for marriage and family, youth, travelling people and adult religious education. He also undertook a diocesan programme of church renovation and established a diocesan spirituality centre in honour of the diocese’s patron saint, St Brendan (qv). Keen to assist developing countries, he established a ‘Third World farm’ on diocesan land (so called because its profits from cattle-rearing – £33,000 over a three-year period – were used to finance missionary and developmental activities) near his residence at Coorheen, Loughrea, Co. Galway. As he was later to do in Tuam, he made a point of visiting every parish in succession as soon as possible after his installation.
From 1981 to 1987, he was official spokesman for the catholic bishops, heading the Catholic Communications Office (established in 1975). He also chaired the Bishops’ Commission on Emigration and composed official weekly sermon notes to assist less articulate priests. Regarded as one of the more liberal members of the hierarchy, he was aware that popular faith in catholicism could no longer be taken for granted and commented that too much attention was paid to sins of the bedroom rather than the boardroom (Evening Echo, 10 Feb. 2003). However, his statement during the 1983 anti-abortion amendment campaign, that the unborn child might be less safe in its mother’s womb than elsewhere, was criticised as misogynistic by supporters of legalised abortion. (He acted as liaison between the bishops and the government during discussions over the amendment wording.) In June 1993, addressing crowds gathered for a visit to Knock by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, he stated that ‘anyone claiming to be pro-life must be pro-mother as well’ (Irish Times, 7 June 1993). The visit, which he regarded as one of the high points of his episcopate, was partly a response to the recent legalisation of abortion in limited circumstances by the ‘X’ case decision of the Supreme Court.
In February 1984 Cassidy was prominent in the delegation of catholic bishops to the New Ireland Forum, which disavowed any intention to maintain a catholic confessional state but reserved the right to oppose social legislation they considered contrary to the common good. This distinction was seen by some commentators as evasive (since it failed to clarify how the common good was to be defined), but Cassidy took it seriously. During the 1986 referendum which unsuccessfully attempted to remove the constitutional ban on divorce, he attracted considerable attention by stating that catholics were entitled to vote for divorce if they made a ‘reflective, prayerful, conscientious decision’, although he also warned that divorce would damage society and could not be reversed once permitted. On the numerous reports of moving statues in catholic roadside shrines during the summer of 1985, he quipped that ‘the church moves more slowly on these matters than do the statues’ and that the level of public interest risked ‘turning Mary into a marionette’ (Irish Times, 3 Oct. 1985).
In October 1987 Cassidy succeeded Joseph Cunnane (1913–2001) as archbishop of Tuam, although he had privately told Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich (qv) that he did not wish to be considered on health grounds. His appointment was criticised by some Tuam priests on the grounds that the Vatican passed over local candidates favoured by most archdiocesan clergy such as the prominent theologian Fr Enda MacDonagh (1930–2021) and Cunnane’s preferred successor, Mgr Thomas Waldron. Some commentators (including Cassidy’s fellow-townsman John Healy (qv)) suggested he had not been appointed to the vacant archdiocese of Dublin, where his communication skills would have been useful in addressing a rapidly secularising urban population, because he was seen as too liberal. In 1988 Cassidy convoked a diocesan assembly on the future of the Tuam diocese, which became the basis for a consultative diocesan Council for the Laity. He promoted the establishment of parish councils and supported his close associate Fr Colm Kilcoyne in securing a church financial and broadcasting presence in local radio in the west of Ireland from 1989. Instrumental in creating a theological library and research centre on the Galway campus of Galway and Mayo Institute of Theology, he also made various administrative changes, including a uniform retirement age of seventy-five for priests, and oversaw the renovation of Tuam cathedral and other churches. He developed a strong personal relationship with the Church of Ireland bishop of Tuam, John Neill.
Cassidy believed his duties included speaking up for the temporal well-being of the people of the archdiocese and its metropolitan province (covering most of Connacht). This reflected both the longstanding tradition of brokerage between senior clerics and their flocks, and an abiding concern that church teaching should incorporate awareness of everyday problems. He made a point though of emphasising that external assistance should be combined with some degree of self-help. In a 1988 pre-Christmas poverty appeal, he spoke of those whose ‘diets are full of carbohydrate, their nightmares are full of bills. They scramble from one week to the next, in a desperate effort to keep ahead of insolvency … That part of their poverty is sometimes managerial, nobody will deny. It makes it no less real’ (Irish Times, 26 Dec. 1988). After the closure of the long-established Tuam sugar factory, he helped organise a group called Tuam Action to lobby for replacement industries – a task made all the more urgent when the Digital corporation closed its factory in the town in 1993. He publicly complained that the extent of continuing emigration from the west, and the damage it inflicted on emigrants and local communities alike, was underrated, and regularly worked with the Irish emigrant chaplaincy in London.
In 1988 he attempted to mediate between the government and anglers’ groups who obstructed fishing on inland waters over a new law requiring the possession of a rod licence. He believed that he had secured agreement on a peace formula suspending enforcement of the legislation at a private meeting with Taoiseach Charles Haughey (qv). However, this apparent disregard for the law provoked criticism from opposition TDs, and the settlement broke down after an ambiguous phrase was interpreted differently by government and protestors.
Cassidy took a particular interest in the diocesan pilgrimage sites at Knock (where he commissioned an architecturally innovative Chapel of Reconciliation for eucharistic adoration and the hearing of confessions) and Croagh Patrick. He participated in the annual climb up the mountain until his health precluded it (after 1991), and for some time afterwards greeted the pilgrims at the foot of the mountain. In summer 1989 he publicly opposed plans to mine gold on Croagh Patrick, contributing to a government decision to refuse a mining license to Burmin Mining.
From 1991 he was active in the campaign to draw up a development plan for the west and establish a regional development council. This campaign was initiated by John Kirby, bishop of Clonfert, and initially had Eamonn Casey (1927–2017), bishop of Galway, as its principal spokesman. Cassidy became its frontman after Casey resigned in 1992 after the revelation that he had fathered a son. Cassidy, who was a close friend of Casey, liked to remind interviewers that Casey had done much good for the disadvantaged and that it was human to make mistakes; some commentators saw this as too facile. His 1993 granting of a degree of official recognition (withdrawn by his successor) to the Achill Island House of Prayer, associated with alleged visionary Christina Gallagher, also provoked controversy.
Cassidy had open heart surgery in 1990, which left him in constant and increasing pain from angina pectoris, and the following year he submitted his resignation to Rome. This was declined, and an auxiliary bishop, Michael Neary, was appointed to assist him. Cassidy later recalled that while Neary undertook much of his workload, new work constantly arose. In July 1994, after receiving medical advice to quit as archbishop, his resignation was accepted. He remained apostolic administrator of the diocese until Neary was installed as his successor in March 1995. One of his last acts as administrator was to open a family support centre in Castlebar. He was then appointed parish priest of Moore and Clonfad in southern Co. Roscommon. In December 1998 and April 2001 he underwent further heart surgery but remained active in the campaign to develop the west and continued to administer confirmation and preach funeral sermons for local celebrities and old acquaintances.
In 2000 he published This might help, a collection of sermons for each weekday and Sunday in a three-year cycle, followed by This might help too (2006). He retired as parish priest of Moore in May 2009. In December 2011 the National Child Safeguarding Bureau criticised as excessively defensive his handling of clerical abuse allegations as archbishop of Tuam. He spent his last years at Creagh, Ballinasloe, where he died on 30 January 2013; he was buried in the grounds of Moore church.