Conway, William John (1913–77), cardinal, was born 22 January 1913 in Belfast, eldest of four sons and five daughters of Patrick Conway and Annie Conway (née Donnelly). The family home at that time was at Dover St., which linked the Falls and Shankhill Roads. His father, a self-employed house-painter, also had a paint shop in Kent St. off Royal Avenue. His mother, who survived her son, was born in Carlingford, Co. Louth. One of the boys died in childhood; two others also became priests; two of the girls married and raised families. Conway's early schooling was at Boundary St. public elementary school, from which he graduated to St Mary's Christian Brothers grammar school, Barrack St. He was the acknowledged leader of his class, excelled in physics and chemistry, was proficient in Irish, and won a prize for story-telling in Irish at Belfast Feis (1930). His academic successes were crowned by a scholarship to QUB. He decided to study for the diocesan priesthood. In 1933 he was conferred with an honours BA in English literature in Queen's, and went on to read a distinguished course in theology at Maynooth. He was ordained (20 June 1937) and awarded a DD (1938). On 12 November 1938 he entered the Irish College, Rome, and in 1941 he received the DCL degree at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Italy's entry into the war in June 1940 meant that technically Northern Ireland students were aliens in Italy, but this, as well as the problem of finding a way home around the battle-lines, was overcome, and in August 1941 the young Dr Conway, availing of the seaplane service from Lisbon to Foynes, returned to Belfast to take up duty in Down and Connor. He was appointed to teach English and Latin in St Malachy's College, but after one year he was named professor of moral theology and canon law in Maynooth. His lectures were well organised and well delivered; he had a precise and probing mind, and demanded precision and clarity of others. He contributed regular ‘Canon law replies’ to the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, which were later collected as Problems in canon law (1950), the only book published by him.
In 1957 he became vice-president of Maynooth, and in 1958, at 45, he was named Ireland's youngest bishop, titular bishop of Neve, and auxiliary to Cardinal John D'Alton (qv), archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland. He was consecrated in Armagh cathedral (27 July) by Archbishop Levame, the apostolic nuncio. He served as administrator of St Patrick's, Dundalk, for the next five years, gaining valuable pastoral experience, and also used these years to familiarise himself with his new diocese, especially its geography; he had no great interest in golf or other sports, but enjoyed travelling to various parts of the diocese to explore on foot. A methodical approach to life and the desire of being always prudently well prepared for what might lie ahead were characteristic of him. On the death of D'Alton, Conway was chosen to succeed him in September 1963, and was enthroned on 25 September in Armagh cathedral by the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Sensi. At the end of 1964 Pope Paul VI chose him as Ireland's seventh residential cardinal, and he received the red hat in the public consistory of 22 February 1965. He was not destined to exercise his cardinal's prerogative of voting a new pope in conclave.
The thirteen-odd years of his ministry as primate were dominated firstly by the second Vatican council and secondly by the troubles that broke out in Northern Ireland in 1969. His primary concern was the church, to steer it through testing times. Hard-working, pragmatic, mentally sharp, and not afraid to take difficult and courageous decisions, he was nevertheless cautious, prudent, and traditionalist. To those who knew him closely, he had an expansive and gracious personality, with a good sense of humour. He was a very active bishop in a diocese of 160,000 catholics, with fifty-seven parishes and some 167 priests. He carried the burden alone until in 1974 he was given an auxiliary in the person of his secretary, Fr Francis Lenny (1928–78). Two new parishes were created, five new churches were built, and very many others were renovated to meet the requirements of liturgical reform. Twenty new schools were also provided. The cardinal's relations with protestants, who numbered some 80,000 in his diocese, were always cordial in the spirit of the Vatican council. He attended all four sessions of the council (1962–5), as auxiliary bishop and as primate. On 9 October 1963 he addressed the assembly, making a plea that the council might not be so concerned with weightier matters as to neglect to speak about priests. He also made contributions on the topics of mixed marriages, catholic schools, and the laity. On the topic of education, he was convinced that integrated schools would not solve Northern Ireland's problems.
He represented the Irish episcopal conference at each assembly of the synod of bishops in Rome, at first with Bishop Michael Browne (qv) of Galway, his former professor in Maynooth, and later with Archbishop Dermot Ryan (qv) of Dublin. With Cardinals Villot and Felici he was chairman of the first synod in 1969, a signal honour conferred on him by Pope Paul VI. He also addressed the assembly, opposing the ordination of married men as a move that would release a flood of applications from around the world for dispensations from priestly celibacy. His experience of violence in Northern Ireland was reflected in contributions he made to later synod assemblies, especially in 1971 and 1974.
Apart from the synod, Conway travelled a few times each year to Rome for meetings of the three Roman congregations on which he was called to serve (those of bishops, catholic education, and the evangelisation of peoples) and the commission for the revision of the code of canon law. The first of these involved him in the nomination of new bishops not only in Ireland but around the world. He also travelled further afield in a representative capacity: to the international eucharistic congress at Bogota, also attended by Pope Paul VI; and to Madras (1972), where he acted as papal legate for the centenary celebrations in honour of St Thomas. On the former occasion he visited Irish missionaries in Peru, Chile, and Argentina, and while in India he included a visit to see at first hand the work of Mother Teresa in Calcutta, where Fr Michael Doheny (d. 1992) of the Irish relief agency Concern was also active. In 1966 he was invited by the bishops of Poland to join in celebrations for the millennium of catholicism in that country, but was refused an entry visa by the Polish government. In January 1973 he felt obliged to forgo participation in the Melbourne eucharistic congress because of the troubled situation at home. Within Ireland he accepted invitations to become a freeman of Cork and Galway (1965) and of Wexford (1966); in 1976 the NUI conferred on him an honorary LLD.
He was acknowledged as an able and diligent chairman of the Irish episcopal conference. After the council the volume of business increased dramatically – as did, accordingly, the number and length of the bishops’ meetings. Conway was always well prepared, carefully assimilating each item of business, and he steered the meetings in an efficient and businesslike way. He did not impose his own point of view, but his fair-minded presentation of various options often won consensus from his colleagues. The core problem in the early years was how to lead the Irish church into the difficult new era that followed the council. He showed exceptional leadership qualities in the manner in which he promoted firm but gentle progress, avoiding sudden trauma and divisions. A major event in his term as archbishop of Armagh, and one that gave him much satisfaction, was the canonization of Oliver Plunkett (qv), his martyred predecessor, in the holy year 1975. He followed with great interest the final stages of the cause from 1968, and was greatly disappointed when grounded by his doctors six weeks before the event – he did however take part, concelebrating with Pope Paul VI at the ceremony (12 October 1975). He also presided the following evening at the first mass of thanksgiving in the Lateran basilica, receiving a tumultuous applause from the thousands of Irish present. The Vatican newspaper, I'Osservatore Romano, warmly described the scene in an article, ‘Gli irlandesi e il loro cardinale’.
More than anything else, the troubles in Northern Ireland occupied Conway during the second half of his term as archbishop and primate. He was the leading spokesman of the catholic cause, but never failed to condemn atrocities wherever the responsibility lay: he branded as ‘monsters’ the terrorist bombers on both sides. In 1971 he denounced internment without trial, and the following year he was mainly responsible for highlighting the ill-treatment and even torture of prisoners in Northern Ireland. He repudiated the idea that the conflict was religious in nature, emphasising its social and political dimensions; made repeated appeals for peace, declaring that the majority of the people wanted an end to violence; was the first public figure to ask the question ‘Who in his senses wants to bomb a million protestants into a united Ireland?’; and was openly critical of the British government over conditions in Long Kesh internment camp, and of ‘the cloak of almost total silence’ surrounding violence against the catholic community.
It has been said of him that he was fascinated by the media. He valued access to a wider audience, but had no illusions about the pitfalls involved in giving interviews. The Sunday Independent of 24 April 1977, exactly a week after the cardinal's death, carried a journalist's detailed account of an interview Conway gave him in Armagh in 1975. At the outset it was far from friendly, but the cardinal's patience and kindness won him a measure of respect in the end. To another journalist who had given him unfriendly treatment he was able to say afterwards, addressing him familiarly, ‘You know, T. P., I still like you in spite of your views.’
In January 1977 he underwent surgery in a Dublin hospital, and almost immediately came to know that he was terminally ill. It was the best-kept secret in Ireland until close to the end. On 29 March Conway wrote to his fellow bishops informing them that the prognosis regarding his health was ‘not good, in fact . . . very bad’, and that he was perfectly reconciled to God's will. He was still able to work at his desk until Good Friday (8 April); he died in Armagh on Low Sunday night (17 April 1977). Seven countries were represented at his funeral by six cardinals and many bishops. The apostolic nuncio, the bishops of Ireland, the president and taoiseach, six Irish government ministers, and the secretary of state for Northern Ireland were also among the mourners. The cardinal was laid to rest on the brow of the cathedral hill. The red hat received from Paul VI was suspended from the ceiling of the Lady chapel, joining those of his four immediate predecessors.