D'Alton, John Francis (1882–1963), cardinal and classical scholar, was born on 11 October 1882 in Claremorris, Co. Mayo, son of Joseph D'Alton, a shopkeeper, and Mary D'Alton (née Brennan). He was a nephew of the antiquary and dean of Tuam Monsignor Edward Alfred D'Alton, MRIA (1860–1941). Following an early education at the Mount St Michael's Convent of Mercy in Claremorris, in September 1895 he enrolled as a student at Blackrock College, Dublin, after which he entered the seminary at Clonliffe College, Dublin. He graduated from the RUI with first-class honours (BA 1904) and then went to the Irish College in Rome, where he studied under Cardinal Lauri, professor of sacramental theology. On 18 April 1908 he was ordained priest and in the same year he was awarded a DD in Rome. D'Alton then travelled in Italy and Greece, pursuing classical studies, and attended St Edmund's House, Cambridge University. In 1910 he joined the staff at Maynooth College, Co. Kildare, where he remained until 1942. Lecturing in classical studies, he was appointed professor of ancient classics (1912) and of Greek (1922), and served as vice-president (1934) and president (1936). Regarded as an innovative administrator, he was instrumental in expanding the size of the college campus and in implementing a less austere approach to study, allowing for more recreation time. His publications during this period included Horace and his age: a study in history and background (1917), Roman literary theory and criticism: a study in tendencies (1931), and Selections from St John Chrysostom (1940). Throughout his career he also strove to preserve the status of religious instruction in national schools.
D'Alton was appointed coadjutor to the bishop of Meath (7 April 1942), ordained bishop (29 June 1942), and succeeded as bishop of Meath (16 June 1943). Appointed archbishop of Armagh on 13 April 1946, he was the first Connacht-born bishop to be appointed to the primatial see for 180 years. His first trip abroad as archbishop was in 1947 to Canada, where he preached at the inaugural ceremony at Ottawa cathedral for the Marian year celebrations of that year. In 1952 he was the first member of the Irish catholic hierarchy to receive an honorary degree from QUB, when he was conferred with a D.Litt.
D'Alton was named a cardinal by Pope Pius XII on 12 January 1953, and received a rapturous welcome on his homecoming. He frequently denounced partition, noting that ‘As a lover of my country I naturally deplore the political partition of this island of ours which God intended to be one and individual’. He suggested a novel federal solution which would involve each of the six Ulster counties deciding individually whether it would remain with the southern or northern government, with the decision to join a commonwealth being decided by an Ireland united in a federation under which the Stormont government would give to the Dublin government the same allegiance it gave to Westminster, with any intention to join the NATO alliance decided by plebiscite. They were proposals which supportive commentators regarded as ‘too little studied and too soon forgotten’.
Keenly interested in social questions, D'Alton was a virulent anti-communist, and he spoke out against both the evils of industrialisation and the cleavage between economic and moral orders. He constantly reiterated the importance of family values and warned of the danger of parental responsibilities being assumed by the state. These beliefs were elucidated in such Lenten pastorals as The social teaching of the church (1948) and The church and freedom (1952). He suggested the Irish trade union movement should affiliate to the International Federation of Christian Trade Unions, a proposal regarded with distaste by the ITUC, which contained many northern protestants; its general secretary, Ruaidhrí Roberts (qv), reminded D'Alton that trade unions in Ireland were not organised on sectarian lines. D'Alton regarded the welfare state as a ‘milder form of totalitarianism’ (Whyte, 271), and though he was consulted concerning the mother and child scheme of 1950–51, he afterwards rejected the charge of church interference, remarking, ‘I may say at once that the bishops have neither the desire nor the intention of intervening in any question that is purely political. . . . It is their custom when the need arises to convey their views privately to the head of the government in office . . . since a native government was established the bishops have intervened very rarely’ (ibid, 243, 247). He reluctantly agreed to the proposals of Éamon de Valera (qv) to provide free mother-and-child health services, enshrined in the health act of 1953, but told a congress in Sligo in 1954 that it was morally wrong for individuals to depend on the state for their needs alternative if they could avoid it.
In 1955 D'Alton travelled to Rio de Janiero to represent the Irish hierarchy at the International Eucharistic Congress. In 1958 he rebuked the Irish delegation at the United Nations for voting to consider the admission of communist China, declaring that catholic Ireland was strongly opposed to the recognition of ‘Red’ China. In December 1958 he was awarded an honorary LLD from the NUI, and in 1961 presided over the patrician year celebrations in Ireland. He died 2 February 1963 in a Dublin nursing home from heart disease. His papers are kept at Maynooth College.