Downey, Richard Joseph (1881–1953), catholic archbishop of Liverpool, was born in Kilkenny on 5 May 1881, the eldest of three children and the only son of Thomas Downey, a chemist, and his wife, Minnie Downey (née Casey). He was educated at the CBS in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, and (after the family moved to Liverpool) at Our Lady Immaculate elementary school, Everton. He entered St Edward's College junior diocesan seminary in 1894 and St Joseph's College, Upholland, Wigan, in 1901, where he studied philosophy and divinity. He was ordained in May 1907 and went to Rome, where he graduated DD at the Gregorian University in 1911.
He spent the next fifteen years in the diocese of Westminster, preaching and educating through a number of organisations and institutions. He joined the Catholic Missionary Society, which sought through preaching to convert non-catholics throughout Britain; he also visited New York to this end in 1922 and 1925. He was editor of the Universe in 1917, and in 1918 he co-founded and became the first editor of the Catholic Gazette. A regular contributor to theological and philosophical reviews, he became chairman of the editorial board of the Clergy Review in 1931. In 1920 he was appointed professor of philosophy and psychology at the Sacred Heart College in Hammersmith, London, but in 1926 returned to the diocese of Liverpool to St Joseph's College, Upholland, first as professor of dogmatic theology and then from 1927 as vice-rector. He also acted as an external examiner in philosophy for the NUI (1915–18 and 1925–8). His publications included Some errors of H. G. Wells: a catholic's criticism of the ‘Outline of history’ (1921) and Personal immortality (1927).
When Downey was appointed archbishop of Liverpool in 1928 he was the youngest catholic archbishop in the world, and it was the first case since the reformation of a priest in Britain being elevated to archiepiscopal rank without previously holding an intermediate dignity. As archbishop he oversaw the growth of an already important diocese: not only did the number of catholics in the diocese increase substantially, but the numbers of parishes, churches, and priests all climbed. He presided over the celebrations in 1929 marking the centenary of catholic emancipation, and over the completion of a new seminary in Liverpool, but fulfilment of his ambitions for a grand cathedral for the city proved elusive. He employed the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, who created a magnificent, even grandiose, design, and in 1930 succeeded in purchasing a prominent 9 acre site at Brownlow Hill, despite the objections of protestant representatives on Liverpool city council: councillor and pastor H. Longbottom stated that he would prefer to see ‘a poison germ factory’ constructed (Waller, 324). Building began but was suspended in 1941 (when it had not yet progressed above crypt level) and was abandoned due to prohibitive cost after the war. In 1967 a new design by Sir Frederick Gibberd was finally erected above Lutyens's crypt.
Downey was credited with ending much sectarian strife in Liverpool: he discouraged overt sectarian politics, which had been tolerated by his predecessors, forbade the use of the word ‘catholic’ in the names of political parties, and banned priests from running for Liverpool city council. However, he was not an ecumenist and had a testy relationship with the anglican bishop of Liverpool, Albert David. He was outspoken on various social and political issues. As spokesman on education for the English hierarchy, he was a vigorous champion of denominational education, and became embroiled in local and national controversy on this issue, which continued throughout the 1930s. He later served as a member of the council of Liverpool University (1944–50). A noted wit and speaker, he gave many broadcasts during the second world war. He was a vehement opponent of Hitler and, after the war, of communism, which he described as so ‘crude, barbarous, irrational and destructive’ a system that the power behind it must be ‘diabolical’ (Ir. Times, 17 June 1953): as a practical measure against it, he urged a boycott of Soviet goods. In 1949 he also suggested that the emancipation of women was in danger of going too far.
Downey travelled widely, visiting Australia in 1934–5, Vienna for the Eucharistic Congress in 1938, Canada in 1951, and Ireland on several occasions; he was made a freeman of Kilkenny (1930), Sligo (1931), Wexford and Limerick (1932), and Clonmel (1934). He was an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (1946) and was awarded honorary doctorates from the Gregorian University in Rome, the NUI, and Toronto and Liverpool universities. He died 16 June 1953 at a nursing home in Woolton, Liverpool: enormous crowds attended his funeral and he was buried in the unfinished crypt of the catholic cathedral in a tomb designed by Lutyens.