Faul, Denis O'Beirne (1932–2006), catholic priest and human rights activist, was born in Louth village (near Dundalk), Co. Louth, on 14 August 1932, son of Joseph Faul, medical practitioner, and his wife Anne Frances (née O'Beirne) from Newry, Co. Down. He had three sisters and three brothers; two siblings were doctors. Two of Faul's maternal uncles were priests and he decided at the age of nine that he wanted to be a priest: 'I was very conscious of being Irish and unbelievably proud of being a catholic. Irish catholics feel they are the special brand, not the nameless brand X in the advertisement – 1,500-year-old catholics, unpolluted by heresy. That's the sort of thing we were reared on' (Observer, 22 May 1983).
He had a strong devotion to Oliver Plunkett (qv) and in the 1950s undertook some historical research on the diocese of Armagh during Plunkett's episcopate; this was published in the Armagh history journal Seanchas Ard Mhacha under the Irish form of his name, Donnchadh Mac Phóil. To mark Plunkett's canonisation in 1975 Faul published as a pamphlet a talk he had given in 1961 on Plunkett's connections with Louth parish.
Education and teaching career
Faul was educated at the local national school, St Mary's College, Dundalk (1943–5), and St Patrick's College, Armagh (1945–9). He studied for the priesthood at Maynooth (1949–56), where he was ordained priest on 17 June 1956. He adjusted happily to seminary discipline, though he remarked that the experience gave him a healthy cynicism about authority: 'we ate bread and butter and mutton every day, and we played Gaelic football which kept the mind clear…There were 80 people in my divinity class and we were not allowed to ask questions. But it was in the days of Pius XII and everything was very straightforward' (Observer, 22 May 1983).
He was a postgraduate student at the Dunboyne Institute in Maynooth and at the Gregorian University, Rome (1957–8), graduating STL. In later life he tried to visit Rome annually. He had a love of travel and of languages and accumulated a large collection of books, especially on theology and history, which he bequeathed to the Ó Fiaich Memorial Library, Armagh. He had a strong command of Irish; at different times he studied Latin, Greek, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, Spanish and, in his last years, Hebrew. When offered an honorary doctorate from QUB towards the end of his life, he turned it down in protest at the closure of the university's classics department.
On 1 January 1958 Faul was appointed to St Patrick's Academy, Dungannon, Co. Tyrone (a grammar school for boys), where he taught Latin, religion and ancient history. He played Gaelic football with the Academy team and with the Thomas Clarke's Gaelic Football Club in Dungannon until the age of 37, and was noted for his rugged and direct style of play. He combined work and sporting activitities with the secretaryship of the Christus Rex Society (a discussion group on catholic social teaching founded by Cahal Daly (1917–2009), later cardinal archbishop of Armagh) and with contributing to journals including Irisleabhar Muighe Nuadhat, An Sagart, and Hibernia. One of the central themes of his life was belief in the longstanding Irish catholic clerical project of using education to create a catholic professional class whose catholic and nationalist formation would ensure responsiveness to clerical authority and continued solidarity with poorer co-religionists in the struggle to advance the interests of the whole catholic-nationalist community in Northern Ireland. He told his pupils: 'to be holy in the world, and to sanctify the trades and the professions, to sanctify the City of London, Wall Street, Zurich and Munich – a good dream, better late than never. Religion is an infection. Don't teach it. Spread it' (The Breastplate (1987 ed.), 8). Education, he claimed, was the greatest threat to colonialism; if catholics were given a fair chance and Britain ceased to underpin protestant patronage systems in the interests of maintaining its own rule, the Irish border would soon fade away.
To the end of his life Faul advocated the selective education system created under the Education (Northern Ireland) Act 1947 (which applied the principles of the British Education Act 1944 to Northern Ireland, where they were retained long after they had been displaced in Britain by a comprehensive system). Latterly, in opposition to the bulk of clerical opinion and most nationalist politicians, he continued to maintain that the selective system played a vital role in collective catholic advancement. He was known to temper his criticisms of British conduct in Northern Ireland by tributes to the resources available to catholic schools in Northern Ireland when compared with their counterparts in the Republic, though he also retained a certain mid-century catholic suspicion of welfare statism as producing overweening state power in the name of an utopian ideal of social equality. His vision of education also made him an outspoken opponent of religiously integrated education in Northern Ireland: long after most catholic clerical opponents of integration confined themselves to quiet non-cooperation, he continued to maintain that the integrated education movement was a nefarious government-sponsored trick which by undermining the catholicism of northern nationalists – 'pictures of the Sacred Heart and Our Blessed Lady would have to be removed to avoid offending protestants and in their place we would get Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Dick Whittington and his cat' – would also undermine their political identity. His criticism of catholic parents who did not send their children to catholic schools was withering: 'who gave them leave to opt out of the catholic community for selfish or snobbish reasons? Their duty is to support catholic education and strengthen it for the coming generations' (quoted O'Connor, Shared childhood, 75). He told one interviewer: 'people accuse us of being in the business of brainwashing children. Well, I make no bones about it – we are' (O'Connor, In search of a state, 317).
Human rights in Northern Ireland
From 1963 he became active in the nascent civil rights movement, led in Dungannon by his friends Conn and Patricia McCluskey, and supported the Northern Ireland Liberal party, a reformist group led by the non-subscribing presbyterian minister Albert McElroy (1915–75). In April 1969 he was appointed by William Conway (qv), archbishop of Armagh, as one of the catholic representatives on a secret ad hoc inter-church committee established in response to the deteriorating political situation.
He first attracted widespread attention outside Dungannon in November 1969 when he gave a lecture stating inter alia that since most Northern Ireland judges had been active in unionist politics before elevation to the bench, catholics could have no confidence in their impartiality; they should be temporarily transferred to Britain, and English and Scottish judges seconded to Northern Ireland. This statement was widely denounced by unionists (including moderates such as Robin Baillie and Basil McIvor (qv)) and censured by Cardinal Conway. Faul later claimed that Conway wished to silence him but that the archbishop backed down due to widespread opposition among the priests of the diocese.
He became an early and outspoken campaigner against internment (introduced by the Northern Ireland government in August 1971), reacting strongly when ex-pupils and the fathers of pupils were detained. Realising that many detainees' relatives did not know how to contact a solicitor or seek other necessary help, he published an advertisement giving his phone number and asking those affected to contact him. This plunged him into incessant activity; he did not take a holiday between 1971 and 1979. He helped to found two groups, the Association for Legal Justice and the Help the Prisoners Committee, which assisted this campaign.
From the early 1970s to the mid 1980s Faul published numerous pamphlets and leaflets highlighting human rights abuses by the state and security forces; at least 153 had appeared by the beginning of 1987 (typewritten catalogues are available in the National Library of Ireland and the Linenhall Library, Belfast). These were usually written in association with Fr Raymond Murray of Armagh, who became Faul's closest collaborator, sometimes joined by Fr Brian Brady of Belfast; other associates – notably Jim Canning, a local councillor – assisted through phoning the police to enquire after those who had been arrested under emergency laws. Faul and Murray were also closely associated with Sister Sarah Clarke (qv), who worked for prisoners among the Irish community in Britain, and with the Irish National Caucus, an Irish-American lobby group headed by Fr Seán McManus (brother of Frank McManus, MP for Fermanagh–South Tyrone 1970–74) and regarded by the British and Irish governments as excessively sympathetic to the Sinn Féin viewpoint. The pamphlets often argued explicitly that the British and Irish authorities were excessively concerned with the views and sensibilities of Ulster unionists, and that the Troubles could only be ended by mobilising international support to secure justice for northern nationalists. The pamphlets typically contained narratives of the incidents with sworn statements by victims and their relatives (witnessed by one of the priests or their associates) and were published in tandem with formal complaints to the authorities lodged by Faul, Murray and their associates. In all Faul made over 1,100 such complaints; the evidence gathered by Faul and Murray was used in the 1975 case brought to the European court of human rights by the Irish government, which ended with a ruling that the British government had been guilty of inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees. Some depositions describe police interrogators suggesting sarcastically that detainees report their treatment to Faul, or wishing to inflict the same treatment on Faul himself (Faul and Murray, The RUC: the black and blue book (1975), 71; The Castlereagh file (1978), 89). The pamphlets often state that they are giving wider publicity to the complaints because these have not been addressed adequately: 'private representations to Britain are not nearly so effective as massive publicity directly attacking her tyrannical actions and broadcasting them to the world' (Faul and Murray, The hooded men (1974), 122). Faul also made extensive use of the Irish News – the Belfast daily traditionally associated with the catholic church – as a platform, and often expressed his views in the British-based Catholic Herald. He repeatedly complained that the security forces misled mainstream media with black propaganda, and that Britain had built a 'paper wall' around the Northern Ireland situation which could only be breached by a determined publicity campaign.
The pamphlets are underpinned by a traditional catholic-nationalist perspective: 'young men bearing…honourable names of Irish chiefs and kings going back to before the time of St Patrick…have to stand at the side of the road without shoes or stockings to be insulted by minions of the British army…We want to live with our protestant neighbours and live with all the people of this country in peace and that can only be done when the invader goes away, when the British go away and leave us in peace' (Faul and Murray, The sleeping giant: Irish Americans and human rights in Northern Ireland (1978), 16). Female republican prisoners strip-searched in Armagh prison were compared to the Italian Maria Goretti (1890–1902), stabbed to death while resisting a rapist and canonised in 1950 as a martyr to chastity (a comparison not appreciated by some prisoners who regarded themselves as socialist feminists). At the same time, the pamphlets deploy the language of international human rights (citing Amnesty International statements and comparing detainees to Steve Biko, the South African activist beaten to death in police custody in September 1977) and the second Vatican council (1962–5). Although the Irish government had interned republicans on several occasions with the tacit approval of the catholic hierarchy, Faul maintained that internment was wrong under any circumstances. This analysis, widely shared though rarely publicly voiced by Northern catholic priests, derived from the condemnation of 'arbitrary imprisonment' in Gaudium et spes, the Vatican council declaration on the church in the modern world.
Amongst other causes, Faul and Murray called for rubber and plastic bullets to be recognised as lethal weapons and prohibited. In 1976 they took up the cause of the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, and Maguire Seven – Irish prisoners in Britain wrongly convicted of IRA bombings and eventually cleared in 1991 – and through their involvement influential voices in Britain came to realise that huge miscarriages of justice had taken place.
Faul liked to claim that a large majority of Northern Ireland priests privately supported his campaigns, and some commentators suggested that the church authorities found him useful since his activities helped to maintain popular sympathy for the church but could be disavowed when the authorities complained. Faul himself thought that much trouble could have been prevented if the bishops had asserted themselves in 1969; he privately liked to mimic hand-washing when discussing the bishops' response to such matters, and to remark that middle-class catholics who gave financial assistance to his work were offering 'conscience money' driven by guilt at their own silence. He told a Belfast Telegraph interviewer in December 1971: 'I would feel that I try to help the poor people who are bewildered by social and legal injustice. I would like to feel that I was a typical Irish priest, close to the people and prepared to defend them.'
In the 1970s (and to some extent later) the Faul and Murray publications were accused of seeking to assist the Provisional IRA campaign by discrediting the police and the judicial system. In certain quarters they were routinely described as 'Provo priests', a view reinforced by their hostility to the participation of the moderate nationalist SDLP in the power-sharing executive created under the 1973 Sunningdale agreement (because of the role of Brian Faulkner (qv) in implementing internment) and their call on nationalists to boycott elections to the 1975 Northern Ireland constitutional convention.
In 1981 public perceptions of Faul underwent a sudden shift; he engaged in open controversy with the Sinn Féin leadership and was denounced by many republicans as 'Mrs Thatcher's priest'. From 1972 Faul had voluntarily assisted the prison chaplains in the Maze Prison (Long Kesh), saying mass there on Sundays and helping the prisoners with their cases and the prisoners' families in various ways, including financial; he would also smuggle in tobacco and keep the prisoners up to date on sports results. He was familiarly and affecionately known to the inmates as 'Denis the Menace'. He repeatedly maintained that many prisoners were innocents who had been beaten into making false confessions, and he supported their demand for special status (including the right to wear civilian clothing). He praised the determination of the 'blanket protesters' and 'dirty protesters' and, when addressing American audiences, compared them favourably to American prisoners of war in Korea and elsewhere. His attitude to the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes was initially ambivalent, but as the protest continued Faul became increasingly convinced that it could serve no useful purpose and that the IRA leadership could have called it off but was prolonging it for political advantage; after the premature death of Martin Hurson (a hunger striker suffering from an undiagnosed stomach infection) Faul confronted the prisoners' leadership and accused them of responsibility for Hurson's death. He then organised a meeting of prisoners' relatives (28 July 1981) and persuaded them to approach the Sinn Féin leadership and demand that they bring the protest to an end. When this failed to produce results, after the deaths of ten hunger strikers he persuaded the next of kin of the remaining hunger strikers to take them off the strike when they became unconscious. It was widely believed that only Faul, with the credibility he had accumulated through his years of campaigning, could have secured this. But many republicans saw him as having betrayed the hunger strikers; IRA prisoners boycotted his masses and a statement issued in the name of the prisoners on 26 September 1981 denounced him as a 'treacherous, conniving man'. Two years later Faul told an interviewer that the British government's handling of the prisons situation had been disastrous: 'the British are too stupid to see it. If only they had given them the civilian clothes in the first place. Ten men dead, 66 killed on the streets, Ireland in convulsions for a year, the prisoners in the end allowed to wear their own clothes, and the IRA with a whole new pack of cards up its sleeve' (Observer, 22 May 1983).
Faul subsequently became increasingly outspoken in his hostility to the republican movement; Gerry Adams later suggested that this reflected the challenge to Faul's paternalist attitudes – and to the church's leadership of working-class northern Catholics – posed by an increasingly politicised Sinn Féin, and that Faul preferred it 'when we were all wee catholic boys and girls being tortured and beaten up and hadn't any great political thoughts of our own' (Irish Times, 24 June 2006).
In popular memory in the early twenty-first century Faul is best remembered in connection with the hunger strikes. In the film Hunger (dir. Steve McQueen, 2008) the character of Fr Dominic Moran (played by Liam Cunningham), who engages in a lengthy discussion with Sands about the morality of the protest, is loosely based on Faul. The character of Father Daly (played by Gerald McSorley) in Some mother's son (dir. Terry George, 1996) is also based on Faul. Father Bradley in H3 (dir. Les Blair, 2001) may also be inspired by Faul, but since this film ends after the deaths of the first hunger strikers it does not portray his clash with the republican leadership.
In 1983 he became president of St Patrick's Academy, a post he held until 1998; he oversaw the expansion of the school and the introduction of new subjects, particularly in relation to science and technology; he established an observatory at the school for the study of astronomy. Throughout the 1980s he remained critical of both the British government and of Sinn Féin and the IRA; he warned his pupils that involvement in the IRA would probably lead to death or long-term imprisonment, and in private repeatedly stated that the movement was permeated by informers and British agents at every level. He assisted the peace group Families Against Intimidation and Terror in helping victims of paramilitary groups, advising it on gathering evidence and countering IRA propaganda techniques. His repeated calls for lenient treatment of prisoners convicted while underage and given indefinite sentences at the 'secretary of state's pleasure' (known as SOSPs), arguing that prisoner releases and other concessions would undercut popular sympathy for the IRA, is alleged to have contributed to the development of a more lenient British approach on this matter by the late 1980s. He also took an interest in prisoners in Irish jails (he privately complained that conditions there were worse than in Northern Ireland).
A supporter of the 1985 Anglo–Irish agreement, initially he took a pessimistic view of the peace process which began in the 1990s and was sceptical of the bona fides of Sinn Féin and the IRA; he saw the peace process as endangering the stability gained by the 1985 agreement. He continued to serve on church bodies and in public life. In 1991 he was a member of an interchurch working group on sectarianism and in December 1996 he made submissions to the Independent Review on Parades and Marches in Northern Ireland.
On 21 April 1995 Faul was appointed a monsignor, an honorary prelate to the pope. After retiring as president of St Patrick's Academy, he became parish priest of Termonmaguirc (Carrickmore); his induction on 15 August 1998 coincided with the deaths of two parishioners and twenty-seven others when a Real IRA car bomb exploded in Omagh. He was a generally well-respected parish priest, although his outspoken calls for catholics to join a reformed policing service (following the report of the Patten commission) antagonised local republicans, who in 1999 disrupted a police liaison committee meeting which he had convened and organised a petition for his removal. He devoted considerable attention to his duties as chairman of the boards of governors of local catholic primary schools, using his contacts to secure resources for new school buildings and improved Irish-language teaching; he chaired the local GAA club and the Patrician Community and Arts Centre, Carrickmore, and founded a parish branch of the St Joseph's Young Priests Society, as well as a local conference of the Society of St Vincent de Paul with the special function of visiting the sick and housebound.
In doctrinal terms, he was on the conservative wing of the catholic church, strongly admiring Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He opposed the legalisation in the Republic of contraception (which he believed would promote promiscuity and spread 'physical and mental disease' (Belfast Telegraph, 7 Dec. 1971)), divorce and abortion. He maintained that Northern Ireland protestants as well as catholics were more conservative on such matters than the British; despite his general opposition to the uncompromising unionist leader William Craig (1924–2011), Faul praised him for refusing to copy the permissive British legislation of the 1960s when he was home affairs minister at Stormont. He claimed public demand for change in these matters was whipped up and exaggerated by a 'sex mad' media. When the Irish government responded to the 1992 'X case' judgment by proposing a constitutional amendment banning abortion except in restricted circumstances, he campaigned against it on the grounds that it would write abortion into the Irish constitution; he saw his opposition to abortion as part and parcel of his wider advocacy of human rights for all and his opposition to violence; he insisted that the unborn had the human right to life as guaranteed by natural law and article 2 of the 1951 European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. He strongly defended clerical celibacy, arguing that it assisted him in speaking out without fear of consequences and that many protestant ministers were inhibited in confronting extremists among their congregations by awareness that this might have negative repercussions for their families. Although he never publicly addressed the sexual abuse scandals which convulsed the Irish catholic church in the last years of his life, it is said that he expressed sorrow over them in private.
He collapsed at his parochial house on 25 September 2005 and was taken to hospital. He was discovered to be suffering from appendicitis caused by an undiagnosed cancerous tumour. From this point he knew he faced a strong prospect of imminent death, and an interview given to the Irish Times on 24 January 2006 had some of the qualities of a personal testament. To the end he continued to campaign for the return of those exiled from Northern Ireland by paramilitaries and the disclosure of the hidden burial sites of those 'disappeared' by republican paramilitaries.
Denis Faul died on 21 June 2006 in the Bon Secours Hospital, Dublin, and is buried in Carrickmore. At his death commentators of widely differing viewpoints suggested that he might have become a bishop had it not been for his outspokenness. Certainly his educational background and accomplishments, his Roman training, and his firm doctrinal orthodoxy were typical of Irish catholic bishops in the second half of the twentieth century; but he lacked their equally characteristic conflict-aversion, and in this he seemed a throwback to late-nineteenth-century models of the 'patriot priest': 'I hope I could say that I helped the poor people when they were in trouble, that I gave them money and help…that I helped the prisoners. It's important to bear witness…Have all the prophets died or been promoted out of harm's way?…The whole of morality and the whole of good government comes down to Paddy Murphy's broken arm and Biddy Murphy's broken leg. If a politician or a churchman cannot solve the problem of the broken arm or the broken leg – whether it was done by the British army, or the Provos, or by the Garda Síochána, or no matter who it was done by – the man of integrity should be prepared to go to the ends of the earth and give his whole life over to solving the problem of Paddy Murphy's broken arm and Biddy Murphy's broken leg' (Irish Times, 24 January 2006).
Most of the papers and correspondence of Denis Faul, along with papers and documents of Fr Raymond Murray and Fr Brian Brady, are deposited in the NLI, and there is also a substantial collection in the Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Library and Archive in Armagh. A full list of the publications of Denis Faul and Fr Raymond Murray is to be found in Raymond Murray, State violence: Northern Ireland 1969–1997 (1998). A bust of Denis Faul by John Sherlock was unveiled at St Patrick's Academy, Dungannon, in 2007 by Cardinal Seán Brady.