Gilmartin, Thomas Patrick (1861–1939), catholic archbishop of Tuam, was born on 18 May 1861 at Rhinshinna, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, son of Michael Gilmartin and his wife Mary (née McHale), who had a family of two sons and five daughters. With fosterage of children from large families then common practice, Gilmartin was raised by an uncle and aunt, Martin and Mary McHale, on a ten-acre farm at Keelogues, Castlebar. He attended a small school beside Keelogues church and the Franciscan brothers’ school at nearby Errew monastery. Gilmartin’s education continued at St Jarlath’s College, Tuam, Co. Galway, before he entered the seminary at St Patrick’ College, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, where he was ordained as a priest in 1884. Gilmartin returned to St Jarlath’s College to teach science and mathematics for seven years, before being appointed as dean of discipline (1891) in Maynooth College (1891), and later as vice president (1904).
Gilmartin was appointed bishop of Clonfert in 1909, using his new position to criticise the coronation oath sworn by George V the following year. It was the first of many public pronouncements on the topic of British rule in Ireland, with Gilmartin establishing himself as a vocal critic of the Dublin Castle administration. On 10 July 1918 Gilmartin was appointed archbishop of Tuam. An effective administrator who adopted a reforming agenda, Gilmartin maintained his critical stance of the British government and strongly opposed conscription to the British army. The initial years of his tenure in Tuam overlapped with the war of independence (1919–21) and Gilmartin instructed his priests to submit reports of outrages committed by British forces, which he then often publicly denounced. He also submitted a number of protests directly to General Nevil Macready (qv), commander of the British forces in Ireland. In July 1920, following Gilmartin’s complaint about the burning down of Tuam town hall and several other local businesses by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), in retaliation for the shooting dead of two of its members during an ambush on 19 July, Macready replied that the murder of police could not take place ‘without the tacit consent and connivance of a large section of the population’ (Tuam Diocesan Archives, Gilmartin papers, file 10). Though Gilmartin’s public protests at the activities of the British forces were generally welcomed, his criticism of the killing of RIC personnel was not as well received. Eoin MacNeill (qv), minister for finance in the first dáil, wrote to the archbishop objecting to his characterisation of the killings as ‘dastardly murder’ (MacNeill to Gilmartin, 22 July 1920, Gilmartin papers).
Prompted by the violence in Tuam and drawing upon the concept of Truega Dei, first promulgated by the medieval catholic church, Gilmartin proposed a ‘Truce of God’ during a sermon delivered in Tuam cathedral on 25 July 1920. Elaborating upon the theme in early November in a letter published in The Universe, an English catholic newspaper, Gilmartin proposed a six-month truce beginning at Christmas 1920, during which the British government would fully implement home rule. Appealing to a demographic that still favoured a constitutional pathway to limited self-governance, and coinciding with a particularly violent period of the war, Gilmartin’s scheme generated significant publicity and frequent interview requests from Irish and British newspapers, as well as some public support. In England, the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society held a large meeting on 18 December in Caxton Hall, Westminster, urging the British government to declare a truce; Gilmartin provided a special message to be read at the meeting. His proposals also reached the upper echelons of the British government, including the prime minister, David Lloyd George, and Winston Churchill, secretary of state for war. Churchill wrote to Gilmartin twice, the second time in answer to the archbishop’s protest that the Government of Ireland Act (which received the royal assent on 23 December 1920) did not represent the ‘just demands of the great majority of the Irish people’. Churchill insisted that the act was merely the first word in relations between the two islands, but warned that ‘your countrymen will be most unwise if they do not meditate profoundly upon it. Britain will never consent … to the destruction of the integrity of the British empire’ (Waldron, 113).
Gilmartin used his Lenten Pastoral for 1921 to denounce the tactics of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Sinn Féin: ‘If the constitutional process of asserting their claims was slow, it was safer than revolutionary methods, and those who favoured such methods had certainly got no mandate for their course of action from the Irish people’. Here, Gilmartin was treading a careful path, though one to which he had consistently cleaved. Few Irish priests were prepared to publicly criticise the IRA during the war of independence, though overt support was also relatively rare. In addition to denouncing ambushes and the shooting of men ‘from behind the wall’, Gilmartin was also prepared to publicly offer condolences to the families of RIC men killed during the war, his seniority likely insulating him from reprisals (Irish Independent, 28 Apr. 1921).
Following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 and the establishment of the provisional government of the Irish Free State, the catholic hierarchy issued trenchant statements (26 April and 10 October 1922) supporting the new government and condemning the actions of anti-Treaty republicans. Though Gilmartin endeavoured to empathise with those who opposed the Treaty and publicly expressed his belief that there were committed and conscientious people on both sides, he repeatedly called on the anti-Treaty side to lay down its arms. When six anti-Treaty prisoners were executed in Tuam barracks on 11 April 1923, in reprisal for the deaths of three national army soldiers, Gilmartin was criticised for his apparent silence. He rejected the accusation in a letter to the Tuam town commissioners: ‘I have already expressed my sympathy with the people of Tuam in the horror we all felt at the executions, and the deaths which preceded them’ (Gilmartin to Tuam Town Commissioners, 22 April 1923, Tuam Diocesan Archive).
After the civil war, the fraught and frequently prejudiced nature of the social and religious politics of the new Irish state occasionally manifested in Gilmartin’s episcopal work. He became embroiled in the controversy surrounding the appointment in late 1930, by the recently established Local Appointments Commission, of Letitia Dunbar-Harrison (qv) as Mayo county librarian. Mayo County Council refused to ratify the appointment, ostensibly on the grounds of her lack of proficiency in the Irish language. As both a protestant and a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, opposition to Dunbar-Harrison’s appointment was in fact firmly rooted in her perceived unsuitability for the position in a county where the population was overwhelmingly catholic. The dispute became a national cause celebre and attracted the attention of the government, which was determined to avoid sectarian discrimination in public appointments and formally dissolved Mayo County Council in January 1931. Gilmartin made his position clear in his Lenten pastoral for 1931, in which he argued for the appointment of educated catholics to run public libraries, which had an essential educational role. W. T. Cosgrave (qv) personally appealed to Gilmartin to mediate the controversy, meeting with the archbishop on at least two occasions. Their discussions touched upon church-state relations, and Gilmartin proposed the signing of a formal concordat between the catholic church and the Free State, which was rejected by Cosgrave. The controversy was defused following the reinstatement of Mayo County Council in early 1932 and Dunbar-Harrison’s transfer to the library of the Department of Defence in Dublin.
Gilmartin was eighteen-years-old when an apparition of the Virgin Mary was reported at Knock, Co. Mayo, on 21 August 1879. With Knock falling within the see of his archbishopric, Gilmartin was intensely conscious of its status as a place of pilgrimage and his responsibility regarding church recognition of the apparition. When invited to attend its fiftieth anniversary he initially declined, though made a last-minute decision to attend. While travelling to Knock he and his driver were involved in a serious road accident from which they emerged unscathed, an incident that affected Gilmartin deeply. In his public remarks at the event, Gilmartin made it clear that his presence was not to be taken as church approval of the apparition. Though he spoke warmly of Knock, he noted that there was little available to make pilgrims comfortable. Those remarks kindled the interest of Judy Coyne and her husband, Liam Ua Cadhain, both attendees that day; the couple founded the Knock Shrine Society in 1935, with Gilmartin’s support.
Inspired by their efforts, in 1935 Gilmartin established the second Knock Enquiry Commission to examine further the evidence for the truth of the apparition at Knock (the first commission had convened from 1879 to 1880). Three of the witnesses were still alive. Delivering its report in 1936, the second commission declared the witnesses reliable and found their testimony satisfactory, leading Gilmartin to send an appeal to the Vatican to have Knock recognised as a Marian shrine (papers detailing the process are held in the Tuam Diocesan Archives). Shortly before he died, Gilmartin wrote to Judy Coyne: ‘I know you may be disappointed that I did not do more for Knock but I prayed twice a day for twenty years for direction … one day you will see a great church built in Knock’.
Gilmartin took a great interest in the church world-wide, especially Europe (as a young man he had learned French by correspondence courses). On St Patrick’s Day, 1920, Gilmartin presided over the ceremonial sending forth of the first Columban missionaries to China, held at the Columban College in Dalgan, Shrule, Co. Galway; the co-founder of the Columban missionary society, Fr John Blowick (qv), was a former student of Gilmartin’s at Maynooth. Gilmartin attended the landmark Eucharistic Congress of 1926 in Chicago, the first time that the congress was held in the United States of America, as well as the Congresses held in Sydney (1928), Buenos Aires (1934) and Manila (1937). He was former colleague and a lifetime friend of Archbishop Daniel Mannix (qv) of Melbourne. Twice he visited the Holy Land and, late in his life, he represented the church at ceremonials in New Zealand. A firm supporter of Conradh na Gaeilge, he urged teachers to promote the Irish language in every school.
Archbishop Thomas Gilmartin died on 14 October 1939 in St Jarlath’s House, Tuam, following a short illness. He was the last archbishop to be buried within the cathedral, where he was interred alongside three of his predecessors in the crypt located beneath the old high altar. His funeral was attended by Taoiseach Éamon de Valera (qv) and several other members of the government and oireachtas, as well as the leading figures of the Irish church hierarchy. His successor, Bishop Joseph Walsh, described him as ‘an example of humility, personal holiness, with an ardent zeal for souls’ (Tuam Herald, 19 Oct. 1939), while he was also noted as a great churchman, lover of all things Irish and promoter of new churches and parochial buildings.