Healy, John (1841–1918), catholic archbishop of Tuam and historian, was born in Ballinafad, Co. Sligo, on 14 November 1841, second and eldest surviving child of the four sons and three daughters of Mark Healy and his wife, Mary (née Gallagher), who were both schoolteachers. As a scholarly boy he was intended for the priesthood from early childhood; the presence in the parish of a Patrician church, the legendary battlefield of Moytura, and the Curlew Pass laid the basis for Healy's later fascination with Irish history and, in particular, the golden age of the early Irish church. He later claimed that he was descended from medieval chieftains. Healy was educated in his parents’ school, at a more advanced school in Ballyrush, and at a classical school run by a Mr McNiffe in Sligo. In 1858 he entered Summerhill College, the new diocesan college for Elphin (then located at Athlone). In 1860 he transferred to St Patrick's College, Maynooth, where he studied from 1860 to 1867. He was ordained for the diocese of Elphin in September 1867.
During his time at Maynooth, Healy's parents lost their schoolteaching positions after quarrelling with a new parish priest, who thought Mark Healy incompetent. The family moved to Halifax, Yorkshire, where Mary Healy opened a school; this was forced to close by a local priest who disliked its rivalry with the local convent school and insinuated that a woman who behaved in such a manner could not possibly have a son at Maynooth. Mary Healy enabled John to complete his seminary studies by working as a lacemaker, while his siblings were employed in factories; in later years he provided his mother with a home and shared his household with relatives, citing St Patrick (qv) as his model.
After his ordination Healy served briefly as a professor at Summerhill, then as a curate in Ballygar (1869–71) and Grange (1871–8), both in Co. Galway. His political conservatism was reinforced by hostility to the overthrow of the Papal States, what he called ‘the Cabbage Patch [Fenian] rebellion of 1867’, and the favourable opinion his parish priest at Grange had formed of Lord Palmerston as a local landlord. At Grange, Healy built a new curate's residence. He loved to ramble the mountains and visit antiquarian sites, and described some of these visits in articles for the Irish Monthly. In 1878 Healy was appointed rector of the newly formed St Asaph's classical school at Elphin, and in 1879 he successfully competed for a chair of theology at Maynooth. There he associated himself politically with the conservative ‘whig’ section of the staff, critical of the Land League and the Parnellite party; his contributions to the Irish Ecclesiastical Record (which he edited 1883–4) include a piece arguing that rulers, however chosen, received their authority directly from God rather than through the people. He was prefect of the Dunboyne establishment at Maynooth in 1883–4.
In 1884 Healy criticised John Henry Newman (qv) for suggesting that the Bible, while accurate on matters pertaining to faith, might contain minor factual inaccuracies. Newman took offence at being compared unfavourably to ‘the merest tyro in philosophy’ in an article consisting largely of quotations from authorities, and protested at such summary treatment of his own article, which had taken a year to write. Healy retorted that he had taken less than a month to review Newman's work as he considered it too dangerous to remain unchallenged. Cardinal Edward McCabe (qv) prevented the publication of a further reply, to which Healy devoted a whole week; it was later published in his Papers and addresses (1909).
In June 1884 Healy was appointed titular bishop of Macra and co-adjutor of Clonfert with right of succession. This appointment was to have political repercussions: while Healy's diocesan bishop, Patrick Duggan (qv), was the most zealous episcopal supporter of the Plan of Campaign, Healy was one of only two bishops (with his old classmate E. T. O'Dwyer (qv) of Limerick) who openly denounced the plan and regarded boycotting as immoral. Healy and O'Dwyer worked with a group of catholic aristocrats to secure a papal condemnation of the Plan of Campaign and the appointment of more anti-plan bishops; unsuccessful attempts were made by this group to strengthen Healy's position by getting him appointed a full diocesan bishop. (Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (qv), whose diaries comment scornfully on Healy's fondness for ‘purple and fine linen’, suggests that his original appointment was due to political intrigue; in fact it had been supported by a majority of Clonfert priests.)
Healy's residence at Portumna, centre of the Clanricarde estates which became one of the main battlefields in the Plan of Campaign, gave him particular importance; nationalist newspapers called him a ‘Castle bishop’ who had entered the antechamber of hell to make peace with Antichrist, and in 1890 a bullet was fired through his bedroom window. Healy's motives included his general conservatism, a fondness for social climbing, and a genuine concern that the tenants were endangering their homes and families (a fear partly borne out by events). He attempted to intercede privately on behalf of the tenants with Lord Clanricarde and with the Dublin castle authorities. Although these interventions met with little success, his meetings with A. J. Balfour (qv) impressed him with the chief secretary's integrity and, as a result of these discussions, for the rest of his career he regarded the conservatives as more friendly to catholic education than the liberals and nationalists. As an historian Healy disliked what the United Irishmen had sought to achieve and believed that the catholic bishops of 1800 had been right to support the union. He was, however, an advocate of home rule, though he thought a period of ‘probation’ was required; he also advocated peasant proprietorship.
Healy took over the administration of the diocese of Clonfert from the decrepit Duggan in 1890 (though Duggan remained bishop in name until his death in 1896). In the same year he published Ireland's ancient schools and scholars, a product of the antiquarian studies that formed his principal leisure-time occupation. As with his other educational writings, this account of medieval monastic schools was intended to support the claim for an Irish catholic university by presenting contemporary Irish catholic educational institutions as the successors of the monastic schools of the golden age and the continental colleges of the Counter-Reformation era. Healy's centenary history of Maynooth College (1895) was written in eight months; though unreliable in matters of detail (like Healy's other work) it preserves much valuable oral history about the early decades of the college, including descriptions of its dilapidated state as recently as the 1840s, which Healy pointedly contrasted with the grandeur of the college chapel, whose dedication sermon he preached. (He was an eloquent preacher, and was regularly invited to give sermons at major church events across Ireland.) In 1901 he served on the commission on university education in Ireland. Both in Clonfert and Tuam Healy worked to raise academic standards in the diocesan colleges (at the cost of a more regimented approach, which encouraged ‘cramming’ to pass examinations) and proved an effective administrator and an active builder.
In 1903 Healy was elevated to the archbishopric of Tuam. Here he developed friendly relations with William O'Brien (qv) and Sophie O'Brien (qv), who were then living in Westport; Healy and the O'Briens were financial co-guarantors of a land purchase scheme for Clare Island. Healy actively supported agricultural education and displayed some respect for the cooperative enterprises of Horace Plunkett (qv); he served on the board of agriculture set up to advise the Department of Agricultural and Technical Instruction. Although he avoided any direct involvement in politics, his conservatism was generally recognised. In 1906 at a fund-raising bazaar he publicly criticised members of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation who had refused to drink the king's health at a recent conference; he described Edward VII as king of Ireland de jure as well as de facto, and took the opportunity to criticise Orange loyalism for its conditional nature. In 1907 he formally condemned cattle-driving, and on the outbreak of the first world war he endorsed the support for the allied cause voiced by John Redmond (qv).
Healy's predecessor at Tuam, John MacEvilly (qv), had attempted to suppress the pilgrimage to the summit of Croagh Patrick as unedifying and physically dangerous, and had substituted for the traditional destination a visit to a nearby church. Healy, with his love of landscape and tradition, revived the pilgrimage in 1905, taking part himself on horseback. His Life of St. Patrick (1905) is a largely uncritical synthesis of the various early and medieval lives and legends, combined with his own lyrical descriptions of sites associated with the saint. As with the pilgrimage, Healy's hagiography represents a reaction against rationalist tendencies, and he criticised the biblical scholar and historian Sir John Lanigan (qv) for excessive scepticism. Like his medieval precursors, Healy saw St Patrick as a second Moses, and suggested that Patrick's direct commission from God (as claimed in the Confession) made him analogous with St Paul as an additional apostle. This and Ireland's subsequent persistence in the faith suggested, he believed, special divine favour and a divinely inspired national mission, which Healy attributed specifically to the Gaelic Irish. Elsewhere in his work he argued that pre-conquest Gaelic chieftains fought for faith as well as fatherland, since if the state-controlled Norman church had been established throughout Ireland the Reformation might have been effectively enforced. He believed Brian Bórama (qv), Red Hugh O'Donnell (qv), and Daniel O'Connell (qv) deserved canonisation. Healy's life of St Patrick was overshadowed by the near-simultaneous publication of the life by J. B. Bury (qv). In 1961 D. A. Binchy (qv) remarked that Bury's reconstruction of the saint's life had become so widely accepted that it was generally described as ‘the traditional version’, though Healy's version had a better claim to this (historically worthless) title. Healy's visits to ancient monastic sites combined antiquarian interest with a spirit of religious pilgrimage; he liked to end his essays by speculating that the ancient monasteries might one day be revived and the islands of the west once more attract hermits.
Healy was initially a supporter of the Gaelic League (he knew Middle Irish but not the colloquial language). He founded Tourmakeady Gaelic College but quarrelled with the league over his insistence on retaining complete control of the institution. In 1909–10 he was one of the bitterest opponents of the campaign to make Irish compulsory for matriculation at the NUI, treating advocacy of this view within his archdiocese as direct defiance of the bishop's authority.
From about 1909 Healy's health began to decline; in 1911 he secured the appointment of an auxiliary bishop, who took over an increasing proportion of the archbishop's duties while Healy travelled to spas and health resorts. In 1913 he suffered a stroke; another in October 1916 reduced him to senility. He died 16 March 1918 at Tuam. A member of the Galway Archaeological Society and the Classical Association of Ireland, he was elected MRIA (1888) and served on the senates of the RUI and the NUI. He was first president of the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (1889–1914), for which he wrote several pamphlets (collected in Irish essays: literary and historical, 1907).
Healy's extreme conservatism has overshadowed his reputation, but in other respects he was the most representative voice of the increasingly confident, institution-building generation of catholic clergy, which consolidated the post-famine ‘devotional revolution’. He also represents the arrogant paternalism, intellectual sloppiness, and contempt for alternative viewpoints that flawed this achievement. Although the construction of St Brendan's cathedral, Loughrea, was overseen by Healy's protégé Father Jeremiah (later Gerald) O'Donovan (qv) (who later portrayed Healy unflatteringly in his novel Father Ralph (1913)), this masterpiece of the Celtic revival reflects Healy's vision of the resurgent nineteenth-century Irish catholic church as heir to the ruined shrines of the pre-Norman era.