MacRory, Joseph (1861–1945), academic and catholic bishop, was born 18 March 1861 in Ballygawley, Co. Tyrone, one of ten children of Francis MacRory, farmer, and Rose MacRory (née Montague). He began his education at the local parish school and from an early age demonstrated an interest in the priesthood, which led to his entering St Patrick's seminary, Armagh. As a student he soon gained a reputation as a noted scholar before continuing in a similar vein at Maynooth College, where he excelled in theology; he was ordained as a priest in 1885. In the same year he returned to his native Tyrone, becoming the first president of a boys' secondary school in Dungannon, St Patrick's Academy, but this was a brief tenure as in 1887 MacRory, as a DD, was appointed professor of moral theology and sacred scripture at the English catholic seminary, Oscott College, Birmingham. Once again his stay at Oscott was to be short, as in October 1889 he became professor of sacred scripture and Hebrew at Maynooth. He remained in this position until 1905, when he became professor of hermeneutics and New Testament exegesis. Then in 1912, following the promotion of John Francis Hogan (qv) to the presidency of the college, he was appointed vice-president. Throughout his time at Maynooth, in addition to his teaching responsibilities MacRory contributed to the field of ecclesiastical literature. His list of publications included The Gospel of John (1900) and The epistles of St Paul to the Corinthians (1915), as well as his helping to establish (January 1907) at Maynooth the Irish Theological Quarterly. He became a regular contributor to this journal and to other theological journals such as the Irish Ecclesiastical Record and the Catholic University Bulletin of America.
With an accomplished record as a theologian, scholar, and administrator, he was chosen (August 1915) as bishop of Down and Connor. On the death of Cardinal Patrick O'Donnell (qv), MacRory was elevated to archbishop of Armagh in 1928, and in the following year was appointed a cardinal. Given the political storms in Ireland during his periods in high office, he was frequently drawn into controversy. This began almost immediately after his appointment as bishop of Down and Connor, a diocese that included the city of Belfast, with a sizeable catholic minority. Along with several other senior members of the northern clergy MacRory quickly made clear his outright opposition to the British government's plan to partition Ireland in order to introduce home rule. When in 1917 an effort was made to try to find a solution to the Irish question by the Irish Convention, as one of the church's four representatives MacRory outlined his political beliefs and in his opening address drew attention to the long list of grievances held by nationalist Ireland against English rule dating back to the early nineteenth century. Later he was one of the nationalist signatories of a minority report from the convention, which firmly stated their preference for some form of all-Ireland dominion parliament. As the political crisis deteriorated, he grew more disillusioned with the policies of the Irish parliamentary party and, along with many others, became increasingly drawn to supporting Sinn Féin.
With the establishment of Northern Ireland under the government of Ireland act of 1920, MacRory was to find himself in a difficult position, urging northern nationalists not to give it any formal recognition, but having to try to deal with the growing sectarian tension in the north, particularly in Belfast, where the catholic minority saw itself under siege. For some, the justification for this lay in the fact that northern nationalists, with their policy of boycott and abstention, had only themselves to blame. MacRory dismissed this as an excuse and in the troubled circumstances of 1922 he urged the authorities in London as well as the Provisional Government in Dublin to take decisive action. Within Belfast he took on the role of chairman of the Catholic Protection Committee, which attempted to provide practical assistance to those driven from their jobs or homes. This aim of protecting the interests of his co-religionists also encouraged him to participate in the catholic–police liaison committee, established under the agreement between the prime minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig (qv), and the head of the provisional government in Dublin, Michael Collins (qv), to try to restore order and end sectarian violence in the north.
Although this attempt failed, the outbreak of the Irish civil war and the shelving of the report of the boundary commission in 1925 did eventually bring a degree of stability to the north of Ireland. MacRory remained a controversial figure. He continued to advocate non-recognition of the Northern Ireland authorities by nationalists, and only relaxed this view to defend the interests of catholic education. Furthermore, to the anger of many unionists MacRory had fully supported a boycott of northern goods and services by the authorities in the south in retaliation for attacks on catholics. As a committed nationalist he continued to speak out against partition and in favour of bringing it to an end by peaceful means. This had led him to support the 1921 Anglo–Irish treaty as the best means to bring this about, and subsequent efforts to advance the anti-partition cause. To the dismay of opinion in Britain and Northern Ireland (and later in America), he used his position as cardinal at the outset of the second world war to oppose the introduction of conscription in Northern Ireland, and urged withholding complete support for the allied war effort, on the grounds that nationalists could not fully participate because of the injustices imposed on them by partition. Elsewhere his forthright views did little to improve community relations: in 1931 he declared that the various protestant churches were ‘not even part of the church of Christ’ (quoted in Patrick Buckland, A history of Northern Ireland (1981), 67). Furthermore, in 1937 he was keen to ensure that the new constitution introduced by Éamon de Valera (qv) emphasised the dominant position of the catholic church, and made clear his objections to the recognition that was to be given to other churches.
His religious duties were always rigorously pursued, and he encouraged the building of new catholic churches and schools wherever possible. MacRory also sought to promote all types of catholic educational, social, and benevolent bodies. In 1932 he took part in the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, and two years later he attended the Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne, Australia, as papal legate. In spite of his age MacRory continued with his many responsibilities right up to his sudden death on 13 October 1945 in his residence, Ara Coeli, Armagh. His papers are in the catholic archdiocesan archives at Ara Coeli.