McNamara, Kevin (1926–87), catholic archbishop of Dublin, was born 10 June 1926 in Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co. Clare, the second of five children (three girls and two boys) of Patrick J. McNamara, from Coolmeen (near Kildysart), and his wife Eileen, née Breen, a native of Cooraclare. Both his parents were schoolteachers who inspired and encouraged their academically gifted son. He attended Newmarket-on-Fergus national school (1931–7) and, when his family later moved to Ennis, he attended St Flannan's College (1937–42), which was run by priests of the diocese of Killaloe. In the Intermediate Certificate examinations McNamara, aged fourteen, won a scholarship and obtained first place in Ireland. In spite of the trauma of his mother's death while he was still at secondary school, he secured similarly brilliant results in the leaving certificate.
From at least his early teens, McNamara nurtured the ambition to become a priest. At just sixteen years of age he entered the national seminary at Maynooth in 1942. There he proved to be an outstanding student, graduating BA in 1945, with first class honours in ancient classics, and BD, with first place in his year, in 1948. He was ordained to the priesthood for the diocese of Killaloe by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (qv) on 19 June 1949. After ordination he undertook post-graduate studies at Maynooth and was awarded a doctorate in divinity in 1951 for his thesis on Greek patristic christology. He then taught for a year at St Flannan's College and the following year at St Finbarr's seminary school in Cork. Whilst at the latter, he studied at UCC for the Higher Diploma in Education, which he was awarded in June 1953 with first class honours.
In September 1953 he returned to Maynooth on his appointment as junior dean, and on 12 October 1954, at the age of twenty-eight, he was appointed to the chair of dogmatic theology. There followed a lengthy tenure marked by sustained application and academic brilliance. Though a less than gifted public speaker, he excelled on the printed page displaying a great capacity for clear exposition of complex aspects of church dogma and teaching. He became a regular contributor to theological journals, among them the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Irish Theological Quarterly, Doctrine & Life, and especially The Furrow, to which he was a founding contributor. His most important publications were Christian unity (1962); Truth and life (1968); Vatican II: the constitution on the church (1968); Sacrament of salvation – studies in the mystery of Christ and the church (1977).
McNamara's intellectual outlook was conservative but by no means reactionary. Intellectually curious, he was open to new ideas but he always tested them against the traditions and Magisterium of the Church. On certain issues, such as the ordination of women, he was uncompromising. Though tenacious in debate, he was also courteous and willing to listen to contrary opinion. His theological orthodoxy did not prevent him from becoming an enthusiastic ecumenist. He served on the Irish hierarchy's advisory committee on ecumenism, participated in inter-church discussions (‘Ballymascanlan talks’), and contributed to the Greenhills and Glenstal ecumenical conferences. From 1968 to 1973, he served as a consultor to the Vatican Secretariat on Christian Unity.
He read widely in several languages, spoke fluent German and forged many ties with Europe. In 1960 he was awarded a fellowship of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and spent a year in theological research at the University of Munich. In 1968 he was appointed vice-president of St Patrick's College, Maynooth. In a time of great change and turmoil for the seminary, his cool-headedness and keen intellect were much appreciated by his colleagues.
He was appointed bishop of Kerry on 22 August 1976 in succession to Bishop Eamon Casey, and received his episcopal ordination in St. Brendan's Cathedral, Killarney, on 7 November 1976. His appointment came as a surprise and the shy scholar, relatively unknown outside clerical and theological circles, now found himself thrust into the limelight. His selection was greeted by an unprecedented protest by the clergy of Kerry to the papal nuncio, Archbishop Gaetano Alibrandi (qv) (d. 2003), over the lack of proper consultation with the priests of the diocese. However, McNamara soon endeared himself to his priests and gained the affection of the laity. His reserved manner, born of shyness, was offset by gentleness, kindness and sincerity. As bishop, he displayed a keen pastoral sensibility, seeking out and spending time with the sick, those confined to home and the underprivileged.
His position as bishop of Kerry afforded McNamara a platform to critique contemporary Irish society. He became an outspoken and formidable defender of catholic values associated with family life and sexual morality. In this regard he found himself in conflict with the ‘constitutional crusade’ being pursued by the Fine Gael–Labour coalition government led by Garret FitzGerald. McNamara trenchantly opposed the liberalising family planning legislation of 1985 and had an influential role in the 1983 constitutional referendum on abortion.
It was this capacity vigorously to expound traditional catholic teaching in a country turning increasingly secular and liberal that undoubtedly appealed to the Vatican when it came to selecting a successor to Dermot Ryan (qv) as archbishop of Dublin. He was, accordingly, translated to the diocese of Dublin on 21 November 1984 and installed as archbishop in the Pro-Cathedral on 20 January 1985, taking as his motto Deus Prior Dilexit Nos (God Loved us first). His elevation to Dublin was not something he had sought but he dutifully accepted his new burden conscious that yet again he was coming to a diocese as an outsider. The clergy of Dublin, who had initially greeted his appointment with either hostility or scepticism, soon mellowed in their feelings towards him. They found him to be approachable, a patient and sympathetic listener who put them at their ease and encouraged them to speak their minds. To get to know his priests better he entertained small groups of them at Archbishop's House.
McNamara found himself presiding over an archdiocese with a little under two hundred parishes, over five hundred priests and a population of one million catholics. His immediate predecessor, Archbishop Ryan, had shone as an administrator, overseeing the rapid expansion of the archdiocese. The new incumbent, for his own part, determined not to be desk-bound but to be a visible pastoral leader. To that end, he embarked upon a systematic visitation of the archdiocese and succeeded in visiting one hundred and fifteen parishes before his episcopate was cut short. Typically he would spend a whole day in a parish meeting the priests and religious, visiting the sick and remaining after evening Mass to meet as many parishioners as possible. As archbishop of Dublin, McNamara, as expected by the Vatican, strongly led the opposition to the liberal agenda being advanced by the government. The chief clash came with the constitutional referendum on the introduction of divorce in 1986, which he forthrightly opposed and which was narrowly defeated.
During his tenure in Kerry, McNamara had experienced the first symptoms of Hodgkin's disease but had responded well to a course of treatment. However, in the more stressful post of archbishop of Dublin, this affliction returned with grim inevitability. He bore his final illness with courage and dignity. He died 8 April 1987 in Dublin and, following tradition, was buried in the vaults of the Pro-Cathedral.