Ryan, Dermot Joseph (1924–85), catholic archbishop of Dublin, was born 27 June 1924 in Clondalkin, Co. Dublin, second among four children of Andrew Ryan, physician, and Theresa Ryan (née McKenna). His paternal grandfather came to Dublin from Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, at the turn of the century and set up a licensed premises in Thomas St., known as ‘Ryan's of the Clock’. His father was the local dispensary doctor in Clondalkin, and with the job came Cappamore House and twenty acres, which were run as a farm. Here Dermot was educated privately till the age of 8; he was then sent to Belvedere College, where he spent the rest of his schooling. In 1936 the family moved from Clondalkin to Inchicore. Dermot was a good though not outstanding student, who excelled at tennis and cricket. The family was pious and academically inclined and Dermot found his vocation early. In 1942 he entered Holy Cross College, Clonliffe. After taking first-class honours in Hebrew and Aramaic in UCD (1945), he spent a year in Maynooth before going to Rome (1947) when the Irish College reopened after the war. He took his BD (1948) at the St John Lateran University, Rome, and spent his fourth year of theology back in Clonliffe, where he was ordained priest (28 May 1950) and worked for a time as chaplain to Mount Anville convent in south Dublin. Returning to Rome, he enrolled in the Gregorian University, where he took his licentiate in sacred theology (1952), followed by a licentiate in sacred scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in 1954. That year he also received his MA in Semitic languages from the NUI.
Returning to Dublin, he worked for a year as chaplain to the Mater Hospital before being appointed professor of fundamental dogmatic theology at Clonliffe (1955–7), and part-time professor of near eastern languages at UCD in succession to Patrick Boylan (qv) in 1957. An expert in the abstruse field of Urgaritic studies, he was conscientious and dedicated, with a passion for scripture, which led to his being nicknamed ‘Rabbi’. In his later career many found him aloof, but this seems to have been less of a problem in academia – his students (at least the talented ones) found him warm and generous with time and money; he supported one student through his postgraduate research. His publications were few – probably most important was Commentaries of the Old Testament books of Hosea, Amos, Micah and Zachariah for the Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, which ran to a second edition in 1969. He was appointed to the full-time chair of Semitic languages in UCD in 1970, but held this post for less than two years, as on 29 December 1971 he was appointed archbishop of Dublin in succession to John Charles McQuaid (qv). His appointment came as a shock to McQuaid, who did not expect that his own resignation would be accepted, nor that his successor would be one of his severest critics. The two had clashed, notably when Ryan had pressed for inclusion of theology as an academic subject in the NUI (which McQuaid opposed as removing authority from the church), but Ryan was the preferred choice of the Dublin diocesan council of priests, of which he had acted as chairman in 1969. He was seen as a liberalising force after McQuaid, though criticism was raised that he had never served in a parish. His ordination by the pope in St Peter's basilica (13 February 1972) was the first papal ordination of an Irish prelate for several centuries.
Ryan took office with an undeserved reputation as a liberal, which he may have played on to gain support in the Dublin council of priests. On most matters he was a moderate conservative, as his tenure proved, though he was progressive and differed markedly from his predecessor in his ecumenism. His appointment was followed by an immediate ecumenical thaw in Dublin. On 5 November 1972 he became the first Roman catholic archbishop to attend a Church of Ireland service in Christ Church cathedral; and during church unity week in January 1973 he held an interdenominational service in the pro-cathedral, to which leaders of six Christian denominations were invited. He was also a supporter of the inter-church meetings known as the ‘Ballymascanlon talks’ (after a hotel near Dundalk), which were the first collective response of the four main churches to the Northern Ireland troubles. His devotion to scripture may have contributed to his ecumenism – he once told canon lawyers that he regretted that priests tended to consult church law manuals rather than the Bible.
The other notable feature of Ryan's tenure of the Dublin diocese was church-building. He took office as Dublin's population was expanding rapidly, and new parishes were needed. The situation was complicated by the inheritance of a large, undeclared deficit from McQuaid, about which Ryan went public, thus humiliating his predecessor. After consulting T. K. Whitaker and Louis Heelan, an executive in the Industrial Credit Company and a former Belvedere classmate, he set up an independent committee to oversee the diocese's finances, and called on the diocese as a whole to take responsibility for the new areas, and for richer parishes to subsidise poorer ones. Proceeds from a special weekly collection held in every church went to a central fund called SHARE, established in 1975. There was some opposition from clergy who thought each parish should look after its own, but Ryan prevailed and presided over the establishment of fifty-six new parishes and the building of forty-seven new churches and seventy-four new schools in a decade; this was held as a remarkable achievement, though he too would leave a large debt of £11 million.
His organisational and administrative abilities were considerable and he thrived on meetings – he was chairman of the board of the Mater Hospital, governor of St Vincent's Hospital, Fairview, chairman of the trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, and vice-president of the Irish episcopal conference. As the Irish hierarchy's representative on the world synod of bishops in Rome (1974, 1977, 1980, 1983), he became known internationally, and, since he spoke fluent Italian, French, and German (as well as Irish, Latin, and Hebrew), was able to make important contacts. Bishop Joseph Cassidy (qv) of Clonfert noted that he relaxed in the company of other bishops; his manner was otherwise against him. He was considered dignified, stately, intellectual, but aloof – ‘his unusual height [6 ft 4 in.; 1.93 m] accentuated the aloofness, as did the rather rigid expression in his face. . . there seemed to be an absence of warmth that diminished his rapport with the public’ (Bishop Cassidy, cited Irish Independent, 22 February 1985). The few who got to know him better – including Cassidy – found the aloofness more apparent than real, and testified to his thoughtfulness, capacity for encouragement, and even sense of humour, but many priests of his diocese found him lacking in pastoral care.
His organisational ability was to the fore during the 1979 papal visit to Ireland – given only two months notice, he appointed the architect Ronnie Tallon (qv) to manage the event in Phoenix Park, attended by over a million people on 29 September. The largest public gathering since the 1932 eucharistic congress, it passed off without a hitch, gaining Ryan the favourable attention of the new pontiff, John Paul II. Their relationship was further strengthened during 1983, when the Irish electorate was asked to vote on an amendment to the constitution outlawing abortion. Here Ryan proved his conservatism. When the Irish episcopal conference issued an agreed statement recognising the right of each person to vote according to conscience, which was welcomed by the anti-amendment campaign, Ryan and the bishop of Kerry, Kevin McNamara (qv), took unqualified stances against the amendment. In a pastoral letter, read out at all masses on the Sunday before the referendum, Ryan wrote that the issue was one of life and death and called unequivocally for a ‘yes’ vote. The letter was all the more significant because Ryan's style of leadership was low-key; he used public statements far less than his predecessor, and it was not always apparent where he stood on issues. His letter had little perceptible effect – the referendum passed with a much narrower margin in Dublin than elsewhere – but his stance gained him the approbation of the pope, who the following year appointed Ryan to one of the highest offices in the Vatican (and appointed McNamara to replace him as archbishop of Dublin).
When Ryan was appointed (8 April 1984) as pro-prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, he remarked that all he had ever wanted was to be a parish priest. He was the first Irish churchman to achieve high office in the Vatican. As head of the department responsible for worldwide missions, he had responsibility for 40,000,000 people in 900 dioceses in Africa, India, South America, and south-east Asia. In hierarchical order the post was ranked third after the pope and the secretary of state, and carried its own unofficial title of ‘red pope’ (the pontiff being the ‘white pope’ and the head of the Jesuits the ‘black pope’). In this position Ryan showed his more liberal colours, professing some sympathy for the radical liberation theology of South America. He had only a few months as pro-prefect: on 1 September 1984 he resigned as archbishop of Dublin, and on 21 February 1985 he died of a heart attack in Rome.
His death was unexpected since he was a keen golfer and tennis player, did not smoke, drank seldom, and had no history of ill health. It was a severe blow to the pope, who valued his erudition and counted him a kindred spirit – socially conservative but ecumenically progressive and culturally pluralist – and to the church in Ireland, which had hoped to benefit from his influence. After a requiem mass in St Peter's, celebrated with full cardinalian honours, thus confirming that he was to have been made cardinal at the next consistory, Ryan's body was flown to Dublin, and buried in the vaults of the pro-cathedral after mass on 1 March 1985. The park in Merrion Square was named Archbishop Ryan Park, since Ryan had transferred this land to Dublin city in 1974. In 2009 he was criticised in the Murphy Report on the sexual abuse of children in the archdiocese of Dublin for his failure to act on complaints against priests later confirmed to be abusers, and also for generally putting the reputation of the catholic church ahead of the welfare of those abused. In 2010 Archbishop Ryan Park was renamed Merrion Square Park by Dublin City Council.