Walsh, William Joseph (1841–1921), catholic archbishop of Dublin, was born 30 January 1841 at 11 Essex Quay, Dublin, the only child of Ralph Walsh, watchmaker and jeweller, and Mary Walsh (née Perce). Mary Walsh is reputed to have been a native of Galway, and her husband to have been born at Tarbert, Co. Kerry. Ralph Walsh, a friend of Daniel O'Connell (qv), had William enrolled in the Repeal Association at the age of a year and nine months, and proudly presented his son to the ‘Liberator’ at the age of five years. He bequeathed to the future archbishop a pride in nationality and a spirit of independence. William attended school at Mr Fitzpatrick's of Peter St., and St Laurence O'Toole's seminary in Harcourt St. In 1856 he registered at the Catholic University, and three years later entered St Patrick's College, Maynooth.
Walsh's career at Maynooth was marked by intellectual ability, exceptional powers of concentration, endurance, and a driving ambition. At the early age of 27 years he was appointed to the chair of moral and dogmatic theology. He proved a popular and enthusiastic teacher. In 1878 he was appointed vice-president of Maynooth and acting president, and two years later was made president. Outside the institution he achieved a high profile in the areas of land law and education. In 1878, in response to the intermediate education act, he formed the Catholic Headmasters Association, and this, together with his position at Maynooth, led to an invitation to the senate of the RUI in 1879. This proved an unhappy experience. By arrangement with the bishops, the university fellows allocated to catholic colleges under the Royal University Act were largely focused in the Catholic University of Ireland. This was to enable that institution, by success in examinations, to make the case for a national catholic university. Walsh challenged this ‘monopoly’, and, on being defeated, resigned from the senate and brought the matter into the public arena. When the public exchange of letters went against him, he appealed for an end to the controversy. The humiliation begot a sense of grievance that found expression in unremitting criticism of the RUI and its senate, and in an unfriendly attitude to the Catholic University (from 1883 University College). Nevertheless, when Cardinal Edward McCabe (qv) died in February 1885, Walsh was both the popular choice and the outstanding candidate. Despite strong opposition from the British government, he was appointed archbishop of Dublin. Within a short time he became the leading figure in the hierarchy, and its chief spokesman on the key issues of land reform, home rule, and educational equality for catholics.
The land struggle, with its Plan of Campaign (1886–91) and the practice of boycotting and withholding rent, occasioned divisions among the hierarchy. Walsh and Archbishop Thomas Croke (qv), determined that the rural population should not be lost to the church, supported the agrarian leaders John Dillon (qv) and William O'Brien (qv), while counselling against violence. Criticism of Walsh's stand was made to Rome. In June 1887 Pope Leo XIII sent Mgr Ignatius Persico to investigate the situation. Persico's report was critical of Walsh: accusing him of lacking ‘the pastoral spirit’, of tying himself to Parnell, and of dominating episcopal conferences. He was called to Rome, and while he was there the papal rescript was issued condemning the Plan of Campaign. Walsh returned to a country convulsed. He and Croke combined to persuade the leaders of the Land League to call off mass meetings of protest. Soon the issue was overtaken by the accusations of The Times against C. S. Parnell (qv), the unmasking of the forgeries of Richard Pigott (qv) before the special commission (in which Walsh played a key role), and, shortly afterwards, by news of the affair between Parnell and Mrs O'Shea. After the O'Shea divorce, and after a majority of the Irish party had called on Parnell to step down, Walsh and the catholic hierarchy requested Parnell to withdraw for the sake of the country. He refused. The party and the country split, and there remained thereafter a consolidated and sizable hard-core anti-clerical minority, especially in the cities of Dublin and Cork. In the midst of so much tension, Walsh's capacity for disciplined work enabled episcopal administration to continue largely unaffected. His active concern for the poor, and for the welfare of Dublin's workers, helped to overcome much of the residue of Parnellite hostility in the city's working class. In addition, in these troubled years, he was prominently involved in pressing the cause of teacher training colleges and of the primary schools. This hectic period closed with disappointment. Towards the end of 1892, Michael Logue (qv) of Armagh rather than Walsh was appointed cardinal. Overt nationalist and Land League sympathies were unwelcome at Rome and London.
Walsh was a thorough administrator but he was not an easily contactable archbishop. His day was carefully scheduled to allow for a variety of work, including much correspondence and writing. In education, some seventy new schools were erected, and over forty extensions. Month after month, thousands of pounds were contributed to catholic charities, including accommodation for homeless young people and for unemployed homeless men. One of his abiding achievements, moreover, was the impetus he gave to the cause of the Irish martyrs, and incidentally to Irish historical research, from 1891 to 1921. Among his varied interests were the theory and playing of music, the physical activity of cycling, often over long distances, and bimetallism – concerning which he wrote a book that appeared in different editions and languages. He also acted as arbitrator in social and commercial disputes, and was a pioneer in promoting the establishment of arbitration courts. In politics, too, he played a conciliatory role, helping to bring about the healing of the Parnell split and the reunion of the Irish parliamentary party.
From 1897 to 1912 a key issue was the solution of the university question. Walsh kept the problem before the government. He favoured, as a solution, a fully endowed catholic college in the University of Dublin. Others saw this as impractical in the face of protestant unionist opposition, and as dangerous to the beliefs of catholic students because of the university's ambience. The eventual solution was the compromise, enshrined by Augustine Birrell (qv) in the national university act of 1908, that set up the NUI, which had, fittingly, as its first chancellor the archbishop of Dublin. Walsh played a key role in the functioning of the university until 1915, after which illness curtailed his actions.
Poor health and major events marked the archbishop's final years (1913–21). In 1913, despite the outcry about ‘red anarchy’, he refused to condemn the Dublin strikers, though he eventually condemned the strike committee's plan to send children to England for relief, because sufficient religious safeguards had not been provided. In 1914 he was sceptical of Allied propaganda and, in the light of Britain's attitude to Irish home rule and the talk of partition, he discouraged enlistment in the British army and was slow to provide chaplains for the forces. During 1916 Walsh spent long periods in bed with a painful, disfiguring skin disease, and refused to make any comment about the insurrection. During the Longford South by-election (May 1917) he issued a public statement against partition that helped ensure a narrow victory for the Sinn Féin candidate. In 1918, faced with conscription, Walsh played an important role in arranging a meeting between the representatives of the Mansion House conference and the bishops assembled at Maynooth. The bishops’ support gave the Mansion House leaders the unified strength that was needed to withstand government policy.
In November 1919, despite illness, Walsh sent a celebrated letter to Cardinal O'Connell of Boston that sought his support for the Dáil National Loan and emphasised the restrictions under which the Irish people were living. In 1920, as repression intensified, Walsh pleaded on behalf of seventy-two prisoners on hunger strike, celebrated a public requiem mass in Dublin for Terence MacSwiney (qv), and visited Dublin Castle to appeal to the under-secretary, John Anderson (qv), to spare Kevin Barry (qv). At the start of 1921 he made active representation, again without success, for nationalist prisoners about to be executed in Cork. It was his last overt intervention in public affairs. On 20 March his doctors decided on a minor operation. The operation was stated to be successful, but the archbishop's condition deteriorated and he died on 9 April. The next day, Leo Whelan (qv) sketched the body, and Albert Power (qv) took a death mask. The remains lay in state until 14 April, when the cortege passed through crowded streets to Glasnevin cemetery. The crowds were marshalled by Sinn Féin stewards. No troops appeared on the streets, by arrangement with Lord French (qv) and Gen. Nevil Macready (qv). As the coffin left the pro-cathedral, it was draped in the tricolour. At Walsh's death numerous public tributes were paid to him and he was widely acknowledged as ‘a great Irishman and a great churchman’ (Freeman's Journal, 21 Apr. 1921).
Walsh has been criticised for his identification with the Land League and radical nationalism, and he has been ironically dubbed ‘William the Silent’ because of his penchant for writing to newspapers. In his favour, however, his identification with the Land League and a more radical nationalism reflected, at least in part, his concern to keep the church in touch with the people, and the fact that he was not a gifted speaker – his pen was his medium. His width and depth of knowledge enabled him to use that strength to the full; his main publications were Plain exposition of the Irish land act of 1881 (1881); The Queen's Colleges of the Royal University (2 vols, 1882, 1884); Addresses on the Irish education question (1890); Statement of chief grievances of Irish catholics on the matter of education: primary, intermediate and university (1890); Bimetallism and monometallism: what they are and how they bear upon the Irish land question (1893); and Trinity College and the University of Dublin (1902).