Conway, Dominic (1918–96), missionary, catholic bishop of Elphin, and historian, was born in rural Co. Longford on 1 January 1918, in the parish of Templemichael and Ballymacormack in the diocese of Ardagh, second child of Dominic Conway, family grocer, and Mary (née Hoare). The family into which he was born was not especially religious, there being no aunts or uncles in religion, although a cousin of his mother was a bishop.
After primary school in the De La Salle College in Roscommon he won a scholarship to the Elphin diocesan college, Summerhill College, in Sligo. He admitted later to being frequently homesick as a boarder there, and his earliest ambition was to be a teacher. This was signalled in his opting out of Greek – a subject reserved for those with an interest in the priesthood. By the time of his leaving certificate in 1936 he had nonetheless determined to become a priest, and in that year he commenced study in the Pontifical Irish College in Rome. He had a distinguished student career but also found time to manifest his passion for Gaelic football by playing for the college team. He was ordained priest in Rome on 9 November 1941 for the diocese of Elphin. In a 1981 interview with the Sligo Champion, on the ruby jubilee of his ordination, Conway described his ‘epic journey’ home after ordination: because of the second world war, he travelled from Italy through unoccupied France and on to Lisbon, where he took a Yankee Clipper flight to Shannon. In the same interview he said that he was one of the few people in Ireland at the time who thought that Ireland ‘by comparison had everything’; the comparison was with wartime Rome.
Conway completed his STL degree in 1942 at the Lateran University, where he had also pursued his pre-ordination baccalaureate studies. After initial reluctance on the part of his bishop, Edward Doorly (1870–1950), Conway secured his desired appointment to do missionary work in Africa. He was assigned to Calabar apostolic prefecture (vicariate after June 1947), where he worked for five years until 1948 with St Patrick's Missionary Society, Kiltegan; this society had grown directly out of the 1920s Maynooth mission to Africa. He taught at Holy Family College, Abak, in Ikot Ekpene, while simultaneously serving 500 mission stations with just one other priest. In 1948 he enrolled for the higher diploma in education at UCD, duly awarded in 1949. During this year he taught at All Hallows College. From 1949 to 1951 he taught Irish, English, history, and Latin at Summerhill College.
In 1951 Conway returned to Rome, where he was to spend almost two decades in the Irish College. He was spiritual director at the college from 1951 to 1965 and rector from 1965 to 1970. During this period he was a prisoner neither of the Irish College nor of any of its offices, pursuing a wide range of other activities. In 1955 he was honoured with the title of domestic prelate of the pope, a grade of the office of monsignor. He carried out extensive work on the Propaganda Fide archives, microfilming significant documentation on the catholic church in Ireland, England, and Scotland from 1622 to 1862, and was awarded his doctorate in ecclesiastical history from the Gregorian University in 1962 for a thesis entitled ‘Propaganda and the reorganisation of the church in Ireland, 1622–1641’. As bishop of Elphin he would later support the Irish Catholic Historical Committee which had been founded by Robert Dudley Edwards (qv), professor of modern Irish history at UCD.
At the Irish College, Conway served as procurator general for St Patrick's Missionary Society and as chief postulator of the cause of Irish martyrs. The latter work came to fruition with the subsequent canonisation of Oliver Plunkett (qv) in 1975, the first Irish saint canonised since Virgil (qv) of Salzburg (d. 784) in 1233. He was twice sent on missions by the holy see: to post-independence Malta in 1965 and to war-torn Biafra in 1967. In 1968 he was appointed secretary general of Propaganda Fide (latterly the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples), with responsibility for the church's mission territories throughout the world. At the time, the congregation had an annual budget of $20 million, a very considerable sum in contemporary terms. Throughout this time in Rome, Conway also taught church history at the Regina Mundi pontifical institute – popularly termed ‘the Sisters’ University’. He also built the swimming pool at the Irish College – a distinguishing feature of the college for decades, outdoor swimming pools being uncommon in Rome at the time.
Conway's life and career took a dramatic turn when, on 16 October 1970, he was appointed titular bishop of Ros Cré and auxiliary bishop to Bishop Vincent Hanly of Elphin. Hanly, who had been ill before this development, declined rapidly, and died on 9 November 1970. The previous day Conway had been ordained bishop in the college of Propaganda Fide in Rome. On 13 November, following the funeral of Vincent Hanly, he was appointed vicar capitular of Elphin diocese. There is local ecclesiastical lore which holds that the vicars forane of Elphin came close to voting against this position, Conway being seen by some as an unexpected and unpopular external choice compared with the more favoured local candidate, Mgr J. J. (Jack) McCarthy, parish priest of Athlone, and for many years professor of canon law at Maynooth. There is no doubt that such a move would have provoked a crisis, as Conway had been appointed auxiliary and not co-adjutor and therefore, though ordained bishop, had no automatic right of succession to the see of Elphin. The confirmation of his appointment as vicar capitular averted any such crisis, and Conway was duly appointed bishop of Elphin on 15 March 1971, an appointment that was formalised in an installation ceremony, attended by most of the Irish hierarchy, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo, on 19 April.
One of Conway's first tasks on becoming bishop was to oversee the renovation of his cathedral, the centenary of which fell in 1975. It was duly renovated and adapted to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council in time for the centenary, which was celebrated formally on 8 December of that year. Conway had been made a freeman of the borough of Sligo by Sligo borough council two years previously.
In the funeral homily for Conway, his successor, Bishop Christy Jones, described him as one with a ‘great love for the poor and the marginalised’. Conway's track record lends support to this claim. He handed over the diocesan retreat house to the nascent Sligo social services; he celebrated an annual Christmas day mass in St Columba's Psychiatric Hospital; he provided hostels for both single mothers and homeless youths, as well as apartments for newly-weds unable to afford their own accommodation. Elphin diocese was described as a pioneer in family ministry and programmes, many of them hosted in the pastoral centre at Donamon, Co. Roscommon, in premises gifted to the diocese by the Divine Word Fathers. Conway was always impatient with paperwork, and in his revealing 1981 interview with the Sligo Champion said: ‘A bishop should be illiterate . . . then they [sic] could spend their time amongst the people’. His own shyness prevented him from following through on his own injunction, and it is noteworthy just how much trouble Bishop Jones took in his funeral homily to address this characteristic of shyness and the misunderstandings to which it might have given rise.
In a gesture which attracted favourable comment from the national press, Conway had travellers living in a caravan in his yard for two years. He was a founder member of Develop the West and, on the wider front, he was acknowledged after his death by the chairman of Trócaire, Bishop John Kirby, as having made a huge contribution to that organisation, the official Irish Catholic bishops’ development agency, in its early years. He instituted a volunteer programme with his longtime friends in the Kiltegan Fathers of St Patrick's Missionary Society, whereby Elphin priests spent a period of time working on the missions. He also sent all Elphin seminarians to study initially with the Kiltegan students, so that a generation of Elphin priests did the Ignatian spiritual year programme with the Kiltegan students as well as pursuing their philosophy or university degree studies at the Kiltegan house in Cork (St Patrick's College) on the Rochestown Road.
It would be a mistake, however, to see Conway as an activist of the liberationist type. His pastoral activity was founded on a very strong traditional devotional base. He looked back on the establishment of the Centre for Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the cathedral in Sligo as his greatest achievement. In various pastorals he emphasised the love of the Irish people for the mass, which he saw as rooted in and persisting through a history of famine and persecution where they united their sufferings with the sacrifice of Christ. Each day began for him with a holy hour of prayer from 6.30 a.m. He had a particular devotion to the writings of Dom Columba Marmion (qv) and saw as a highlight of his episcopate the ‘spiritual week’ given in Sligo cathedral by Bishop Fulton Sheen in 1972.
On 24 May 1994, Conway's resignation as bishop of Elphin was accepted in Rome. As pastor emeritus, he served as chaplain to St Joseph's Hospital, Sligo, and it was here that he was himself admitted as a patient in January 1996. He died 22 August 1996 and was buried in the grounds of the Sligo cathedral on 26 August after a funeral presided over by Cardinal Cahal B. Daly, with three archbishops and twenty-six bishops concelebrating and, in attendance, representatives of the papal nuncio, the Apostolic Mission Society, the English catholic hierarchy, local and national government, and the other main Christian churches.