MacHale, John (1791–1881), catholic archbishop of Tuam, was born 6 March 1791 at Tubbernavine, Co. Mayo, the sixth child and fifth son of Patrick MacHale and his wife Mary Mulkieran. MacHale's father was a prosperous farmer and innkeeper and was also active in the linen trade. The family and community were largely Irish-speaking, but MacHale's father insisted on his children being taught English and on their speaking it at home. In 1798 MacHale saw French troops under General Humbert (qv) pass by. He was also deeply affected by the subsequent execution by crown forces of the local parish priest, Andrew Conroy.
Education and scholarship
After receiving his early schooling locally, MacHale was sent in 1804 to Patrick Stanton's classical school in Castlebar. There he continued to master English, and learnt the basics of Latin and Greek. He excelled and attracted the notice of the bishop of Killala, Dominic Bellew (qv), who offered him a diocesan bursary at Maynooth. He entered the college on 20 September 1807. While at Maynooth, he proved himself an exceptional scholar and linguist. (He would eventually claim to know eight languages, and could preach in four.) Here too his intelligence was noticed, and in the spring of 1814 – while still only in sub-deacon's orders – MacHale was informally chosen to replace the elderly and ailing professor of dogmatic theology, Louis Delahogue (1739–1827). He was ordained deacon on 25 July 1814, and priest the next day, by the co-adjutor archbishop of Dublin, Daniel Murray (qv). On 30 August his appointment as lecturer at Maynooth was confirmed. Six years later, on 22 June 1820, MacHale formally succeeded Delahogue as professor on the latter's final retirement.
At Maynooth, MacHale developed a fascination with English literature and rhetoric. He closely studied the works of the great eighteenth-century masters of political rhetoric: Edmund Burke (qv), Charles James Fox, the elder and younger Pitts, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (qv). He also developed a life-long affection for Edward Gibbon and his masterpiece. As training for a career as a polemicist it could not have been bettered, and it is perhaps significant that MacHale's first letter published under the pseudonym of Hierophilos (on 29 January 1820) was a defence of Gibbon against a protestant attempt to claim him as their own. Even Gibbon's apostasy was explained in a sympathetic light.
MacHale's restless energy and combative nature found release in a series of thirty-two letters, usually to Dublin newspapers, under the signature Hierophilos. The letters addressed a range of subjects – most prominently education – and utilised an ironic, contemptuous style that clearly drew on his reading. Although the letters drew attention (and anger), as a Maynooth professor MacHale refused to abandon the cloak of anonymity, despite the fact that his identity was an open secret in catholic circles.
Bishop and polemicist
In 1824 the ailing bishop of Killala, Peter Waldron, asked Propaganda Fide to appoint a co-adjutor bishop with right of succession to the see. Waldron had already deputed MacHale to represent him at the hierarchy's annual meeting, and it was no surprise that he sent MacHale's name to Rome with the request. On 8 March 1825 a bull was issued naming John MacHale as bishop of Maronia and co-adjutor bishop of Killala. He was consecrated on 5 June 1825.
He threw himself into improving both the spiritual and the physical condition of the diocese. He proved to be an energetic pastor and a determined builder. In 1826 he began a fund-raising campaign for a new cathedral in Ballina. It opened in 1831 at a cost of some £12,000. MacHale did not abandon his polemical activities during this time, and continued a steady stream of public letters attacking various British politicians and protestant evangelisers. Indulging the other, more scholarly, side of his character, he also published, in 1828, an extended defence of catholic belief, The evidences and doctrines of the catholic church.
In late 1831 MacHale embarked on a nearly year-long trip to the Italian peninsula. Although in later years he was seen in Rome as a loose cannon, in the early 1830s he made a favourable impression, not least on Pope Gregory XVI. This served him in good stead, as in April 1834 the archiepiscopal see of Tuam fell vacant. MacHale, who was still only co-adjutor bishop of Killala until he succeeded Waldron on 20 May, was immediately seen as the front-runner. On 4 June the clergy of Tuam placed him second on the terna, the ranked list of three names to be submitted to Rome. The bishops of the province of Tuam then unanimously recommended him to the Holy See as the most suitable candidate.
The British government was appalled that their frequent antagonist might become one of Ireland's four Roman catholic archbishops. Both Lord Melbourne (qv), the prime minister, and Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary, sought to interfere by putting pressure on Rome. Their goal was not so much to advance a favoured alternative candidate as to ensure that anybody but MacHale was appointed. Gregory XVI, who was tired of British meddling and unconvinced by charges of sedition against MacHale, confirmed the appointment on 1 August. The news reached Ireland mid-month, and MacHale was formally notified by a papal letter dated 31 August.
Archbishop of Tuam
As archbishop, MacHale pursued three major interests: polemics, scholarship, and ecclesiastical politics. Continuing his practice in Killala, he kept up a steady public assault on the British state and its Irish allies. More than any other cleric, he became associated in the public mind with the ‘national’ cause. He gave important support to the campaign by Daniel O'Connell (qv) for repeal of the Act of Union, and was always ready to lend his pen to attack the government of the day. It was O'Connell who christened MacHale the Lion of the West. (In later years not a few of MacHale's many enemies complained of being ‘mauled’ by the Lion.) Although he would cultivate it his entire life, the image of MacHale as the ultimate ‘patriot bishop’ dates from the late 1830s and early 1840s.
Never content with simply crafting rhetorically powerful polemics, MacHale also continued his scholarly pursuits. In particular, he turned his attention to the Irish language. Although MacHale always thought of Irish as his first language – he prayed and preferred to conduct private conversations in it – there is little evidence that he took it seriously as an object of study before his appointment to Tuam. Indeed, his first biographer (an Irish scholar himself) expressed the opinion that MacHale never really mastered Irish grammar. Nevertheless, in 1842 the first edition of his translations of Melodies by Thomas Moore (qv) appeared (a second edition was issued in 1871); in 1844 he published a translation of the Iliad into Irish; and an Irish version of the Pentateuch began appearing in 1859. In addition to these projects, some of which he worked at for many years, MacHale published translations of a number of devotional works.
In addition to his activism and scholarship, MacHale also provoked a power struggle within the Irish hierarchy that would not be fully resolved for nearly twenty years. On 12 January 1838 MacHale wrote an open letter to Lord John Russell, the home secretary in Lord Melbourne's whig administration. In it, he attacked the national system of education introduced into Ireland in 1831. MacHale's attack threw the Irish hierarchy into confusion. The archbishops of Armagh and Dublin, William Crolly (qv) and Daniel Murray (qv), as well as many bishops, were in favour of the system as the best possible deal in Irish circumstances. The national system not only replaced the semi-official, and proselytising, Kildare Place Society (which MacHale had condemned in his Hierophilos letters), but also ensured a great deal of de facto control of schools by the catholic clergy. The ferocity of his public assault on the system could be read only as an assault on those prelates who supported it. Before he attacked his colleagues, however, MacHale had ensured his own power base in Tuam; by 1838 he had the support of most if not all of his suffragan bishops. This had been achieved not only by force of personality, but also by a demonstration of power and determination when MacHale secured the removal of his successor as bishop of Killala, Francis Joseph O'Finan (qv). Although O'Finan had been MacHale's choice, he proved an incompetent bishop and his eccentric behaviour lost him support in Rome. The process took many years, but O'Finan's departure signalled to the rest of Tuam's bishops where power lay in the province.
MacHale's assault on the national schools could not be resolved within the Irish hierarchy, despite the continued support of a majority of the bishops for the system. The question inevitably found its way to Rome, where MacHale sought a condemnation binding on the entire Irish church. Although Propaganda Fide were minded to agree with MacHale, the national schools’ supporters were able to ensure that Rome took no position on the matter, instead leaving it up to each individual bishop to decide whether to extend or withhold support in his own diocese. In a decision that had profound consequences, MacHale withheld support from the schools, creating an educational vacuum that he was unable to fill with the religious orders he imported for the purpose. It was an opening that protestant evangelists eagerly seized, and many poor catholics in Tuam were confronted by the choice of sending their children to an evangelising protestant school or to no school at all.
Although frustrated in his attempt to have the national schools condemned by Rome, MacHale was not chastened. He returned to the fray in 1844 when the government of Sir Robert Peel (qv) introduced legislation that sought to make the laws governing charitable bequests more equitable to catholics. Again, Murray, Crolly, and many of the bishops were broadly in favour of the proposals. MacHale and his allies were vehemently and publicly opposed. Some of MacHale's episcopal supporters took to referring to themselves as the ‘orthodox’ bishops, implying that the archbishops of Dublin and Armagh were not. MacHale was so successful in his assault that he was able to gain the support of a majority of the hierarchy on the issue. Crucially, however, he was rebuffed in his attempts to get Rome to rule on the bill and his aggressive style and propensity to make private divisions public annoyed many in Propaganda.
Relations among the bishops fell to new lows after 1845, when Peel's government proposed the creation of three secular ‘queen's colleges’ in Ireland to provide an alternative to the established church's Trinity College. After securing some concessions, Murray, Crolly and their allies broadly welcomed the colleges. MacHale and his opposed them. Once again the issue found its way to Rome. After the first condemnation of the colleges was appealed against by their supporters, MacHale spent more than half of 1848 in Rome working successfully to secure a fresh condemnation. Nobody in Ireland (or London) doubted that MacHale was the colleges’ leading opponent.
A number of factors informed MacHale's behaviour in the 1830s and 1840s. Certainly he had real, and deeply felt, reservations about the national schools, the charitable bequests bill, and the queen's colleges. Believing that justice required that catholics should have full control over the education of their children and the disposition of their property, he was not prepared to accept anything that fell short. He also feared that, as was the case with the proposed charitable bequests board, the authority of individual bishops within their dioceses would be compromised. He was consistently unprepared to tolerate another bishop or archbishop having any authority of any kind, civil or religious, within Tuam. On the other hand, MacHale clearly enjoyed robust, even vicious, public debate; he was entirely unable to keep his opinions to himself. He was also trying to wrest control of the Irish hierarchy away from men like Murray whom he perceived and successfully branded as ‘castle bishops’ beholden to the government. Finally, MacHale was profoundly distrustful of British intentions in Ireland. His warning to the pope – ‘time Anglos et dona ferentes’ – neatly summed up his attitude to any British ‘concessions’.
The death of William Crolly in April 1849 appeared to open a path to MacHale's complete domination of the now almost evenly divided hierarchy. Both the clergy of Armagh and the bishops of the province were split, one camp supporting a candidate perceived as sympathetic to Murray, the other one sympathetic to MacHale. With neither candidate able to secure an advantage, and at the invitation of Propaganda, MacHale and Archbishop Michael Slattery (qv) of Cashel suggested the name of Paul Cullen (qv), rector of the Irish college in Rome. Cullen, who first met MacHale in 1832, had been useful during the O'Finan affair in the 1830s, and had assisted with the archbishop's efforts to secure Roman condemnations of the Bequests Act and the queen's colleges. Cullen was never likely to become MacHale's creature, but MacHale not unreasonably assumed that he had secured the appointment of a close ally.
For the first year after Cullen's arrival in Ireland in early 1850, the two men worked reasonably well together. At the synod of Thurles in August 1850, Cullen and MacHale together pushed through a series of resolutions, often by wafer-thin majorities, confirming episcopal condemnation of the queen's colleges and support for a catholic university in their stead. Although he had been relatively and uncharacteristically quiet at Thurles, MacHale seemed in the ascendant. Very quickly, however, the relationship between the two men became strained, and then fell apart.
Part of the reason was personal: MacHale was simply unable to tolerate a rival for power within the Irish church. Moreover, Cullen's power base was in Rome, and therefore independent of MacHale. (Cullen's status as apostolic delegate must also have alarmed MacHale, who was always jealous of his prerogatives as archbishop.) Politically, too, the men were soon at odds. In line with the views of Propaganda Fide, Cullen had long disliked a too obvious clerical involvement in political life; MacHale, of course, had since 1820 been the personification of the priest in politics. From almost the moment of his arrival, Cullen set about moulding the Irish catholic church to his taste. He used his contacts in Rome to influence episcopal appointments; he appointed Englishmen to important posts in the Catholic Defence Association and the Catholic University of Ireland; and he set about denying clerical support to the Tenant League and the Independent Irish Party, both of which MacHale enthusiastically supported. By 1854 MacHale was isolated within the hierarchy, and what support he had was mostly confined to his own province. The extent of MacHale's marginalisation became apparent in May 1854, when Cullen obtained from the Irish bishops strict regulations removing the clergy from public political activity.
MacHale supported the leaders of the Tenant League and Irish party in their attempt to have the decrees overturned at Rome. MacHale himself took the opportunity of the definition in 1854 of the doctrine of the immaculate conception to join his lay allies in a personal appeal to the pope and Propaganda Fide. He did not reckon on Cullen's power at Propaganda. In trying to push his case, MacHale made the mistake of entering into a blazing row with Alessandro Barnabò, the powerful secretary of the congregation. Barnabò was a long-standing Cullen ally, but MacHale's behaviour alienated him completely. The picture of MacHale as quarrelsome and imprudent, which had been building in Rome since the early 1840s, became settled conviction. Whatever small chance MacHale had had to limit Cullen's power was destroyed. Barnabò's subsequent appointment as cardinal prefect of Propaganda only confirmed that fact.
From 1855 MacHale suffered a string of defeats at Cullen's hands. His solution was what might be called a policy of non-cooperation; MacHale simply refused to participate with the other bishops in the normal affairs of the church. He declined to sign public letters, or fulfil any responsibilities entrusted to him as an archbishop, unless by doing so he could frustrate Cullen. As Cullen's close ally Archbishop Joseph Dixon (qv) of Armagh remarked, MacHale had become ‘His Holiness's Opposition in the Irish episcopal body’ (Dixon to Tobias Kirby, 24 March 1859, Kirby MSS, Irish college, Rome). For his part, Cullen succeeded in isolating MacHale in the west, as one episcopal ally after another was replaced by men more to Cullen's taste.
By 1860, MacHale was effectively a party of one or two in the Irish church. Although he remained an enthusiastic nationalist, and was held up as the model of a ‘patriot bishop’ by both constitutional and advanced nationalists, he enjoyed little real influence. About all he could do was offer limited protection to men like the Tuam priest Patrick Lavelle (qv), who had incurred the wrath of both Cullen and Rome for his support of advanced nationalism. MacHale even tolerated some fairly open manifestations of Fenian sympathies at his diocesan seminary, but even he dared not go much further than that. In 1869 he was one of only two Irish bishops to decline to appeal to the pope to condemn Fenianism formally.
Always quarrelsome, MacHale became increasingly querulous. As his first biographer and confidant noted, as MacHale ‘advanced in years this unwillingness to co-operate … became a settled state of mental conviction’ (Bourke, 141). One of the longest serving bishops in attendance at the Vatican Council of 1869–70, MacHale backed the anti-infallibilist minority. Although certainly influenced by the relatively Gallican climate of Maynooth in the early part of the century, he argued that the definition was inopportune, not untrue. His powers were clearly fading, and his Latin speech to the council was widely viewed as a failure even by those who agreed with him. Cullen cruelly reported that ‘the judgement passed on him by the bishops was that they had heard he was a giant, but they found he was a pigmy [sic]’ (Cullen to Edward McCabe, 23 May 1870, Cullen MSS, Dublin diocesan archives).
MacHale was heartened by the advent of the home rule party and its success in the 1874 election, and gave the party his early, public, and enthusiastic backing. This support further cemented his nationalist credentials. As his reputation in the country grew, however, his power in the church continued to wane. With breathtaking nerve, he petitioned Pius IX in 1875 to appoint his nephew Thomas MacHale as his co-adjutor with right of succession. There was never any chance of that, and instead three years later the pope appointed the bishop of Galway, John MacEvilly (qv). MacHale was unlikely to have accepted anyone other than his nephew, but MacEvilly, a close ally of Cullen, was a particular insult. MacHale refused to tolerate the appointment, and more or less dared Rome to make him. His threat, expressed in a letter to Propaganda, was simple: if MacEvilly was forced upon him, he would resign and give his reasons publicly. It was blackmail, but Rome wisely declined to call his bluff and decided to wait out the elderly archbishop; MacEvilly did ultimately succeed MacHale as archbishop of Tuam.
John MacHale died on 7 November 1881, and was buried in the cathedral at Tuam on 15 November. To the great loss of Irish history, his papers were removed from Ireland by his nephew Thomas and taken to America. There they were placed at the disposal of Bernard O'Reilly (1823–1907), who in 1890 published an adulatory two-volume biography. After that the papers vanished, and O'Reilly's book remains the single best source of documentation on MacHale's life. Other important collections are preserved in the Irish college, Rome, and the Cashel, Clogher, Cloyne, and Dublin diocesan archives. Most of his polemical letters were collected and published, either in MacHale's own lifetime or shortly thereafter.
MacHale is remembered in Ireland as the great patriot bishop, the Lion of the West. Although an undoubted and life-long nationalist, MacHale's legacy was somewhat more complex. On the one hand he was a gifted polemicist, a scholar, and a great patron of the Irish language at a time when it had few enough. But he was also, after Killala, a bishop who condemned the children of Tuam to years of sub-standard education. Most significantly, his efforts to take control of the Irish catholic hierarchy shattered the unity of that body almost beyond repair. When he failed in his aims, he was unwilling to work with his colleagues on even the simplest and least contentious matters. For the last thirty years of his episcopate he was reduced to a sullen, sulky obstructionism. Perhaps John MacHale's greatest achievement was his own enduring image.