Tomás Ó Fiaich

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Tomás Cardinal Ó Fiaich
Cardinal, Archbishop of Armagh
Primate of All Ireland
Tomas Cardinal O Fiaich.jpg
Archdiocese Armagh
Appointed18 August 1977
Term ended8 May 1990
Predecessor William Conway
Successor Cahal Daly
Ordination6 July 1948 (Priest)
Consecration2 October 1977 (Archbishop)
by  Gaetano Alibrandi
Created cardinal30 June 1979
Rank Cardinal priest
Personal details
Born3 November 1923
Cullyhanna, County Armagh, Northern Ireland
Died8 May 1990 (aged 66)
Toulouse, Haute-Garonne, France
Buried St Patrick's Cathedral Cemetery, Armagh, Northern Ireland
DenominationRoman Catholic
Previous postPresident St. Patrick's College Maynooth
Alma mater St Peter's College, Wexford
MottoFratres In Unum
Coat of arms Coat of arms of Tomas O Fiaich.svg

Tomás Séamus Cardinal Ó Fiaich KGCHS (3 November 1923 – 8 May 1990) was an Irish prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. He served as the Catholic Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh from 1977 until his death. He was created a Cardinal in 1979. [1] He was born in 1923 in Cullyhanna, [2] and raised in Camlough, County Armagh.


Early life and education

Tomás Ó Fiaich (he began life as Thomas/Tom Fee but while a lecturer in St. Patrick's College Maynooth adopted the fully Gaelicised version) was born in Cullyhanna, South Armagh where his father was a local schoolmaster. He was educated locally before attending St Patrick's Grammar School, Armagh and then proceeded to begin his studies for the priesthood in St Peter's College, Wexford on 6 July 1948. Cardinal John D'Alton appointed him as an assistant priest in Clonfeacle parish, but after Ó Fiaich returned to full health he commenced post-graduate studies in University College, Dublin, (1948–50), receiving an MA in early and medieval Irish history. Further study followed at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, (1950–52), culminating in Ó Fiaich receiving a licentiate in historical sciences.

In 1952 he returned to Clonfeacle where he remained as assistant priest till following summer 1953 and his appointment to the faculty of St Patrick's College, Maynooth. [3]

Member of staff at Maynooth College

Ó Fiaich was an academic and noted Irish language scholar, folklorist and historian in the Pontifical University in St Patrick's College, Maynooth, the National Seminary of Ireland. [4] From 1959 to 1974 he was Professor of Modern Irish History at the college. [5] In this capacity he suggested to Nollaig Ó Muraíle that he begin research on Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh and his works. He "was an inspired lecturer, an open and endearing man, who was loved by his students... Tomas O'Fiaich was my Good Samaritan." [6]

He served as vice president of the college from 1970 to 1974 and was then appointed college president. He held this position until 1977. [7]

Archbishop of Armagh

Following the relatively early death from cancer of William Cardinal Conway in April 1977, Monsignor Ó Fiaich was appointed Archbishop of Armagh by Pope Paul VI on 18 August 1977. He was consecrated bishop on 2 October 1977. The principal consecrator was the papal nuncio Archbishop Gaetano Alibrandi; the principal co-consecrators were Bishop Francis Lenny, the auxiliary Bishop of Armagh, and Bishop William Philbin, the Bishop of Down and Connor. [8] Pope John Paul II raised Ó Fiaich to the cardinalate on 30 June 1979; he was appointed Cardinal-Priest of S. Patrizio that same day. [9]

Papal visit 1979

The first major event in Ó Fiaich's cardinalate was the first ever papal visit to Ireland from 29 September to 1 October 1979 by Pope John Paul II. The Pope celebrated Mass before one million people in Phoenix Park, Dublin. His major speech calling on all the organisations that were prolonging The Troubles to end their activities was made in the Archdiocese of Armagh and was followed by a visit to the Marian Shrine at Knock, County Mayo. Cardinal Ó Fiaich was at the Pope's side during the entire visit.


Ó Fiaich took a more understanding, or at least a less critical, stance than other episcopal colleagues on militant republicanism in part because of his own upbringing in Crossmaglen. His approach, including visits to republican prisoners in the Maze, triggered many complaints but Ó Fiaich was always adamant that he had pastoral responsibilities and that the strict work of politics especially in an era of Margaret Thatcher as well as Taoisigh such as Jack Lynch and Garret FitzGerald, was not his sphere. Unionists were also critical of Ó Fiaich.

Some of Ó Fiaich's sternest critics were in the Irish media, notably The Sunday Independent (which had a very strong anti-republican stance) and The Irish Times . He was, however, strongly defended on occasion by The Irish Press (a more nationalist paper) and An Phoblacht (which had a very pro-Sinn Féin/IRA stance).

Hunger strikes

During the IRA hunger strikes Ó Fiaich was believed by many to have been a privately influential figure among militant republican supporters, credited with helping end the first hunger strike through direct contact with militant republicans in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. [10] He visited the Maze and witnessed the "Dirty Protest" (where prisoners rubbed their faeces on the walls of their cells and left food to rot on cell floors, while just wearing blankets and refusing to wash, in protest at the withdrawal of Special Category Status from militant republican prisoners). He stated:

"I was shocked at by the inhuman conditions . . . where over 300 prisoners are incarcerated. One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions let alone a human being. The nearest approach to it that I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta."
The bust of Cardinal O Fiaich in Ranafast, Co. Donegal, Republic of Ireland. Tomas O Fiaichrnf.jpg
The bust of Cardinal Ó Fiaich in Ranafast, Co. Donegal, Republic of Ireland.

When hunger striker Raymond McCreesh died, Ó Fiaich said:

"Raymond McCreesh was captured bearing arms at the age of 19 and sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment. I have no doubt that he would have never seen the inside of a jail but for the abnormal political situation. Who is entitled to label him a murderer or a suicide?"

While the Cardinal showed deep concern for the treatment of prisoners, he was equally critical of those who used violence to further the cause of Irish nationalism. [11]

David Armstrong affair

In 1983, the Reverend David Armstrong, a Presbyterian minister, was forced to leave Limavady due to threats that followed his wishing Father Kevin Mullan's Catholic congregation "Happy Christmas". Cardinal Ó Fiaich gave the clergyman a cash donation to help him resettle in England. [12]

Vatican service

During his tenure, Cardinal Ó Fiaich attended many synods and meetings of the Sacred College of Cardinals. The main meetings were

Reordering of Armagh Cathedral

Styles of
Tomás Ó Fiaich
External Ornaments of a Cardinal Bishop.svg
Reference style His Eminence
Spoken styleYour Eminence
Informal style Cardinal
See Armagh

Ó Fiaich's re-ordering of the high Victorian neo-Gothic St. Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh proved very contentious. He had the highly decorated High Altar and rood screen replaced by a plain white Wicklow granite altar table.

Though Cardinal Ó Fiaich himself wrote approvingly of the new design for the sanctuary, many others were highly critical, arguing that the new sanctuary design defaced what had been a particularly fine nineteenth-century building, with the brutal simplicity of the white oval altar contrasting with the original features surviving. One critic, writing in The Sunday Independent , compared Ó Fiaich's altar to something from the set of Star Trek . The altar table installed during his time as Archbishop of Armagh was subsequently removed by Seán Cardinal Brady and a more classical replacement installed.


Ó Fiaich died of a heart attack on the evening of 8 May 1990 while leading the annual pilgrimage by the Archdiocese of Armagh to the Marian shrine of Lourdes in France. He had arrived in France the day before and had complained of feeling ill shortly after saying Mass at the grotto in the French town. He was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Toulouse, 125 miles (200 km) away, where he died. He was aged 66. He lay in state at the cathedral in Armagh, where thousands of people lined up to pay their respects. [14]

He was succeeded as archbishop and cardinal by a man six years his senior, Cahal Daly, then the Bishop of Down and Connor. [15]


Cardinal Ó Fiaich Library

The Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Memorial Library, a registered charity, was officially opened in Armagh 8 May 1999 by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Marjorie Mowlam. [16] Named after the cardinal to honour his academic interests, it contains extensive archival material about Irish folklore, heritage and history. Cardinal Ó Fiaich's private papers covering his period as archbishop and cardinal are held by the library, as are those of nine previous Roman Catholic Archbishops of Armagh dating back to the mid-eighteenth century.

Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich

Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich is named in Cardinal Ó Fiaich's honour and is an Irish language cultural centre in which the first Irish-medium secondary school in Northern Ireland, Coláiste Feirste was founded. [17] A bust of the cardinal can be seen in An Ceathrú Póilí, the centre's book shop.

Ancient Order of Hibernians

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an exclusively Roman Catholic organisation largely (though not exclusively) based in the US, has named its No. 14 Division in Massachusetts and No. 7 Division in New York City after the late Cardinal.


  1. ^ Then Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Garret FitzGerald, on behalf of the Government, raised Alibrandi's position directly with Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Benelli at a meeting in 1975. (FitzGerald in The Irish Times)
  2. ^ Garret FitzGerald, All in a Life (Gill and Macmillan, 1991) p. 337.)
  3. ^ Statement by Tomás Cardinal Ó Fiaich, quoted in Tim Pat Coogan, The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal 1966–1996 and the Search for Peace (Arrow, 1996)

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  1. Miranda, Salvador. "Tomás Ó Fiaich". The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. Retrieved 23 June 2009.
  2. Early years of Cardinal O’Fiaich
  3. Canning, Bernard (1988). Bishops of Ireland 1870-1987. Ballyshannon: Donegal Democrat. pp. 56–64. ISBN   1870963008.
  4. Website for St Patrick's College, Maynooth
  5. Irish Times Obituary
  6. Jordan, Anthony J. The Good Samaritan: memoir of a biographer. Westport Books ISBN   978-0-9524447-5-6; pp. 94 & 106–97
  7. Significant appointments of Tomás Ó Fiaich
  8. Ordination of Tomás Ó Fiaich to bishop
  9. S. Patrizio Cardinal Titular Church
  10. Cardinal O’Fiaich visits the Maze
  11. Cardinal O’Fiaich criticises violence
  12. (8 October 2008)
  13. Attendance at meetings in Vatican City
  14. Funeral of Cardinal O’Fiaich Archived 24 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  15. Down and Connor
  16. Link to the Cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich Memorial Library and Archive
  17. "An Chultúrlann, Monday at 10pm on BBC Two NI". Northern Ireland Screen. 8 December 2011. Archived from the original on 31 October 2016. Retrieved 30 October 2016.


Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
William Cardinal Conway
Archbishop of Armagh
and Primate of All Ireland

Succeeded by
Cahal Cardinal Daly
Preceded by
William Cardinal Conway
Cardinal-Priest of San Patrizio
Succeeded by
Cahal Cardinal Daly