John McHale (1791-1881)

Archbishop of Tuam, County Galway, Ireland

Largely Distilled from Catholic Encyclopedia

The "Freeman's Journal" described his life as the history of Ireland for the greater part of the Nineteenth Century. In any event, The Lion of Juda endeavored to benefit his country.

John McHale, born March 6, 1791 at Tubbernavine, County Mayo, Ireland, was baptized at home.

He learned English eagerly in boyhood along with sibling pupils though Irish was spoken widely by the peasants at that time. He ran barefoot with his brothers to the hedge-school, then the sole means of instruction for Catholic peasant children. On fine days they studied in a dry ditch under a hedge, and in wet weather gathered in a barn.

John listened attentively to the lives of saints, legends, national songs, and historical tales related by his elders. Accounts of the French Revolution were provided by an eyewitness, his uncle, Father MacHale, who had just escaped from France.

John's sixth year marked three important events: the first, the Irish Rebellion of 1798.The boy, hidden in a stacked sheaf of flax, saw the second key event, the landing at Killala of French troops, who then marched through a mountain pass to Castlebar. A few months later brought the execution of Father Conroy on a false charge of high treason.

The three happenings made an indelible impression. After school hours John studied Irish history under an aged scholar. Destined for the priesthood, the boy was sent to a school at Castlebar. In his sixteenth year, the Bishop of Killala gave him a busarship in the ecclesiastical college at Maynooth.

Emigrant French priests, teaching at Maynooth, taught him French, Latin, Greek, Italian, German, Hebrew, and the English classics. After seven years, he was appointed sub-deacon, lecturer in theology. Before the end of 1814, at 24, John was ordained by Dr. Murray, Archbishop of Dublin. The new Father MacHale continued his lectures at Maynooth until 1820, when he was nominated professor of theology. He customarily gave students practical advice about their duties and studies.

Dr. MacHale was slightly above medium height, a somewhat athletic figure. His unassuming manner drew many admirers, including the Duke of Leinster, who often invited him to Carton, where he frequently met men who appreciated his intellect and character.

In a series of letters signed "Hierophilus", he vigorously attacked the Irish Established Church. This led to friendship with the Irish patriot, Daniel O'Connell. In 1825, Pope Leo XII appointed Dr. MacHale Bishop of Maronia, in partibus, and the coadjutor to Dr. Waldron, Bishop of Killala. After his consecration in Maynooth College chapel, the new prelate, warmly received by Dr. Waldron and his people, devoted himself to his sacred duties. He preached Irish and English sermons, and superintended the missions given in the diocese for the Jubilee of 1825. The next year Dr. MacHale joined Bishop Doyle in denouncing the proselytizing Killdeer Street Society of Dublin, which the Government countenanced. He also attended the annual meeting of the Irish bishops, and gave evidence at Mammoth College before the Parliamentary Commissioners inquiring into education.

He revised a theological manual "On the Evidences and Doctrines of the Catholic Church," afterward translated into German.

With his friend and ally, Daniel O'Connell, Dr. MacHale earnestly grappled the question of Catholic Emancipation. He impeached the penal code, which had branded Catholics inferior. His youthful zeal as early as 1826 is described as omnipresent: (Burke, "The History of the Catholic Archbishops of Tuam") :

"He spoke to the people in secret and public, by night and by day, on the highways and in places of public resort, calling up the memories of the past, denouncing the wrongs of the present, and promising imperishable rewards to those who should die in the struggle for their faith.

"He called on the Government to remember how the Union was carried by Mr. Pitt on the distinct assurance and implied promise that Catholic Emancipation, which had been denied by the Irish Parliament, should be granted by the Parliament of the Empire."

In two letters written to Prime Minister Earl Grey, he described the distress of starvation and fever in Connaught, the ruin of the linen trade, the vestry tax for the benefit of Protestant churches, the tithes to the Protestant clergy that Catholics were obliged to pay, exorbitant rents extracted by absentee landlords, and forcing the peasantry to buy seed-corn and seed-potatoes from landlords and agents at usurious charges. However, the letters seemed to have won no attention.

Dr. MacHale accompanied a deputation to London 0of Mayo gentlemen, who received only meaningless assurances from Earl Grey. After witnessing the coronation of William IV at Westminster Abbey, the bishop suffered some temporary ill health, and went to Rome. He left another letter informing the premier that scarcity in Ireland "was a famine in the midst of plenty, the oats being exported to pay rents, tithes, etc., and the English people actually sending back in charity what had originally grown on Irish soil plus freightage and insurance"

Dr. MacHale never blamed the English people, whose generosity he ever acknowledged. On the other hand he severely condemned the Government for its incapacityand its indifference to the wrongs that aroused in the Irish peasantry a sullen hatred unknown to their acquiescent forefathers. During an absence of sixteen months he wrote letters describing what he saw on the Continent. They were eagerly read in "The Freeman's Journal." Sermons he preached in Rome were admired and translated to Italian. From Rome he forwarded to Earl Gray a further protest against tithes, levies, and rampant proselytism in Western Connaught. On his return to Ireland, he protested a proposed system of National Schools, fearing insidious weakening of Irish children's faith.

Dr. Kelly, Archbishop of Tuam, died in 1834. The clergy selected Dr. MacHale among three candidates, to the annoyance of the Government, which dispatched agents to induce the pope not to nominate the Bishop of Maroon to the vacant see. Pope Gregory XVI dryly remarked, "Ever since the Relief Bill had passed, the English Government has not failed to interfere about every appointment as it fell vacant."

Disregarding the Government request, the pope appointed Dr. MacHale Archbishop of Tuam. He was the first prelate since the Reformation who had received his entire education in Ireland. Immediately, the new Archbishop MacHale attacked. He began a series of newspaper letters to the Government, whereby he frequently harassed the ministers into activity in Irish affairs. Targets of his denunciations included corrupt practices of general parliamentary elections. A Tithe war caused frequent rioting and bloodshed until settled by the passing of a Tithes bill in 1838.

During the Autumn of 1835, he visited the Island of Achill, a stronghold of the Bible Readers. To combat their proselytizing, he assigned extra priests to the island and enlisted the aid of Franciscan Monks of the Third Order.

Dr. MacHale, fighting for relief of the poor and the education of youth, condemned the Poor Law and the system of National Schools and Queen's Colleges as devised by the Government. He founded his own schools, entrusting boys' classes to the Christian Brothers and Franciscan monks, while Sisters of Mercy and Presentation Nuns taught girls. When costs restricted their spread. the schools had to be supplemented later by the National Board with amendments to the bill.

Repeal of the Union, advocated by Daniel O'Connell, won Dr. MacHale's ardent sympathy. He assisted The Liberator in many ways, including the remitting of subscriptions from his priests for O'Connell's purpose. His biographer O'Neill,said the prelate favored a movement to obtain "by legal and peaceful agitation the restoration of Ireland's legislative independence." The archbishop vehemently opposed the Charitable Bequests Bill, a cause of numerous lawsuits with its resistance to donations to religious orders. He differed from some other Irish prelates as to partial application of the Act and from some who thought that each bishop should exercise his own judgment as to accepting a Board commission. Amended since, the bill was later judged favorable to Catholic charities and the Catholic poor.

In his zeal for Catholicism and Ireland, Dr. MacHale was frequently accused of intemperate language, a charge that may not have been altogether undeserved. The archbishop lacked the suavity typical of leaders. He offended many and made unrelenting enemies. To British ministers and their supporters, he was a firebrand and "dangerous demagogue." Cardinal Barnabo, Prefect of Propaganda, had serious disagreements and termed Dr. MacHale "a twice-dyed Irishman, a good man ever insisting on getting his own way." Whatever the critics said, Dr. MacHale's intense inflexibility, not greatly tempered by prudence, contributed to his stormy career.

In private life, Dr. MacHale never wasted time, for he was always employed in study, business and prayer. He was noted for his charity to the poor, his strict fulfillment of every sacred duty, and the affectionate consideration and hospitality displayed toward his clergy. Intense respect for sacerdotal dignity rendered him slow to reprimand, though he was inflexible on faith and principle.

Every Sunday he preached a cathedral sermon in Irish. On journeys he conversed in Irish with his attendant chaplain, and never addressed in any other tongue the poor people or beggars who greeted him wherever he went. He compiled a catechism and prayer-book in Irish, and translated portions of the Scriptures, the Latin hymns, "Dies Irae" and "Stabat Mater"Moore's "Melodies," and Homer's "Iliad." In the "Iliad" preface, he wrote, "There is no European tongue better adapted than ours to a full or perfect version of Homer."

During the calamitous famine originating 1846-47, Dr. MacHale exerted energy and activity on behalf of the afflicted people. From England and other parts of the world, cargoes of food were sent to the starving Irish. Bread and soup were distributed from the archbishop's own kitchen, and he drove about regularly to relieve hungry children and weakened older people. Donations were punctiliously acknowledged, and disbursed by his clergy to victims.

The year 1847 added sorrow, first in the death of Daniel O'Connell. Dr. MacHale was much grieved at dissentions of the Repealers, and at by violent tactics utilized by the Young Ireland Party, who ignored his patriotic advice. Warning the Government in the mounting disaster, he bemoaned delay in the rescue, and condemned the folly of relief works being expended on roads instead of on quays and piers to develop the sea fisheries.

Then in 1848, he visited Rome and by his representations to Pope Pius IX inflicted a deadly blow upon the Queen's Colleges. He succeeded in preventing diplomatic intercourse between the British Government and Rome. The Synod of Thurles, held in 1850, emphasized differing education views among the hierarchy. Dr. MacHale strongly protested any mixed system of education already condemned by the pope.

During the recrudescence of "No Popery" in 1851, on the occasion of the re-establishment of the English Catholic hierarchy, and consideration of a bill that would penalize any Roman Catholic prelate who assumed the title of his see, Dr. MacHale boldly signed his letters to Government "John, Archbishop of Tuam." This defiance so startled the Cabinet that it allowed the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill to die.

While foremost in advocating the new Catholic University, Dr. MacHale disagreed with Dr. Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin, who was to become a cardinal, on the college's management and control, and on the appointment of Dr. Newman as rector. The discord handicapped the university.

Dr. MacHale espoused tenant right and backed the Irish Tenant League. Writing to O'Connell's son, he praised "the primitive right of man to enjoy in security and peace the fruit of his industry and labour." At a Dublin conference, men of various creeds supported him on "fixity of tenure, free sale, and fair rent."

Notwithstanding his advanced years, Dr. MacHale, 78, attended the Vatican Council in 1869. Before prelates of various nationalities, he proposed that the favorable moment had not arrived for a papal infallibility dogma. In the council he voted against promulgation. When the dogma became defined, Dr. MacHale instantly submitted his judgment to the Holy See, and in his cathedral he declared infallibility to be true Catholic doctrine, and said he believed it as he believed the Apostles' Creed, a public profession that earned him wide estimation.

Toward the end, he withdrew from active politics, though he lived to the dawn of more prosperous Ireland days.

He celebrated the golden jubilee of his episcopacy in 1875. In 1877, to the disappointment of Dr. MacHale, 86, who desired that his nephew should be his coadjutor, the clergy of the archdiocese voted fot Dr. McEvilly, Bishop of Galway. After some delay, Dr. McEvilly was commanded by Leo XIII to assume the post. The prelate of Tuam submitted to the papal order without protest or resentment. The venerable old man lived for six more years, maintaining his usual mode of life as far as his strength permitted and making the visitations of his diocese.

He preached his last Irish sermon after his Sunday Mass, April, 1881. He died after a short illness, and is buried in Tuam Cathedral.