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The lion of the West: Archbishop John McHale

30 November, 1999

John McHale was among the first Irish bishops since the Reformation to have been educated in Ireland. As a fearless critic of British mismanagement of Ireland during the Great Famine, he was attacked by the British press but loved by the Irish people.

In the evening of November 7,1881, John McHale, Archbishop of Tuam, died peacefully in his own home. . He was ninety years of age and he had been a bishop for fifty six of those years. He had been consecrated as coadjutor to Doctor Waldron of Killala in March 1825, whom he succeeded in May 1834 and three months later he became Archbishop of Tuam. He was the first Irish bishop since the Reformation to have been educated wholly in Ireland. The language of his home at Tobernavine, in Tirawley, County Mayo was Irish as was the language ot the local school which he attended before going to a school in Castlebar and to Maynooth in 1807.

It is some indication of McHale’s scholarly ability that after his priestly ordination in 1814 he was appointed assistant to the Professor of Dogmatic Theology, Doctor Delahogue, whom he succeeded as Professor in 1820. In March 1829 the President of Maynooth, Doctor Crotty published A Letter to the Right Hon. Lord Bexley in reply to charges against the College of Maynooth. An extract from this indicates how McHale was already winning fame and making enemies as a public defender of Irish Catholicism under the pseudonym Hieropolis. Doctor Crotty wrote: ‘Dr McHale took up his pen to vindicate the Catholic Church of Ireland against the virulent and unprovoked abuse, which for years was increasingly poured out against her doctrines and her clergy. If, in doing so, he transgressed the limits of legitimate defence, he was certainly guilty of no injustice against his aggressors.’

Christened ‘The Lion’
It was for raising his voice in publicly defending his people that Daniel O’Connell christened McHale ‘the Lion of St Jarlath’s’ a variant of the Scriptural phrase ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah’. Another variant of this descriptive phrase is ‘the Lion of the West’, the title of a recent biography written by Hilary Andrews and published by Veritas. The British government launched a diplomatic campaign at Rome against the appointment of McHale to the archbishopric of Tuam. The saintly Archbishop Murray of Dublin was written to for information regarding the reported agitation against the government by McHale. Murray replied in August 1834: ‘I confess. . . that prelate otherwise most worthy, sometimes uses too sharp a style, as it seems to me, when he writes about political matters. It must be remembered, nevertheless, that he is surrounded by poor persons languishing in want and misery; and if he adverts to the causes of this misery more sharply than I would wish, I think it should be attributed to his sense of duty towards the poor and to a zeal which burns for religion, although for a little while perhaps it went beyond the limits of prudence, as some believed.’

Nevertheless it is absolutely certain that he is not connected with civil disturbance or any counsel according to which the Civil Power could be endangered.’

‘I am very happy to be able to add my testimony to the votes of the bishops of the Province of Tuam concerning that prelate, learned, pious, eloquent, and deserving well of religion.’

McHale outstanding leader
McHale was the outstanding leader of the bishops and priests who supported O’Connell in the campaign for the Repeal of the Union. The campaign ended with O’Connell’s submission to the government proclamation of October 2, 1843 banning the projected monster meeting at Clontarf. In the previous August McHale had written a letter to be read at a banquet following a monster meeting at Maryborough. In his letter McHale wrote: ‘Next to the spiritual duties in which I am occupied, nay as intimately connected with them, I feel the weight of the obligation of cooperating peacefully and strenuously to free from the remnants of the most atrocious, the most continuous, and the most insulting system of civil and religious oppression that ever was carried on against the faith, the freedom, nay the very existence of a noble and faithful people…. We have no protection against the Punic faith of the treaty-breaking Saxons except in the strong and lofty fence of a native legislature.’
The Great Famine
McHale lived and laboured for his people during what was probably the greatest catastrophe ever to have struck Ireland. This was the great famine (1845-1849) as a result of which a million people died and a million more emigrated. There had been famine in 1831 and Doctor McHale had written to Earl Grey who was then Prime Minister for help for the poor starving people and denouncing the iniquitous system of land tenure. He resumed this practice in 1846 with appeals to Lord John Russell who was then Prime Minister. Appeals for aid were sent all over Europe and to America and McHale was involved in the collection and distribution of aid. When the famine was easing in 1849 McHale published a letter denouncing government policy and he referred to the ‘numberless victims of the most unchristian policy that ever yet emanated from the councils of any state.’

In the English press Catholic priests and bishops were accused of being political agitators. McHale responded publicly. This is part of his withering response: ‘Are priests of the diocese silently to look on, and I myself to forbear petition or remonstrance. . . Continue, then, so to confound the distinct notion of things, and so to pervert the propriety of language as to represent under the name of “political agitation” the unceasing labours of the Catholic Hierarchy to improve the conditions, and to save the lives of the poor.

Of course McHale did and said many other things not all of them, perhaps, wise and prudent. But when he died the city of Tuam was draped in mourning for a week and a flag on the town hall proclaimed ‘Ireland’s greatest son, John, is dead.’

This article first appeared in The St Martin Magazine (November 2001), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.