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Cardinal Daly had instinctive touch for our troubled times

Cardinal Cahal Daly was an ecclesiastical statesman, a scholar and a gentleman, and also a warm and friendly human being.

He was Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland in the troubled years from 1990-1996, and many of his major pronouncements were that of an accomplished academic.

In private he could be delightful company to authors, journalists and other researchers. There was always tea or coffee and biscuits to supplement the conversation.

He had a profound grasp of theology and the world Church, and he also possessed shrewd political judgment and an entertaining view of other public figures.

He was fascinated, for example, by the career of Ian Paisley, and he delighted in the humanity of the many funny stories about that arch-critic of Roman Catholicism.

The cardinal was relatively small in stature, but he had the personality and authority to fill a room. The private Cahal Daly was also a pastor, and one woman told me how very caring he was towards her sister whose husband had been murdered by loyalists.

He was always sensitive to the feelings of the Protestant community, and he formed firm friendships with many of their clergy and laity.

He also had a sometimes impish sense of humour, and one of my prized possessions is a letter which he sent me in his retirement, after I had reported on the funeral of the late Pope John Paul II in Rome in 2005.

He complimented me on my coverage which, he wrote, was “very good, coming from a Northern Presbyterian!”

Cahal Brendan Daly was born in Loughguile, Co Antrim, on October 1 1917, and was the third of seven children.

He retained a lifelong memory of the local Protestant farmers who helped their Catholic colleagues with hay-making and harvests. It was this memory which sustained his respect for Protestants in general, which some of them by no means deserved.

He was a bright pupil and he became a boarder at St Malachy’s in Belfast. He graduated with an Honours BA in Classics at Queen’s University in 1937 and was proud not only to have studied under the redoubtable Professor RM Henry but also to have won the Henry Medal. He also remained proud of Queen’s, his “alma mater”, where he was also awarded an MA in 1938.

Cahal Daly studied at Maynooth and was ordained as a priest for Down and Connor in 1941. Following his Doctorate in Divinity he taught Classics briefly at St Malachy’s before joining the staff at Queen’s where he became a lecturer and later a Reader in Scholastic Philosophy. He was a familiar figure around Queen’s and literally “Beetled” about the campus in his tiny VW car.

In the early 1950s he spent a sabbatical from Queen’s at the Institut Catholique in Paris where he received a licentiate in philosophy. Thus began a life-long affection for France, and most summers he would travel there for an extended vacation with at least one suitcase full of books. He was an avid and lifelong reader.

Cahal Daly was clearly destined for major office, and in 1967 he was appointed Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois in the Irish midlands.

In 1982 he was appointed Bishop of his old Down and Connor Diocese, and returned to a Belfast wracked by the Troubles. Unlike his predecessor Dr William Philbin, he had an instinctive touch for the politics and the trauma of the times.

Daly had maintained good relationships with the Vatican since his time there during the Second Vatican Council, and he is credited with having drafted a large part of Pope John Paul II’s speech at Drogheda in 1979, when the Pontiff pleaded unsuccessfully for an end to Provisional IRA violence.

Cahal Daly had an unremitting intellectual and personal opposition to the Republican “armed struggle” and he was uncompromising in his criticism of the leadership of Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA.

In later years, however, as the peace process began to unfold he admitted to me, while I was working on a biography of Lord Eames, that the Sinn Fein leadership deserved more credit than they had been given for bringing their followers along a political path.

It was also a mark of the cardinal that Martin McGuinness has mentioned the warmer relationships with Daly in more recent times.

In 1990 Cahal Daly was appointed as archbishop and primate at the age of 73, and just two years before the retirement age for a bishop. Despite his relative frailty following a heart attack in 1982 he showed a sure touch in his onerous office, and he maintained excellent relationships with the successive Protestant church leaders, including the then Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop Robin Eames.

Daly had clearly set out his views on ecumenism long before and in a 1979 open letter to Protestants he stated “Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants can and must help one another to stay faithful to Christ in a world where more and more people walk away from him.”

He and Eames visited the USA together in 1994 to mark the 1550th anniversary of St Patrick. He said later: “There was surprise and amazement that we were together and that we were singing largely from the same hymn-sheet.”

Despite his ecumenism Cardinal Daly held rigidly to orthodox Catholic teaching on abortion, celibacy and other matters. He was also profoundly disturbed by the emerging scandals of clerical child sex abuse within the Church, and towards the end of his time in Armagh he increasingly appeared as an elderly man who could not possibly have dealt with the growing whirlwind, as the result of the many sins of the fathers.

Cardinal Daly stepped down as archbishop in 1996 on his 79th birthday and he lived quietly in a house in the Rosetta area of Belfast which he named ‘Ard Macha’, because of his deep affection for Armagh.

During his retirement he lived frugally, took care of his health, received visitors and continued to write books. Though accessible to his clerical colleagues and friends, he remained in the background.

There is no doubt, however, that he was deeply grieved by the Church’s current troubles, but he lived long enough to witness the beginnings of peace and better community understanding in Ireland which had been a cornerstone of his ministry.

He will be remembered with affection and respect not only by his own people, but by Protestants who saw in him some of the best Christian virtues in their shared, though differing, worship of the same God.

He was, without doubt, one of the most significant Irish Catholic figures of recent times.

Belfast Telegraph