Ryan is Professor of Oriental Languages at University College Dublin before his appointment by Pope Paul VI as Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland on December 29, 1971. Maintaining his connection and interest in oriental studies, he serves as chairman of the trustees of the Chester Beatty Library from 1978 to 1984.
During his term, Ryan consolidates much of the expansion of the Archdiocese which had taken place during the term of his predecessor. He also oversees the fuller implementation of the reforms of Vatican II. He is particularly interested in liturgical reform.
As Archbishop, Ryan gives the people of Dublin a public park on a site earmarked by his predecessors for a proposed cathedral. It is named “Archbishop Ryan Park” in his honour. The land, at Merrion Square, is a gift from the archbishop to the city of Dublin.
Ryan is named in the Murphy Report, released in 2009, on sexual abuse of children in Dublin. His actions in respect of complaints against priest Fr. McNamee are described in the report as “an example of how, throughout the 1970s, the church authorities were more concerned with the scandal that would be created by revealing Fr. McNamee’s abuse rather than any concern for the abused.” He also does not act on complaints against other priests who are also subsequently confirmed to be abusers.
In January 2010, after Ryan has been criticised in the Murphy Report the previous year, Dublin City Council seeks public views on renaming “Archbishop Ryan Park.” Later that same year it is renamed “Merrion Square Park” by the City Council.
Ordained in 1924, the theology in which McQuaid is trained is conservative — strongly neo-scholastic and hostile to modernism and liberalism. His hatred of the French Revolution is expressed in several pastorals and speeches throughout his career. He also regards Protestantism as a fundamental error from which Irish Catholics should be quarantined as much as possible.
Appointed Dean of Studies at Blackrock College, McQuaid becomes a prominent figure in Catholic education and chairs the Catholic Headmasters’ Association for several years. In 1931 he is appointed president of Blackrock College, in which capacity he becomes acquainted with Éamon de Valera, the future Irish Taoiseach whose sons attend the school. In 1936 while drafting a new Irish constitution, de Valera consults McQuaid, although he rejects McQuaid’s draft “One, True Church” clause which states, among other things, that the Catholic Church is the one true church in Ireland.
When McQuaid is appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1940, the appointment of a priest from the regular clergy causes considerable surprise. Irish government archives reveal that de Valera, as is suspected at the time, presses McQuaid’s claims at the Vatican. However, it is doubtful whether the Vatican needs much persuasion. There is a dearth of potential episcopal talent and McQuaid has an outstanding reputation as a Catholic educationalist.
Once appointed, McQuaid proves to be one of the ablest administrators in the history of the Irish Church. In the first two years of his episcopate, he sets up the Catholic Social Service Conference to alleviate the poverty and distress in Dublin which is aggravated by the war, and the Catholic Social Welfare Bureau to help the thousands of Irish emigrants going to Britain for war work. These two organizations fill a much-needed gap and continue to exist after the war. The expansion of Dublin city and its suburbs during his episcopate requires the building of new churches, schools, and hospitals. Meeting these demands also necessitates a considerable increase in the number of clergy, secular and regular, whose numbers more than double in the period from 1941 to 1972.
Given his previous career, the importance McQuaid assigns to education is not surprising. He is critical of the low priority accorded to education by successive governments and is particularly critical of the poor and pay conditions of teachers. His intervention in the primary teachers’ strike in 1946 is poorly received by the government and marks the souring of his relationship with de Valera. During his episcopate the number of primary schools increases by a third while the number of secondary schools more than double but, as with social welfare, the government increasingly assumes a dominant role in education from the 1960s onwards. Almost immediately after his appointment in 1940, he takes a hardline stand against the attendance of Catholic students at Trinity College Dublin. The ban lasts until 1970, when the increase in student numbers renders it untenable and he accedes reluctantly.
McQuaid has a formidable list of achievements in health care, especially maternity and pediatric services, physical and mental handicap services, and the treatment of alcoholism. It is ironic, therefore, that the most controversial episode of his career occurs in this area — the Irish hierarchy’s rejection in 1951 of a free mother-and-child health service. This leads to the resignation of the Minister for Health, Dr. Noël Browne, and is a watershed in Church-State relations in Ireland. With Irish tuberculosis and infant mortality statistics ranking among the highest in the world, the hierarchy, and particularly McQuaid, lose considerable support by lining up with the conservative medical establishment to resist efforts at socialized medicine.
From various pastorals that McQuaid issues at the time, it is clear that he does not see the need for the Second Vatican Council. As its deliberations proceed, his unease grows, and he becomes increasingly preoccupied with the issue of episcopal power and independence that he believes are being threatened by the Council. In the areas of liturgical reform, greater lay participation, and ecumenism, he is slow in implementing the Vatican II reforms. His views on ecumenism had always been lukewarm and had led to allegations that he was anti-Protestant. His personality and policies are criticized by a more assertive Dublin laity, but being a shy, reserved man who increasingly feels the isolation of office, he never responds to such comments. In 1968 the reaction to Humanae vitae causes open rebellion in the Dublin diocese, the force of which catches him unaware. His last pastoral as archbishop in 1971 betrays his anger and bemusement at the response to Humanae vitae in Dublin.
McQuaid’s substantial archives are released by the Dublin Diocesan Archives in the late 1990s. In 1999 journalist John Cooney publishes a hostile biography of McQuaid, which makes controversial allegations of sexual abuse against McQuaid. The allegations are based on tenuous evidence gathered by McQuaid’s nemesis from the 1951 Mother and Child controversy, Dr. Noël Browne, who had died in 1997. No corroborating evidence is produced or has since emerged.
In 1957 Conway becomes vice-president of Maynooth, and in 1958, he is named Ireland’s youngest bishop, Titular Bishop of Neve, and auxiliary bishop to Cardinal John D’Alton, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. He is consecrated in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh on July 27, 1958. He serves as administrator of St. Patrick’s Church, Dundalk, for the next five years, gaining valuable pastoral experience, and also uses these years to familiarise himself with his new diocese, especially its geography. On the death of D’Alton, he is chosen to succeed him in September 1963, and is enthroned on September 25 in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh by the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Sensi. At the end of 1964, Pope Paul VI chooses him as Ireland’s seventh residential cardinal, and he receives the red hat in the public consistory of February 22, 1965.
The thirteen-odd years of Conway’s ministry as primate are dominated firstly by the Second Vatican Council and secondly by the Troubles in Northern Ireland. His primary concern is the church, to steer it through testing times. He is a very active bishop in a diocese of 160,000 Catholics, with fifty-seven parishes and some 167 priests. He carries the burden alone until 1974 when he is given an auxiliary in the person of his secretary, Fr. Francis Lenny (1928–78). Two new parishes are created, five new churches are built, and many others are renovated to meet the requirements of liturgical reform. Twenty new schools are also provided. He attends all four sessions of the Vatican council (1962–65), as auxiliary bishop and as primate. On October 9, 1963 he addresses the assembly, making a plea that the council might not be so concerned with weightier matters as to neglect to speak about priests. He also makes contributions on the topics of mixed marriages, Catholic schools, and the laity. On the topic of education, he is convinced that integrated schools will not solve Northern Ireland’s problems.
Apart from the synod, Conway travels a few times each year to Rome for meetings of the three Roman congregations on which he is called to serve (those of bishops, catholic education, and the evangelisation of peoples) and the commission for the revision of the code of canon law. He also travels further afield in a representative capacity to the International Eucharistic Congress at Bogotá, also attended by Pope Paul VI, and to Madras (1972), where he acts as papal legate for the centenary celebrations in honour of St. Thomas. In 1966 he is invited by the bishops of Poland to join in celebrations for the millennium of Catholicism in that country, but is refused an entry visa by the Polish government. In January 1973 he feels obliged to forgo participation in the Melbourne eucharistic congress because of the troubled situation at home. Within Ireland he accepts invitations to become a freeman of Cork and Galway (1965) and of Wexford (1966). In 1976 the National University of Ireland (NUI) confers on him an honorary LL.D.
Conway is acknowledged as an able and diligent chairman of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. The core problem in the early years is how to lead the Irish church into the difficult new era that follows the council. He shows exceptional leadership qualities in the manner in which he promotes firm but gentle progress, avoiding sudden trauma and divisions. A major event in his term as Archbishop of Armagh, and one that gives him much satisfaction, is the canonization of Oliver Plunkett, his martyred predecessor, in the holy year 1975. He follows with great interest the final stages of the cause from 1968, and is greatly disappointed when grounded by his doctors six weeks before the event. He does however take part, concelebrating with Pope Paul VI at the ceremony on October 12, 1975. He also presides the following evening at the first mass of thanksgiving in the Lateran Basilica, receiving a tumultuous applause from the thousands of Irish present.
More than anything else, the Troubles in Northern Ireland occupy Conway during the second half of his term as archbishop and primate. He is the leading spokesman of the Catholic cause, but never fails to condemn atrocities wherever the responsibility lay. He brands as ‘monsters’ the terrorist bombers on both sides. In 1971 he denounces internment without trial, and the following year he is mainly responsible for highlighting the ill-treatment and even torture of prisoners in Northern Ireland. He repudiates the idea that the conflict is religious in nature, emphasising its social and political dimensions, and is openly critical of the British government over conditions in Long Kesh Detention Centre, and of ‘the cloak of almost total silence’ surrounding violence against the Catholic community.
In January 1977 Conway undergoes surgery in a Dublin hospital, and almost immediately comes to know that he is terminally ill. It is the best-kept secret in Ireland until close to the end. On March 29, he writes to his fellow bishops informing them that the prognosis regarding his health is ‘not good, in fact . . . very bad,’ and that he is perfectly reconciled to God’s will. He is still able to work at his desk until Good Friday, April 8, 1977.
Conway dies in Armagh on Low Sunday night, April 17, 1977. Seven countries are represented at his funeral by six cardinals and many bishops. The apostolic nuncio, the bishops of Ireland, the president and Taoiseach, six Irish government ministers, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are also among the mourners. The cardinal is laid to rest in St. Patrick’s Cathedral Cemetery, Armagh. The red hat received from Pope Paul VI is suspended from the ceiling of the Lady chapel, joining those of his four immediate predecessors.
(From: “Conway, John William,” Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie, contributed by J. J. Hanley)