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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Cornelius Denvir, Mathematician & Lord Bishop of Down and Connor

Cornelius Denvir, Roman Catholic Prelate, mathematician, natural philosopher and Lord Bishop of Down and Connor, is born on August 13, 1791, at Ballyculter, County Down. He is noted for ministering in Belfast amidst growing sectarian tension, taking a moderate and non-confrontational stance, to the annoyance of his pro-Catholic followers. He is also a professor at Maynooth College as well as Down and Connor Diocesan College, and is active in the local scientific community.

Denvir is educated at Dr. Nelson’s Classical School in Downpatrick, being described by peers as an enthusiastic child with a love for sight-seeing. According to one biographer, young Denvir also shows interest in the catechism by attending local visits from the then Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr. Patrick MacMullan, who is resident in Downpatrick. In September 1808, he enrolls at Maynooth College, and is appointed chair of Natural Philosophy and Mathematics there in August 1813.

As chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at Maynooth College, Denvir is noted for changing the style of education at the college from pure logic-based reasoning in Mathematics to a more holistic, topical approach. He is also noted for emphasising experimentation and the importance of the scientific method in teaching natural philosophy, with several sources noting his well-stocked labs.

While at Maynooth College Denvir teaches both Nicholas Callan, the inventor and physicist, and Dominic Corrigan, the noted Irish physician. According to several accounts, both speak fondly of their old professor, to the point of Callan gifting Denvir one of his induction coils in thanks.

Denvir is ordained first as deacon in June 1813, then a priest in May 1814, performing his liturgical duties in conjunction with his academic ones. In 1826, he leaves Maynooth College to become the parish priest of Downpatrick. In 1833 he becomes a professor at the newly founded St. Malachy’s College, teaching classes in Latin, Greek and Mathematics. He continues his duties as parish priest and professor until 1835, when he is appointed Bishop of Down and Connor in succession to Dr. William Crolly.

As 22nd Lord Bishop of Down and Connor, Denvir emphasises the teaching of the Catechism to youth as well as emphasising the importance of scripture to the diocese. In 1841 he helps fund the start of construction of St. Malachy’s Church in Belfast, which is completed in 1845. In his later years, he falls under criticism by other Belfast Catholics, who claim he is neglectful of his duties, especially those relating to expanding and defending Catholicism in the face of growing Protestant influence. Some accounts attribute his shortcomings to poor health and temperament, while others suggest that he backs away from expansion to avoid conflict with Protestant groups.

Denvir suffers from personal finance problems during his time as Bishop. The construction of St. Malachy’s Church puts him into deep personal debt, which he is apparently arrested for some time after 1844. He is also criticised for selling seats in the newly constructed church to offset costs. He is also described as reluctant in asking for funds from parishioners, severely limiting his resources with which to care for the church.

Denvir is appointed Commissioner of National Education in 1853. He is noted for being supportive of non-denominational education and investigating reports of proselytism in public primary education. He later resigns this position in 1857 on request of the Holy See to focus on expanding the local Catholic school system.

In 1860, after years of illness compounded by age, Denvir is assigned Dr. Patrick Dorrian as a coadjutor bishop to assist in his episcopal duties. While ill health is said to be the predominant reason for the appointment of a coadjutor, contemporary newspaper accounts suggest there also might be an ideological reason for the appointment. In The Spectator it is noted in December 1859 “it may be, because he is too liberal for the Cullen epoch.”

In May 1865, Denvir resigns as Bishop and is succeeded by Dorrian. He dies one year later on July 10, 1866, in his residence on Donegall St., after suffering from fainting fits a few days prior. He is buried in Ballycruttle Church.


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First Mass at St. Mary’s Church, Belfast

St. Mary’s Church, Belfast, a Roman Catholic church located in Chapel Lane/Smithfield area of Belfast, Northern Ireland, opens for public worship on May 30, 1784. It is mother church for the city. At the time, it is the only Roman Catholic church in the then town of Belfast after the relaxation of some of the Penal Laws. The church grounds contain an undistinguished grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes.

In the census of 1782, there are only 365 Catholics recorded living in Belfast. Following a collection from the local Church of Ireland and Presbyterian congregations, funds are donated to the building of St. Mary’s Church.

The first Mass is celebrated on Sunday, May 30, 1784, by Father Hugh O’Donnell, the first Parish Priest of Belfast. In the opening ceremony, a company of the Irish Volunteers line the chapel yard and escort Father O’Donnell into the building.

In 1813, the church’s pulpit is donated by the Anglican Vicar of Belfast, Canon Turner, continuing the positive relationship between the Roman Catholic church and the local Protestant congregations. Later, in 1815, St. Patrick’s Church is built to accommodate the growing Catholic population of the city.

As Belfast’s Catholic population grows after the famine, the church is deemed too small and thus architect John O’Neill is contracted to design a church big enough for the burgeoning congregation. Although none of the original church can be seen, in 1868 the church is enlarged and renovated into a new Romanesque style building.

In the Marian Year of 1954 a Grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes is established under the auspices of the then Administrator, Fr. Bernard MacLaverty, an uncle of the Belfast novelist of the same name. The grotto is created in the gardens surrounding the church by the Belfast architect Padraic Gregory.

To mark the bicentenary the sanctuary is renovated in 1983 with work by artist Roy Carroll, a favourite of Cahal Daly. Much of this timber furniture is later removed after Daly’s departure from the Diocese of Down and Connor.

In May–August 2017, the church undergoes substantial renovation work to repair the roof and walls, and to repave the grotto area.

For almost forty years the church is served by clergy from the Mill Hill Fathers, the last of whom leave in 2019. The current Administrator is Fr. Timothy Bartlett assisted by a range of retired clergy. The church holds two masses a day on Sunday and Monday, and three a day on Friday and Saturday. The 6:00 p.m. Mass on both Friday and Saturday are held in the Irish language.


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Birth of William John Conway, Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church

William John Cardinal Conway, Irish cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church who serves as Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland from 1963 until his death, is born on January 22, 1913 in Belfast.

Conway is the eldest of four sons and five daughters of Patrick Joseph Conway and Annie Conway (née Donnelly). His father, a self-employed house-painter, also has a paint shop in Kent Street off Royal Avenue. His mother, who survives her son, is born in Carlingford, County Louth. He attends Boundary Street Primary School, St. Mary’s CBS (now St. Mary’s CBGS Belfast). His academic successes are crowned by a scholarship to Queen’s University Belfast. He decides to study for the diocesan priesthood. In 1933 he is conferred with an honours BA in English literature, and goes on to read a distinguished course in theology at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

Conway is ordained on June 20, 1937 and awarded a DD (1938). On November 12, 1938 he enters the Pontifical Irish College in Rome, and in 1941 he receives the DCL degree at the Pontifical Gregorian University. When Italy enters World War II in June 1940 he returns to Belfast to take up duty in the Diocese of Down and Connor. He is appointed to teach English and Latin in St. Malachy’s College in Belfast, but after one year he is named professor of moral theology and canon law in Maynooth. He contributes regular ‘Canon law replies’ to the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, which are later collected as Problems in canon law (1950), the only book published by him.

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.

Conway represents the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference at each assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, at first with Bishop Michael Browne of the Diocese of Galway and Kilmacduagh, his former professor in Maynooth, and later with the Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Ryan. With Cardinals Jean-Marie Villot and Pericle Felici, he is chairman of the first synod in 1969, a signal honour conferred on him by Pope Paul VI. He addresses the assembly, opposing the ordination of married men as a move that would release a flood of applications from around the world for dispensations from priestly celibacy. His experience of violence in Northern Ireland is reflected in contributions he makes to later synod assemblies, especially in 1971 and 1974.

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)


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Royals Visit St. Malachy’s Church in Belfast

royals-visit-st-malachys-church-belfastCharles, Prince of Wales, and the Duchess of Cornwall fly into George Best Belfast City Airport on February 4, 2011 for a one-day visit to Northern Ireland. The primary focus of their visit is to view a £3.5 million restoration project at St. Malachy’s Church in Belfast.

First Minister Peter Robinson, who greets Prince Charles on the doorstep of the building, is quoted as saying “Northern Ireland has entered a new era. It is the first time in recent history that we have had a royal in a Roman Catholic Church here.” Robinson adds, “So it is a good start. It should send of an indication that respect, understanding and tolerance is growing in Northern Ireland.”

St. Malachy’s Church was destroyed by a Luftwaffe bomb in 1941, but in 2006 the Roman Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor embarked on a project to restore its original features. Robinson says, “It has been set out very well and has held on to the architecture of the original.”

Prince Charles also presides over the first inter-faith meeting of members of the four main churches, organised by the local branch of The Prince’s Regeneration Trust.

The Northern Ireland Trustee Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle says, “It’s a hugely exciting event. Not only does it celebrate the fantastic restoration of St. Malachy’s Church, but equally it is very significant because we brought together a group of very senior church figures to begin the discussion of unlocking the potential of redundant churches.”

The Royal couple also visits the Palace Barracks, Holywood for a medal presentation. They meet the soldiers of 2nd Battalion, Mercian Regiment who are preparing for service in Afghanistan.

(Pictured: First Minister Peter Robinson greets the Prince of Wales on the doorstep of St. Malachy’s Church; From a BBC article “Royal visit to St Malachy’s Church is historic,” February 4, 2011)