February 6, 2010
One of the more substantive heroes of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, Cardinal Cahal Daly, died in a Belfast hospital last month at the age of 92. A saintly man of small stature, the cardinal was trusted by Protestant church leaders on all sides. A quiet man who carried a pleasant wry smile, he served as the bishop of Belfast and the surrounding area during the height of the bombings and shootings that pervaded Northern Ireland in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s.
"I'm sick of going to wakes and funerals" he used to say, "It must stop before we all kill each other." His courageous condemnation of the IRA and its use of violence was legendary. When he came onto the altar to say Mass, IRA supporters would make a show of walking out of church. But Cardinal Daly was not deterred and he kept the pressure on the Sinn Fein leadership to accept constitutional government as the best way to change the system.
Cahal Daly was consecrated as a bishop in Northern Ireland in 1967 just as the marches, bombings, and killings were escalating. In 1990 he was named Archbishop of Armagh and Catholic leader of all of Ireland. He resigned on Oct. 1, 1996, his 79th birthday. In a special message received after the prelate's death last month, Pope Benedict XVI recognized the cardinal for his work in building peace in the North.
Cardinal Daly came to Boston and the United States several times during his relatively short period as archbishop, and on occasion he traveled with various leaders of the Protestant church. The Irish American Partnership in Boston sponsored the first visit by the leaders of the four main religions in Northern Ireland during a time when some of the most severe violence was occurring. The Leaders of the Methodist, Anglican, and Presbyterian congregations visited Boston with Cardinal Daly in February 1993 to speak to Irish Americans on behalf of peace. American support for the process was considered very important to any progress, so special luncheons and dinners were organized to bring interested Bostonians in contact with the broad spectrum of ideas represented by the religious leaders. Without Cardinal Daly this would not have happened.
The Partnership also accompanied Cardinal Daly and Church of Ireland Archbishop Robin Eames to a Northern Ireland seminar at Fordham University in New York City. The large crowd heard first from Archbishop Eames, who gave a stirring defense of British policy and delivered a bitter criticism of the violence. Eames, a large man of six feet in height with movie star qualities, was a compelling speaker. How would the quiet, diminutive Cahal Daly, who most of the time barely spoke above a whisper, compare to the dynamic Robin Eames?
Dramatically, with great flair and a surprisingly loud and commanding voice, the cardinal was magnificent in defending his point of view, citing instance after instance where Catholics had been mistreated and where Protestants had refused to share power. The crowd stood with an ovation that lasted several minutes. It was a memorable moment that this writer will never forget.
During that trip we visited the White House and several Clinton Administration National Security officials. On the way to Washington, I was privileged to sit next to the cardinal on the train and there I received the best lessons I ever heard on the Northern Ireland difficulties. Not only was the conversation one-sided, but it also was an intense but optimistic prayer that the Sinn Fein/ IRA would soon accept non-violent constitutional government to obtain their goals. Cardinal Daly was convinced peace was coming. "We must convince Sinn Fein leaders that their best chance for power and influence lies within government rather than as men of violence," he said."
Many will say today that Cahal Daly was really an intellectual, an academic. That was surely true; he wrote many books and was a learned priest. But when the time came to lead, or to condemn, or to speak of injustice, he was unafraid, and electrifying.
The last time I saw the cardinal he was standing just outside the Museum of Transportation in Hollywood, Northern Ireland, chatting amiably with Archbishop Eames. The Partnership had just presented them with a $10,000 grant for the city of Armagh where they both resided. He was in good health, still showing that pleasant smile as he said goodbye and wished me well.