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John MacHale

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Born March 6, 1791 at Tubbernavine, Co. Mayo, Ireland; died at Tuam, November 4, 1881.

He was so feeble at his birth that he was baptized at home by Father Conroy, who, six years later, was unjustly hanged during the Irish Rebellion. Though Irish was always spoken by the peasants at that time, the MacHale children were all taught English. When he was old enough John ran barefoot with his brothers to the hedge-school, then the sole means of instruction for Catholic peasant children, who on fine days conned their lessons in a dry ditch under a hedge, and in wet weather were gathered into a rough barn. John was an eager pupil, and listened attentively to lives of saints, legends, national songs, and historical tales, related by his elders, as well as to the accounts of the French Revolution given by an eyewitness, his uncle, Father MacHale, who had just escaped from France. Three important events happened during John's sixth year: the Irish Rebellion of 1798; the landing at Killala of French troops, whom the boy, hidden in a stacked sheaf of flax, watched marching through a mountain pass to Castlebar; and a few months later the brutal execution of Father Conroy on a false charge of high treason. These occurrences made an indelible impression upon the child's singularly acute mind. After school hours he betook himself to the study of Irish history, under the guidance of an excellent old scholar in the neighborhood. Being destined for the priesthood the boy was sent to a school at Castlebar to learn Latin, Greek, and English grammar. In his sixteenth year the Bishop of Killala gave him a bursarship in the ecclesiastical college at Maynooth.

The emigrant French priests who then taught at Maynooth, appreciated the linguistic aptitude of the young man and taught him not only French, but also Latin, Greek, Italian, German, Hebrew, and the English classics. After seven years of hard work, having acquired a profound knowledge of theology, he was appointed in 1814 lecturer in that science, although only a sub-deacon. Before the end of the year, however, at the age of twenty-four, he was ordained a priest by Dr. Murray, Archbishop of Dublin. Father MacHale continued his lectures at Maynooth until 1820, when he was nominated professor of theology. He was much esteemed by his students, whom he strove to render as zealous, earnest, and sincere as himself, and he never failed to give them very practical advice about their duties and studies.

Dr. MacHale was then above medium height, of rather an athletic figure. Dignified and reserved in demeanour, his simple and unassuming manners and attractive conversation procured him many admirers, including the Duke of Leinster, who often invited him to Carton, where he had frequent opportunities of meeting men capable of appreciating his intellect and character. About this period he commenced a series of letters signed "Hierophilus", vigorously attacking the Irish Established Church. They attracted the notice of Daniel O,Connell and led to a very sincere friendship between these two Irish patriots. In 1825, Leo XII appointed him Bishop of Maronia, in partibus, and coadjutor to Dr. Waldron, Bishop of Killala. After his consecration in Maynooth College chapel, the new prelate, who was warmly received by Dr. Waldron and his people, devoted himself to his sacred duties. He preached Irish and English sermons, and superintended the missions given in the diocese for the Jubilee of 1825. The next year Dr. MacHale joined Bishop Doyle ("J.K.L") in denouncing the proselytising Kildare Street Society of Dublin to which the Government unjustifiably gave countenance. He also attended the annual meeting of the Irish bishops, and gave evidence at Maynooth College before the Parliamentary Commissioners then inquiring into the condition of education in Ireland.

About this time he also revised a theological manual "On the Evidences and Doctrines of the Catholic Church", afterwards translated into German. With his friend and ally, Daniel O'Connell, MacHale took a prominent part in the important question of Catholic Emancipation, impeaching in unmeasured terms the severities of the penal code, which branded Catholics with the stamp of inferiority. During 1826 his zeal was omnipresent; "he spoke to the people in secret and public, by night and by day, on the highways and in places of public resort, calling up the memories of the past, denouncing the wrongs of the present, and promising imperishable rewards to those who should die in the struggle for their faith. He called on the Government to remember how the Union was carried by Mr. Pitt on the distinct assurance and implied promise that Catholic Emancipation, which had been denied by the Irish Parliament, should be granted by the Parliament of the Empire" (Burke, "The History of the Catholic Archbishops of Tuam").

In two letters written to the Prime Minister, Earl Grey, he described the distress occasioned by starvation and fever in Connaught, the ruin of the linen trade, the vestry tax for the benefit of Protestant churches, the tithes to the Protestant clergy, which Catholics were obliged to pay as well as their Protestant countrymen, the exorbitant rents extracted by absentee landlords, and the crying abuse of forcing the peasantry to buy seed-corn and seed-potatoes from landlords and agents at usurious charges. No attention was vouchsafed to these letters. Dr. MacHale accompanied to London a deputation of Mayo gentlemen, who received only meaningless assurances from Earl Grey. After witnessing the coronation of William IV at Westminster Abbey, the bishop, requiring change of air on account of ill-health, went on to Rome, but not before he had addressed to the premier another letter informing him that the scarcity in Ireland "was a famine in the midst of plenty, the oats being exported to pay rents, tithes, etc., and that the English people were actually sending back in charity what had originally grown on Irish soil plus freightage and insurance". It may be observed that Dr. MacHale never blamed the English people, whose generosity he ever acknowledged. On the other hand he severely condemned the Government for its incapacity, its indifference to the wrongs of Ireland, that aroused in the Irish peasantry a sullen hatred unknown to their more simple-minded forefathers. During an absence of sixteen months he wrote excellent descriptive letters of all he saw on the Continent. They were eagerly read in "The Freeman's Journal", while the sermons he preached in Rome were so admired that they were translated into Italian. Amid the varied interests of the Eternal City he was ever mindful of Ireland's woes and forwarded thence another protest to Earl Gray against tithes, cess, and proselytism, this last grievance being then rampant, particularly in Western Connaught. On his return he became an opponent of the proposed system of National Schools, fearing that the bill as originally framed, was an insidious attempt to weaken the faith of Irish children.

Dr. Kelly, Archbishop of Tuam, died in 1834, and the clergy selected Dr. MacHale as one of three candidates, to the annoyance of the Government who despatched agents to induce the pope not to nominate the Bishop of Maronia to the vacant see. Gregory XVI dryly remarked "that ever since the Relief Bill had passed, the English Government never failed to interfere about every appointment as it fell vacant" (Greville, "Memoirs", pt. II). Disregarding their request, the pope appointed Dr. MacHale Archbishop of Tuam. He was the first prelate since the Reformation, who had received his entire education in Ireland. The corrupt practices of general parliamentary elections and the Tithe war caused frequent rioting and bloodshed, and were the subjects of no little denunciation by the new archbishop, until matters were tardily settled by the passing of a Tithes bill in 1838. In spite of the labours of his diocese, which he always zealously fulfilled, Archbishop MacHale now began in the newspapers a series of open letters to the Government, whereby he frequently harassed the ministers into activity in Irish affairs. During the Autumn of 1835, he visited the Island of Achill, a stronghold of the Bible Readers. In order to offset their proselytism, he sent thither more priests and Franciscan monks of the Third Order. Although Dr. MacHale had strong views as to the proper relief of the poor and the education of youth, he condemned the Poor Law, and the system of National Schools and Queen's Colleges as devised by the Government. He founded his own schools, entrusting those for boys to the Christian Brothers and Franciscan monks, while Sisters of Mercy and Presentation Nuns tought the girls. But the want of funds naturally restricted the number of these schools which had to be supplemented by the National Board at a later period, when the necessary amendments had been added to the Bill.

The Repeal of the Union, advocated by Daniel O'Connell, enlisted his ardent sympathy and he assisted the Liberator in many ways, and remitted subscriptions from his priests for this purpose. We are told by his biographer O'Reilly, that like his friend, the prelate "was for a thorough and universal organisation of Irishmen in a movement for obtaining by legal and peaceful agitation the restoration of Ireland's legislative independence". The Charitable Bequests Bill, formerly productive of numerous lawsuits owing to its animus against donations to religious orders, was vehemently opposed by the archbishop. In this he differed considerably from some other Irish prelates, who thought that each bishop should exercise his own judgment as to his acceptance of a commissionership on the Board, or as regarded the partial application of the Act. The latter has since then been so amended, that in its present form it is quite favourable to Catholic charities and the Catholic poor. In his zeal for the cause of the Catholic religion and of Ireland, so long down-trodden, Dr. MacHale frequently incurred from his opponents the charge of intemperate language, something not altogether undeserved. He did not possess that suavity of manner which is so invaluable to leaders of men and public opinion, and so he alarmed or offended others. In his anxiety to reform abuses and to secure the welfare of Ireland, by an uncompromising and impetuous zeal, he made many bitter and unrelenting enemies. This was particularly true of British ministers and their supporters, by whom he was dubbed "a firebrand", and "a dangerous demagogue". Cardinal Barnabo, Prefect of Propaganda, who had serious disagreements with Dr. MacHale, declared he was a twice-dyed Irishman, a good man ever insisting on getting his own way. This excessive inflexibility, not sufficiently tempered by prudence, explains his more or less stormy career.

During the calamitous famine of 1846-47, nothing could exceed his energy and activity on behalf of the afflicted people. He vainly warned the Government as to the awful state of Ireland, reproached them for their dilatoriness in coming to the rescue, and held up the uselessness of relief works expended on high roads instead of on quays and piers to develop the sea fisheries. From England as well as other parts of the world, cargoes of food were sent to the starving Irish. Bread and soup were distributed from the archbishop's own kitchen, and he drove about regularly to relieve hungry children and people too weak and infirm to seek for food in Tuam. The enormous donations sent to him were punctiliously acknowledged, accounted for, and promptly disbursed by his clergy among the victims of fever and famine. The death of Daniel O'Connell (1847) was a deep sorrow to Dr. MacHale. He was also much grieved at the dissentions of the Repealers, and the violent tactics of the Young Ireland Party, who would not listen to his wise and patriotic advice. In 1848, he visited Rome and by his representations to Pius IX inflicted a deadly blow upon the Queen's Colleges. He also succeeded in preventing diplomatic intercourse between the British Government and Rome. The Synod of Thurles, held in 1850, emphasized the different views entertained by the hierarchy respecting the education question. On that occasion Dr. MacHale strongly protested against giving any countenance to a mixed system of education already condemned by the pope. During the recrudescence of "No Popery" in 1851, on the occasion of the re-establishment of the English Catholic hierarchy, and the passing of an intolerant Ecclesiastical Titles Bill that inflicted penalties upon any Roman Catholic prelate who assumed the title of his see, Dr. MacHale boldly signed his letters to Government on this subject "John, Archbishop of Tuam". This act of defiance so startled the Cabinet that it was considered more prudent not to attempt a prosecution and to allow the Bill to remain a dead letter.

As to the Catholic University, though Dr. MacHale had been foremost in advocating the project, he disagreed completely with Dr. Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin (afterward Cardinal), concerning its management and control, and the appointment of Dr. Newman as rector. The want of concord among the Irish bishops on this question, and the honest but totally wrong opinions of Dr. MacHale, handicapped the new university. The archbishop approved of Tenant Right and also of the Irish Tenant League. He wrote to O'Connell's son that it "was the assertion of the primitive right of man to enjoy in security and peace the fruit of his industry and labour". At a conference held in Dublin, men of all creeds supported his views on "fixity of tenure, free sale, and fair rent". Though it is impossible to relate all the events of a life which the "Freeman's Journal" described as the history of Ireland for the greater part of the nineteenth century, enough has been written to show how by pen, word, and deed, "the Lion of Juda" endeavored to benefit his country. Toward the end of his life he withdrew very much from active politics, though he was happy enough to live to see the dawn of more prosperous days for Ireland.

Notwithstanding his very advanced years, Dr. MacHale attended the Vatican Council in 1869. With several distinguished prelates of various nationalities, he thought that the favourable moment had not arrived for an immediate definition of the dogma of papal infallibility; consequently, he spoke and voted in the council against its promulgation. Once the dogma had been defined, Dr. MacHale instantly submitted his judgment to the Holy See, and in his own cathedral he declared the dogma of infallibility "to be true Catholic doctrine, which he believed as he believed the Apostles' Creed", a public profession that further raised John of Tuam in the estimation of all who admired his great genius and virtue. In 1877, to the disappointment of the archbishop who desired that his nephew should be his co-adjutor, Dr. McEvilly, Bishop of Galway, was elected by the clergy of the archdiocese, and was commanded by Leo XIII after some delay, to assume his post. Although the aged prelate had opposed this election as far as possible, he submitted to the papal order, without protest or resentment. In private life Dr. MacHale never wasted time, for he was always employed in study, business and prayer. He was noted for his charity to the poor, his strict fulfillment of every sacred duty, and the affectionate consideration and hospitality ever displayed towards his clergy. His intense respect for sacerdotal dignity rendered him slow to reprimand, though he was inflexible in matters of faith and principle. Every Sunday he preached a sermon in Irish at the cathedral, and during his diocesan visitations he always addressed the poor people in their native tongue. On journeys he usually conversed in Irish with his attendant chaplain, and never addressed in any other tongue the poor people of Tuam or the beggars who greeted him whenever he went out. He always encouraged the preservation of the Irish language, and compiled in it a catechism and a prayer-book. Moreover, he made translations into Irish of portions of the Holy Scripture as well as the magnificent Latin hymns, "Dies Irae" and "Stabat Mater". He translated into Irish Moore's "Melodies" and Homer's "Iliad". In the preface to his translation of the first book of the "Iliad" he wrote that "there is no European tongue better adapted than ours (Irish) to a full or perfect version of "Homer". These Irish works of Dr. MacHale excited the sincere admiration of all Celtic scholars who were able to appreciate the beauty of his classical Gaelic. He celebrated the golden jubilee of his episcopacy in 1875. The venerable old man lived for six more years, maintaining his usual mode of life as far as his strength permitted and making the visitations of his diocese. He preached his last Irish sermon after his Sunday Mass, April, 1881. He died after a short illness, and is buried in Tuam Cathedral.


O'REILLY, Life of John MacHale, Archbishop of Tuam, 2 vols. (New York); MOORE in Dict. Nat. Biog., s.v.; BURKE, Lives of the Catholic Archbishops of Tuam; CUSACK, The Liberator, His Life and Times (Dublin,--); JUSTIN H. M'CARTHY, Ireland since the Union; a roll of honour of Irish prelates and priests of the last century; preface by JOHN HEALY. See also ASHLEY, Life of Palmerston, 2 vols.; Memoirs of Charles Greville (London, 1875); DUFFY, League of North and South; PARKER, Life of Sir Robert Peel.

About this page

APA citation. Kelly, M.T. (1910). John MacHale. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Kelly, M.T. "John MacHale." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Sidney K. Ohlhausen. In honor of the Catholic recusants of England and Ireland.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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