THE IRISH are a highly political people, and so politics, whether secular or ecclesiastical, are of great interest to them. Add to that the Irish love of a gamble, and one can see why they are so fascinated with the process of finding a successor to the late William Cardinal Conway, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland,
Only the Irish general election distracted secular newspaper columnists from their hypotheses on whom "the new Cardinal" would be. Such writings are naturally of great annoyance to the possible candidates for the Primacy, both for fear what impression they will have upon the Papal Nuncio and for their gross inaccuracies.
Exactly one week after the election, Irish newspapers were at the game of guessing the Primate again, this time remarking the entry of a "dark horse" into the "race."
Immediately after Cardinal Conway's death, it seemed that any man who wore a Roman collar in Ireland was a likely candidate for the Primacy. Indeed, in an interview, the Nuncio, Dr Gaetano Alibrandi. said as much to a reporter who indiscreetly asked him whose name he would send to Rome.
First, safe candidates having no connection with Northern Ireland were named as possible archbishops for Armagh, a diocese which straddles the border. These included Archbishop Thomas Morris of Cashel. One adventurous columnist even suggested Bishop Eamon Casey of Galway, the most colourful of the Irish bishops.
Then prestigious candidates, again with no connection with Northern Ireland, were named and hailed for their intellectual or administrative abilities. These included Archbishop Dermot Ryan of Dublin. Some commentators agree that Dr Ryan is assured of a Red Hat the next time a Consistory is called whether he goes to Armagh or not. After that the popular figures were examined. As Ireland's best known bishop, Dr Edward Daly of Derry seemed a notable choice. But despite his great identification with Northern Ireland, he is not seen as a strong enough power within conclave among his brother bishops.
Two Armagh local men were also named. They were Cardinal Conway's Auxiliary, Bishop Francis Lenny, and Fr Patrick Lennon, whom the Cardinal appointed Vicar-General of Armagh before his death. However, because the men worked principally in the shadow of the Cardinal, they were not entertained as serious candidates for very long.
All this seemed to leave the Nuncio with a choice of two men — Bishop Cabal B. Daly of Ardagh and Clonmacnois and Mgr Tomas O'Fiaich, the President of Maynooth College, the national seminary.
Commentators felt that Bishop Daly was the first choice for the Primacy. Born in Antrim, he taught philosophy in Queen's University, Belfast, and is hailed as the intellectual among the hierarchy, His academic record is truly exemplary. In 1967 he was appointed the Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois, and since that time has become Ireland's hest known ecumenist. Dr Daly seems involved in every facet of interest in the Irish Church today. Ile has worked closely with a team set up by the Irish Bishops to revise the catechetical programme for primary and secondary schools, both North and South.
He has also been involved with ecclesiastical artists and is very active in promoting them. His own Cathedral recently had extensive renovations which included much modern Church art. It will be officially opened later this month.
A member of the Standing Committee of the Irish Episcopal Conference, Bishop Daly maintains close contact with the conferences of other countries. A fluent French speaker, he has attended the plenary meetings of the French Bishops' Conference regularly over the last few years. In 1975 he was one of Ireland's two representatives at the European Bishops' Conference in Rome. In the autumn he will accompany Archbishop Ryan to the Bishops' Synod in Rome.
Recently his attention has been very much attracted to the Northern Ireland situation, despite the fact that his diocese is small and rural and lies south of the Border. In 1973 he published a book, "Violence in Ireland and Christian Conscience" and was the Irish hierarchy's representative on the Inter-Church working party which produced "violence in Ireland: A Report to the Churches (October, 1976)."
He has used his position as an ecumenist to study possibilities for Peace in the North and is a member of the Vatican Secretariat of Christian Unity. His qualifications are quite impressive, but he is only four years younger than Cardinal Conway was, and he is a man who becomes intellectually, physically and emotionally involved in everything he does.
Some fear that being Primate during the current troubles in the North would considerably shorten his life. Many also argue that it is not good practice for an intellectual to act as Chairman of the Episcopal Conference — that it could lead to work getting bogged down.
Mgr Tomas O'Fiaich was born in Crossmaglen, Co Armagh. Although he has spent most of his life as an academic he still has not lost what could only be described as a pastoral touch. He received his education at Maynooth University College Dublin and Louvain. In 1953 he was appointed as a teacher of modern history in Maynooth. During his time in the national seminary he was to become Professor of Modern History, Registrar, VicePresident and finally President — the post which he holds now.
If Maynooth changed radically with the introduction of lay people onto the campus under his predecessor, Mgr O'Fiaich has done much to calm what has been the toughest transition period of the college's history. By personal and intimate involvement, with both students and staff, he has kept peace in the troubled college. During the latest unrest over the dismissal of two teachers from the college staff, Mgr O'Fiaich was the one man to emerge with no enemies on either side.
He is well known throughout the country for his involvement in various Irish language movements including Cumann na Sagart (a Society of Irishsneaking priests which is based in Maynooth). He is also well known among Irish political
leaders. John Hume was a former student, and Mgr O'Fiaich has sat on many Irish higher education councils. He also preached the eulogy at former President Eamonn De Valera's funeral.
An outgoing personality and a good diplomat, Mgr O'Fiaich is very popular among the priests in his home diocese of Armagh. He has written ninny books, including "St Oliver Plunkett," "St Columbanus," and "History of Maynooth College," — written in the Irish language.
But many have remarked that he does not hold the theological expertise needed for the Primacy, nor does he have any experience as a bishop, which has in the past seemed to be a prerequisite for the Primacy.
Various commentators have also cited his politics as a cause for concern. He is nationalistic, and has been pictured greeting internees emerging from Long Kesh. Most people realise this is an aspect of his pastoral concern, but there are those who are not pleased with this attitude.
It will be left to Dr Gaetano Alibrandi, the Papal Nuncio, to make the final report to Rome. He has already consulted a number or priests in Armagh about the successor. And he has also been made aware of the results of the poll taken of all the Armagh clergy.
A Vatican career diplomat posted to Ireland since 1969, the Sicilian-born Dr Alibrandi has never been to Northern Ireland because of diplomatic nuances. Conscious of this, he will have to nominate someone who will be acceptable to the people of the North, or risk the acceleration of a growing alienation from the Church.
Some action is expected by the autumn. At their last meeting the Episcopal Conference lasted over two hours beyond its schedule, and only the most routine of business was discussed. A strong chairman is essential to the Irish hierarchy.
One other consideration in the appointment of a successor is the result of the Irish general i
election, It is customary for the Nuncio at least to consult the Irish Government about the appointment, though he is committed to no concordat with them.
If the new Fianna Fail Government are involved in any consultation with the Nuncio, it would seem most obvious they would favour the candidate who preached the funeral eulogy for their founder.
But there is the dark horse. Another Armagh man — and one whose career has twice been linked to Maynooth. He is the Provincial of the Vinccntian Order in Ireland, Fr Richard McCullen, CM. Formerly Fr McCullen was a student at Maynooth for the Armagh diocese, but decided to join the Vincentrian Order instead. He returned to Maynooth years later as Spiritual Director — a post in which he was eminently successful, If one thing stands out in Fr McCullen, it is his deep spirituality, his unaffected holiness. Should the dark horse win, the Irish Church would have a unique leadership.