16 - Archbishop John MacHale

Archbishop of Tuam 1834 - 1881

Gerry Costello

Archbishop John MacHale
Archbishop John MacHale Sculpture

Archbishop John MacHale (Irish: Seán Mac Héil) 6th. March 1791 in Tubbernavine, Co. Mayo, Ireland – 7th. November 1881 in Tuam, Co. Galway, Ireland) was the Irish Roman Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, and Irish Nationalist. He laboured and wrote to secure Catholic Emancipation, legislative independence, justice for tenants and the poor, and vigorously assailed the proselytizers and the government’s proposal for a mix-faith national school system. He preached regularly to his flock in Irish.

He was so feeble at his birth that he was baptised at home by Father Conroy, who, six years later, was hanged during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. 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 did 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 mind. After school hours he studied Irish history, under the guidance of an old scholar in the neighbourhood. 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 busarship at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth 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 study, he was appointed in 1814 lecturer in theology, although only a sub-deacon. Before the end of the year, however, at the age of twenty-four, he was ordained a priest by Daniel Murray, Archbishop of Dublin. Father MacHale continued his lectures at Maynooth until 1820, when he was nominated professor of theology.

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 liberal Augustine Frederick FitzGerald, 3rd Duke of Leinster, who often invited him to Carton House, 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, Pope Leo XII appointed him titular bishop of Maronia, and coadjutor bishop to Dr. Thomas 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 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. The Catholic hierarchy’s policy in the following decades was to ensure that Irish primary schools for Catholic children were run by Catholics, while the Dublin administration wanted all such schools to be run on a mixed-faith basis. The official world felt that two parallel systems would be too expensive and socially divisive, but the hierarchy felt that this would result in a default system based on the English version of history that had often been anti-Catholic since 1570.

Emancipation campaign, 1820’s

About this time he also revised a theological manual On the Evidences and Doctrines of the Catholic Church, afterward 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 former penal code, which had 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 Act of Union in 1800 was carried by William Pitt the Younger 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”


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 paid 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 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, and proselytism, this last grievance being then rampant, particularly in Western Connaught. On his return he became an opponent of the proposed system of non-sectarian ‘National Schools’, fearing that the bill as originally framed, was an insidious attempt to weaken the faith of Irish children.

Archbishop of Tuam

Oliver Kelly, Archbishop of Tuam, died in 1834, and the clergy selected MacHale as one of three candidates, to the annoyance of the Government who despatched agents to induce the pope not to nominate him to the vacant see. Pope Gregory XVI dryly remarked: “ever since the Relief Bill had passed, the English Government never failed to interfere about every appointment as it fell vacant”. Disregarding their request, the pope appointed 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 denunciation by the new archbishop, until the passing of a Tithes bill in 1838. 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. MacHale also led the opposition to the Protestant Second Reformation, which was being pursued by evangelical clergy in the Church of Ireland, including the Bishop of Tuam, Thomas Plunket.

During the Autumn of 1835, he visited the Island of Achill, a stronghold of the Bible Readers. To offset their proselytism, he sent thither more priests and Franciscan monks of the Third Order.

MacHale 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 taught the girls. Want of funds 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.

Repeal of the Union campaign, 1830’s

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 Bernard 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, but not in the 1830’s, 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.

The Famine of 1845 – 1849

The Irish famine of 1845–47 affected his diocese more than any. In the first year he announced in a sermon that the famine was a divine punishment on his flock for their sins (as did Cardinal Wiseman). Then by 1846 he warned the Government as to the state of Ireland, reproached them for their dilatoriness, 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 kitchen. Donations sent to him were acknowledged, accounted for, and disbursed by his clergy among the victims.

Political matters

The death of Daniel O’Connell (1847) was a setback to MacHale as were the subsequent disagreements within the Repeal Association. He strongly advised against the violence of Young Ireland. In 1848, he visited Rome and by his representations to Pope Pius IX inflicted a deadly blow upon the proposed ‘Queen’s Colleges’. He also succeeded in preventing diplomatic intercourse between the British Government and Rome. The 1850 Synod of Thurles emphasised differences within the hierarchy on education with MacHale strongly in favour of exclusively Catholic institutions, along with Papal policy.

During the recrudescence of “No Popery” in 1851, on the occasion of the re-establishment of the English Catholic hierarchy, and the passing of the Ecclesiastical Titles Act that inflicted penalties upon any Roman Catholic prelate who assumed the title of his see, MacHale defiantly 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 Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin, concerning its management, particularly the appointment of John Henry Newman as rector – a disagreement that 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, there was cross-denominational support for his views on “fixity of tenure, free sale, and fair rent”. Toward the end of his life he became less active in politics.

Vatican Council 1869

MacHale attended the First Vatican Council in 1869. He thought that the favourable moment had not arrived for an immediate definition of the dogma of papal infallibility. Better to leave it a matter of faith, not written down, and consequently he spoke and voted in the council against its promulgation. Once the dogma had been defined, he declared the dogma of infallibility “to be true Catholic doctrine, which he believed as he believed the Apostles’ Creed”. In 1877, to the disappointment of the archbishop who desired that his nephew should be his co-adjutor, Dr. John McEvilly, Bishop of Galway, was elected by the clergy of the archdiocese, and was commanded by Pope Leo XIII after some delay, to assume his post. He had opposed this election as far as possible, but submitted to the papal order.

Use of Irish Gaelic

Every Sunday he preached a sermon in Irish at the cathedral, and during his diocesan visitations he always addressed the people in their native tongue, which was still largely used in his diocese. On journeys he usually conversed in Irish with his attendant chaplain, and had to use it to address people of Tuam or the beggars who greeted him whenever he went out. He preached his last Irish sermon after his Sunday Mass, April 1881.


He died after a short illness at Tuam on 7th. November 1881, and was interred before the high altar in Tuam Cathedral. A marble statue perpetuates his memory in the Cathedral grounds. MacHale Park in Castlebar, County Mayo and Archbishop McHale College in Tuam are named for him. The Dunmore GAA team is named after him “Dunmore Machales”, which play underage teams to senior teams.


Among his writings are a treatise on the evidences of Catholicism and translations in Irish of Moore’s “Melodies,” and part of the Bible and the Iliad. He compiled an Irish language catechism and prayer book. Moreover, he made translations into Irish of portions of the scriptures as well as the Latin hymns, Dies Irae and Stabat Mater.









This page was added on 27/05/2015.

No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *