The fascinating history of Cork’s bishops

Fintan Gavin takes over from John Buckley this weekend. Here Diarmuid O'Donovan details the history of Cork's ten previous Bishops dating back as far back as the split of the Diocese of Cork' Ross & Cloyne into two separate into two dioceses in 1748. 
The fascinating history of Cork’s bishops
Fr. Fintan Galvin, in comming Bishop, Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo and Bishop John Buckley. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

The appointment of Fintan Gavin as the new Bishop for the Diocese of Cork & Ross is notable and unusual in a number of ways.

He is the only the fifth Bishop to be appointed to the Diocese of Cork since 1916 – 103 years ago. He is also the first Bishop, since the appointment of William Delany in 1847, not to have held the position of Auxiliary or Coadjutor Bishop prior to his ordination. 

As will be seen later in this account of the Bishops of Cork since 1748, he is the only Bishop, apart from Bishop Francis Moylan in 1787 to have been appointed by Rome without a considerable rumpus or the direct influence of his predecessor.

The fact that Fintan Gavin was not born in Cork makes him the first Bishop of Cork to be born outside the diocese since Bishop John Butler. 

Bishop Butler was born near Fethard, Co Tipperary and was Bishop of Cork from 1763–1786.

Finally he is only the 11th bishop for the Diocese of Cork since Rome decreed that the See of Cork, Cloyne and Ross should be separated into the Diocese of Cork and the Diocese of Cloyne and Ross in 1748 (261 years ago).

As can be seen from the dates above, the appointment of a Bishop to the diocese of Cork only happens once every 25 – 30 years. This is infrequent enough to allow sufficient time for the stories behind the appointments of these Bishops and their contributions to life in Cork to fade into the background of the day-to-day workings of the Catholic Church in Cork.

The reality is different. Many of the appointments were, to say the least, controversial – especially within the Church. Whatever the controversies however, all the Bishops went on to make a significant contribution to the spiritual and secular lives of the citizens of the diocese.

Here we take a look at the individuals and outline their major spiritual and temporal contributions to the lives of the people of Cork.

Very little reference is made here to the history of Ross as a diocese, largely because the topic is significantly wide and interesting to warrant its own feature. 

Suffice it to say that Ross was an independent diocese from the 12th century until 1693. The size of the diocese (11 parishes) and its consequent struggle to finance itself were a constant issue so in 1693, Ross was united with Cork and Cloyne.

In 1849 Ross became independent again until 1952 when the then Bishop of Ross, Denis Moynihan, was transferred as bishop to Kerry. 

In 1958, Bishop Lucey, who had acted as administrator of Ross since Moynihan’s move in ’52, oversaw the formal unification of Ross with Cork as the Diocese of Cork & Ross.

Richard Walsh Bishop 1748 - 1763

The dioceses of Cork, Cloyne and Ross were united from medieval times until 1748. Following the death of Bishop Teige McCarthy in 1747, a succession row erupted. The two main candidates were John O’Brien, Parish Priest of Castlelyons, and James Butler, nephew of the Archbishop of Cashel.

According to Angela Bolster’s A History of the Diocese of Cork, “both sides were so evenly matched that a compromise was the only viable solution”.

The result was a third party, Richard Walsh, from Mallow was appointed Bishop of Cork and John O’Brien, from Kildorrery, was appointed Bishop of Cloyne and Ross. Such was the intensity of the argument that Pope Benedict promised to endorse any censures imposed by Walsh against those who rebelled against him.

Richard Walsh’s time as bishop coincided with the height of the Penal Laws and it was extremely difficult to administer to the religious needs of the diocese’s Catholic population. One of Walsh’s more important administrative acts was he began to reorganise the keeping of Parish Registers.

It was during the episcopate of Walsh that Nano Nagle began her work for the poor children of Cork.

John Butler Bishop 1763-1787

There were 10 candidates in the running to succeed Richard Walsh, among them John Butler from Tipperary. He had an impressive CV, educated in Rome, son of Lord Dunboyne and a cousin of the Archbishop of Cashel.

His episcopate coincided with a relaxing of some of the harshest features of the Penal Laws. He was an excellent administrator and facilitated the building of three churches, St Finbarr’s South, Ballymartle and Tracton; a tremendous sign of progress especially in the light of the Penal Laws which preceded his reign. Bishop Butler’s episcopate is largely remembered for a bizarre turn of events that saw him resign as Bishop and leave the Catholic Church. Following the death of his two older brothers, John Butler inherited the title of Lord Dunboyne. He was anxious to keep his family line, and wrote to Pope Pius VI for leave to marry. Not surprisingly his request was refused. He resigned as Bishop, renounced his religion and married his cousin. No heir was born of this marriage. Butler’s life as Lord Dunboyne was not a happy one and he returned to the Catholic faith on his deathbed in 1800.

Francis Moylan, Bishop 1787 - 1815

Bishop Francis Moylan.
Bishop Francis Moylan.

JOHN BUTLER’S successor as Bishop of Cork upon his resignation was Francis Moylan, born in 1735, the second son of John Moylan, one of Cork’s Catholic merchant princes of the time.

Again, because of the Penal Laws, he spent his early years as a priest in Paris before returning to Cork to serve in the North Parish.

In 1775, he was appointed Bishop of Ardfert and Aghadoe (Kerry) and upon the resignation of Bishop Butler in 1786 the clergy of Cork petitioned the Pope to appoint Francis Moylan as Bishop of Cork. The Pope released him from his duties as Bishop of Kerry and he moved back to Cork.

Bishop Moylan was a keen supporter of the Act of Union that united Ireland with Britain to create the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland in 1801. He actively lobbied for support of the act in the late 1790s. The main reason for his support was that he believed in supporting the Act, Catholic Emancipation would quickly follow. Bishop Moylan’s episcopate saw the continuation of church building and support for Nano Nagle’s work for the provision of education for the poor boys and girls of Cork. He petitioned Rome on behalf of the Nano Nagle’s community, Congregation of the Presentation Sisters and finally acquired approval from Rome for them to become a formal order under new approved constitutions (albeit an enclosed order, which the Presentation Sisters remained until Vatican II in 1963) from Pope Pius VII in 1805. In 1808 Bishop Moylan also presided over the opening of the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne (North Cathedral).

John Murphy, Bishop 1815-1847

Bishop Moylan died shortly after he petitioned Rome for the appointment of John Murphy as his coadjutor bishop, who then succeeded him.

Educated in Paris, while undertaking his priestly duties in SS Peter and Paul’s, Murphy realised he could not communicate with many of his Irish-speaking parishioners and set about learning Irish. His episcopate encompassed two important historic events that continued to influence life in Ireland until recently; Catholic Emancipation (1829) and the Famine 1845-1848. Emancipation did not do much to improve the lives of the lower orders within Cork city.

Murphy clashed with many other groups in the diocese. He argued with the Franciscans, with the Presentation Brothers and with the Dominicans. He regularly disagreed with Fr Theobald Matthew, a Franciscan famous for his promotion of temperance. Neither was he very enthusiastic about the establishment of Queen’s College Cork (UCC) in 1845.

He died suddenly at a time when the diocese was in crisis, caused by the Great Famine.

William Delany, Bishop 1847-1866

Bishop, William Delany.
Bishop, William Delany.

WILLIAM DELANY, Parish Priest of Bandon, was the compromise candidate chosen to be bishop ahead of Fr Theobald Matthew, who was the favoured candidate but was not universally popular. A war of words broke out and Pope Pius IX intervened to appoint Delany.

Bishop Delany’s bishopric progressed much as it had begun; never far from controversy. Despite this however, Delany was largely responsible for the organisation of the diocese into the form that it exists up to today.

Delany created four new parishes. St Patrick’s and Blackrock (1848), Clontead (1860) and Monkstown (1874). He smoothed over the issues his predecessor, John Murphy, had with the Dominicans and laid the foundation stone of St Mary’s Church in Popes Quay in 1848. Also, as Bishop, he oversaw the building of many Parish churches still in use today. These include, Goleen (1854), Farran (1860), Bandon (1861), Ballinhassig and SS Peter and Pauls (1866), Crosshaven (1869), Monkstown and Enniskeane (1871) and Cloughdubh and Kilmurry (1874). He also laid the foundation stone for St Finbarr’s Seminary College, Farranferris in 1884.

However, controversy was never far away. Delany was not perceived as a supporter of the emerging nationalist movement as evidenced in his 1867 report to Rome which included the line; “…except for a little Fenian insanity, we have no great crimes in the diocese”. This opinion drew him into conflict with an increasing number of nationalists.

In 1881, Bishop Delany made a decision that scarred his reputation. He transferred two priests from St Finbarr’s Parish to Kinsale and Bandon and they were seen as a demotion resulting from the fact that both priests had publically supported Charles Stewart Parnell in the election of 1880.

Bishop Delany was quoted as saying that he was guided “only by a desire to do what is best for the honour of this ancient diocese and best for God.”

But Delany’s perceived opposition to Parnell at a time when Parnell was regarded as the “Uncrowned King of Ireland” did not endear his reputation to the people of the Diocese of Cork.

Thomas O’Callaghan, Bishop 1886-1916

THERE was a pitched battle over who would replace Bishop Delany, between Delany’s friend Dean Henry Neville and Thomas O’Callaghan, who was born in the South Parish and ordained a Dominican priest in 1863.

Delany put forward his reasons for “keeping out the Friar” (O’Callaghan) in a series of letters to the Primate of Ireland, Cardinal McCabe. Following these communications Cardinal McCabe proposed the appointment of Neville to Rome.

Archbishop Thomas Croke, for his part, also took to pen. He wrote to a friend: “It would be a national calamity if Neville were appointed. He is a desperate West Briton, a castle hack, and probably the most unpopular man in Ireland.” In a further 15-point letter marked “Strictly Private except for Propaganda (Rome)” Archbishop Croke all but eviscerated Dean Neville. “There is not in Ireland…a man so thoroughly detested as the Dean (sic); and if, … he became Bishop of Cork, I would not answer for the consequences,” Croke wrote. The arguments championed by Archbishop Croke swung the decision in favour of Dr O’Callaghan. He was installed as Bishop of Cork on December 3, 1886.

O’Callaghan continued the process of church building, including Glanmire, Blackpool (replaced in 1945) and the Gougane Barra oratory.

Daniel Coholan, Bishop 1916-1952

Blackpool church foundation stone is laid by Bishop Daniel Coholan in 1945.
Blackpool church foundation stone is laid by Bishop Daniel Coholan in 1945.

Daniel Coholan was the son of a small farmer from Kilmichael and the early years of his bishopric covered the War of Independence and the Civil War. It is for his actions during this period (1918-1923) that he is chiefly remembered: He was the only bishop in Ireland to threaten and enforce excommunication, on all sides of the war, from the Catholic Church for causing “unnecessary” deaths.

His actions have been chiefly whittled down to his excommunication of IRA members. The reality is somewhat different. In 1918, he visited Terence MacSwiney in prison and he took part in the celebration of MacSwiney’s funeral Mass. Subsequent events hardened Coholan’s stance against violence. The hunger strike deaths were followed by the Kilmichael Ambush, the shooting of the Delany brothers, the burning of Cork, and other violence. Bishop Coholan decreed that all killing must stop immediately, on threat of excommunication.

Coholan’s views on the futility of war and the timing and nature of his interventions in December 1920 and in the Civil War brought him into conflict with many in the diocese.

Bishop Cornelius Lucey 1952-1980

The late Bishop of Cork and Ross, Most Rev. Dr. Cornelius Lucey presenting the Cork Diocesan Shield in 1967 to Scout Master Brendan O’Sullivan and Patrol Leader Liam Hurley of the 12th Cork Troop (St. Patrick’s).	Picture: Barrys Photographic
The late Bishop of Cork and Ross, Most Rev. Dr. Cornelius Lucey presenting the Cork Diocesan Shield in 1967 to Scout Master Brendan O’Sullivan and Patrol Leader Liam Hurley of the 12th Cork Troop (St. Patrick’s). Picture: Barrys Photographic

A former chair of Philosophy and Political Theory at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Cornelius Lucey became Bishop of Cork in 1952.

While the country was still economically depressed and emigration to Britain and the USA was commonplace, the new state was beginning to emerge from the shadows of colonialism. In Cork, the population was migrating to the new social housing estates being built on the northside of the city. To ensure that the needs of his flock were met, Bishop Lucey put an expansive church building programme in place. A “rosary” of five churches was built around the city. Each church was dedicated to one of the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary — The Church of the Ascension, Gurranabraher, The Church of the Assumption, Ballyphehane, The Church of the Resurrection, Farranree, The Decent of the Holy Ghost, Dennehys Cross and the Church of our Lady Crowned, Mayfield. Bishop Lucey was also renowned for his stance on social issues but refused to bend from the traditional line when he spoke of matters of faith and morals.

Michael Murphy Bishop 1980-1996

Dr. Michael Murphy, Bishop of Cork and Ross, after a confirmation ceremony at St. Michael’s Church, Blackrock, in 1982.
Dr. Michael Murphy, Bishop of Cork and Ross, after a confirmation ceremony at St. Michael’s Church, Blackrock, in 1982.

Michael Murphy was an accomplished hurler and in 1941 featured at centre-back on arguably the strongest ever Cork minor hurling team to win the All-Ireland title.

Ordained in 1949, he moved to Peru i n 1965 to help establish the Cork & Ross Mission. In 1969, he was recalled from Peru to take over the duties of president of Farranferris College.

When he replaced Cornelius Lucey as Bishop in 1980, he announced a major shake-up of the parishes of the diocese, creating six new parishes and changing the boundaries of many others. He also invited three orders, the Vincentians, the Capuchins and the Sacred Heart Fathers, to become involved in the day-to-day running of parishes.

The reason for these changes, he explained, was to create more opportunities for the laity to become involved in the parish. In reality, it is more likely that he saw the writing on the wall in relation to the fall-off in ordinations with the inevitable reduction in the number of priests available to work in the diocese.

Early in the 1990s, he undertook the most recent renovation of the North Cathedral.

John Buckley, Bishop 1997- present

Bishop John Buckley.
Bishop John Buckley.

BISHOP John Buckley’s episcopate has seen dramatic changes in church affairs in this country. Dwindling resources have forced him into making unpleasant choices and many of these did not sit well with sections of his flock. During his episcopate, Farranferris closed its doors as a secondary school.

While this was controversial for both staff and alumni it was perfectly justifiable as second level education was increasingly available in every town of the diocese; there was no longer a need to provide expensive boarding school education.

The fall-off in vocations has had profound practical implications for the Church in Ireland. Administratively, several parishes have merged to facilitate the provision of Masses and other clerical services.

Bishop Buckley has responded in a unique way to the problems he faced during his episcopate. No bishop has been more available to the public. He has attended innumerable funerals, visited the sick in hospitals every week, taken part in road bowling events, supported Cork sporting teams and regularly attended all sorts of concerts and events throughout the diocese.

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