May 11, 2015
Tomás Cairdinéal Ó Fiaich (1923-1990)
Thursday last, May 8th, marked the 25th Anniversary of the death of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich. A native of Anamar near Cullyhanna, his untimely death while on pilgrimage in Lourdes in 1990 sent shockwaves across the country, his loss particularly felt throughout south Armagh. To mark this significant anniversary, The Examiner has reproduced reflections written soon after his death by Mrs Mary Caraher, wife of the late Peter John, and close friend of the Cardinal.
The following composition is an excerpt from the Creggan Journal 1991.
The Early Years
Tomás Ó Fiaich was born in Anamar on November 3rd1923, on the feast of Saint Malachy. His parents were Patrick Fee and his mother’s maiden name was Annie Carragher. His maternal grandfather (Carragher) and his grandmother (nee O’Neill) had a grocery and off-license business. The counter, shelving and weights and measures were preserved in perfect condition when Peter John Caraher purchased the Fee homestead and farm in 1957.
Tommy Carragher, an uncle, and Elizabeth O’Neill, an aunt, were the Cardinal’s sponsors at his baptism in St Patrick’s Church, Cullyhanna.
In the late 20’s, he made his First Communion and in 1932 he was confirmed by Cardinal Mac Rory. His parents were both teachers in Cregganduff School. When the ‘Cardinal’ was eight years old, his mother died and Mary Agnes Toner — now Sister Columbanus in Bessbrook Convent — was appointed to succeed her as Junior Mistress. Sr Columbanus still recalls “his outstanding scholarly ability and his particular fascination, even at an early age, for the history of Creggan and the Irish Language.”
In 1936 she accompanied him as a young student on his first trip to Coláiste Bhríde i Rann na Feirste, Co. Dhún na nGall.
When he finished his studies in St Patrick’s College, Armagh, he went to study for the priesthood in Maynooth. In 1944, he got pleurisy and was seriously ill, but improved sufficiently to be allowed home to convalesce. Bishop Lennon told me he cycled from his home in Markethill to visit the ‘Cardinal’ in Anamar, and was forced to take shelter along the way during a severe thunder storm.
The Cardinal finished his studies in St Peter’s College, Wexford and was ordained a priest on June 6th 1948. On June 7th, he said his first Mass in St Patrick’s, Cullyhanna.
It was in Loch an Iúir that I first met him when he was there mar shéiplíneach to the College and I in Mean-Rang ag foghlaim Gaeilge. Our Bean-a’-Tí was Péig Mhic Giolla Bhríde. When the Cardinal visited her in 1988 on a tour of the Gaelteacht, he found her very alert at 92 years old.
The Dedication of Dorsey Church
In 1956 Dorsey Church was dedicated to Blessed Oliver Plunkett. I joined the choir for the occasion at the request of Miss O’Neill, the organist. The ‘Cardinal’, who delivered the dedication sermon, traced the association of Blessed Oliver with Dorsey, when as Archbishop of Armagh, he travelled ‘incognito’ through that historic townland. The ‘Cardinal’ always had a great grá for the Dorsey people and admired their strong, enduring faith down through the ages.
With Kevin McMahon and the late Owen Keenan, he spent a lot of time exploring historical sites and buildings there, e.g. the Ramparts, Blyke’s Inn etc.
In 1962 the ‘Cardinal’ officiated at our wedding, assisted by Very Rev Fr. Dougan PP (now retired) and having known Peter John for many years previously, he often called to Anamar to see us when on holiday.
He also visited the McMahon and McKeown families. His Morris Minor car was seen regularly during the football season when he came to collect the ‘team’ to travel to Clones or Croke Park to a football match.
When he visited Anamar he sometimes reminisced on experiences when he was growing up; fishing in Coillte Bána Lough with his McVerry cousins and other neighbours; cycling to Culloville station with Frank Bellew en route to Croke Park. He mentioned visiting Béití Phara Bháin shortly before she died.
Sometimes he climbed Bellew’s hill in summer, from which he had a wonderful view of the surrounding countrywide, his beloved Creggan, Slieve Gullion, Mullyash mountain in Monaghan, Corliss Fort and Lisleitrim Fort, to mention but a few scenic and historical locations.
The O’Neill and MacCooey Memorial Vault
The ‘Cardinal’s’ love for his country, its people, literature, poetry, music, history and traditions was very obvious. We remember his elation when the O’Neill Vault was discovered per chance in 1971 and the historic occasion in 1973 when Senorita Conchita O’Neill of Seville, a descendant of the O’Neills of the Fews, unveiled that Memorial and also one to honour Art McCooey, the famous Ulster poet, in Úir-Chill an Chreagáin.
When he became Monsignor during his Presidency of Maynooth College, he made a documentary with R.T.E., “My Own Place”. This included many historical features: Peadar Ó Doirnín’s Grave in Urney; The Creggan Vault (O’Neill’s); Art MacCooey’s Memorial; Corliss Fort; Loch Ross and his birthplace where he interviewed some of our family and neighbours, before going to Kevin McMahon’s house for another interview.
In 1977 when his appointment as Archbishop was announced we were in a holiday bungalow in Rosses Point. Having distinguished himself as a theologian, historian, lecturer and being fluent in many languages, it didn’t come as a surprise when he was chosen as a ‘Prince of the Church’.
When we ‘phoned a neighbour the following day, we heard that someone had hung a Papal Flag on the front of [our] house and many T.V. reporters and camera crews were disappointed to find the house closed up.
The homecoming to Armagh of the new Archbishop was a memorable occasion. A “Céad Míle Fáilte” banner and red and white bunting fluttered in the breeze when he stepped out of his chauffeur-driven car at his birthplace in Anamar to greet a cheering, ecstatic crowd. After addressing the people he was ushered away to an official parish welcome by Very Rev. Fr. Dougan P.P. on the steps of St Patrick’s Church.
His Episcopal ordination followed on October 2nd and we were privileged to have been invited. Representatives of Church and State from many countries were assembled in the Cathedral. Dr Patrick Fee read the First Lesson ‘as Gaeilge’ and Sr. Columbanus read the Second. The Archbishop’s motto, ‘Fratres In Unum’ (Brothers in Unity), expressed his aspirations for peace and harmony nationally and internationally among all mankind. After the ceremony we attended a reception in St Patrick’s College.
Fr Dougan P.P. invited the Archbishop, on behalf of the parishioners of Lower Creggan, to a concert and presentation in his honour. He graciously accepted the invitation and preparations were made for the evening of December 1st, 1977. After a meal on his arrival in St Patrick’s Primary School, Cullyhanna, his Grace joined a jubilant, capacity audience in the Community Centre (Old School) where a talented concert was in progress. He was very happy to be “ar ais arís i mease mo mhuintir féin” as he said in a homely, friendly and warm-hearted atmosphere, away from the glare of the media.
Fr Dougan P.P. presented His Grace with a silver casket and a cheque from the people of Lower Creggan and remarked how they had “taken him to their hearts”. That was a perfect description of how we all felt. It was wonderful to have one of our own “elevated to the highest position in the Church in Ireland” — Fr Dougan said.
Two years later, on 30 June 1979, the parish rejoiced again when its favourite son became a Prince of the Church — Cardinal Primate of All-Ireland.
The Cardinal visited Anamar many times and entertained us with interesting accounts of his travels in Europe following in the footsteps of Irish saints; Saint Columbanus, Killian, Fearghal and others. He visited the archives of many monasteries in search of relevant material. He gave a lecture to pilgrims on the beach where Columbanus arrived to begin his missionary work in France. He also spoke of visiting Lisieux and the home of St Therese’s family. Sometimes he lapsed into silence and contentedly smoked his pipe. Was he visualising the scenes of days gone by with his family in his “áit dhúchais”, or mentally reviewing his itinerary of the week ahead? – Maybe off to Clairvaux.
Mo Scéal Féin
In August ’89, Liam Ó Murchú and an R.T.E. camera crew arrived with his Eminence to make part of “Mo Scéal Féin”.
The interview and filming took place in front of the house. Afterwards they came in for refreshments. Maria came home from Coláiste Bhlinne in Camloch where she was teaching a class at the Irish Summer School. She gave the Cardinal a T. Shirt with the college special logo and he joked about it being rather small for him. He was in marvellous form and set off for Maynooth for the next filming session.
The next and last visit to Annaghmare was a few days after Christmas ’89. He asked us to bring John Carragher from the house nearby. We all had tea and a lively debate about football ensued. When the Cardinal was leaving he shook hands with John. John hadn’t been in good health and he was very lonely to see the Cardinal leaving. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
The Cardinal’s death in May 1990 shocked the entire country. Peter John was on the Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes and he rang us when it was officially announced to the pilgrims that the Cardinal had died from a massive heart attack.
Everybody was stunned by the news. Parishioners talked as if they had lost a dear friend or family member. Time seemed to drag as we waited for the return of the pilgrimage. When they returned, the Cardinal’s remains returned too, and took the same route to Armagh for the third and last time.
It was a sad homecoming. The hearse stopped briefly at our front door before continuing on its way over the hills to the Church. Fr. Moran P.P. blessed the remains and led the people in prayer. Kevin McMahon, visibly upset, read the lesson. Apart from the Cardinal’s immediate family, Kevin was one of his greatest friends and admirers.
The following evening, we joined the queue of people at the Cathedral gates and almost two hours later entered the Cathedral to pay our last respects. We were there among the thousands that filed slowly and silently by the Catafalque that evening while the Requiem bell solemnly tolled its sad farewell.
After Requiem Mass the following day, His Eminence Cardinal Ó Fiaich was laid to rest on the side of the Cathedral Hill beneath na Crainn Chnó, where the soft winds echo their eternal lament.
Go ndéana Dia Trócaire ar a anam dhílis.
Ní fheicfidh muid a leithéid choíche.