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May 9, 1990

The death of Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich, suddenly and at the early age of 66 years, leaves a void across a spectrum of Irish life. Church leader, nationalist, historian, teacher, pastor, the late cardinal's persona was multi-faceted to a degree which is not often encountered in the rather sombre and remote ethos of today's Hierarchy.

Tomas O Fiaich was in some ways an unusual cardinal. The contemporary emphasis in the Roman Catholic Church is on conformity. Primates and prelates tend to be selected for their theological orthodoxy, their strict adherence to traditional authority and their politically acceptability. The late cardinal would have been pleased to have himself regarded as something less than fully in line on at least some of these counts.

He claimed no extensive theological development and veered towards a more human and commonsense approach than many other members of the Hierarchy on certain issues. Thus, he had no great stomach for the two referendums on divorce and the so-called right to life issue. He left the running to those more zealous individuals who did not see, perhaps as clearly as he, the long term divisiveness of what was contemplated.

He was also unashamedly an Irish nationalist, declaring himself firmly in favour of national unity even at the risk of being accused of thus offering support in some degree to those who engaged in murder and violence to achieve that end. Yet his denunciations of violence and those who engage in it were trenchant, unambiguous and oft-repeated. Those who sought to take him to task were invariably confounded once they examined the record.

He was steeped in the historic, linguistic, cultural and devotional traditions of Irish Catholic nationalism.

His knowledge of early and medieval Irish history was encyclopaedic. His use of the Irish language, his love of Irish song, dance, sport and tradition were legendary. His interest in, and his devotion to, the Irish saints had both an academic and a purely spiritual dimension. He was quintessentially of his native tradition, proudly, innocently and enthusiastically.

That background and tradition gave him an instinctive understanding of the sense of humiliation and vulnerability which infected Northern Catholics over the decades. They gave him the sense of empathy which allowed him to play the role of father and pastor to his flock so well over the dark years. His stabilising and moderation role may not have always been appreciated, especially from the Protestant or unionist communities. More than one Secretary of State, however, has had cause to value and recognise the remarkable influence of the man.

Those who had the good fortune to deal directly with Cardinal O Fiaich will recall him, above all else, as an immensely kind and generous individual, brimming over with honest warmth and humanity. He was happiest with ordinary people, whether at confirmations in the towns and villages, with his students at Maynooth or with visitors and friends at Ard Coeli in Armagh. He was least happy where his role as a Church leader took him to the complex and often tragic areas where religion, political activity and indeed, violence so often interact.

If it were given to him, indeed, he might well have chosen to leave the world as he did; in company his beloved people, in France whose culture, history and language he extolled and on pilgrimage at one of the great devotional shrines of the Church to which he devoted his life.