I don’t know what sins the late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich was guilty of, but I feel certain his good qualities will easily outweigh them. TG4 aired an excellent documentary on his life last night and somebody used the word “ebullience” of him. Good word. He had a life-giving energy, a warmth that not all Irish cardinals (or clerics of any rank) share. Two scenes from the documentary stick in my mind. One is of him on the Late Late Show, I think, in the midst of a group of singers, joining vigorously in a chorus of an Irish song. You could tell he was revelling in the company, the song, the occasion. Tim Pat Coogan testified to the fact that he (the cardinal) had “a heavy hand” with the whiskey bottle – that he enjoyed a well-filled glass and he enjoyed sharing with others. Again, not a characteristic associated with all the higher echelons of the clergy – or not publicly anyway.
But it was his response to the blanket protest and the Hunger Strike of the 1980s that was most impressive. At a time when other Catholic clergy, including Cardinal Cathal Daly and even the Pope, were strong in their words of criticism and condemnation of republicans, Ó Fiaich was the only one I remember who actually went into Long Kesh and came out to tell reporters what he saw. He compared conditions to the worst slums of Calcutta – “conditions in which you wouldn’t keep an animal, let alone human beings”. This didn’t make him popular with the British, of course, or with that strand of Irish political thought represented by Garret Fitzgerald. In fact, he was hauled over the coals by no less an ethicist than Maggie Thatcher. For some twenty minutes she lectured Ó Fiaich – a highly respected Irish historian – on the history of Ireland and Britain, ending her harangue with the impatient question “Britain and Germany have become friends – why can’t Britain and Ireland?” That, it seems, was the point where Ó Fiaich got fed up and pointed out that maybe an answer lay in the fact that Britain wasn’t occupying the Ruhr Valley.
Like Charlie Haughey’s wonderfully ambiguous gift of a teapot to Britain’s prime minister, that rejoinder alone makes Tomás Ó Fiaich’s life worth living.