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An intellectual who stood up to men of violence

Cardinal Cahal Daly was the unlikely subject of a newspaper travel feature last year in which he described his favourite holiday. It was the early 1960s. Dr Daly was then a lecturer in scholastic philosophy in Queen's University Belfast, with a predilection for French theology. He was in his 50s, yet to become a bishop and a very committed francophile. Each summer he spent a month in France, three weeks studying and writing in Paris and a week exploring the countryside by train. "The year that was very special for me was when I travelled up the Valley of the Rhone from Lyons. France at that time was just recovering from the German occupation and the whole humiliating experience of the occupation," he said.

He travelled alone, on clapped-out trains and run-down buses, wearing a black suit and Roman collar. "I stayed normally in the hotels that were nearest to the train station. I had a typical French breakfast each day -- coffee and croissants. It was simple food. It was quite healthy and I ate quite well, mostly sandwiches at lunchtime, nothing elaborate."

In Lyons, he discussed the Second Vatican Council with Fr Henri de Lubac, one of its great theologians, and continued to Ars, home to St Jean Baptiste Vianney, the Cure of Ars. From there he took a coach to Assy, a village famous for its religious art, where he gazed at length at a painting of the face of Christ by George Rouald. "That was the first time I had seen it. It's a very touching and moving representation of the life of Christ," he recalled.

The image of the black-garbed cleric on his solitary odyssey through rural France, moved by beauty, casts Dr Daly, who died last week, in a curiously romantic light.

This is the man who is remembered for his uncompromising Catholic conservatism, religious discipline and vociferous denunciations of the IRA. He was a slight man of great intellect and extraordinary energy, with a whistle in his voice, and who sometimes appeared to grimace rather than smile.

A scholar who never served in a parish, he rose to be the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland on the back of his considerable cerebral talents and his piety. He died in a Belfast hospital last Thursday evening, aged 92, at a time of unprecedented turmoil in the Catholic Church. Even republicans remembered him warmly in tributes this weekend -- and Martin McGuinness acknowledged that while there was no love lost between Sinn Fein and the Cardinal during the Troubles, they had several warm encounters in recent years.

Dr Daly was born in 1917 and raised in Loughgiule, a village in the Glens of Antrim. The family lived a frugal, devout life. In his autobiography, he described his mother's life as one which revolved around Mass; and how his father, a schoolteacher, taught him to argue the case for the Catholic Church. He told one journalist: "One had to trudge with buckets quite some distance to the nearest spring well to get drinking water and carry it home. Having gone to that trouble one was not going to waste it. The same applied to all the basics of life, such as food."

Years later, Dr Daly later urged a return to the values of thrift and recycling that he learned in childhood in a book, The Minding of the Planet. In a television interview in 1996, he said his first memory was of being cradled in his father's arms when he was four, watching flames shooting from the roof of their home.

"Our house was burned as a part of the IRA activity at the time and we were burned because next door, in a semi-detached, there was a detachment of [police] auxiliaries and the local IRA planned to burn them out. To do that they had to burn us out. So my father and mother lost all their possessions," he said.

It was no surprise that Dr Daly became a priest. He studied at St Malachy's school in Belfast, took classics at Queen's University, and afterwards went to Maynooth where he was ordained in June 1941.

His was a gifted academic career that included a doctorate in divinity, a period at the Institut Catholique in Paris, and a lecture post in Queen's for 21 years.

He became Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise in 1967 and acquired the status of behind-the-scenes adviser to the Irish church authorities, drafting many of the statements and pastoral letters. He was widely held to have written the speech in which Pope John Paul II pleaded with IRA to end the killing on his visit to Ireland in 1979.

When Cardinal Tomas O Fiach died in 1990, Cardinal Daly succeeded him as Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, at the age of 73.

He took a harder line on Northern Ireland than his predecessor. He famously instructed Catholics to quit the IRA. At the funeral of a Catholic IRA victim, he intoned: "I, as bishop, declare that membership of the IRA and voluntary participation in or co-operation with its so-called military operations is most gravely sinful." He condemned the sick charade of guns and volleys fired over dead bodies at funerals and believed it immoral and unjust to coerce Northern Ireland Protestants into a united Ireland. He also directed his criticism at the British government, describing its policy as a replica of the IRA's and which lacked credibility.

He was attacked from both sides. Republicans accused him of being pro-British. Ian Paisley, the DUP leader, called him the black Pope of the republican movement; while a Protestant clergyman dubbed him the red-hatted weasel. Dr Daly's appointment as Primate of All Ireland coincided with the declining of the influence of the Church. The decade brought a wave of clerical scandal and social liberalism, punctuated by the divisive divorce referendums.

Within a year, he led the Catholic onslaught against Charles Haughey's plans to legalise contraception. In 1992, one of his most senior bishops, Eamon Casey, fled the country as the story broke that he had fathered a son. After that came an avalanche of clerical sex abuse scandals.

Dr Daly was himself drawn into the case of the notorious paedophile priest, Brendan Smyth, whose delayed extradition to the North to answer sex abuse charges led to the collapse of Albert Reynolds' coalition government in 1994. Dr Daly later claimed that he acted immediately when a parent complained to him in 1990 that her children had been abused by Smyth. He said he informed the priest's abbott and later, with his approval, a social worker reported the matter to the RUC. He claimed that he was unaware of Smyth's long history of paedophile crimes although Smyth's victims claimed otherwise.

The Cardinal's response to the child abuse scandal was typical of senior church figures at the time. He apologised to the victims but also defended the rights of priests to their good name. And he criticised the media's relentless and pitiless pursuit of scandals in the Church. When he appeared on a Late Late Show special on the growing disillusion about the Catholic Church in 1995, he appeared an anachronistic figure. He was heckled by an audience of Catholics as he tried to defend priestly celibacy and the handling of child sexual abusers. His floundering was a potent symbol of the Church's dwindling moral authority. He remained unyielding to calls for debate about issues such as celibacy and women priests. When Bishop Brendan Comiskey called for a debate on celibacy in 1995, Cardinal Daly responded acidly that the bishop seemed to be under personal strain and might benefit from silent reflection.

Parishioners in Longford also felt the force of his will when they clashed with him over plans to modernise St Mel's Cathedral. When he ordered the rebuilding of the sanctuary, a group of parishioners opposed it and a 15-month dispute ensued. The Cardinal won in the end, but at a cost of enormous acrimony in the community.

Coincidentally, the Cardinal's legacy at St Mel's Cathedral was obliterated just days before his death when a blaze gutted the cathedral on Christmas Day.

After his retirement in 1996, Dr Daly returned to reading and writing from his home in south Belfast. He published his autobiography in 1998, skimming over the scandals that marred the last years of his tenure as Primate of All Ireland. Several other books followed and he continued writing, travelling and speaking engagements well into his 80s, despite a long-standing heart condition.

Last month, Cardinal Daly said he was deeply saddened by the Murphy report which revealed the massive cover up of paedophile priests in the Dublin archdiocese.

It was to be his last public utterance. On December 28, he was rushed to Belfast City Hospital and died there on New Year's Eve.

The tributes to Dr Daly that poured in this weekend included warm words from Alan Harper, the Church of Ireland Primate, who praised him as a fearless champion of peace and justice, who was always speaking out unambiguously on community issues during the darkest days of the Troubles.

Sunday Independent