Born in Tubbernavine, Co Mayo, by the time John McHale was five years of age, he began attending a hedge school. Three important events happened during John’s childhood: the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798; the landing at Killala of French troops, whom the boy, hidden in a stacked sheaf of flax, watched marching through a mountain pass to Castlebar; and a few months later the brutal execution of Father Conroy on a false charge of high treason. These occurrences made an indelible impression upon him. After school hours he studied Irish history, under the guidance of an old scholar in the neighbourhood. Being destined for the priesthood, at the age of thirteen, the boy was sent to a school at Castlebar to learn Latin, Greek, and English grammar. In his sixteenth year the Bishop of Killala gave him a busarship at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth at Maynooth.
In 1807 he entered Maynooth College, where he was appointed to fill the Chair of Dogmatic Theology. In 1814, he received the Holy Order of Deaconship, and the following day, he was ordained. Following his ordination he remained at Maynooth carrying out his duties as Lecturer of Theology until 1825. During this period at Maynooth he penned, under the nom do plume “Hierophieos”, the first of his contributions to public controversy.
In 1825 he was appointed Bishop of Maronia, and Coadjutor to Dr. Waldron, Bishop of Killala. On the 5 June 1825, his consecration as Bishop-elect took place in the college chapel of Maynooth. The ceremony was performed by Dr. Murray, then Archbishop of Dublin, assisted by Dr. Oliver Kelly, Archbishop of Tuam, and Dr. Patrick MacNicholas, Bishop of Achonry.
Dr. MacHale had the distinction of being the first prelate educated in Ireland since the reign of Elizabeth to take up duty in the west of Ireland.
Continuing his appeal for funds, Dr. MacHale met with singular success, many of his most generous contributors being English Catholics. Work on the new edifice was thus enabled to proceed rapidly, and in the autumn of 1831 the first Mass was celebrated in the cathedral. When finally the edifice was completed, the total cost amounted to £12,000.
In two letters written to the Prime Minister, Earl Grey, he described the distress occasioned by starvation and fever in Connacht, the ruin of the linen trade, the vestry tax for the benefit of Protestant churches, the tithes to the Protestant clergy, which Catholics were obliged to pay as well as their Protestant countrymen, the exorbitant rents extracted by absentee landlords, and the crying abuse of forcing the peasantry to buy seed-corn and seed-potatoes from landlords and agents at usurious charges. No attention was vouchsafed to these letters. Dr. MacHale accompanied to London a deputation of Mayo gentlemen, who received only meaningless assurances from Earl Grey. After witnessing the coronation of William IV at Westminster Abbey, the bishop, requiring change of air on account of ill-health, went on to Rome, but not before he had addressed to the premier another letter informing him that the scarcity in Ireland “was a famine in the midst of plenty, the oats being exported to pay rents, tithes, etc, and that the English people were actually sending back in charity what had originally grown on Irish soil plus freightage and insurance”. He severely condemned the Government for its incapacity, its indifference to the wrongs of Ireland, that aroused in the Irish peasantry a sullen hatred unknown to their more simple-minded forefathers. During an absence of sixteen months he wrote excellent descriptive letters of all he saw on the Continent; they were eagerly read in “The Freeman’s Journal”. Amid the varied interests of the Eternal City he was ever mindful of Ireland’s woes and forwarded thence another protest to Earl Gray against tithes, cess, and proselytism, this last grievance being then rampant, particularly in Western Connacht.
During the calamitous Great Hunger of 1845-52, nothing could exceed his energy and activity on behalf of the afflicted people. He vainly warned the Government as to the awful state of Ireland, reproached them for their dilatoriness in coming to the rescue, and held up the uselessness of relief works expended on high roads instead of on quays and piers to develop the sea fisheries. Bread and soup were distributed from the archbishop’s own kitchen, and he drove about regularly to relieve hungry children and people too weak and infirm to seek for food in Tuam. The enormous donations sent to him were punctiliously acknowledged, accounted for, and promptly disbursed by his clergy among the victims of fever and starvation. The death of Daniel O’Connell (1847) was a deep sorrow to Dr. MacHale. He was also much grieved at the dissentions of the Repealers, and the violent tactics of the Young Ireland Party, who would not listen to his wise and patriotic advice.
In private life Dr. MacHale never wasted time, for he was always employed in study, business and prayer. He was noted for his charity to the poor, his strict fulfillment of every sacred duty, and the affectionate consideration and hospitality ever displayed towards his clergy. His intense respect for sacerdotal dignity rendered him slow to reprimand, though he was inflexible in matters of faith and principle. Every Sunday he preached a sermon in Irish at the cathedral, and during his diocesan visitations he always addressed the poor people in their native tongue. On journeys he usually conversed in Irish with his attendant chaplain, and never addressed in any other tongue the poor people of Tuam or the beggars who greeted him whenever he went out. He always encouraged the preservation of the Irish language, and compiled in it a catechism and a prayer-book. Moreover, he made translations into Irish of portions of the Holy Scripture as well as the magnificent Latin hymns, “Dies Irae” and “Stabat Mater”. He translated into Irish Moore’s “Melodies” and Homer’s “Iliad”. In the preface to his translation of the first book of the “Iliad” he wrote that “there is no European tongue better adapted than ours (Irish) to a full or perfect version of “Homer”. These Irish works of Dr. MacHale excited the sincere admiration of all Celtic scholars who were able to appreciate the beauty of his classical Gaelic. He celebrated the golden jubilee of his episcopacy in 1875. The venerable old man lived for six more years, maintaining his usual mode of life as far as his strength permitted and making the visitations of his diocese. He preached his last Irish sermon after his Sunday Mass, April, 1881. He died after a short illness, and is buried in Tuam Cathedral.
Photo: Marble statue of Archbishop John MacHale on the grounds of the Cathedral of the Assumption, Tuam, Co Galway. Sculpted by Sir Thomas Farrell (1827–1900) in Dublin.