In Memoriam Desmond Connell: 26 March 1926 - 21 February 2017

The death has taken place on 21 February 2017 of His Eminence Cardinal Desmond Connell, Professor Emeritus of Metaphysics, University College Dublin. His funeral was held in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, on Friday 24th February, with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin officiating, and the Papal Nuncio in attendance. After the funeral mass, he was laid to rest in the Pro-Cathedral crypt. Desmond Connell was a member of the academic faculty in UCD from 1953 until 1988.

He was Archbishop of Dublin from 1988 to 2004: a period during which the extent of clerical child sexual abuse became public. He was a deeply devout and spiritual person with intense loyalty to the Church and he was genuinely deeply shocked by the revelations of sexual abuse. He was criticised for his handling of the issue.  It was, he said, "the issue which has devastated my period of office”. Two weeks before his retirement, in 2004, he said, “I ask pardon of all whom I have offended, especially of those who suffered unspeakable abuse by priests of the diocese and experienced a lack of the care that ought to have been provided."

Desmond Connell was born in Dublin in 1926 and educated at St Peter’s Primary School, Phibsboro, and Belvedere College. He entered Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, in 1943, and, at the same time, enrolled for the BA in History and Philosophy in University College Dublin. He graduated with First Class Honours in 1946. He was awarded a postgraduate scholarship and, on  the recommendation of the then Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, he enrolled in UCD for the MA in Philosophy, which he completed in 1947, with a thesis on St. Augustine and Malebranche. He later recalled that he would himself have chosen to continue in history. Indeed, he had a life-long interest in history was a particular expert on the French Revolution.

Desmond Connell studied Theology in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, graduating with a Bachelor of Divinity in 1950. He was ordained a priest in May 1951. He was awarded the NUI Travelling Scholarship and, from 1951 to 1953, he studied at the Institut Supérieur de Philosophie of the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium, were he completed his PhD thesis on The Passivity of the Understanding in Malebranche.

In 1953 Desmond Connell returned to Dublin to become Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Metaphysics, in Earlsfort Terrace, under the then Professor of Metaphysics, Monsignor John Horgan. Following the move to Belfield, Desmond Connell was appointed to the Chair of General Metaphysics in UCD in 1972, and served in that post until 1988. He served as Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Sociology from 1984 to 1988. He also was an active member of the Board of the MPhil degree in Medieval Studies in UCD. He was External Examiner for the Department of Scholastic Philosophy, The Queen’s University of Belfast and the Université Catholique de Louvain. A former colleague, Dr. Tim Lynch (Queen’s University of Belfast) recalls that he was  the most efficient, the most  caring and the most judiciously thorough external examiner they ever had. In 1981 Professor Connell was awarded a DLitt degree by the National University of Ireland on the basis of published work. Rev. Professsor Connell was appointed Archbishop of Dublin on 21 January 1988. He chose the motto secundum verbum tuum (‘according to Your Word’). It was in many ways a surprise appointment, as he had never served in a parish or given as sermon. He was created a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II on 21 February 2001. In April 2005, he participated in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI. He retired from the Archbishopric on 26 April 2004.

Prof. Desmond Connell is remembered by his colleagues and students in UCD as an excellent, well-prepared and systematic lecturer, a dedicated and caring mentor, a scrupulous administrator, and a meticulous scholar. President Emeritus Patrick Masterson recalls that his colleague Desmond Connell was happier and more at home in UCD than in ecclesiastical administration. He combined high academic standards with a practical concern for his students who liked and appreciated him. He always showed great concern and compassion for students. His door was always open and he showed enormous patience. Reacting to a remark by a less sympathetic colleague from another department he said: “You must never be sarcastic towards a student.” His former colleague Rev. Dr Brendan Purcell recalls, as a young lecturer, being dispatched on his motorbike by Prof. Connell to locate a student who had not turned up for his BA Examination. He was regarded as a somewhat formal academic yet he had a witty and dry sense of humour.

Desmond Connell was an erudite scholar of Neo-Scholastic metaphysics and also early modern philosophy, especially the French Catholic rationalist, Nicolas Malebranche, on whom he was an internationally recognised expert. In 1967 he published an important and ground-breaking monograph The Vision in God—Malebranche’s Scholastic Sources (Louvain: Nauwelaerts), which did for Malebranche what Étienne Gilson had done for Descartes, i.e. to show how this “modern” philosopher nonetheless depended on the medieval Scholastic tradition. Professor Connell published articles in French and Italian, as well as English, in leading international journals such as Revue Philosophique de Louvain, Études Philosophiques, Neue Zeitschrift für systematische Theologie, as well as in Philosophical Studies (NUI) and the Irish Theological Quarterly. He participated in the XIIth International Congress of Philosophy held in Venice in 1958, and his paper, ‘Gassendi and the Genesis of Malebranche’s Philosophy’, was subsequently published in the Congress Proceedings in 1961. As an expert in Neo-Scholastic—and especially Thomistic-- metaphysics, he worked primarily on the topic of being, especially the nature of substance, and the relation between essence and existence. He defended the view that being is apprehended in judgement but only consciously understood in reflection. In his lectures, he would offer lively and penetrating criticisms of other prominent scholars in the field with whom he disagreed, including such eminent international figures as Étienne Gilson, Josef Maréchal and Jacques Maritain, as well as refining the views of those with whom he largely agreed, such as Cornelio Fabro. He knew Plato extremely well and had expertise in Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and Bonaventure. He was thoroughly familiar with the writings of Descartes and Leibniz; he read Heidegger in German. He did not have much time for Sartre or for the Marxism and existentialism that was in vogue among UCD students in the late nineteen-sixties around the time of the UCD “Gentle Revolution”. Prof Connell's undergraduate teaching consisted primarily of a systematic course entitled 'Philosophy of Being', a comprehensive treatment of the central philosophical questions of existence from the classic realist point of view, combining the principles of ancient and medieval philosophers (Aquinas in particular) with insights from modern and contemporary thinkers. Students were surprised that Prof Connell concluded an apparently theoretical course with concrete reflections on the nature of personhood, freedom, and love. He wrote in a very refined, precise prose stle, and his well-drafted lectures were so polished they could have been transferred directly to published texts.

In 1992, his UCD colleague Prof. Fran O’Rourke edited a volume in his honour entitled At the Heart of the Real. Philosophical Essays in Honour of the Most Reverend Desmond Connell, Archbishop of Dublin (Irish Academic Press) which contained essays from leading Scholastic philosophers of his day, including Gerard Verbeke, Fernand van Steenberghen, Georges van Riet, Wolfgang Kluxen, Geneviève Rodis-Lewis, Josef Pieper, and James McEvoy, as well as essays from his former UCD colleagues Michael Nolan, Maurice Curtin, Colm Connellan, Patrick Masterson, Gerard Hanratty, Brendan Purcell,  Richard Kearney, Fran O’Rourke, Gerard Casey, Tim Mooney, Dermot Moran, among others.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

May he rest in peace.


Professor Dermot Moran MRIA
Professor of Philosophy (Metaphysics & Logic)
University College Dublin