Thomas William Croke (1824-1902), Archbishop of Cashel among other titles, is a distant relation of mine, as he is to the descendants of hordes of Crokes who emigrated from Ireland to the United States and Canada in the nineteenth century. I’ll admit I’m ignorant of my true connection to him. He was likely a far-removed cousin to my paternal great-great grandfather, or even farther back than that. Once when I was a waiter and serving some Irish tourists at the Irma Hotel in Cody, Wyoming, a man asked if I was related to “the bishop.” “Yes,” I said, putting on my brogue. “His blood runs in me veins.” Always a good line. lt;/span>
The erudite Dr. Croke (he was a D.D., Doctor of Divinity) was an unseen tour guide on a trip I took to Ireland in 1978. After lunch at — at the time — Ireland’s only McDonald’s near Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green (in the ’70s Dubliners sought to impress visiting Americans with Big Macs), I accompanied an Irish cousin to the eponymous Croke Park for a football game. Croke Park is a large stadium used for rugby-like Irish football, hurling (Irish field hockey), and nowadays as a venue for U-2 concerts. Later after joining my Catholic priest American uncle, we went down to Tipperary to see more relatives, and to visit the ornate Thurles Cathedral, where Dr. Croke due to his eminence resides in the floor. Outside his determined visage graces a life-size bronze statue in his ecclesiastical garb. We later stopped at Cashel, the fortress town and seat of his archdiocese, and climbed the legendary Rock of Cashel to inspect its medieval fortifications.
The archbishop was among the foremost clerics that Ireland produced in its politically seismic 19th century. Five years in Paris in his student days turned him into a passionate Francophile who spoke and wrote French fluently, and where he witnessed the political unrest culminating in the Revolution of 1848. After the young priest earned his D.D. at the Irish College in Rome, he returned to Ireland for an academic career. Croke was appointed the first president of St. Colman’s College, County Cork in 1858, and in following years also served as a parish priest and Vicar General of the Diocese of Cloyne. In 1869 he participated in the First Vatican Council at Rome as a consulting theologian.
From 1870 to 1874 Dr. Croke served as Bishop of Auckland, New Zealand, a missionary assignment. There is scholarly speculation that the Vatican sought to remove him from his anti-British political activities in Ireland, where he was a strong supporter of “Home Rule,” the idea that the “Act of Union” of 1800 should be repealed. If that’s the case, you can’t get much farther from Dublin than Auckland. Any farther away and he would have been in Antarctica evangelizing penguins. This notion is buttressed by his missionary zeal, which was tepid at best. Always the organization man, he mostly ignored the tattooed native Maoris, and instead concentrated on New Zealand’s Irish diaspora of bibulous laborers, sheepherders and dock workers. The message was simple: go to Mass, work hard, and avoid the pubs, boys. Dr. Croke was a lifelong temperance advocate.
After extricating himself from New Zealand, Dr. Croke, now Archbishop of Cashel, helped found the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1884, which promoted the traditional games of Irish football and hurling. This was provocative in the face of British opposition. The archbishop also worked to preserve through education the Celtic “Irish” language, known falsely outside of Ireland as “Gaelic.”
The archbishop abhorred the sectarian violence that had plagued Ireland for centuries, yet his agitation was constant. Along with supporting Irish Home Rule early on, he eventually touted the nationalism of Charles Stewart Parnell, but followed the Church’s line and broke with him over Parnell’s infamous sex scandal involving Kitty O’Shea, the wife of a fellow member of Parliament. In Catholic Ireland this was Parnell’s downfall, of course, and it set the stage for the strife that visited Ireland early in the 20th century. The Church — including Archbishop Croke — shares responsibility for that.
Many of Croke’s troubles with the Vatican over the years can be traced to his firm Gallicanism, the idea that the Church is made up of its component parts, that is, the archdioceses and dioceses, as compared to the ultimate authority of Rome (Ultramontanism). From Pope Pius IX’s point of view, the rabble-rousing Irishman was definitely on the wrong side of the argument at the 1869 conclave. This may have been — along with his Anglophobe sentiments and political activity — yet another contributing factor to the New Zealand exile.
And then there is Archbishop Croke as literary allusion. On pages 444-445 of the paperback edition of my Viking Portable James Joyce there is this from the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
“I was away all that day from my own place over in Buttevant — I don’t know if you know where that is — at a hurling match between the Croke’s Own Boys and the Fearless Thurles and by God, Stevie, that was the hard fight. My first cousin, Fonsy Davin, was stripped to his buff that day minding cool for the Limericks but he was up with the forwards half the time and shouting like mad. I never will forget that day. One of the Crokes made a woeful wipe at him one time with his caman and I declare to God he was within an aim’s ace of getting it at the side of the temple. Oh, honest to God, if the crook of it caught him that time he was done for.”
Even James Joyce was wary of a woeful wipe from a Croke.