Archbishop John Hughes Honored With ‘Blue Plaque’ in His Native Ireland

It is refreshing to hear of a politically incorrect prelate, by modern standards, being honored in an era such as ours.

Portrait of Archbishop John Hughes
Portrait of Archbishop John Hughes (photo: Register Files)

Not everyone gets to receive a present on their 220th birthday.

But on the Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, Archbishop John Hughes—the first Archbishop of New York—was honored in his home parish of Clogher, in County Tyrone, Ireland, when the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, unveiled a special ‘Blue Plaque’ to commemorate ‘Dagger John’, the immigrant laborer who founded Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and Fordham University.

The ‘Blue Plaque,’ generally, is a special honour organized by a group called The Ulster History Circle to commemorate men and women who have, in a public way, contributed to the history of the northern part of the island of Ireland.

Speaking at the unveiling ceremony, in St Macartan’s Church, in the Diocese of Clogher (Clogher also being the name of the parish), Archbishop Martin communicated a taste of the life and times of Archbishop Hughes, who was just a young man, still in his teenage years, when he left Ireland for America in 1816.

Archbishop Hughes “became a dedicated pastor and a forthright preacher who was determined to lift the lid on the struggles and grievances of Catholics at home in Ireland and in America,” Archbishop Martin said.

“Hughes’ life story,” he continued, “intersects with major issues of that time—from Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, to the right to faith based education in New York; from wrangles over the Union and Constitution of the United States to disagreements over the abolition of slavery, from the plight of thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing the famine, to the nativist riots in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

“When you look through these windows to the past from a distance of two hundred years,” Archbishop Martin said, “it is difficult to unravel the complexity and appreciate the nuances of that time which, although quite unlike our own, is in some ways strangely familiar.”

One of those “strangely familiar” ways that Archbishop Martin alluded to is, of course, the political attacks on the Faith, and in particular, the attacks on Catholic education, which he has to deal with now—just as Archbishop Hughes had to deal with them in his day.

Before he left Ireland, the legacy of the anti-Catholic Penal Laws meant that the future Archbishop of New York needed to attend a hedge school.

Later, as Bishop of New York, he came up against other obstacles to Catholic education, most notably in the form of the Public School Society.

Now, in a strangely familiar way, back in Ireland, again, Archbishop Eamon Martin is being confronted with the prospect of a law that would openly discriminate against Catholic parents—and this in a country that's predominantly Catholic.

The twin themes of education and attacks on the Faith were also taken up by Monsignor Joseph McGuinness, the Diocesan Administrator of the Diocese of Clogher.

Speaking of the link between Archbishop Hughes and Blessed John Henry Newman, Monsignor McGuinness noted that “Archbishop Hughes regarded John Henry Newman as ‘the greatest man in the Church’ in his time. It was of course Cardinal Newman,” he said, “who was to come to Dublin in 1854 to set up the Catholic University which Archbishop Hughes had so willingly enabled through his support for the fundraising in New York. In Dublin,” he said, “Newman sought to give practical expression to his ‘idea of a university.’

“In the thought of Newman and in the action of Hughes,” the Monsignor said, “we see a clear recognition of the value of intellectual formation and its centrality to the dialogue between faith and society that was current then, and is so urgently needed now. In the midst of political attacks on the faith in his time, Archbishop Hughes, like Newman, placed great emphasis on education and, like the gardener that he was, on the cultivation of the mind, which enables ‘full-hearted engagement with profound ideas.’”

In another parallel between the present time and that of Archbishop Hughes, a group of Irish and American Catholics have taken up the task of giving “practical expression to” the ‘idea of a university’ that Blessed John Henry Newman had initiated in response to the wishes of Blessed Pius IX, almost 200 years ago. The new Newman College Ireland is now entering its fourth year!

On a lighter note, Archbishop Eamon Martin also recalled that, “People laughed when Archbishop Hughes began to plan a Cathedral on what was then the remote 51st Street far out on 5th Avenue. They called it ‘Hughes' Folly’ but time would show that, as on many other issues, Archbishop Hughes was ahead of the rest in anticipating the growth and future strategic importance of mid-Manhattan.”

As the words of the song go, “Who, who, who, who’s got the last laugh, now?”

Finally, as Monsignor McGuinness, pointed out, “To some, (Archbishop Hughes) appeared stubborn and pugnacious.” Critics had claimed that the cross with which he, in common with all bishops, prefaced his signature, was, in his case, really a “dagger.” “But,” Monsignor McGuinness claimed, “these were qualities which were put to good use in the service of his people.”

Neither were his views “narrowly sectarian—indeed he had a horror of bigotry and discrimination. He also hired a Protestant, James Renwick, as the architect for the building (of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral) and managed to secure funds from many Protestants for the project, despite the turbulent political and religious feuds of the time.”

Whatever one’s views of the man, it is perhaps refreshing to hear of a politically incorrect prelate, by modern standards, being honored in an era that seems to impose an increasingly tight blueprint on the expectations of the personalities of our senior Churchmen.


Cardinal Dolan's Message

The following is a special message from Cardinal Timothy Dolan—the tenth Archbishop of New York—who conveyed his good wishes on the occasion of the unveiling of the ‘Blue Plaque’ to honour the late Archbishop John Hughes.

It is a joy to send greetings from the Archdiocese of New York on the auspicious occasion of the unveiling of a blue plaque to commemorate Archbishop John Joseph Hughes in his native parish. His achievements, coming from a humble background in Co Tyrone, Ireland, from where he emigrated to the United States, are worthy of special mention. He distinguished himself by becoming the first Archbishop of New York, founding Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, as well as Fordham University (formerly Saint John’s College). Here in the United States, we owe Archbishop Hughes a great debt of gratitude, and so it is only right that we reflect with pride on his life. May I wish you every success with your plaque unveiling to a truly deserving figure who became one of the most influential men of his time and won the respect of many. We just put up a bronze bust of him at the entrance to the Basilica of Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, so we are united in this tribute to a great man.


Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified a photo of Cardinal John McCloskey as Archbishop Hughes.