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Primate of Ireland is a title used by both the Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland Archbishops of Dublin. It is a title of honour denoting ceremonial precedence (primacy) over the other bishops in Irelandmarker, second only to the Archbishops of Armagh, who use the title Primate of All Ireland. The two titles arise from a historical rivalry between the two archbishoprics as to seniority. The distinction mirrors that in the Church of England (and the pre-Reformation English Church) between the Primate of All England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Primate of England, the Archbishop of York.


The episcopal see of Dublin was created in the eleventh century, when Dublin was a Norse city. Its first bishop, Dunan (or Donatus) was described at his death as "chief bishop of the Foreigners". From the first, Dublin had close ties to the see of Canterburymarker. The fifth bishop of Dublin, Gregory, was only a subdeacon when he was elected bishop by what Aubrey Gwynn called "the Norse party in the city". He was sent to England where he was consecrated by Archbishop Ralph of Canterbury, but on his return he was prevented from entering his see by those who wanted Dublin integrated with the Irish hierarchy. A compromise was reached by which Gregory was recognised as bishop of Dublin, while he in turn accepted the authority of Cellach, archbishop of Armagh, as primate. The Synod of Kells in 1152 divided Ireland between the four dioceses of Armagh, Dublin, Cashel and Tuam. Gregory was appointed archbishop of Dublin. The papal legate, Cardinal John Paparo, also appointed the archbishop of Armagh "as Primate over the other bishops, as was fitting."

Henry de Loundres, archbishop of Dublin from 1213 to 1228, obtained a bull from Pope Honorius III prohibiting any archbishop from having the cross carried before him (a symbol of his authority) without the consent of the archbishop of Dublin. A century later, this bull led to a confrontation between Richard FitzRalph, archbishop of Armagh, and Alexander de Bicknor, archbishop of Dublin, when FitzRalph, acting on letters of King Edward III specifically allowing him to do so, entered Dublin in 1349 "with the cross erect before him". He was opposed by the prior of Kilmainham on the instructions of Bicknor, and forced to withdraw to Drogheda. On Bicknor's death, and the succession of John de St. Paul to the see of Dublin, King Edward revoked his letters to FitzRalph and forbade the primate to excercise his juristiction in Dublin. In 1353 the matter was referred to Avignon. There Pope Innocent VI, acting on the advice of the College of Cardinals, ruled that "each of these prelates should be Primate; while, for the distinction of style, the Primate of Armagh should entitle himself Primate of All Ireland, but the Metropolitan of Dublin should subscribe himself Primate of Ireland."


The Archbishop of Armagh's leading status is based on the fact that his See was founded by St. Patrick, the city of Armagh thus being the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland. On the other hand, Dublinmarker is the political, cultural, social, economic and secular centre of Ireland, and has been for many centuries, thus making the Archbishop of Dublin someone of considerable influence, with a high national profile.

Dispute has "flared up" on a number of occasions, such as during the time in office of Saint Oliver Plunkett and in the late 18th century.

Within Roman Catholicism, the rivalry was augmented since the 1870s by the awarding to one or other archbishops of a seat in the College of Cardinals by popes. Due to Ireland's small size, two Irish reigning diocesan cardinals are unlikely to be created. The apparent dominance of Dublin over Armagh was shown in the 1850s when the then Archbishop of Armagh, Paul Cullen was transferred from Armagh to the nominally inferior See of Dublin, he in Dublin becoming the most high profile Catholic prelate in Ireland. Cullen as Archbishop of Dublin played a central role in the proclamation of Papal Infallibility in the First Vatican Council and was some years later made Ireland's first cardinal ahead of the nominally superior Archbishop of Armagh. Cullen's successor in Dublin, Archbishop Edward MacCabe was also made a cardinal. After that however, the red hat (i.e., being made a cardinal) was invariably awarded to the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, until in a considerable surprise Pope John Paul II awarded the red hat not to the low-key pastoral Archbishop Sean Brady of Armagh, but to the higher profile, more intellectual, and openly conservative, Archbishop Desmond Connell in Dublin. This trend was reversed in 2007 with Pope Benedict XVI's decision to award the red hat again to the See of Patrick, in a surprise move creating Archbishop Seán Brady a cardinal over the reigning Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, himself previously a high profile Vatican official.

The Partition of Ireland in 1920 in effect gave the Primate of Ireland and Primate of All Ireland differing roles, given that each is based in a different jurisdiction of the divided island, the former in the south, the latter in Northern Irelandmarker. As a result the Primate of Ireland has effectively become the head of the Church in the Republic of Ireland, while the Primate of All Ireland is the head of the Church on the island of Ireland.

Primates Today

The current Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin is Diarmuid Martin.The current Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin is John Neill.

Notes and references

  1. MacGeoghegan, James, The history of Ireland, ancient and modern (1844), James Duffy, Dublin, p. 337
  2. Gwynn, Aubrey, The Irish Church in the 11th and 12th Centuries (1992), edited by Gerard O'Brien, Four Courts, Dublin, pp. 50-51
  3. Gwynn (1992), p. 50
  4. Gwynn (1992), pp. 128, 228
  5. Gwynn (1992), p. 221
  6. Brenan, Michael John, An Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, Volume I (1840), J. Coyne, Dublin, pp. 377-8
  7. Carew, Patrick Joseph, An ecclesiastical history of Ireland (1838), Eugene Cummiskey, Philadelphia, pp. 396-7
  8. William Dool Killen, The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland (1875), MacMillan, Dublin, p. 294
  9. That does not mean there have not been more than one Irish person in the College of Cardinals. Irish archbishops based in the Vatican have been awarded the red hat alongside Irish-based Irish archbishops. In addition, after Pope Paul VI introduced a mandatory retirement age at which point cardinals cease to have a vote in the College of Cardinals, Ireland had the experience of having two diocesan cardinals; a voting cardinal, Desmond Cardinal Connell, Archbishop emeritus of Dublin, and a superannuated cardinal, Cahal Cardinal Daly, former Archbishop of Armagh. Connell, when he retired from his archdiocese, lost his vote in 2006, and a third red hat went the following year to Archbishop Seán Brady of Armagh.


  • New York, 1909: The Catholic Encyclopedia; Robert Appleton Company

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