Reverend Joseph Dixon
Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland - 1806-1866
An article prepared by Mr. Bernard Herron, after his retirement as principal of Primate Dixon Boys' Primary School
Dixon family lived in a single storey farmhouse at Corrainey along the
side of the road leading from Coalisland down into Bush.
James Dixon, who was born in 1776, married Jane Casey, who was
born in 1777. They are buried in Killyman Churchyard, with a daughter Mary,
who died in August, 1827, at the age of thirteen.
They had a family of four girls - Catherine later Mrs McGovern),
Sarah (married Hugh Curran, a farmer), Jane (married James Magill, a
publican), and Mary (died young) and three boys - Joseph, James and
They had a farm of 8 acres 3 rood and 35 perches on which there were three houses, let to James Reynolds, Robert Currie and Patrick Hillen. These were the boom years of the domestic linen industry, between 1775 and 1825, until the factories took over all the trade. Spinners and weavers worked in their own homes and generally worked through an agent to sell their linen at the weekly market in Dungannon Market Square, where the population doubled on market days. It is probable that the Dixon family had an interest in the linen industry. Francis, the heir, certainly owned webs and looms in the homes of weavers in 1860.
Coalisland of Joseph Dixon’s young day was a growing, developing
community. The Canal was
completed in 1787 and, for the next Century and a half, carried heavy
traffic. Wharfing and
warehouses were around its basin. Many
industries had grown out of the local coal and fireclay mining. S. Lewis in his 'Topographical Dictionary of Ireland'
published in 1837 refers to Coalisland's many aworks, potteries,
flourmills, iron works, forges, plating mills, spade mills and. works
for the manufacture of firebricks.
The 1834 map of the area shows tile works, grain mills, a starch
factory and bleach greens.
is a long-standing tradition in Coalisland that Joseph was born on 1st
July 1806, in a lodging house, approached by three stone steps, which
stood along the back River to the rear of Barrack Street in the town.
It seems a reasonable explanation that Jane was on business in
the village, when Joseph decided to be born. Sister Mary Cusack who
wrote a life of Dr. Dixon in 1878, says he was born in the Parish of
Donaghenry. Corrainey is in
Dungannon Parish, the Parish of Ballyclog and Donaghenry was separated
from Clonoe by Dr. Curtis in 1822 and Barrack Street was in Donaghenry.
Dixon was a woman of piety and was interested in educating her family in
days when education was the exception rather than the rule.
Joseph Dixon, in later years, referred to her devotion to the
note of my name being Joseph, and what will help you, I am sure, to
remember, it is this, that I am not named after a member of my family,
but my mother gave me the name of Joseph, because it was the name of the
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin.'
Report of the National Commission for Education in 1826 mentions a
number of Schools in the area, but there is no record of where he
received his early education. It
was obviously a very good one. He
often told a story of an incident on his way from school one day.
He was walking along with a companion when a boy of another
religion began to verbally abuse them for being Catholics.
The companion took the situation and the miscreant in hand and
ended the matter.
the age of 16, on the 26th August 1822, Joseph Dixon entered Maynooth to
study for the Priesthood. He followed a brilliant course and graduated with
distinction. His brother
James followed him to Maynooth a few years later and was one of the
outstanding students of his time. James
later left the Diocesan Clergy and joined the Congregation of the
Missions - the Vincentians.
the end of his first year in the Dunboyne Institute Joseph competed with
two brilliant classmates for the Professorship of Moral Philosophy in
Maynooth College. Dr.
Whitehead was successful and the other, Dr. Magennis, was later
appointed Professor of Theology in 1830.
These three were ordained on the same day in June 1829.
Dr. Dixon was appointed junior Dean in Maynooth in September 1829, and was promoted to Senior Dean in September 1833. As Dean he was said to have been exact on breaches of discipline, but he always tried to be a guide in the formation of the characters of future priests.
an extensive examination in Hebrew, Syriac and Chaldaic, by a panel
chaired by Archbishop Murray of Dublin, Dr. Dixon was appointed
Professor of Sacred Scripture and Hebrew in September 1834.
He was highly regarded by his peers and by his students, both as
a teacher and as a scholar. Evidence of his deep scholarship came when, in 1852, he
produced his book "A General Introduction To The Sacred
Scripture". He wrote
this book for the student of Scripture and for the educated layman, as
there was, at that time, no such book by a Catholic author in the
English language. It was a
very comprehensive, learned and theologically correct work.
It was well received and highly praised by Scripture scholars.
He was justly proud of the work and on the occasion of an
audience with the Pope at the time of the Definition of the Dogma of the
Immaculate Conception, he presented Pius IX with a copy.
was the hub of Irish Ecclesiastical life and little happened throughout
the land that was not discussed there.
Dr. Dixon loved the intellectual stimulation of his fellow
professors and the opportunity for study.
For a man, already of deep piety, it was a place where he could
develop and increase his life of devotion.
The formation of the minds and characters of future priests was a
task he relished.
was well aware of the turmoil in the Church at the time.
Because of the work of the Revolutionists, Pius IX and the Church
Government had to leave Rome. Irish
Church affairs were handled by Cardinal Fransoni from Naples since 1848.
Irish Church needed time to get itself organised after the ravages of
the Penal Law years. The
terrible trauma of the death, disease, poverty and emigration of the
Famine Years of 1845-49 had also to be dealt with. Concessions granted by the Government after Emancipation had
to be examined and viewed with suspicion after years of repression.
Irish bishops were deeply divided on three of these concessions.
One group was headed by Primate Crolly and Archbishop Murray of
Dublin and the other, by Archbishop McHale of Tuam. The three matters
were the National Schools Bill - to give education to young children in
non denominational schools - The Charitable Bequests Bill, about what
legacies could be left to religious institutions and the most divisive,
The Queen's Colleges Bill - the Universities at Belfast, Cork and
Galway. It is necessary to
mention these to introduce Dr. Paul Cullen, Rector of the Propaganda
College in Rome and formerly Rector of the Irish College in Rome.
The National Schools and Queen's Colleges disputes were referred
to Rome and Paul Cullen was called in by Propaganda as a consultor.
This brought him more to the fore-front in Rome when Archbishop
Crolly died in April 1849 and the See of Armagh was vacant.
accordance with the Propaganda Rule of 1829 for the selection of a
bishop, the parish priests of Armagh Diocese met in Armagh on 22nd May
1849. They selected, by
vote, three priests whom they suggested to Rome as candidates for the
bishopric Joseph Dixon (26 votes); Michael Kieran, P.P., Dundalk (12
votes); and John O'Hanlon, Professor of Theology in Maynooth (12 votes).
Propaganda instead appointed Paul Cullen to be Archbishop.
The English Catholic newspaper 'The Tablet" on Saturday, 12th
January 1850 argued that it was unheard of that at least one of those
proposed by the Parish Priests, even if taken out of the order of the
voting, was not appointed. They
took this as another case of Rome putting in their own man to carry out
Rome's ideas. Propaganda had the right to reject the candidates and it was
almost inevitable, in the circumstances, that Paul Cullen - the strong,
brilliant scholar, astute leader, fully aware of Irish Church affairs,
absolutely faithful to Rome and outside the Episcopal squabbles - should
be chosen. He was appointed
in 1849 and lived all his time as Archbishop of Armagh, in Drogheda.
Cullen was moved as Archbishop of Dublin on 1st May 1852 and
continued to dominate Irish and world Church affairs until his death on
24th October 1878. He
was created Ireland's first Cardinal in 1861.
He held Dr. Dixon in high regard and took him to the Synod of
Thurles as his theologian. Dr. Dixon also acted as theologian at the
Synod of Oscott.
Dixon was reading his office in his room when Archbishop Cullen, with
Rev. Dr. Carew and Dr.
Callan, arrived to inform him of his appointment as Archbishop of Armagh
by Pius IX on 13th October, 1852. Reluctantly, he accepted and, when they left, he wept
bitterly. After thirty
years in the calm, serene atmosphere of Maynooth he had to face out into
the rough seas of a divided hierarchy and the problems already outlined. In a letter of November 1852, he gives some indication of the
soul-searching it caused him before he bowed to the Will of God.
must excuse me for having delayed so long to acknowledge your exceeding
kindness to me upon the most trying occasion of my
life. This appointment
to Armagh has been to me a source of great grief and trouble, and
although a part of the trouble is now past, as my consecration has taken
place, I still see nothing but a continuation of great grief and great
trouble to the end of my life. I
was told however, by so many in whom I had confidence, that this
appeared to be the Will of God, that I was afraid to act otherwise than
I have done."
consecration was performed by Archbishop Cullen, assisted by Dr. Brown,
Bishop of Kilmore and Dr. Errington, Bishop of Plymouth, on 21st
November 1852 in the College Chapel m Maynooth.
Dr Dixon chose the date because it was a Feast of Our Lady and he
had invited Dr. Errington as a gesture to the closer co-operation he
knew the Pope wanted between the English and Irish bishops.
His pectoral Cross was the gift of Dr. Kirby, Rector of the Irish
College in Rome and the agent for the Irish bishops there.
He took possession of the See of Armagh as the 105th Successor of
Michael Kieran of Dundalk welcomed him in October 1852, when he wrote
congratulating him on his appointment, assuring him that he would
immediately notify the clergy of the Diocese "that the Holy Father
has placed over them a man of whose fitness for the high office to which
he has been appointed, there cannot be any doubt in their minds".
the pattern set by Archbishop Crolly but not followed by Archbishop
Cullen he spent half of the year in Armagh and half in Drogheda, moving
from one to the other every three weeks or so.
Crolly had started the building of a new Cathedral in Armagh but, when
the walls were completed to the plans of Mr. Duff, the funds available
were diverted to Famine Relief. Dr.
Dixon thought it time to resume the building and employed James J.
McCarthy, a pupil of Pugin, as architect.
On Easter Monday 1854, called "Resumption Monday', he began
the work with Pontifical High Mass in the unroofed Cathedral.
Tarpaulins were stretched from wall to wall but these ripped in a
terrible storm which blew up and lasted throughout the Mass and Sermon,
and hail bounced off the worshippers.
There was, however, an excellent collection.
Dixon's first pastoral letter made an appeal for money to complete the
Cathedral. For a steady
cash flow, he organised a weekly penny collection.
Two priests from the Diocese, Father Donnelly and Father
McParland collected funds in Ireland and Father McCullagh collected in
Canada and in USA in 1855. Dr.
Dixon’s last general appeal for the Cathedral to Irish Catholics at
home and abroad had a great response.
His final effort was to call a Committee together from every
parish in the Diocese to organise a Bazaar.
Prizes came from far and wide.
IX gave a beautiful ivory carving of Raphael's Madonna di Poligno.
Emperor of Austria sent 2 vases and a specially commissioned table.
Emperor Napoleon III of France, sent two beautiful vases of Severes
Bazaar showed a profit of £7,000.
is a memorial window in the Cathedral commissioned by Archbishop
McGettigan in 1879 to Archbishop Crolly, who started the Cathedral and
to Archbishop Dixon who completed the fabric.
Dixon, with great zeal for the care of his flock, carried on the work of
Archbishop Cullen on discipline, Church structures and rules of worship.
To this end he organised a Synod of bishops of the Northern
Province, the first such possible in 300 years.
He built up to this through 1853 into 1854.
He let things run on a bit, hoping for a "greater unanimity
and fuller participation on the part of the bishops to decree those
points of discipline which would be for the benefit of religion in their
Synod passed off very well. All
the bishops of the north attended with their theologians.
Dr. Michael Kieran of Dundalk preached at each session and Dr.
Dixon closed the Synod.
Dixon followed the Synod with a pastoral letter passing on its
deliberations to his people. Speaking
of the faith he wrote "There never was a period in the history of
this country when the fundamental principle of our religion was exposed
to more insidious attacks than at the present time".
He compared the temptations to the faith during the Famine Years,
to the temptations Jesus suffered in the desert after his fast.
He ended with an exhortation to the proper observance of the
Sacraments. He considered
that the Synod was efficacious in correcting abuses, in invigorating
discipline and in the drawing closer together the bonds which unite the
laity to the clergy, the clergy to the bishops and the bishops to the
Father Francis Slane of Dungannon, he set about the task of improving
the clergy in his own Diocese and he was concerned at the scarcity of
priests in the Diocese at that time.
September 1854, he was invited by Pius IX to attend the ceremonies of
the Definition of the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady.
He travelled to Rome with Archbishop Cullen of Dublin and Bishop
Murphy of Cloyne and he later described his entire journey in a book he
wrote after his return.
had three audiences with the Pope, one of which was a one-to-one
meeting, where the Pope asked his advice on some matters.
the journey home, he visited several shrines, one of which was in
Chambery. Here he spent a
few days at festivities surrounding the body of St. Concord or
Cornelius, an Archbishop of Armagh who died there in 1175 and was
regarded there as a Saint. He
was given relics of the Saint and, on return home, he gave a portion of
the rib bone to the Presentation Convent in Drogheda and a portion of
the thigh bone to the Sacred Heart Convent in Armagh.
his special care for the poor, Dr. Dixon introduced religious orders
into the Diocese for social work and for education.
He started the 'St. Peter's,
Clothing Society' in Drogheda to provide clothes for the poor women of
Drogheda. He frequently called into the meetings of the St. Vincent de
Paul Society. He introduced
the Sisters of Charity, from Paris, to Drogheda in 1855 to visit the
poor and to instruct the factory girls.
They began an industrial school for little boys and an orphanage
introduced the Christian Brothers to Drogheda to take charge of the
1859 he opened a second convent in Ardee, for nuns from Dundalk
helped the Sacred Heart nuns to stay in Armagh and, in April 1857, laid
the foundation stone for their new convent.
He gave the name 'Mount Saint Catherine' to the hill on which it
1861, he invited the Vincentian Fathers to take over the running of St.
Patrick's Minor Seminary in Armagh.
Also in 1861, he brought the Marist Fathers to Dundalk to educate
the middle and upper classes.
introducing the teaching orders, Primate Dixon was probably taking
precautions against government changes he feared might be made in the
the beginning of the 19th Century, proselytising societies were sparing
no effort to wean Ireland from Catholicism by controlling the education
of the children. In 1824
the Irish hierarchy, without funds to counteract the influence of these
schools, asked the state to intervene to "promote the education of
the Roman Catholic poor in Ireland in the most effectual manner".
The reply was the setting up of interdenominational National
Schools. One of the two
Catholics on the seven person National Board was the Catholic Archbishop
of Dublin, Dr. Murray, who was a strong supporter of the system and who
carried on a correspondence in the Dublin papers from 1838 until 1840
with Dr. McHale, Archbishop of Tuam, the strongest opponent of the
system. The Protestant
Archbishop of Dublin also a member of the Board, had publicly said he
would use the system to "wean the Irish from the abuses of
Popery". The system was up and running and, by the end of the 1840's,
had schools all over Ireland, but there were still many problems between
government and the bishops. When
Archbishop Murray died in 1852 and Dr. Cullen moved to Dublin,
opposition to the system increased.
Dr. Cullen was a strong opponent of nondenominational education
and, like Dr. McHale, a great believer in the bishop's total right in
the education of his flock. On
his appointment to Armagh, Dr. Dixon took the same line.
He suspected the motives of the British Government in education
partly because of the alleged complicity of the British in the 1848
rebellion in the Papal States, something he often mentioned.
He was also opposed to the Model Schools and his great fear was
that children would experience nothing but interdenominational schooling
through a primary and secondary system leading to the "Godless
Universities". He was
present at the meeting of bishops on the 2nd August 1859,
when they stated their position in a joint pastoral, in which they
called for public support in their claim to have all schools for the
education of Catholics under the control of each local bishop.
Dixon was involved in the setting up of a new Catholic university in
Dublin. Again there was
dissension amongst the bishops on some points.
Dr. Dixon supported the appointment of Dr. John Newman (later
Cardinal) as the first rector in 1854. When Newman later resigned in
1858 he wrote a warm letter to Dr. Dixon.
shall ever consider it one of the greatest honours of my life to have
been permitted to co-operate with you. I shall ever indeed remember with
gratitude the kindness which on occasions I have received from your
other reforms Primate Dixon set about restoring the clerical structures
in his Diocese and he had a regularly constituted Dean and Chapter of l3
in place by January 1856. In
doing this he decided to pass over old prebends, and to appoint a
certain number of Canons. As he said himself, "The Protestants have long since
seized upon the revenues of the prebends, and the inconvenience in
keeping them in our present chapter is that they are the names of
parishes, and consequently, the Parish Priest of those parishes might be
expecting the nomination to them, although sometimes, those Parish
Priests might be the least eligible to places in the Chapter'.
insisted on the performance of marriages, baptisms, confessions and
public masses in a Church. By
1857, he had seen to the erection of Stations of the Cross in all the
Churches and public Chapels of the Diocese.
One of the new Churches he consecrated was the Church of SS.
Mary & Joseph in his home town of Coalisland for Father Peter
B. Daly in 1860.
had little time for politics and hated the times of elections.
Coming from near the homes of the “Killyman Wreckers" of
1830 and the scene of the Battle of Clonoe in 1829, Ecumenism was not
high on his agenda, but he was always a man of peace.
He constantly condemned the proselytism which was a problem at
the time. Right through his
pastorate he condemned secret societies.
In his pastoral on 24th February 1862, he wrote 'The
existence of secret Societies in this Diocese, is another evil, against
which we think it our duty to raise our voice on this occasion...
generally known by the name of the Ribbon Society... No priest in any
country could, without making himself an accomplice in a frightful
sacrilege, admit to the Sacraments any Freemason, Ribbonman, or other
member of such societies".
He urged the priests to detach anyone they could from such societies and prevent others from joining
the February 1864 pastoral he denounced "once more the evil of
Ribbonism" and "all other societies having the same end in
view as the Ribbon Society, and seeking that end by the same
His views on these societies would have been strengthened by his opinion of the Revolutionists in the Papal States.
Dixon was immensely taken by the Pope on his visit to Rome and was
totally committed to him as Head of the Church.
To provide material aid for the Pope in his difficulties, he
established ‘The Confraternity of St. Peter's Pence’ which provided
prayers and finance for the Pontiff.
He promoted this society in two pastorals.
event that brought him most notoriety outside of Ireland was a famous
speech he made at a meeting in Drogheda Church, called to show support
for the Pope in the political unrest in Italy.
Dr. Dixon condemned all who had helped the enemies of the Pope
and he especially castigated the interference of the Emperor Napoleon
III. He followed this speech with a letter to the ‘Freeman's Journal’
on 4th January 1860 on the same matter, which ended ‘Robber!
Take your hand from the throat of the Vicar of Christ’.
Times’ in London picked it up and in an article under ‘Church
Thunder’ it described the letter as an excommunication and concluded,
"For violence of language this outburst of Archiepiscopal wrath is
so far without parallel since the opening of the new Chapters in Irish
he read ‘The era’, the Emperor immediately made a strong complaint
to the Papal Nuncio in France.
Dixon again showed his devotion to the Holy See, when he made a
remarkable defense of the temporal rights of the Pope in a letter to the
priests of Armagh Diocese.
was also the real organiser of a large body of young Irish men, possibly
as many as one thousand, who joined the Irish Brigade in the Papal
Service. He sent Father
James Powderly to Paris, to guide them through France.
was asked to deal with problems in other Diocese.
On the death of the Bishop of Ardagh in 1853, he found the
affairs of that Diocese in poor shape, so he turned down the candidate
proposed as bishop and asked for a very strong character as bishop, to
straighten up the affairs of the Diocese.
nearly twelve years, he dealt with the affairs of the Diocese of Down
& Connor, where an ailing bishop found difficulty in dealing with
great problems in Belfast. He
dealt with the matter with compassion and diplomatic skill.
was charged with the task of investigating the activities of the Boards
of Maynooth and Paris Colleges. He
found nothing astray, but was most displeased with the submissions of
some Maynooth Professors. In
another review of the Irish College in Paris, he recommended that the
staffing be taken out of the hands of the secular clergy and be given
over to the Vincentians.
Dixon was a very small, slight man and he kept his youthful appearance
until middle age. As Dean
in Maynooth, he was at times mistaken for a student.
A group who argued against his appointment as bishop, pointed out
that, because of his lack of height and his youthful appearance, he
would not bring to the Primacy the dignity of bearing that it required.
A man who was at a function in St. Mary's Church in Chapel Lane,
Belfast, described him when he was an older Archbishop.
'We saw a little man, with white hair, hat in hand, pass rapidly
amongst the kneeling people giving his blessing as he passed".
thirty years he spent in Maynooth, as student and Professor, afforded
him a sheltered life and innocence of outlook.
He was a timid and shy man and was easily convinced by those he
respected. He retained,
through life, the shrewd honesty and kindliness of his farming stock.
He took a great interest in eccentric and odd characters and
often recounted anecdotes of his youth and home area.
A natural communicator, he was a prolific letter writer and set a
time aside daily when he personally dealt with all his correspondence.
was a man of prayer and of more than ordinary sanctity.
He developed his spiritual life to the full.
He arose each morning before five and began his day with prayer
and Mass. He had special devotion to Our Lady, to St. Joseph and to St.
Catherine of Sienna. He
gave practical expression of his deep love of the Eucharist, in the
instructions he gave to his priests on the care of the altar vessels and
altars; also their showing, by their clothing and attitude around the
altar, the respect they had for the Sacrament.
simple, uncomplicated man, he was fiercely loyal to the Church and to
the Holy See. His own story
of his visit to Rome for the Definition of the Doctrine of the
Immaculate Conception is filled with the joy he had in meeting with
bishops from other lands and the awe he felt in the presence of great
figures of the Church. When
speaking out against what he saw as an abuse, he could be very direct.
As he said to Father Powderly, when sending the letter about
Napoleon to ‘Freeman’s Journal’ - "There are times when the
mildest of men must come out".
recognised the influence of the press and used it to his advantage and
made efforts to have a Catholic press in the North.
was a strict teetotaller and ‘Father Matthew’ man all his life
until, in his last few years, on medical advice, he took a little wine
after dinner. He made many
condemnations of drunkenness and disliked occasions such as elections,
when drunkenness was likely.
was nationalistic in a non-political sense.
On the Continent he expressed his annoyance when anyone spoke of
an Irish saint as English or Scots.
A gift signed ‘The Roman Catholics of Drogheda’ drew from him
the complaint that this was a name ‘our enemies’ call us -we are
outstanding mark of his primacy was his care for the weak and the poor
in his Diocese. He showed
his genuine concern for them in his frequent visits to meetings of the
St. Vincent de Paul Society, in the societies he formed and in the
religious orders he introduced. In
his will, he left the balance of his estate to the poor of Armagh and
Archbishop knew well the value of a sound Catholic education and he
spent much of his time trying to ensure that all his flock had the
opportunity of receiving it. It was fitting that Father Peter Quinn,
P.P., chose the name of ‘Primate Dixon’ for the Schools he opened in
Gilmartin of Maynooth wrote the Memoir of Primate Dixon in Healy's ‘Centenary
History of Maynooth’ in 1895.
the good that lives after a man be the test of his goodness; if his
written word be a reflection of his mind; if the esteem of one’s
contemporaries count for anything, then we may safely say that the
subject of this memoire is entitled to be placed among the illustrious
sons, not merely of Maynooth, but of Ireland."
became ill at the end of April 1866.
His brother James, then Provincial of the Vincentians came to
visit him on his deathbed. They
said good-bye and promised to meet in Heaven.
Several priests came in later and, while prayers were being said,
he passed away on the Feast of St. Catherine of Sienna, 29th
following day a group of six priests, including the Vicar General,
arrived at the Sacred Heart Convent in Armagh for a sealed packet which
they knew held the Primate's burial instructions.
read - The nuns of the Sacred Heart established at Mount St. Catherine,
Armagh, will permit me to be buried in the Cemetery, on Mount Saint
Catherine. Some kind friend
will put a marble slab over my grave with the following inscription
S. Catharina Senensis,
Ora Pro Me
Blessed Cornelius by Most Rev. Joseph
Dixon - 1855.