‘I have a duty to recall the past’

Eminent Church historian Msgr Ambrose Macaulay speaks to Martin O’Brien

Ever since his student days at Queen’s University Belfast, Monsignor Ambrose Macaulay has found history, especially Church history, to be the most absorbing of subjects. 

“I was interested in how the Church developed down through history and all the problems facing it and its reaction to them,” he says.  

Although a hardworking priest in Belfast for almost 50 years until his retirement six years ago he has somehow marshalled the discipline to convert that passion for history, especially Church history, into no fewer than six full-length books spanning the tumultuous period from the mid-18th Century to the end of the 19th, embracing the 1798 Rising, the Act of Union, Emancipation, the Famine and the Land War.   

Mgr Macaulay said: “I had studied history as part of my primary degree at Queen’s but I was most interested in Church history”.

My conversation with Mgr Macaulay, the former parish priest of St Brigid’s in south Belfast and before that assistant chaplain and then chaplain at Queen’s for more than 20 years, had been prompted by the publication of his latest, most ambitious and he says his last book, The Catholic Church and the Campaign for Emancipation in Ireland and England (Four Courts Press).

Dr Macaulay, the holder of a doctorate in ecclesiastical history from The Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome is Ireland’s foremost Church historian of the period covered by his books.

That doctorate centred on research into William Crolly, an Archbishop of Armagh that Fr Macaulay subsequently developed into a full-blown biography.

Dr Crolly assumed office just six years after the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 that gave effect to Catholic Emancipation. 

Ask almost anyone in Ireland about Catholic Emancipation and Daniel O’Connell, often referred to as ‘The Liberator’, comes immediately to mind.

O’Connell’s role as the leader of the campaign that resulted in that 1929 Act that repealed virtually all of the remaining Penal Laws is, of course, recorded in all the general histories of Ireland.  


Absent from those histories is a comprehensive account of the story of the struggle for Emancipation from the perspectives of the Catholic Churches of Ireland and England and of the interplay between them, the Holy See and the most powerful player in the battle for Emancipation, the British Government. 

That gap has now been filled by Msgr Macaulay’s highly readable, meticulously researched and fast moving 400-page book whose academic seriousness doesn’t blunt the sense of drama and intrigue unfolding in Dublin, London and Rome in the fraught decades up to the eventual granting of Emancipation. 

The action centres on British demands for a veto on the appointment of bishops, a wish to snoop on correspondence between the Holy See and the Churches in England and Ireland and the requirement for bishops and priests to swear some sort of oath of loyalty to the king. 

Mgr Macaulay said: “I had obviously come across Catholic Emancipation in those histories stressing O’Connell and the political side of it”.

“And so I wondered what was the ecclesiastical side like, what was exactly happening between all the parties to these disputes, the Irish and English Churches, the campaigners, the Holy See and the authorities in Dublin and the government in London.”

Ambrose Macaulay (81), one of a family of 10, a native of Cushendall, Co. Antrim studied at the Irish College in Rome before being ordained in the Basilica of St John Lateran in 1960. As a clerical student, he recalls a visit by Pope St John XXIII to the Irish College when he addressed the seminarians.  

Fr Macaulay is a modest unassuming man much more comfortable talking about history or about his other passion, Gaelic football –  stemming from his links to QUB GFC where he has been club president for more than 40 years – than any of his achievements.

He is a man of simple taste, declining to wear the apparel of a monsignor except perhaps at   formal occasions such as an episcopal ordination or a priest’s funeral. 

Despite his credentials as a historian it is obvious that his primary vocation is and always has been to the priesthood.

He continues to assist with Masses every weekend in the parish of Bangor though he is loath to talk about his reputation as a particularly devoted and selfless pastor to the sick and the dying. 

Dr Macaulay’s retirement from St Brigid’s in 2010 enabled him to embark on the research for his latest book which involved numerous visits to libraries and diocesan archives in Ireland and Britain and of course in Rome where he examined the Vatican archives.

It is impossible to give any more than a hint of the book’s contents in an article such as this which is meant also to capture a sense of Fr Macaulay the man and his overall ministry.

So, one must confine oneself to a few colourful cameos from a narrative that could be adapted as a riveting TV drama.

There was the unsuccessful   attempt by Lord Castlereagh to buy off the clergy by paying them generously, tempting the Primate with a salary of £2,000 a year, £120,000 in today’s money.


The hapless Msgr Quarantotti, a Vatican official who in 1814, in a reply or rescript to an English bishop conceded the principle of a British veto on episcopal appointments only to be slapped down by Pope Pius VII when he returned to Rome after his detention by Napoleon. 

And the Irish Franciscan friar, one Fr Richard Hayes, who was sent to Rome to represent O’Connell’s Irish Association and ended up insulting the Pope and being sent packing – but not before he engaged prostitutes and ran up debts of £470, or £30,000 in today’s money. 

Fr Macaulay says: “I knew nothing about Hayes before, he didn’t feature in any other literature. His conduct was shocking.”

As a historian Fr Macaulay stresses that his duty is “to recall the past and explain why certain things happened”.

Asked if this presents a dilemma if it means uncovering things that will embarrass the Church he says this doesn’t arise because his duty is “to tell the truth, to put forward a true account as best you can based on what happened”.

He says that when Pope Leo XIII opened the Vatican Archives he did so “to enable people to get at the truth and there was no question of trying to conceal anything based on supporting past views or past attitudes”.

Fr Macaulay’s period at the Catholic Chaplaincy in Queen’s from 1964 until 1985 meant that he witnessed the build up to the Troubles and some of the worst times in Belfast’s history.

The chaplaincy was protected by hoardings for decades. Did anyone see the Troubles coming, I wondered.

“Oh, I don’t think so, not in the way they came. People may have expected bickering and the burning of flags and things like that but I don’t think anyone foresaw 30 years of killing.”

He singles out the sectarian murder of Michael Mallon, a 20-year-old student from Toomebridge, Co. Antrim during the UWC strike in 1974, as a particularly dark moment, which this writer also vividly recalls. 

 Mickey, as he was called, had played Gaelic football for Queen’s and his death touched the student body deeply. 

After his long spell at Queen’s Fr Macaulay spent four years as parish priest in St Anthony’s Willowfield, in East Belfast where the number of parishioners had collapsed from 2,500 in 1970 to 450 in 1985 after two attacks on the church in 1972 and 1973. 

He praises the RUC, who were based close to the church, for their vigilance in protecting it during his time there.

The good news is that the number of parishioners there has climbed in recent years and now stands at 1,500. 

Fr Macaulay’s 21 years at St Brigid’s culminated in the building of a new Church in 1994 and of a state of the art parish centre in 2006. 

One left him with the real sense of a man totally at peace with himself who is grateful that he still has the health and strength even in retirement to assist his fellow former Queen’s chaplain and friend, Fr Joseph Gunn, in the historic parish of St Comgall’s, Bangor.