Lawrence O’Toole (Lorcan O’Tuathail) was a descendant of Irish petty kings. When he was young, Dermot McMurrough, the maverick king of Leinster, raided Lawrence’s father’s lands and demanded the youth as a hostage. Only two years later was his father able to force Dermot to hand the son over to the bishop of Glendalough. The father, Murtagh, also asked the bishop to choose by lots one of his four sons, whom he intended to assign to a church career. Lawrence laughed. “No need for lots,” he said, “It is my desire to have for my inheritance the service of God in the Church.”
Lawrence, slim, princely and attractive, did have a true vocation, and he became a model monk at the famous monastery of Glendalough. Indeed, he was chosen its abbot when only 25. He was even invited to become bishop of Glendalough in 1157, but he pointed out that he had not reached the proper age. In 1162, however, he did accept the miter as archbishop of Dublin. He was in for a stormy career.
Dublin was a turbulent place in those days. It was practically under the control of half-pagan Danish settlers. Archbishop Lawrence was a staunch reformer, which won him few friends. He established a rule of life for the clergy of his cathedral, and followed it strictly himself. At several local church councils he upheld the rights of the Church. He also went to Rome to take part in the reformist Third Council of the Lateran (1179). When he passed through England, King Henry II asked him to swear that while at Rome he would do nothing to infringe on the regal “rights” over the church in England and Ireland. Nevertheless, Lawrence was able to obtain from Pope Alexander II papal protection for the dioceses of the Dublin Province. The pope also named him papal legate to Ireland.
This King Henry was, of course, the same whose encroachments on church rights had resulted in the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket in 1170. Pope Adrian IV had granted him the right, in 1156, to hereditary possession of Ireland. In 1170-71 the king’s Anglo-Norman aides invaded Ireland. Thus began the “Irish Question” which troubles Ireland to this day.
Because of his talent and position, Archbishop O’Toole was involved in obtaining a treaty between Henry II and Rory O’Conor, the High King of Ireland. While in England, he made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, Canterbury, canonized 1173. As he prayed, a madman, who thought it would be nice to make another martyr, fractured his skull with a club, but did not kill him. The king wanted the assailant executed, but Lawrence begged him not to do so. But in 1180, when the Archhbishop came to ask Henry for further concessions to King Rory, he was refused. Henry even forbade him to return to Ireland, feeling that he was too strong in his defense of Irish liberties. The archbishop followed Henry to France, hoping he might still persuade him. Henry did withdraw his command not to return to Ireland, but the archbishop died in Normandy on November 14, 1180. He left no will, for, as he explained, “I have not one penny under the sun to dispose of.” His remains became an object of pilgrimage; and after many miracles had been reported there, he was canonized in 1226.
St. Lawrence O’Toole, like St. Thomas of Canterbury, was a staunch defender of the rights of the Church. He was also opposed to the introduction into Ireland (through the treason of his old captor, King Dermot McMurrough) of an alien government and culture. This holy archbishop understood clearly that love of one’s native land is one phase of the love of neighbor that Jesus enjoined on us all.
–Father Robert F. McNamara