- My Heart’s Best Wishes for You: A Biography of Archbishop John Walsh by John P. Comiskey
John P. Comiskey’s My Heart’s Best Wishes for You is a comprehensive overview of the life’s work of John Walsh, Roman Catholic bishop of London (1867–89) and archbishop of Toronto (1889–98). Though billed as a biography, the text is focused primarily on the thirty-one years of Walsh’s episcopate. As Comiskey explains in the foreword, material about the archbishop’s youth in Ireland, education in Quebec, and other historical context for the Diocese of London was condensed from the dissertation on which this work is based.
Notwithstanding these omissions, My Heart’s Best Wishes leaves few stones unturned in its portrait of a well-loved and well-respected man. The work is divided into six thematic chapters, each concerned with a specific aspect of Walsh’s career. Most successful are the fourth and [End Page 462] fifth chapters, “Pulpits and Platforms” and “Diocese and Dominion” in which Walsh’s theology and politics are dissected. The former concerns Walsh’s role as a teacher of doctrine, morality, and faith. Comiskey makes ample use of pastoral letters, sermons, and lectures to give a complete picture of Walsh’s wit, eloquence, intellect, and Catholicism in a particularly dynamic period. If this chapter has a weakness it is one that can also be applied to the work as a whole: Comiskey writes from an insider’s perspective that assumes a certain familiarity with Catholic doctrine and history, which may frustrate non-specialists.
The latter chapter, “Diocese and Dominion,” addresses Walsh’s politics and activism in the context of post-Confederation Canada and more specifically Orange Ontario. Though more discrete than his counterpart in Toronto, Archbishop John Joseph Lynch, Walsh was politically active when he perceived a threat to be repelled or an advantage to be gained for Ontario Catholicism. Walsh’s friendship with John A. Macdonald gave the archbishop a direct line to the upper echelons of government when it came to patronage appointments for prominent Catholics, and he was relied on to deliver Catholic votes at election time in turn. In addition to being a conservative and a fiercely loyal British subject, Walsh was an ardent Irish nationalist who advocated for Home Rule for Ireland. Such politics were common for Irish-Canadian Catholics in this period, and Walsh appears to have shared in the emotional ties to Ireland characteristic of other “Home Rulers.”
Regrettably, and perhaps as a result of the omission of substantial material on his youth and early education in Ireland, Walsh’s religious ties to Ireland are entirely absent from the work. Walsh came of age during the “devotional revolution,” a period of rapid expansion and significant vitality in Irish Catholicism, and a discussion of the influence of the Irish context on his chosen vocation and faith as well as his exercise of that vocation and faith in Ontario would have been interesting.
It is clear that Comiskey admires his subject. A more cynical historian would be loath to praise his or her subject so highly or frequently, but Comiskey’s enthusiasm leaves his reader entirely convinced of Walsh’s bountiful talents. That he was a skilled orator, a learned theologian, and a gifted leader is abundantly clear. Comiskey’s praise of his subject borders on implausible only once, while addressing Michael Power’s assertion that Walsh’s appointment of an Irish priest to the troubled parish of Biddulph Township, home to the infamous Donnellys, was the “one blunder” of Walsh’s career. Comiskey does not excuse the appointment of the volatile James Connolly to the parish, nor does he [End Page 463] deny the then bishop’s machinations to protect his priest and ultimately derail the court proceedings against the men accused of the Donnelly murders. Walsh, Comiskey argues, was motivated by a fear of sparking anti-Catholic violence then ongoing in Montreal, Toronto, and Kingston. This was despite the fact that...