Laurence (Lorcan) O’Toole was born in 1128 near Castledermot in Kildare of a marriage between the chieftain families of the O’Tooles and the O’Byrnes. His father, Maurice, had been a former Leinster chieftain who was subdued by the stronger MacMurrough family. As a pledge of loyalty he had to hand over his youngest son, Laurence, then aged 10, as a hostage. Later, because of Maurice’s suspected disloyalty, Laurence was put far away in a herdsman’s hut until the abbot of Glendalough in Co. Wicklow was called in to mediate and the boy put into his safekeeping. By the time Maurice came to reclaim his son, Laurence knew that he had a monastic vocation.
He became a monk at Glendalough and was elected abbot at the age of 25. His duties included not only the government of his monastery but also the relief of famine and the suppression of brigands (some of them apostate monks) in the area.
In 1162, at the age of 32, he was obliged to leave the monastery when he was elected archbishop of Dublin, the first native-born Irishman to fill the see. His appointment marked the end of Viking domination in Dublin.
To ensure a supply of good pastoral clergy he introduced Augustinian Canons of Arrouaise into the main church centres. They continued to wear their religious habit and to follow their community life. Laurence’s nephew became bishop of Glendalough, replacing an impostor who did not have the qualifications but who was supported by the local chieftain. He was outstanding for his relief of the poor in his diocese. Later in his life, he would sometimes send them to England for rehabilitation.
Inevitably, Laurence became involved in civil as well as church affairs. When the Normans from England invaded Ireland in 1170, Laurence acted as peacemaker between Strongbow and the Irish. He remained in Dublin through two sieges and a famine. During the first siege, he had to rush from peace talks when some soldiers got into the city and were causing havoc among the citizens. In all the ensuing difficulties arising from the invasion, he consistently sided with the Irish.
He took part in various synods including one at Cashel in 1172, convened by King Henry II, when Pope Adrian IV’s Bull imposing universal clerical celibacy and the Sarum Rite was accepted. In 1172 he also negotiated a treaty between Henry II and Rory O’Connor, high-king of Ireland. On this occasion he visited Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury and himself narrowly escaped violent death at the hands of a crazy assassin.
In 1179 his activities widened. With five other Irish bishops he went to Rome for the third Lateran Council, where he gave Pope Alexander III a full report on the Church in Ireland and became papal legate. On their way to Rome they had been obliged by Henry II to swear not to injure his rights as ruler of Ireland when they were in Rome. However, this did not prevent Laurence obtaining papal protection for the properties of the Dublin diocese and its five suffragans, especially Glendalough.
Also in 1179 was held a council at Clonfert which deposed seven “lay” bishops, prevented priests’ or bishops’ sons from being ordained, and above all forbade any layman to have “the rule of any church or church matters”. The growing power of Dublin was made clear in 1180 when Laurence promoted a Connacht bishop to the primatial see of Armagh.
In all the subsequent vicissitudes of the Anglo-Norman invasion, Laurence kept steadfastly on the side of the Irish. On his second embassy Henry II in 1180 on behalf of Rory O’Connor to negotiate tribute, Henry, angered by Laurence’s use of papal bulls in property disputes with Normans in Dublin, refused to see him and kept him waiting in Abingdon, England, for three weeks. Laurence followed the king to his court at Bures, near Bayeux, in Normandy and got permission to return to Dublin.
The weeks of strain and travel took its toll on the archbishop’s health. By the time he reached the abbey of St Victor at Eu in Seine-Inferieure, he was terminally ill. Someone suggested that he should make his will, and he answered: “God knows, I have not a penny under the sun to leave anyone.” The plight of his people in Dublin troubled him on his death-bed and his last words revealed his thoughts: “Alas, you poor, foolish people, what will you do now? Who will take care of you in your trouble? Who will help you?” He died on 14 November 1180 aged just 48. His relics were kept there.
Laurence led an austere life. As archbishop, he continued to live in community as a canon regular of Arrouaise. He wore a hair shirt, never ate meat, and fasted every Friday on bread and water. However, when he had to entertain guests, the expected menu was provided although he himself drank coloured water to look like the wine others were drinking. To have had to leave Glendalough remained ever a personal regret. Every Lent he went back there to make a 40-day retreat in St Kevin’s ‘Bed’, the cave on the cliff above the Upper Lake. In this way he kept a link with the tradition of the Celtic saints.
It was Ireland’s good fortune that Laurence O’Toole died abroad. His life was written by a Regular Cannon of Eu a few years after his death and as a result the document survived when so many other valuable Irish writings were lost.
In his memory a French sea port was called after him and a great Gothic church dedicated to him in Eu.
Laurence was canonised by Pope Honorius III in 1225 just 45 years after his death.
He has a place in the painted calendar of saints canonised in the 13th century in the basilica of the Four Crowned Martyrs at Rome.