Born in Dundalk around 1300 to an Anglo-Norman family, Richard FitzRalph was educated in Oxford and became chancellor of the University in 1332. His tenure was turbulent and lasted only two years, directly leading to his first visit to Avignon. His contribution to debates there on the beatific vision made him a prominent figure in the papal court. A successful ecclesiastical career both in England and in Ireland followed.
He became archbishop of Armagh in 1347. He was known for great preaching ability and care of his flock. His sermons that survive show keen awareness of social tensions and economic problems. His major focus was on two issues: the war (overt and covert) between the English and Irish elements, and the general prevalence of theft and dishonesty. He denounced the tendency to view theft against “the other side” as a minor issue and defended the cause of the weak (Walsh, p. 258):
[FitzRalph] singled out two faults for special denunciation, and it would appear that he had identified them in the course of a year’s close scrutiny of his flock and its mores — firstly, the civil war ‘inter Anglicos et Hibernicos’ and secondly, general theft and dishonesty. In the former case he pointed out to his hearers, most of whom we can presume were ‘Anglici’, that both rival communities in Ireland were under the impression that it was lawful not merely to rob and plunder those of the opposing community, but also to kill them, and he issued a stem warning that to kill was always gravely sinful except in self-defence. Only an officer of the law, acting in accordance with the prescriptions of that law, had such power.