Cardinal Paul Cullen and his world

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2011), Reviews, Volume 19

Cardinal Paul Cullen and his worldDáire Keogh and Albert McDonnell (eds) (Four Courts Press, €55) ISBN 9781846822353

Cardinal Paul Cullen and his world
Dáire Keogh and Albert McDonnell (eds)
(Four Courts Press, €55)
ISBN 9781846822353

From the mid-nineteenth century, the influence of Cardinal Paul Cullen (1803–78) was ubiquitous within Irish society. He was, as Colin Barr notes in this collection, ‘arguably the most important figure between the death of Daniel O’Connell and the rise of Charles Stewart Parnell’ (p. 414). As Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh succinctly argues, regardless of whether his legacy excites admiration or regret, historians of Irish Catholicism, church/state relations, Irish nationalism and the religious world of the Irish diaspora, as well as of wider issues of ultramontanism and the history of the papacy, invariably turn to the ‘Cullen era’ as the most crucial period from which to embark on a consideration of wider historical debates. To Cullen, as Emmet Larkin writes, ‘Obedience to the audible word of command was the first condition of order, and order the necessity of a Church’ (p. 15). Through his unrivalled influence in Rome and his relentless drive for discipline and ‘good order’ within the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cullen strove to have Roman rules and regulations applied consistently and thoroughly in every Irish parish. He was no less dedicated to the orderly development—and, as he saw it, enrichment—of the wider associational culture of the Catholic community into the national, political, cultural and administrative infrastructure of Ireland. Cullen’s personal worldview, as Oliver P. Rafferty argues, was characterised by an ‘almost apocalyptic tenor, with the forces of light ranged against the forces of darkness’ (p. 76), and he was guided by an overriding desire, as he saw it, ‘to rescue this Catholic country from the . . . religious inferiority in which it now lies’ (p. 74). This volume was conceived within the context of a broader enterprise that aims to publish the totality of the cardinal’s correspondence, currently scattered in more than 60 archives, in seven countries on four continents. The final collection of letters will be published in six volumes by the Irish Manuscripts Commission as part of an IRCHSS-funded project, with Dáire Keogh as the principal investigator. With 27 contributors and 58 illustrations, this is an ambitious collection, which contains some remarkable scholarship on a range of aspects of social and political change, including the development of the national education system, the operation of the Irish Poor Law, the evolution of Fenianism and the development of popular Catholic piety, as well as wider aspects of the expansion and consolidation of the Catholic Church into the civic and political life of Ireland in the second half of the nineteenth century. Emmet Larkin’s opening contribution, ‘Paul Cullen: the great ultramontane’, reprises the author’s pioneering work on the so-called ‘devotional revolution thesis’ and the pastoral dimension of ultramontanism, and serves as a succinct synopsis of why the Irish people as a whole were so willing to embrace Cullen’s psychological commitment to ‘becoming pious’. An ecclesiastical imperialist, Cullen believed that the greatest danger to the Catholic Church in Ireland was the modern liberal secular state, which promoted a society, as he viewed it, which had to be unmasked as promoting ‘materialism dressed up as progress’, premised on ‘rampant and irresponsible individualism’ and ‘infected by the values of the enlightenment’ (p. 16). His contribution serves as a useful synopsis for younger students of Larkin’s influential thesis, first propagated in 1972, on the transformational change in the level of religious practice that laid the foundations for the exceptional nature of popular Catholic piety that distinguished Ireland from most other parts of Catholic Europe.By the early nineteenth century Dublin was a strongly Catholic city, which Cullen wanted to see become a capital in which the presence and power of the Catholic Church were inherently reflected in the religious, philanthropic, educational and political infrastructure. The reassertion of Catholicism in the public sphere formed a central part of Cullen’s mission, and Mary Daly’s masterful contribution, ‘Catholic Dublin: the public expression in the age of Paul Cullen’, emphasises Dublin’s identity as the long-time centre of British Protestant power in Ireland—hence the Catholic Church’s desire to ‘proclaim its renewed power and authority’ in the city (p. 131). Daly’s discussion of the expansion of the role of the state in providing for education, health services and the relief of the poor in a city still resolutely characterised by a deep sectarian cleavage explores the profound sense of mission within the Dublin Catholic middle class, as it became more assertive in terms of political representation and participation in business, the professions and civic life generally.  When Cullen returned to Dublin from Rome in 1850 the country was still recovering from the devastation of the Great Famine, and Cullen believed that by failing to provide for the poor the government had demonstrated a deep lack of humanity, writing to a friend: ‘the government that leaves the poor here without protection, will some day or other suffer for its neglect’ (p. 147). In her contribution, ‘Cullen, the relief of poverty and the development of social welfare’, Virginia Crossman provides an exemplary analysis of the defects of the Poor Law system and argues convincingly that Cullen attempted to promote a humane and responsive system of poor relief based on a rigid classification between the respectable and the undeserving poor, despite the plight of the poor having only limited appeal as a popular mobilising issue for nationalists. Poverty, he informed a government select committee, was not a crime, and the poor should be treated ‘as we would wish ourselves to be treated; and I would treat them that way, let it cost what it might to the rate-payers’ (p. 156).Seán Connolly’s contribution, ‘Cardinal Cullen’s other capital: Belfast and the devotional revolution’, presents a formidable reassessment of Emmet Larkin’s ‘devotional revolution’ thesis and represents a remarkable analysis of the impact of wider trends in modern historiography on the competing historical interpretations of the evolution of popular piety in late nineteenth-century Ireland. Connolly convincingly argues that the development of Irish Catholic belief and practice was indeed exceptional, and that the fortunes of distinctively Irish expressions of piety were closely tied up with a peculiarly unstable cultural identity that has gone through two revolutions in recent times: the first in the late nineteenth century, which placed Catholic religious practice at the heart of Irish social life, and the most recent over the past two decades, which has seen the Church brought almost to its knees by a succession of unsavoury scandals. Connolly’s argument is augmented by a concise case-study of the evolution of the Catholic Church in Belfast, which opened its first chapel as recently as 1784, serving a population of less than 1,000 Catholic inhabitants. He concludes that in Belfast, as elsewhere in Ireland, the devotional revolution had a political and social context but warns that historical analysis of change cannot be merely reduced to that same context. Colin Barr’s contribution, ‘An ambiguous awe: Paul Cullen and the historians’, expertly traces both contemporary and historical assessments of Cullen over more than 150 years. Despised by both advanced and constitutional nationalists and by Protestant interests in Ireland alike, the enduring contemporary images of Cullen in the minds of the former were of a typical anti-national ‘castle’ bishop, blinded to the real needs of Ireland by his inability to distinguish between Irish and Italian nationalism, while in the opinion of the latter Cullen represented an aggressive sectarian Roman monk single-mindedly intent on destroying both liberal and Protestant influence in Ireland.  Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh’s afterword brings the collection to a fitting conclusion with some pertinent observations on the continuing reassessments of ‘Paul Cullen and his world’. Ó Tuathaigh notes that powerful and complex cultural forces were operating within Irish society in the post-Famine decades, including the decimation of the rural underclass by famine and emigration, the emerging hegemony of the Catholic bourgeoisie from which the clergy also sprang, advancing literacy in English and the decline of the native vernacular, retarded industrialisation and the expansion of the British Empire. This complex set of interlocking contexts, Ó Tuathaigh warns, obliges historians to be cautious in attributing ‘decisive’ influence to the agency of any one individual, however powerful or effective his imprint may have been. Nevertheless, any measured consideration, he concludes, of the development in the institutions and infrastructure of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the progressive and more general embourgeoisement of the culture of Catholic devotional life and practice would hardly have been as thorough or as fervent under the stewardship of any other leader. Ó Tuathaigh concludes that we must take care not to read Cullen backwards from an urban, secular, mobile and individualistic Ireland. In the Ireland of the mid- and late nineteenth century, Protestant Ascendancy proved a tenaciously embedded aspect of the apparatus of power and rank: Protestant monopoly of Dublin Corporation was only ended by the 1840 Municipal Reform Act, which replaced a self-perpetuating closed group of exclusively Protestant freemen with an electorate based on property; in 1849 over one million people were receiving outdoor daily relief under the Poor Law, and boards of guardians remained dominated by Protestant landowners; it was not until 1860 that Catholic charities could be registered and thus enabled to operate on a similar basis to Protestant charities; until 1862 every foundling child was automatically registered as Protestant. It is within the context of securing a firm position for educated Catholics that Cullen could plausibly represent his cause as the steady advance of a proud but long-downtrodden Catholic people on the citadel of Protestant privilege in Ireland. This is an important collection of essays, many of which represent scholarship of the highest calibre, covering a range of aspects of social, economic and political change in the second half of the nineteenth century. There are a series of insightful essays from a range of fine historians, other than those discussed here, which will command attention but which unfortunately cannot all be discussed in a conventional review. These include valuable contributions from Eamonn Duffy, Liam Chambers, Matthew Kelly, Miriam Moffitt, Gerard Moran, Andrew Shields and others. In this respect it would be churlish to complain that there are too many contributions or that readers may baulk at tackling the collection in its entirety; this book can be returned to time and again and read selectively on a diverse range of topics.   HI

Conor McNamara lectures in history at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra.


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568