IRELAND’S EMPIRE: the Roman Catholic Church in the English-speaking world, 1829–1914

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9781107040922

Reviewed by Oliver P. Rafferty SJ

Oliver P. Rafferty SJ is professor of modern Irish and ecclesiastical history at Boston College.

Colin Barr sets out to tell the story of the dominance of the Irish Catholic Church in the English-speaking world in the nineteenth century, and what a tale he has told. He demonstrates time and again not only that the Irish dominated in places as far apart as Newfoundland and Australia but also that Irish identity throughout this vast spiritual empire endured by adherence to the Church. Francis Moran, the nephew of Cardinal Paul Cullen and himself cardinal archbishop of Sydney, could boast that ‘the sun never sets on the spiritual empire which exults in St Patrick’s apostolate’ (p. 398). The Irish established what Barr describes as a ‘Hiberno-Roman’ texture to Catholicism in this ‘Greater Ireland’. Not only that but the Irish would also, in many instances, come to control those who resisted them—French clergy in Canada, Germans in the United States, English and Spanish Benedictines in Australia and French Marists in New Zealand. One fact in all this was the sheer size of the Irish Catholic diaspora.

Not only was Irish identity essential in the coherence of Catholicism in the seven countries Barr examines but it also instilled in subsequent generations a sense that Irishness could not easily be separated from the practice of the Catholic faith. Denis Hurley, the future archbishop of Durban, was asked as a child what his religion was, and he replied ‘Irish’. An Irish Christian Brother working in Newfoundland could claim in 1898 that the boys in their schools there were as Irish as any in Ireland. That sense had been inculcated by the Brothers themselves, by the books they used throughout the world, including their vastly popular Irish History Reader. The emergence of a hybrid identity enabled the Irish and Catholic elements to coalesce with specific national characteristics to give rise to Irish-Americans, Irish-Australians, Irish-Canadians, etc.

Irish Catholicism in America and the British Empire ‘fused ultramontane piety, social controls and Irish ethnicity’ (p. 469). The idea was not only to ensure a Catholic identity from the cradle to the grave but also to guarantee as far as possible that it was Irish. This led individual bishops in the spiritual empire who were not Irish to go out of their way to express their complete identification with Ireland—from the insincere posturing of the English Benedictine John Bede Polding, archbishop of Sydney, who praised the Irish in public only to sneer at them in private, to the attitudes of the English-born Marist Francis Redwood, bishop of Wellington, which were ‘sincere and tactical’. Indeed, the survival of the Marists in New Zealand could only obtain by the ‘greening’ of their congregation.

The ethos of Irish Catholicism in America and the British Empire was marked by rigid adherence to Ultramontanism, a rejection of mixed marriages (in fact, Ne Temere of 1908 was an instance of the Holy See catching up with Irish practice), the use of parish missions to bind the community socially and religiously, and the insistence on Catholic education at every level. Apart from Christian Brothers, much of the educational attainment was the work of nuns, who went in their thousands to overseas Irish missions and built schools and convents everywhere they settled. One such was the remarkable Sister of Mercy Mother Vincent Whitty, the fourth superior of the Baggot Street community and the founder of what became the Mater Hospital, Dublin. She was one of a handful of people to whose judgement Paul Cullen deferred (p. 328).

Cullen was the towering figure who made the Irish spiritual empire possible. Influential from his days as a young priest, it helped that one of his great teachers and friends in Rome was Murano Cappellari, the future Pope Gregory XVI. Until 1874 Cullen’s power could be felt everywhere except in England, and he had the ear of two of the three prefects of Propaganda Fide in his priestly lifetime.

Based on research in a hundred archives on five continents, and supplemented by wide reading in secondary literature, Barr’s work is an extraordinary achievement. It is, however, not as synthetic a production as one might have hoped for from such an established scholar. The seven chapters give wonderful individual histories of the Church in the countries Barr examines, but the picture is somewhat disparate. There is some attempt in the introduction and conclusion to synthesise general trends, and from time to time this is also apparent in some individual chapters, but a thematic approach might have yielded better results. There are occasional misstatements, too many to list here. He confuses, for example, the primary indicative vote on infallibility at Vatican I, 13 July 1870, when 88 bishops voted against the proclamation, with the final and definitive vote on 18 July, when only two, including an Irishman, Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock, voted against papal infallibility. This and other minor blemishes do not detract from what is a magnificent achievement that will be constantly referenced for years to come.


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