Maynooth Monsignor

Published in Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1996), Volume 4

DK:    Tell us about your background and interest in history.

PC:    Both my parents were national school teachers. They had politically divergent views; one was a Fenian and the other a very moderate Home Ruler, but they managed to celebrate their golden wedding jubilee without modifying their political backgrounds! It may sound very parochial, but we grew up with the belief that most of Irish history was concentrated in our native County Wexford! My interest in academic history was initially stirred by my home environment; it was the kind of house where there were always books. I went to school at St Peter’s College in Wexford where history was taken rather lightly and then in 1938 I came to Maynooth. Although it offered courses leading to NUI degrees, in those days Maynooth was a closed seminary institution. Courses were limited and history was not one of them. Classics was my first degree. I then moved on to theology which, although it contained a good deal to enlarge the mind, was utilitarian to a great degree. By far the best lecturer was John Francis O’Doherty, Professor of Ecclesiastical History, and a North of Ireland man. Even in those days ecclesiastical history was a strange subject in the context of Catholic theology courses. From one point of view it was peripheral but from another it was central; there more than anywhere else you got an idea of the Church. So I got hooked on history and presented an extended

'At one extreme is the suggestion that Paul Cardinal Cullen taught the Irish people how to pray.'

‘At one extreme is the suggestion that Paul Cardinal Cullen taught the Irish people how to pray.’

essay for the annual Gilmartin prize. It was a study of Nicholas French, a seventeenth-century bishop of my native diocese of Ferns who lived through most of the century and played a very prominent role with the Kilkenny Confederates. John Francis O’Doherty suggested that I should present it in UCD for an MA which, in due course, I did. John O’Doherty’s health was failing and I found myself his successor on that very slender apprenticeship.

DK:    So O’Doherty was a great influence?
PC:    He influenced me most. The other was Robin Dudley Edwards, under whom I worked for the MA, who was a close friend of O’Doherty’s. In that context I could not avoid falling under the influence of T.W. Moody. So, insofar as I developed into a professional or semi-professional historian, those two must have had the shaping of it. I approached both of them with a healthy blend of reverence and questioning. Even in those early days, while I had great respect for their insistence on exactness and precision, there were some questions in my mind, particularly as I went on professionally to study Christian ecclesiastical history, as to whether they might not possibly be losing some kind of vitality in their historical methods.

DK:    What was the relationship at that stage between ecclesiastical and secular history?

PC:    I hope I won’t be misunderstood if I say that in the 1940s Ireland was still in the Middle Ages, and in the Middle Ages there was no distinction between ecclesiastical and secular history. We have gradually, and in recent years not so gradually, been separating things out. It drives me quite wild to listen to people talking about how we must have a pluralist, secularist society. Secularist society is no more pluralist than the society that I grew up in, which was very strongly Catholic, almost medieval: it wasn’t pluralist, but neither is a secularist society. Another phrase I find very shallow is ‘separation of Church and State’. We have in this country as full a separation of Church and State as most countries, even those which proclaim much stronger principles of separation, but as long as the bulk of the population are believers in religion and paying taxes you can’t separate Church and State: they’ve got to learn to live with one another.

DK:    What of the Maynooth School of History?

PC    I think ‘Maynooth School’ is a bit pretentious for anything we managed to achieve here. The curious thing is that while there were no university courses offered in history, the two largest sections of the library were theology and history, and not ecclesiastical history in the narrow sense either. The college library was built largely from clerical bequests. Priests always had a few volumes of theology but even the country clergy were inclined to have a nice little collection of history books as well; it was very much a clerical avocation in the nineteenth century. So, even though there were no formal degree courses on offer in history until the late Cardinal Ó Fiaich was appointed in 1953, we lived in an atmosphere of history.

DK    Has the fact that you have spent your life teaching restricted your study?

PC:    Obviously there was much less time for research and writing. I started teaching ecclesiastical history, but later switched to general history for NUI courses and for the first time I had post graduate students. Post graduate students are a great stimulus to research if only because you have to keep a couple of jumps ahead of them and with lively young people that can sometimes put it up to you! While I have written throughout my career it is no accident that I only began to produce books after I took on post graduate students.

DK:    Who is your hero figure?

PC    He is not very well known but I very much admire a man called Conor O’Devany. He was from one of the Erenagh families of Raphoe in County Donegal, became an observant Franciscan and, in 1582, was made bishop of Down and Connor in the Roman church of Santa Maria del’ Anima. He represented a rich cultural blend; a mix of traditional Irish things and things coming from the Council of Trent. Because of the circumstances of the time it was politically expedient to execute a Catholic bishop and there weren’t very many of them in the country. So at nearly eighty years of age he was hanged, drawn and quartered in Dublin on St Brigid’s Day 1612.

DK:    Conor O’Devany raises your association with the cause of the Irish martyrs. Is there a value in promoting martyrs?

PC:    I’m speaking as a historian now so we won’t go into the theological concept of promoting martyrs but, as I often say to Protestant friends, it should be refreshing to all of us to find someone willing to die for their faith rather than kill for it. About fifteen years ago, Archbishop Dermot Ryan put together a commission of which I ended up as chairman. We were quite a mixed bag of ageing clerics and younger lay people. We had to prepare material for the judgement of the Roman congregation and we learned an awful lot from one another; some said it was the most stimulating seminar they had ever attended. The demands for the historical scholarship were severe; we had to track and check everything, and from that construct a biography which would establish satisfactorily who was put to death for the Catholic faith. We picked seventeen martyrs, trying to take them from all walks of life and social classes, to be as representative as possible. We put in the best work we could do and as it proved to be acceptable they were beatified. From the point of view of a historian, it was a stimulating business. The commission met regularly, people undertook different tasks, drafts were circulated, we criticised one another’s work and we all learned. It was a very satisfying engagement.

DK:    What is the current state of Irish church history?

PC:    Well it has moved on quite a bit, but it has still some distance to go. I remember my mentor, Dudley Edwards, suggested a topic once, a problem of Church and State. Looking back, I probably seemed a young pup in his eyes. I said, ‘Dudley, anything will make a problem in Church and State if you look at it for long enough!’ I take some credit in pointing the question away from politics towards religion. Church history is not primarily the relationship of the Church and the State but the relation of the Church to individual Christians. Inevitably, the first step in that is clergy-centred. It is comparatively easy to form some estimate of what the clergy thought they were doing for the laity. As to what the laity thought the clergy were doing, that’s a different question. By its very nature evidence for this is far more scattered and uncertain. Nevertheless, we should now be well poised to move over to a history of Christian religion which starts in the laity rather than in the clergy. I won’t live to see it, but I’m handing it down to the next generation.

DK:    Would you accept the theory of a devotional revolution in the nineteenth century?

PC:    Yes, but it is a very complex issue. There has been a good deal of work on that recently. At one extreme is the suggestion that Paul Cardinal Cullen first taught the Irish people how to pray. At the other is the impression that down to the mid-nineteenth century, most Irish people were still secretly worshipping Crom Cruach or his equivalent. There is no doubt that the second half of the nineteenth century saw the widespread dissemination of what had been a minority culture; the Catholic religious culture of the middle class and the towns. That culture was derived from the Council of Trent, as was all Catholic spirituality down to comparatively recent times. With the better off people and in the towns, there is a good deal more continuity than our traditional history would normally allow for. It can be seen quite clearly from the beginnings of the Catholic Reformation in the seventeenth century. As you move down the social classes and away from the towns, however, you come up against two new questions; the difference between the religious instruction of those who can read and those who can’t; and the difference in the instruction between those whose language was Irish rather than English. The Tridentine Catholicism of the middle class and the towns was the Catholicism of a people who could read English. About the middle of the nineteenth century, far more people became literate in English on account of the national schools. After that, the re-organisation of the Church was carried out by a generation whose figurehead was Cardinal Cullen. So what had been a minority religious culture became the majority culture over a generation or so. It stumbled a lot along the way; it stalled the spirituality which expressed itself through the Irish language and a great deal of traditional practices disappeared almost overnight. That’s another problem, because when some historians look at poor or Irish-speaking communities and conclude that they had never heard of the Council of Trent they have decided that they’re not Catholics at all. That is not an historical judgement.

DK:    Chronologically, when would you locate the devotional revolution?

PC:    It depends on where you are. Some would tell you it took place about 1625. In a place like Bangor Erris in County Mayo it probably took place about 1850 or 1860 when the first English-speaking missions were conducted there. Local history is terribly important. Down to comparatively recently, the cultural life of Ireland was a culture of localities. We all know the story of James Stephens recruiting for the Fenians in Connacht where he was asking them would they fight and they said, ‘yes of course we’ll fight’. ‘If the British send an army against you, will you fight?’ ‘Of course’, they replied. ‘If you’ve Leinster men marching in arms what will you do?’ ‘We’ll fight them too!”

DK:    Is ‘Maynooth priest’ a useful description of the nineteenth-century Catholic priest?

PC:    It is useful but not to the extent which it has been used. The changing character of the Catholic priest in the nineteenth century reflects the changes in society more than the fact that they were being educated in Maynooth. Catholic society was beginning to return to the political nation and that scared a lot of people. When O’Connell decided he needed the clergy as leaders, some priests took to politics like ducks to water but others had to be pushed. However, the emerging democracy was Catholic and in those circumstances the clergy almost inevitably emerged as leaders. They didn’t take up that position because they were being educated in Maynooth rather than in Paris. You also find Maynooth priests described as Gallican because they were taught by Frenchmen, but of course their predecessors in pre-revolutionary Paris were also taught by French professors. There was no great change in the teaching between Paris and the early days of Maynooth but when John MacHale joined the staff in 1820, you find what I’ve recently called ‘the greening of the staff’.

DK:    How did your approach to the bicentenary history of Maynooth differ from John Healy’s who wrote the centenary one?

PC:    In the 1890s, the Catholic clergy were quite clear where they were going; in fact, a number of them thought they had arrived! Now in the 1990s we know we haven’t got there, which is a salutary thought, and to some extent, we’re not too clear about where we’re going. That in itself is going to make a massive difference to the approach to a historical question like the story of Maynooth College.

DK:    What were the difficulties involved in writing the history?

PC:    The difficulty is always that which passes under the title of ‘contemporary history’. I would have preferred to have finished about 1965, but there have been such massive changes since then that you couldn’t tell a story from 1795 to 1965 and market it as a bicentenary history. Tackling the events of his or her own lifetime presents great problems for any historian, dealing with people who are still alive who, unlike the dead, can be hurt and libelled. Given the storms that the Catholic church in Ireland, as everywhere else, has passed through over the last thirty years, this produced very great problems indeed. I found that very difficult to handle and realised that what I had done on this period would certainly have to be redone in more detail when we are all safely dead.

DK:    And revisionism?

PC:    Well it’s in the nature of history to be revisionist. I’ve just been talking about the different approaches to the history of Maynooth. You don’t have to be a historicist to accept that history is the present interrogating the past. The present rubs off on the past, so it’s the very nature of history to be revisionist. What I would be afraid of sometimes is that revisionism can turn into journalism—when you look at the top of a text to see if it’s headed by that awful word ‘exclusive’. There is that danger, the need to justify books when there are so many being churned out. It is not true of Irish history yet, since there is still an enormous amount of real work which we haven’t even begun to do.

DK:    How would you answer critics who believe that as a Catholic priest it is virtually impossible for you to write impartial church history?

PC:    Inevitably a priest is open to the accusation of being blinkered, but aren’t we all to a certain extent? However, a priest has certain clear advantages. His basic professional preparation gives him a good concept of what the Christian church is about. He ought to have an equally strong idea as to what the Christian church should be about. Contrasting those two ideas should develop the critical faculties. He will have spent more time at this than the lay historian, and his general background will include a formation in philosophy and theology. This passes the layman by since, perhaps more than any other country in the world, there is an enormous gap in that area of Irish education.

DK:    Could you recall for us your work towards the history of the Irish church which you began editing in the 1960s?

PC:    In 1961 we celebrated the centenary of the death of St Patrick. Many people said it was the wrong date, but one date was as good as another. At a meeting of the Irish Catholic Historical Committee there was talk of celebrating the event with a large garden party at Maynooth. This absolutely filled me with horror. So, in a weak moment I suggested a history of the Irish church. Everybody was enthusiastic, so enthusiastic that they appointed me general editor. The planning caused difficulties, but that was only the beginning of troubles. People accepted commitments and quite a number of them delivered. So the years went by and those who had their chapters in, and the publishers, were wondering when they would see publication. The final compromise was to divide the lot into a series of fascicules. I think we got out three fifths of it, but it was unsatisfactory in that things were printed as they came and there was no possibility of overall editing. Some were quite uneven, but you still see them in that last guarantee of immortality, the footnotes to other people’s works. I often regretted, and indeed the thought lingered in my mind, that it would have been much less trouble to have tried the whole thing myself. Again, in a weak moment I mentioned this to the publisher and this generated The Irish Catholic Experience (Dublin 1985). So that’s the link between those two projects.

DK:    What’s your favourite book?

PC:    Here I’m going to show my age. It’s Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars, which deals with the scholars of the early middle ages, among whom were a considerable number of Irish wanderers. I treasure a first edition which was published in 1927. She had an immense learning on the culture of what is sometimes ignorantly referred to as the Dark Ages. Had I been granted my preferred option in life, I would liked to have done post-graduate seminars about the cultural history of the tenth to twelfth centuries. It was an exciting time but unfortunately real life has been rather more rough and tumble.

Dáire Keogh lectures in history at University College Galway.


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