The European culture wars in Ireland: the Callan schools affair, 1868–81

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 2(March/April 2011), Reviews, Volume 19

The European culture wars in Ireland: the Callan schools affair, 1868–81 Colin Barr (University College Dublin Press, €50) ISBN 9781906359539

The European culture wars in Ireland:
the Callan schools affair, 1868–81
Colin Barr
(University College Dublin Press, €50)
ISBN 9781906359539

With typical Irish flare for understatement, the series of events outlined in Colin Barr’s book came generally to be known as the ‘Callan case’, which conjures up images of an insignificant incident in the rural Ireland of the latter half of the nineteenth century. As the title of the book intimates, however, there were far wider and more important influences at work that both fed off and fed into some of the most pressing political issues of the time. In this broader sweep, a dispute between a parish priest and his bishop is examined not only with regard to the challenge it posed for discipline within the Irish church but also for that church’s relations with civic authority, and the excitement it aroused among many in Europe who feared the Ultramontane thrust of the church of Pius IX. The varied responses to this threat of ‘papal aggression’ outside of cisalpine Europe were strongly influenced by the Kulturkampf policies of Bismarck’s administration.

In the late 1860s Fr Robert O’Keeffe, parish priest of Callan, Co. Kilkenny, invited the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, based at Beziers in France, to establish a convent and school in his parish. Crucially, he had not sought the permission of Bishop Edward Walsh of Ossory. Post facto this permission was not forthcoming, and deteriorating relations between O’Keeffe and his ordinary culminated in the parish priest’s suspension. O’Keeffe then took the unusual step of recourse to the civil courts—which exacerbated the situation—charging his bishop, the vicar-general of the diocese, Edward McDonald, and Cardinal Cullen, along with other lesser members of the clergy, with libel. O’Keeffe’s position as chaplain to the Callan workhouse and manager of a number of national schools in the parish ensured that the Irish civil administration would become mired in the controversy. The decisions of the Poor Law Commission and, more particularly, the National Board of Education to acquiesce in Cullen’s request that the recalcitrant priest be relieved of his positions ensured that the matter would be the subject of debate in the House of Commons. Its failure to support O’Keeffe was the single most important factor in forcing him, after a decade of defiance, to seek reconciliation with his church.

Colin Barr’s book, well organised, closely referenced, written with authority but not at the expense of lucidity, will be the standard reference for future scholars delving into the controversy but yet accessible to the reader with a general interest in the period. Considering that much of the extensive primary material displays varying degrees of aridity and turgidity, the author has done a remarkably fine job in reducing these sources to a form in which they convincingly support the narrative and the analysis but never intrude unduly.

The European context—the struggle between the supporters of the Kulturkampf and the proponents of Ultramontanism—is dealt with thoroughly in the introduction. This then provides the framework for the treatment of the subject free from the distraction of continually adverting to the broader canvas. The book’s final chapter concisely summarises and examines the factors that prompted Gladstone’s government to promote political expediency over natural justice—it needed the support of a Cullen-dominated Irish church more than it could afford to care about the rights of an individual subject. The central chapters of this book are thus left, principally, to the main players at local and national level—clerical, lay and judicial—and the manner in which parliament wrestled with its dilemma.

If there is a weak point in the author’s thesis, it centres on O’Keeffe’s early years as a clergyman. There is documentary evidence of an ongoing interest in education and good relations with the local Callan gentry, Cuffes and Agars, but little else. There is the implication that relations between the priest and his bishop were not always smooth. While he railed against Ultramontanism, there is no evidence adduced to suggest that he ever was consciously Gallican in outlook. Tantalisingly elusive also is the role of Edward McDonald, the vicar-general, who may have had a much more proactive role than previously thought. These shortcomings are due solely to the absence of relevant archival material.

The book is at its most compelling in assessing the evidence of the various interested parties. Cardinal Cullen, while a doughty warrior, in retrospect does not fare well. The author, in using the expression of a more recent archbishop of Dublin, accuses him of indulging in the sophistry of ‘mental reservation’. But it seems also from the evidence given that mendacity was not confined to the cardinal. Alexander Macdonnell, for many years the de facto decision-maker at the National Board of Education, is quoted by the author as stating to the committee of inquiry that he had not ‘ever known of a single change made by the national board . . . under Catholic dictation or pressure’. This was a blatant lie, as the involvement of Archbishop Cullen in the well-publicised controversy over the removal of Revd James M’Gawley from the staff of the Central Training College in 1856 on grounds of immorality clearly shows.

My sense of O’Keeffe from this book is that of a man naïve and headstrong, yes, a Gallican, no, but, fatally for him, one who consistently underestimated his opponents, particularly Cardinal Cullen, and put too much faith in those whom he, not unreasonably, thought should back him.  HI

Joseph Doyle is a retired national schoolteacher.



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