Roman Catholic Church: 1829 to 1891

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Roman Catholic Church: 1829 to 1891

The period from Catholic Emancipation in 1829 to the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1890 to 1891 saw profound transformation in the Catholic Church in Ireland.

At an institutional level the church moved from a relatively weak position to one where organized Catholicism came to dominate the social and to some extent the political lives of most Irish Roman Catholics. In the process ecclesiastical leadership passed from the hands of accommodating and politically retiring individuals such as Daniel Murray, archbishop of Dublin (1823–1852), and James Doyle, bishop of Kildare and Leighlin (1817–1834), to more robust defenders of the church's prerogatives like Cardinal Paul Cullen (1849–1878) and Archbishop John MacHale (1825–1881).

Cullen and MacHale were unlikely bedfellows, and they frequently clashed on matters of policy. MacHale tended to represent a romantic Gallican and advanced nationalist strain within the church, compared with Cullen's brash ultramontane tendencies. For Cullen, political aspirations were to be placed at the service of the church, and Catholicism itself was the only permissible ideology.

The political coming of age represented by Emancipation coincided with growing social expectations on the part of Irish Catholics, and in 1869 the first Catholic lord chancellor, Thomas O'Hagan, was appointed. This fed Cullen's hopes that at last Catholicism would begin to play a role commensurate with its strength in Irish society.

Political advancement went hand in hand with specific religious developments in the church. Although it is clear that Catholic mores had begun to change early in the nineteenth century, the "devotional revolution" which is particularly associated with Cullen's ministry developed in earnest from 1850 to 1875. In time the church building replaced the home as the center of Irish religious life, and ultimately, Tridentine Counter-Reformation Catholicism triumphed over traditional popular religion. Many of the features of modern Irish Catholicism, such as sodalities and confraternities, have their beginnings in this period. Other, more traditional aspects of Irish Catholic devotional life were greatly strengthened, such as Marianism, which was helped in part by the reputed apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Knock, Co. Mayo, in the summer of 1879.

Like many other changes in Irish society, the transformation of Irish Catholicism into a recognizable product of ultramontane exuberance was facilitated by the Great Famine. The ratio of priests to laypeople dramatically improved, and an emphasis on improving the church's infrastructure meant that more people had access to churches than at any other time in Irish history. The education and training of the clergy received a new impetus with the increase of the state grant to Maynooth College in 1845. The average product of the college was not necessarily an academic high-flyer, but he was nonetheless solidly grounded in Catholic culture and rites. The Maynooth-trained clergy also assisted in the political gains of Catholicism, and Daniel O'Connell's skillful manipulation of the clergy as political agitators helped to ensure the political successes he achieved. The priests also worked to keep the more militant aspects of growing Irish nationalism at bay. Ironically, it was precisely what he regarded as the overpoliticized and anti-Roman elements in the Maynooth education that led Cullen to set up his own seminary in Dublin in 1859.

If the clergy by mid-century were better educated, so too, relatively speaking, were the laity. The national school system set up in 1831 was a major factor. The system was not always to the liking of the Catholic authorities, but policy disagreements among the bishops concerning the system meant that the schools were not as vigorously opposed as they might have been. Even opponents such as MacHale were eventually forced to accept the system as the only means of securing primary education in poor dioceses. The system ultimately replaced the "hedge schools" and on the whole provided a higher standard of education. The popularity of both the hedge schools and the national system is testimony to the high value that Irish peasant society placed on education.

State provision always exceeded the church's ability to meet popular educational demands, despite the activities of religious orders such as the Irish Christian Brothers, founded by Edmund Ignatius Rice in 1802, or the Presentation Sisters, founded by Nano Nagle in 1775. The education of the Catholic middle classes was relatively well provided for by such groups as the Jesuits and, from 1860, by the Holy Ghost Fathers. Individual dioceses also began to build and run secondary schools, and these often were recruiting grounds for the major seminaries such as Maynooth. The education of middle-class girls was facilitated by the expansion of communities of female religious such as the Sisters of Mercy and the Sacred Heart order.

The attempt by the church to immerse itself in university education was not especially successful. Despite the involvement of John Henry Newman and subsequently the Society of Jesus, the hoped-for Catholic University paid for by the public purse never emerged in nineteenth-century Ireland. The Irish Universities Act of 1908 gave the Catholic Church considerable scope to influence the shape of third-level education, at least in what became the Irish Free State. This new authority was, from an ecclesiastical perspective, an enormous improvement over the Queen's Colleges established by an act of Parliament in 1845.

The leading figure in shaping educational policy at its various levels was William Walsh, archbishop of Dublin (1885–1921). Walsh's ascendancy marked the increasing rapprochement between official Catholicism and militant Irish nationalism, which reached its apogee, especially in Ulster, in the activities of the explicitly Catholic-directed Ancient Order of Hiberians. Walsh's tenure as archbishop also saw the foundation of the most successful and enduring of the temperance movements, the Pioneers of the Sacred Heart, which doubtless built on the mid-nineteenth-century work of the "apostle of temperance," Father Theobald Mathew.

The consolidation of Catholicism in Ireland was complemented by its expansion overseas. At any given time, up to a third of the soldiers in the British army were Irish Catholics. Meeting their spiritual needs in the far-flung corners of the British empire produced as a byproduct the strengthening of Catholicism wherever the Union Jack was raised. Such considerations also involved official Vatican pronouncements on Irish political affairs, including the condemnation of Fenianism in 1870 by Pope Pius IX, which was welcomed by Irish bishops, and the condemnation of the Plan of Campaign and of boycotting by Pope Leo XIII in 1888, which was a grave embarrassment to Irish ecclesiastics.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Irish Catholicism in the whole period was its gradual shift toward conformity. Between the late 1820s and the early 1890s the church was characterized by two decisive features: strict obedience to Roman authority and an inclination to identity itself with aggressively nationalist politics. As the downfall of Parnell illustrated, at some level, nationalism had to be firmly under the control of ecclesiastical hierarchy.

SEE ALSO Ancient Order of Hibernians; Cullen, Paul; Devotional Revolution; Doyle, James Warren; Education: Primary Private Education—"Hedge Schools" and Other Schools; Education: Primary Public Education—National Schools from 1831; Education: Secondary Education, Female; Education: Secondary Education, Male; Education: University Education; MacHale, John; Marianism; Maynooth; Murray, Daniel; Overseas Missions; Religion: Since 1690; Religion: Traditional Popular Religion; Religious Orders: Men; Religious Orders: Women; Rice, Edmund; Sodalities and Confraternities; Temperance Movements; Walsh, William Joseph; Primary Documents: The Catholic Relief Act (1829); On Irish Catholicism (1839)


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