Monday, 16th September 2019

Review – Catholic Historical Review

The Irish College in Rome is a magnificent building, near St. John Lateran. Its fine façade and lovely gardens suggest confidence and permanence, but the College has been in its present (and fifth) location only since 1926. It was founded, in a far humbler setting, in 1628; hence the seventeen essays here published in celebration. The authors include the most eminent living Irish Catholic church historians, so it would be unfair to name any one writer.

Religious orders tend to attract most attention when the Irish Counter-Reformation is being considered, but the first seminary priests are recorded as being active in Ireland as early as 1577. The Irish colleges founded in Catholic Europe were part of an extraordinary (and very successful) effort to provide a learned and devoted diocesan ministry, in accordance with the decrees of the Council of Trent. Father Luke Wadding, O.F.M., and Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi collaborated in founding such a college in Rome. The cardinal [End Page 771] (whose uncle, Pope Gregory XV, had canonized Ignatius Loyola) died young, in 1632, and left his college to the Jesuits, who took over in 1635. Wadding, who had six close Jesuit relatives, was furious. The uproar caused by the young cardinal’s will was typical of the many disagreements amongst Irish exiles of varied backgrounds. The Jesuit direction of the college lasted for 135 years, seventy-one of them with Irish rectors.

Surviving all upheavals, the Irish College became far more important after Catholic emancipation in 1829. It was symbolic that Daniel O’Connell, the architect of emancipation, should leave his heart to the college, where it was subsequently mislaid (it is almost certainly somewhere in the Church of Santa Agata dei Goti, the college’s fourth location). Thomas Kilroy was rector when O’Connell died in 1847 and had an immensely long tenure, living in Rome from 1827 until his death in 1895. He was the agent for the Irish bishops in Rome and worked closely with his predecessor Paul Cullen, who became the first Irish cardinal. They collaborated in the “hibernicization” of the American Catholic Church. This was part of the development of an Irish-born episcopate in every English-speaking country or colony.

The Irish College was awkwardly placed, because Vatican officials recognized the British government as the legitimate authority in Ireland and were impressed when the duke of Norfolk was sent to represent opposition to the tenant agitations in the later nineteenth century. John Hagan, rector for ten years before his death in 1930, cultivated Vatican officials; was agent for Irish, Australian, and New Zealand bishops; and tried to secure Ireland’s interests against the British government, not always with success. He played a pivotal role in persuading the American-born Eamon de Valera to form a political party and enter normal political life (so he founded Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s most successful party). There is a wonderful glimpse of de Valera’s 1926 journey to Rome disguised as a priest.

The illustrations are good in depicting the history of the college, but this book lacks a consideration of St. Oliver Plunkett, the only alumnus to have been canonized. The role of the college in the formation of Irish bishops needs to be examined, for example, in giving the percentage whose background included Roman study (and a Maynooth professorship).

The most startling statements are made in the chapter on the college and Vatican II. Michael Smith, the present bishop of Meath, who was a student during this period, offers some very frank insights into the Irish hierarchy of the time. He states that the Irish bishops did not expect the Council to last long nor make any impact on the life of the Church, said very little at the Council itself and did not try to communicate what was happening, did not seek briefings from theologians nor from other bishops, had a minimal relationship with the Irish journalists assigned to the Council, and only encountered their fellow Irish-born bishops at a dinner toward the end of the Council.

Review by Fergus O’Donoghue SJ, in The Catholic Historical Review, Volume 95 no. 4 (October 2009).