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Radical Irish Priests 1660-1970,
Gerard Moran

Studies in Irish Cistercian History
Colmcille O'Conbhuidhe 


Irish Studies Review

'The Irishness of Irish Catholicism is not in doubt, but its character is. The Irish Catholics of the 1990s remain regular churchgoers but seem part of an institutional church under siege, due to the fallout of scandals and a chronic shortage of priests. The monolithic church of the 1950s is looked back to with a feeling of fond nostalgia or heartfelt distaste, depending on personal view-point. Recent historiography, however, has tended to suggest that the triumphalist church of De Valera and John Charles McQuaid did not have deep roots. Diversity and division were as much a part of the Irish Catholic experience as they were of Irish secular society. These two books reveal a vitality and variety in the church which make its study not the exploration of a static and inward-looking institution but a reflection and focus of many strands of Irish history and society. They are about struggle rather than consolidation. Radicalism, as Donal Kerr reminds us in his introduction to Gerard Moran's collection of Radical Irish Priests, should not be confused with liberalism. Indeed, the polyvalence of radicalism, which in Ireland is rarely concerned with theological disputation but rather with political and social issues, allows Kerr, as a working definition, to propose that a radical is one who, from his own personal perspective, 'challenges the established order, political, social or cultural'.

The contributors to Moran's volume provide a formidably well-documented series of essays which reveal the maturity of Irish ecclesiastical historical studies, a maturity much assisted by the opening-up of Irish archives over the last quarter century. The group of priests is so diffuse in its views that if they were to meet each other anywhere other than between the covers of a book a fight might follow. They were all, in one way or another, patriots, but not of one single understanding of national identity. Liam Inglis (1709-78), 'typical of the key figures in the underground intelligentsia of eighteenth-century Ireland, not least by his obscurity' (p. 17), was a conservative radical who looked back to the Stuart and Catholic monarchy and celebrated it in Irish verse. Arthur O'Leary (1729-1802), an Enlightenment friar, looked to a tolerant society where Catholics and Protestants could live together. Nicholas Sheedy (c.1728-66) was executed on a trumped-up charge and was a reluctant radical. Manus Sweeney (1763-99), a victim of the '98, was one of twenty clerics involved with the French forces. Thaddeus O'Malley (1797-1877) was a supporter of lost causes, including a doomed federalism. Patrick Lavelle (1826-85) was a passionate nationalist; James  Macfadden (1842-1917) a messianic figure prominent in land agitation and honoured as a 'Soggarth aroon' or beloved priest; and John Fahy (1894-1969) was a militant spokesman for agrarian radicalism. Canon Patrick Sheehan (1852-1913), a convinced nationalist whose novels reached a wide audience, saw the teachings of the Catholic church as the solution to Ireland's ills.

Colmcille O'Conbhuidhe (1902-92) was a Cistercian monk of Mellifont Abbey, County Louth, and Studies in Irish Cistercian History is a collection of his papers on the history of the Irish Cistercians from the attempt on the eve of the Reformation to return the white monks to their primitive simplicity to the death of the last Irish Cistercian monk of Holy Cross Abbey, Edmund Cormick, some time before 1752. The  Cistercians, centred at Mount Melleray, with their emphasis on hard manual labour and 'back to basics' mentality were the most prominent monastic order in De Valera's Ireland, but this book again reveals the diversity of the Irish Cistercian Order. It is a long way from the martyrdom of the Abbot of Boyle, Glaisne O'Cuilleánin, via the part played by the Irish Cistercians during the Confederation of Kilkenny in 1643, to the endless controversies between seculars and regulars.

What gives Father Colmcille's book its force is not its theme but the personal authority of the author who has an insider's view of what it is to be a priest and a radical both in his monastic profession and in his work as a promoter of the Irish language. I-le translated both Psalter and the Rule of St Benedict into Irish. In 1968 he proposed the establishment of an Irish-speaking monastery in one of the Gaeltachts in the West of Ireland with a strong Celtic element in its constitution. Father Colmcille himself would not be out of place in a book on 'Radical Irish Priests'.
 

Dominic Aiden Bellenger, Irish Studies Review

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