Cardinal Paul Cullen – Dons, Popes, Brits and Fenians…

Cardinal Paul Cullen was a colossus who towered above Victorian Ireland. So why, today, is he so unfamiliar and so unloved? Some historians say he was the most significant Irishman between O’Connell and Parnell; but many others do not. Cullen’s detractors seize upon four touchstone areas – dons, popes, Brits and Fenians. Lazy judgements often follow.

From the outset, it is important to recognise Cullen’s extraordinary ascent. The son of a strong farmer from County Kildare, his piety and precocious academic ability set him apart. At 17, he left Ireland to begin his undergraduate studies at the Pontifical Urban College in Rome. The young scholar quickly mastered Italian, the networking language of the Holy See. He also became fluent in Latin, Hebrew and Greek, revelling in Divinity and Church Tradition. At the age of 25, Cullen was invited to participate in a high-profile theological disputation (tournament) presided over by Pope Leo XII and attended by no less than ten cardinals. He stole the show. The Holy Father subsequently conferred on him the doctor’s cap. Cullen succeeded to the Chairs of Hebrew and Sacred Scripture at Propaganda College.

During those three decades in Rome, Cullen never fully left Ireland. In 1832, he was elevated to the position of Rector of the Irish College, a coveted headship he held until 1850. The Irish seminarians who trained there would become Cullen’s future conservative cadres in dioceses across Ireland. Cullen wanted to use his growing influence over successive reactionary popes to begin his assault, from the Eternal City, upon ‘Gallicanism’ within the Irish Church. The man from Narraghmore parish had identified the enemy within – the ‘Castle bishops’ who were consorting with the Protestant Ascendancy class and the O’Connellite bishops who were cavorting with populist Irish nationalists.

Cullen was appointed Archbishop of Armagh in 1849 and returned to Ireland the following year. Ireland had been utterly devastated by An Gorta Mór. One million had died from starvation and disease and a further million fled. The Reverend Doctor had not been unmoved by the famine and had organised relief efforts from Rome, but his priorities lay elsewhere. Cullen convened a synod in Thurles, the first in Ireland since the Reformation, to accelerate the Romanisation of the Irish Church. He demanded uniformity and discipline. The famine had wiped out much of the cottier class, but the strong Catholic farmers and bourgeoisie were now ready to challenge for power. Cullen, like many of the Irish priests, came from that stratum. Their day was coming.

Paul Cullen’s long stint in Rome profoundly moulded him. It began with the ongoing papal reaction against revolutionary France and ended with the upheaval of the short-lived Roman Republic. Cullen shared Rome’s detestation of republicanism. In 1849, Italian Republicans had tried to bring freedom of religion and free elections to the Papal States. Pope Pius IX denounced these liberal agitators, fled to Gaeta and invited Austrian, Spanish and French military intervention to crush the ungodly. The Papal States may have survived the calamities of 1849-50, but the forces of Italian nationalism were gathering momentum and the 1860s would see the ‘Vicar of Christ’s’ once extensive temporal power reduced to the Vatican quarter in Rome. Cullen was incensed.

Revolution had to be confronted at the earliest stage and Paul Cullen was an unflinching champion of Catholic education. Educated (ironically) in a Quaker school, he always spoke very fondly of ‘the Friends’. But Cullen was implacably opposed to the new non-denominational Queen’s universities that were established in 1845 in Belfast, Cork and Galway – he denounced them as ‘Peel’s godless colleges’ – and he insisted on an Irish Catholic University where teaching would be the preserve of the Catholic clergy. Cardinal John Henry Newman, his great contemporary and co-religionist, had a broader vision of Catholic education and clashed repeatedly with Cullen on this matter.

Context is important when trying to understand Cullen’s views on pedagogy. Cullen’s parents had grown up in an Ireland of the Penal Laws and Catholic hedge schools, with only Anglicans allowed to enrol in Trinity College. He also feared contagion from revolutionary France with its attendant anti-clericalism and strict separation of Church and State. Cullen’s antidote was a priesthood of educators. But more than this, he was deeply suspicious of modernity and the new creeds of liberalism, rationalism and democracy. In the battle for eternal Catholic souls, a rigorous Catholic education would provide the Armour of Christ.

Many Orthodox and Oriental Christians, Protestants and dissenting Catholics are aware that Paul Cullen’s erudite fingerprints were all over the 1870 doctrine of Papal Infallibility, which they view as an errant departure. Such a strident assertion of Papal Supremacy revealed Cullen’s Ultramontanism (unwavering obedience to the pontiff beyond the Alpine mountains). Cullen wanted to bring the erratic Irish Church more firmly under the control of a centralising Roman curia. Post-Catholic Ireland is, of course, less impressed by Cullen’s drive for greater clerical power and historians question the Petrine Doctrine upon which the assertion of Papal Infallibility is based. Cullen, however, was assured in his handiwork.

The relationship between Protestant Britain and the Vatican was a difficult one, although things had somewhat improved after the introduction of Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Obviously Rome had concerns about what it viewed as a heretical Anglican elite oppressing Irish Catholics; yet the Vatican also saw a tremendous opportunity in the spiritual mission that Ireland could perform within the vast British Empire that covered one-fifth of the world’s landmass. Catholic Dublin had vied with Presbyterian Glasgow for the second city of the empire and Cullen asserted huge influence over the appointment of Catholic bishops across the anglophone world. The now Cardinal Cullen was an ecclesiastical imperialist and he oversaw Catholic Ireland’s fulsome missionary outreach, from Calcutta to Canberra to Capetown. The sun never set on Cullen’s missionaries dispatched across Victoria’s Empire.

The Primate of Ireland wanted a Catholic theocracy, not an Irish Republic. He saw revolutionary nationalism as more irreligious than the British Crown. Cullen believed that if Irishmen revolted against the authority of the state (however flawed) they would also ultimately reject the authority of the Church. Cullen was also aghast that Republicans wanted to separate Church and State – he wanted the Catholic Church to again become the Established Church in Ireland. This was the source of Cullen’s contempt for the Young Irelanders and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and his instruction to withhold access to the Sacraments from active Republicans. He also called on priests to use the confessional to turn Fenians back to Mother Church.

The funeral of Terence Bellew McManus, in 1861, saw a very public clash between Cullen and Irish Republicans. McManus, a Young Irelander, had died in California, and the Fenian Brotherhood wanted to return his remains to his homeland. Cullen refused to allow the pro-Cathedral in Dublin to be used for a Requiem Mass or for any monument to be erected on holy Catholic ground. This did not deter a huge turnout in both Irish-America and back home as McManus’ remains made their way from Queenstown (Cobh) to Dublin; but Cullen was not for turning.

And yet, Cullen was no ‘Castle Catholic’. Contrary to popular belief, he only visited Dublin Castle once, and on that occasion, he successfully petitioned the Viceroy to overturn the execution of Thomas Burke, a leading IRB man. In fact, a British lord lieutenant had once described Cullen as ‘the most malignant enemy of the English government in Ireland’.

Cullen’s legacy is indeed considerable. He was the most influential draughtsman within the mid-19th century Vatican world, central to framing the contentious dogma on both the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Papal Infallibility. He breathed new confidence and discipline into the Irish Catholic Church, which unnerved and helped disempower the ruling Protestant Ascendancy. He became the first Irish Cardinal. He oversaw Ireland becoming the most pious country in Northern Europe, with almost universal mass attendance and Roman rules applied in every parish. And he played a leading role in shaping the religious lives of the Catholic faithful across the British Empire.

Paul Cullen will continue to unite Sinn Féiners and Free Presbyterians in their chorus of disapproval (albeit for very different reasons). But the past stands on its own terms, as does Cullen. Without Cullen it is difficult to understand the confidence and strength of the Irish Catholic Church deep into the 20th century; or the fusion of Catholicism and Nationalism; or unionist fears that Home Rule would lead to Rome Rule; or De Valera’s Ireland; or the excesses of clerical power. Even today, in the reactionary backlash against Pope Francis, we can see the Irishman’s heirs. Cullen also foresaw the possibility that the Irish people might realise his greatest fear and trade Catholic piety for secular republicanism. We should not underestimate how popular, influential and prescient he was.


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