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Ireland’s Empire: The long reach of the Hiberno-Catholic faith

Book review: Colin Barr examines the ‘Hiberno-Roman’ takeover of seven other national churches

Ireland's Empire: The Roman Catholic Church in the English-Speaking World, 1829-1914
Ireland's Empire: The Roman Catholic Church in the English-Speaking World, 1829-1914
Author: Colin Barr
ISBN-13: 978-1107040922
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Guideline Price: £75

In 2002, at the height of the clerical abuse scandal, Michael McDowell, then minister of justice, said canon law had no more legal status than the rules of a golf club. To develop an analogy, even historians of religion sometimes find ecclesiastical history akin to being cornered by the club bore.

Its preeminent concerns are bishops and bureaucracies, not belief and believers; it is about the administration of the club, how different factions got their men on to the officer board, their improvement of facilities – but seldom about the game itself. Women barely feature and scandals are not laid bare. Too often, the club appears in splendid isolation from society and there is little serious reflection on its institutional culture.

Colin Barr’s Ireland’s Empire is not boring. Confusingly, however, it is subtitled The Roman Catholic Church in the English-Speaking World, 1829-1914. If “the English-speaking world” means places where English was the predominant language, then the focus would be on Britain, North America, Australia and New Zealand; but England and Wales are not examined here and Scotland is hardly mentioned.

Alternatively, if it means areas where English was an official language then the book would concern Britannia and one quarter of a red-spattered globe: here, the only part of Africa explored is South Africa and India is the only part of Asia.


However one defines “the English-speaking world”, a scrubbed-up relation of “the civilised world”, why focus on it? Why not consider all vineyards where Irish Catholics laboured? They include China, target of the Maynooth or Columban Mission in 1918-54, and, from the 1950s, Latin America.

The answer is that Ireland’s Empire is not about missionary endeavours per se; rather, it concerns the politics of the “Hiberno-Roman” takeover of other “national churches” in the mid- to late 1800s. Barr presents seven chapters, each devoted to a country or province – the US, Newfoundland, India, South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – where prelates who looked to Erin’s Green Isle for guidance and personnel (male and female) came to dominate the church, albeit not completely in the US. There are snacks and side dishes, but those seven countries are the meat and potatoes.

In the conclusion Barr briskly surveys the common culture of this “greater Ireland” and gestures towards arguing that, overseas, “the Irish made the church and the church kept them Irish”; at heart, however, Ireland’s Empire is seven studies of takeover.

Size does not matter: the chapter on Australia accounts for a quarter of the text – 122 pages, compared with 55 pages on the US. Nor does periodisation. The subtitle indicates the book begins in 1829, a date plucked from political history (Catholics getting into Westminster), and ends in 1914, the start of the first World War: neither date marks a moment of significance in the seven stories that Barr tells nor, indeed, in patterns of religious migration.

Compounding matters, some chapters start before 1829 and not all run to 1914; all effectively end before “peak Irish mission” in the mid-20th century.

‘The Pope’s chief whip’

Barr’s hopscotch approach – skipping from place to place rather than developing themes – means scenes and characters change more than the action. Each chapter is absorbing, the sum of them less so – unless, that is, one is keenly interested in Paul Cullen, memorably described by Joe Lee as “the Pope’s chief whip in Ireland”.

Whips, of course, do not always get their way. But some historians invest Cullen with omnipotence, crediting him with making practicing Catholics of the masses who had scant regard for their religious obligations before his arrival from Rome as Archbishop of Armagh in May 1850 – and that despite the greatest improvements, notably in church attendance, occurring in western dioceses not overly influenced by him.

An alternative view is that the Great Famine caused this “devotional revolution”. It decimated the lower classes least likely to attend Mass, and the chain migration that it set in train further depleted them in the decades that followed. Population decline rapidly increased the priest to people ratio; there was one priest for every 2,773 Catholics in 1845 and one for every 1,126 by 1901.

Meanwhile, control of national schools gave priests easy access to the young; first confession, first communion and confirmation became life cycle events.

Here, in Ireland’s Empire, Cullen becomes “the United Kingdom’s most enduringly successful imperialist”. he died in 1878, but, in Barr’s telling, his proteges continued to shape the Catholic Church abroad long after his death; Cullen’s “most enduring legacy”, he ventures, was not the church in Ireland but the thoroughly “Hiberno-Romanized” church in Australia.

What are the distinguishing characteristics of “Hiberno-Roman” Catholicism? A stern attitude to sexuality is one. Ask elderly New York Catholics if they would have chosen to confess to an Irish priest or an Italian one after a “ball” or “hop” in the 1950s.

Sexual abuse

Is sexual abuse another feature? In May 2002, some months before McDowell’s rebuke to the bishops, this newspaper carried a provocative article by its religious affairs correspondent, Patsy McGarry, titled “An Irish Disease?”.

“You must have noticed,” McGarry began, “all those Irish names wherever in the English-speaking world clerical child sexual abuse is spoken of. Wherever green was borne. Even allowing for the uniquely high number of Irish men among Catholic priests and religious, this phenomenon is very striking.” And he proceeded to list surnames of abusers in Australia, Canada, the US and Britain; he listed dozens of them.

Barr too acknowledges that “what linked scandal-ridden places such as the eastern United States, Newfoundland, or Australia … was a longstanding Irish ecclesiastical domination”. But pointing to “recent events in Germany, the Netherlands, and Chile”, he insists that “scandals have crossed borders and ethnicities” and dismisses the suggestion that abuse was “attributable to some mysterious flaw in the Irish character”.

Then, conceding that “the church that the Irish built has been particularly susceptible” to abuse, he avers that it was “in part because of the kind of church that the Irish built: unaccountable power, social deference and self-segregation have proved a fertile terrain for predators” – as if “unaccountable power, social deference, and self-segregation” were not features of the church in countries not so tainted.

In contrast, McGarry cited the landmark Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland report, which found that rates of sexual abuse were higher in Ireland than in Britain and the US. The problem, McGarry concluded, was not just within “the cloth”; or, contra Barr, but in his terms, there was a “flaw” in Irish Catholic “character”. And McGarry traced it to social and cultural changes wrought by the Famine, which, in his view, warped the sexuality of many Catholic males.

Estimating rates of sexual abuse is difficult. We will soon have new data: the Department of Justice commissioned a major survey from the Central Statistics Office in 2018 and if it shows rates to be abnormally high here, then it will be social and cultural history – the field in which McGarry sought an explanation for all those Irish surnames among abusers abroad – that will tell us why.

Ireland’s Empire is a well-written, solid study of the politics of the Cullenite takeover of seven national churches; what happened next in “the church the Irish built” awaits a very different type of history.