The rededication of St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford last month was the culmination of its massive five-year restoration project. It also provided an occasion to reflect on its 175-year history since it was first dedicated on May 19th, 1840, in a ceremony attended by more than 40,000 people.
Just three days ahead of that, on May 16th, 1840, another event occurred in Catholic circles which would prove as enduring, though not perhaps as widely feted.
The Tablet, the progressive Catholic weekly which is the second oldest British journal after the Spectator, was launched in London by Frederick Lucas, a Quaker convert to Catholicism.
Just one letter was published in the first issue, penned by the champion of Catholic Emancipation Daniel O'Connell. He wrote: "I am rejoiced to find that the Catholics of Great Britain and Ireland have at length an organ to communicate to the public facts of importance to the religious liberty of all classes."
As with most new ventures, there were initial challenges. Lucas was outspoken and Tory-influenced opposition resulted in two rival Tablets existing during 1842.
Irish Catholicism, and specifically Daniel O’Connell, came to the assistance of what is today one of the most esteemed Catholic journals in the world when its future hung in the balance. At a meeting in Dublin in 1841, O’Connell secured 500 new subscribers helping to strengthen Lucas’s hand against his opponents who wanted a more establishment-leaning publication.
Move to Dublin
The offices of the
moved from London to Dublin in 1849 ,and remained there until Lucas’s death in 1855.
During those years Lucas was elected MP for Meath in 1852, after establishing the Irish Tenant Right League with Charles Gavan Duffy in 1850.
A clash with the Irish bishops over the hierarchy's instruction to clergy to abstain from nationalist politics prompted Lucas to appeal to Rome in person in 1854. Vatican indifference left him disappointed and he died the following year. Not for the first time a member of the laity was shut out by the powers that be in the Catholic Church.
More recently, contributors have included Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Popes Benedict XVI and Paul VI.
As part of its celebration of 175 years of uninterrupted publication, a Mass will be celebrated by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at 11am on Sunday, June 7th, in St Mary's Pro Cathedral in Dublin at which readers and supporters of the Tablet will be welcome.
A week later, the Tablet Literary Festival will take place in Birmingham and writers Antonia Fraser, David Lodge and Andrew O'Hagan, as well as the historian Roy Foster, will debate faith and fiction. A number of other events are lined up for the autumn including a concert in Dublin in November with Our Lady's Choral Society.
As to the future direction of the
in this rapidly changing world of publishing and Catholicism, some guidance might be gleaned from Archbishop Martin in his 2013 address to the “Faith of Our Fathers” conference in Kilkenny. He warned against uncritical lovers of the church who, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, try to deny the existence of tensions and problems.
“The Catholic media will not be credible if it does not confront sins, abuse, weaknesses and failings within our community,” he warned.
Respect for the readership is something the Tablet has always adhered to – a policy favoured by Pope Francis. Last December, the pope said: "Audiences have a right to be treated as people with both a brain and a heart, and to receive the information they need to make judgments about what is going on in the world."
Sarah Mac Donald is a Dublin journalist who contributes to the Tablet