Paul Cullen (1803–78) was born on 29 April 1803, near Prospect, Co. Kildare, the third son in a family of fifteen children (eight boys and seven girls). He belonged to a prosperous farming family with clerical connections. He was educated initially at Shackleton Quaker School nearby. In 1816, at the age of 14, he went to study for the priesthood at Carlow College. In 1820, he was offered a place at Maynooth College by Dr James Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin (1819–34), to prepare for the priesthood. Doyle had been impressed by his abilities when he was a professor at Carlow College. Cullen’s father was against his attending Maynooth because students had to swear an oath of allegiance to the King of England. Instead, at the urging of his uncle, James Maher, he was sent to the Urban College of Propaganda Fide in Rome. Aged 17 when he arrived in Rome; he was 47, a Roman by culture, and Archbishop of Armagh, when he left it. Rome had shaped his life.
In his first year, Cullen was recognised as a promising student, especially in languages (Latin, Hebrew and Italian), and was granted a free place in the college. He was an excellent student, a prize-winner with all the qualities of a good seminarian. In 1826, he took first prize in dogmatic and moral theology, Hebrew, and Greek. The prizes were presented by Pope Leo XII. He took his doctorate in theology in 1828, and defended it in the presence of the Pope. He was ordained in 1829 by Cardinal Caprano. His bishop, James Doyle, wanted him back in Ireland to teach in Carlow College, but the Roman authorities held on to him. Cullen was appointed Professor of Greek, Hebrew and Scripture in his old college. In 1832, he was made Rector of the Irish College in Rome by Pope Gregory XVI, a position he held until 1849.
Cullen was appointed the official agent in Rome of the Irish bishops. This had two important results. First, the position carried a salary of £100 per annum, a comfortable income. Second, as the bishops’ agent (something he was very good at), he got to know about all Irish church business done at Rome, he became well known to the papal officials, and made powerful friends in the Curia. He was on the inside track. He was a close friend of the great scholar August Theiner, an expert consultant to the Curia, whose Vetera monumenta (Rome 1864) contains the Popes’ correspondence about Ireland, 1216–1547.
The Irish College in Rome expanded under Cullen’s careful rule. Student numbers doubled—from twenty in 1832 to over forty in 1835. As Rector, he became a close friend of two popes, Gregory XVI and Pius IX. He used his position and contacts to protect the interests of the Irish church, and to counter British influence at the Vatican. Pope Gregory XVI, anxious to keep Cullen in Rome, presented him with the convent and beautiful church of St Agatha of the Goths on the Quirinal to house the expanding Irish community.
At home, the bishops were bitterly divided over education. Most accepted the national school system, established in 1832. Although the Government controlled it, the Catholic Church was able to influence how the schools were run, and some bishops were satisfied with that. By 1838, John MacHale, Archbishop of Tuam, had persuaded himself that the British Government was going to use the schools to undermine the faith of Irish Catholic children. But Daniel Murray, Archbishop of Dublin, was a member of the Board that governed the educational system. MacHale accused Murray of being a ‘castle bishop’ and a betrayer of his Church. A bitter public quarrel between the bishops went on for the next three years, and both sides made appeals to Rome. The Vatican consulted Cullen who advised that the schools were no danger to faith. In 1841, Propaganda gave its astute decision: let each bishop deal with the matter in his own diocese as he thought fit.
But the quarrel between Murray and MacHale broke out again when the Government decided to establish three non-denominational Queen’s Colleges to give university education to Catholics and Presbyterians. Cullen and most of the bishops were unwisely and intemperately opposed to this plan, and in 1848 Pope Pius IX categorically condemned the Queen’s Colleges as a danger to the faith.
Soon Rome was swept into revolution; the Pope fled in disguise, and a Roman Republic was proclaimed. In the crisis, Cullen made himself very useful. He took over as Rector of the Urban College which he skilfully protected. He was still Rector of the Irish College and he gave asylum there to several clerics and cardinals wanted by the republican regime. The Pope’s gratitude knew no bounds. The Archbishop of Armagh, William Crolly, died in April 1849. The bishops were so bitterly divided that the Pope decided to appoint Crolly’s successor himself. He selected his good friend Cullen in December 1849. He was consecrated as Archbishop of Armagh in February 1850 and sent to Ireland as Apostolic Delegate [papal representative to a country with no diplomatic relations with Rome] to reform the church and put an end to the in-fighting of the bishops. Cullen was an unconditional and life-long supporter of Pius IX. When Pius IX called on Catholics in early 1860 to help him defend his temporal power against France and Piedmont-Sardinia, Cullen launched a national appeal and collected the vast sum of £80,000 [approx €7.8 million]. He also recruited an ineffectual Irish Brigade, commanded by Major Myles O’Reilly, to defend the Papal States against Garibaldi in 1859. His reward: he was made cardinal in 1866 by Pius IX.
Within three months of his return to Ireland, Cullen undertook his first major task, the Synod of Thurles (1850). It was the first national synod held in Ireland for centuries. Its purpose was to restore ecclesiastical discipline and bring reform and unity to the divided Irish church. In May he was translated to Dublin. Now he was much concerned with education. He tried to counter the interdenominational education provided by the Queen’s Colleges by establishing the Catholic University in 1854. He invited John Henry Newman, a distinguished Oxford convert from Anglicanism, to be the University’s first Rector. Cullen’s ambition—one shared by Newman—was that the Catholic University would become Europe’s leading English-speaking Catholic University, and that it would attract students from the English-speaking world, including the United States, In this he was to be disappointed. The Government yielded to Cullen’s demand for denominational liberty in education, and set up the Powis Commission of Inquiry in 1869. This commission eventually adopted many of Cullen’s proposals. One was the denominational training of teachers. In 1875, St Patrick’s Training College, Drumcondra, was founded.
Cullen was also a strict disciplinarian and worked incessantly to improve the morale, the education, and the lives of the clergy. He was suspicious about Maynooth’s independence (such as it was) and he got it firmly under the control of the bishops. In 1859, he founded the diocesan seminary, Holy Cross College at Clonliffe. He established the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in 1864, an official journal for the clergy to communicate papal encyclicals, decisions, and instructions to priests and religious, and to inform them on history, literature, and the Catholic position on current intellectual problems. This was part of his efforts to bring the Catholic Church in Ireland into line with Roman practice.
By 1860, Cullen had reduced MacHale’s once formidable power base among the bishops to three or four in a body of thirty and he had become the dominant figure in the Irish church. He cared nothing for the criticisms of politicians, of any persuasion. He was against priests in politics and, heedless of his own unpopularity, he opposed all political movements that did not, in his view, serve the Catholic Church and Ireland. Though he had helped Frederick Lucas to win the Co. Meath seat in 1852, Cullen opposed the Independent Irish Party. He had a Roman cleric’s hatred of secret societies. He condemned Young Ireland (he denounced Gavan Duffy as ‘an Irish Mazzini’), the Fenians (‘a compound of folly and wickedness’; he had them proscribed by Pius IX in 1870), and the Independent Irish Party as ‘sowers of dissension, and a source of ruin to the Irish cause’. In 1861 he forbade the use of the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, for the lying-in-state of Terence Bellew McManus, the Young Irelander. His petition to the Viceroy did, however, save General Thomas F. Burke, the Fenian leader, from hanging. He disapproved of the Home Rule movement and its leader, the Protestant Isaac Butt. His aim was to get redress by constitutional means for what he saw as the wrongs of previous centuries. He tried to channel nationalism, away from the Fenians and to his own ends, by establishing the National Association in 1864: its policies were denominational education, land reform, and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. It failed.
He played a leading part in the deeply reactionary First Vatican Council (1870). His definition of papal infallibility was adopted with minor modifications. He presided over the National Synod of Maynooth in 1875.
Cullen is the principal maker of the kind of modern Irish Catholicism that lasted from his day until the end of the twentieth century—pietistic, puritan, priest-ridden, apart from a certain nationalist rebelliousness from time to time. He is responsible for ‘the devotional revolution’, including the introduction of the Italianate Quarant’ ore or ‘Forty Hours Adoration’, ‘Benediction’ and other devotions; and a corresponding rejection of any traditional devotion to local saints, patterns, holy wells and the like as superstitious and uncouth. Most new churches were dedicated to saints of the universal church, not Irish saints. Clerical numbers doubled, and the ratio of clerics to people went from about 1 in 1400 to 1 in 400. As one would expect, attendance at Sunday Mass rose dramatically, to over 90 percent by the 1880s; and it remained at that high level for nearly a century. Parishes were subjected to ‘missions’, parish retreats by Redemptorists, Passionists, and other religious orders who, like fundamentalist Protestant preachers, harangued the people more on the fires of hell than the joys of heaven. The laity were organised into sodalities and confraternities to encourage religious devotions. There were nuns and teaching brothers who ran schools in most towns, and if their stated purpose was to teach the poor, in fact they formed the middle classes and made piety as much the mark of the bourgeoisie as manners.
Cullen’s loyalty and commitment to the Holy See was profound. As Emmet Larkin states:
‘… he was first and foremost a Roman. His allegiance to Rome, in the person of the pope and his authority, temporal and spiritual, was uncompromising. How Rome stood … on any question was Cullen’s point of departure’.
And so far as he could make it, the Irish church was to be a Roman church in every aspect.
Cullen died suddenly at Eccles Street, Dublin on 24 October 1878. His funeral was a great public event. He was buried, according to his wishes, below the high altar in Holy Cross College, Clonliffe.
Biography, Documents, & Studies. Patrick F. Moran (ed), The pastoral letters and other writings of Cardinal Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin (Dublin 1882). Peadar Mac Suibhne, Paul Cullen and his contemporaries: with their letters from 1820–1902 (5 vols, Naas 1961–77). E. R. Norman, The Catholic Church and Ireland in the age of rebellion, 1859–1873 (London 1965). E. D. Steele, ‘Cardinal Cullen and Irish nationality’, Irish Historical Studies 19 (1974–5) 239–60. Emmet Larkin, The making of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, 1850–1860 (Chapel Hill NC 1980). Desmond Bowen, Paul Cardinal Cullen and the shaping of modern Irish Catholicism (Dublin 1983). Emmet Larkin, The consolidation of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, 1860–78 (Dublin 1987). Colin Barr, Paul Cullen, John Henry Newman, and the Catholic University of Ireland, 1845–1865 (Notre Dame IN 2004).
Website of the Irish College in Rome: http://www.irishcollege.org/PDF/CullenCollectionLevel.pdf
Donnchadh Ó Corráin