Archbishop Charles Agar: Churchmanship and Politics in Ireland, 1760-1810

Article excerpt

Archbishop Charles Agar: Churchmanship and Politics in Ireland, 1760-1810. ByA. EW. Malcolmson. (Dublin: Four Courts Press. Distributed in the United States by ISBS, Portland, Oregon. 2002. Pp. xvi, 678. £60; $75.00.)

Charles Agar (1735-1809) came from a Kilkenny landowning family which controlled four to five seats in the Irish Parliament. As Bishop of Cloyne (17681779), Archbishop of Cashel (1779-1801), and Archbishop of Dublin (18011809), he was the most prominent political and administrative defender of the Church of Ireland's interests in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and a leading government manager in the Irish House of Lords. After the AngloIrish Union (which he supported on being reassured it would not endanger Protestant Church interests), he was an influential Irish representative peer at Westminster (he was created Baron Somerton in 1795 and Earl of Normanton in 1806). Deeply suspicious of Catholic relief legislation, Agar allegedly first instilled in George III the theory that royal assent to the admission of Catholics to parliament would breach the Coronation Oath.

Agar carefully publicized his achievements in his lifetime and left an extensive archive-in the Hampshire Record Office since 1957, heretofore neglected by historians of Ireland. His descendants, however, failed to sponsor a biography, andAgar's historical reputation was left to the criticisms of his political opponents, taken up and magnified by Victorian moralizers; he is thus usually seen as oppressing his country for political advancement, alienating diocesan property to enrich his family, and aEowing the medieval cathedral on the Rock of Cashel to fall into ruin.

Dr. Malcolmson draws on his unrivalled knowledge of eighteenth-century Irish archives to challenge this assessment.This is not so much a conventional biography as a series of interlocking essays - on Agar's family connections, his diocesan activities, his role in the Irish administration at a time of war and rebellion. Through extensive comparisons with the careers and attitudes of other contemporary bishops, it becomes a cumulative study of the Church of Ireland in the eighteenth century.

Malcolmson emphasizes that while Agar is remembered as a politician, he thought of himself as a churchman first and foremost. In this role Agar showed himself a capable administrator, legislator, and man of business, who far outshone his episcopal contemporaries. …