On Church Grounds: Political Funerals and the Contest to Lead Catholic Ireland

By Brophy, Thomas J. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2009 | Go to article overview

On Church Grounds: Political Funerals and the Contest to Lead Catholic Ireland


Brophy, Thomas J., The Catholic Historical Review


Political funerals organized by Irish nationalists, who intended to use the heady mixture of sacred ceremony and political imperative to create a secular sainthood, bedeviled much of Cardinal Paul Cullen's Dublin episcopate (1852-78). Cullen, who did not share the principles or aspirations of the men who sought his acquiescence in their funereal ventures, would not countenance the use of church resources or rituals as means to what he perceived as irreligious republican ends. In the competition for the political allegiance of Ireland's Catholics these demonstrations came to epitomize the divide between the cardinal and nationalists from parliamentary and militant groups.

Keywords: Cullen, Cardinal Paul; funeral rites; Irish independence movement; political protests

For much of the nineteenth and the early-twentieth centuries, dead patriots proved effective instruments for European nationalists. Irish political funeral planners had much in common with counterparts in Poland who resisted Russian rule and in Hungary who chafed under Viennese domination. Because of their attachment to and commonality with the whole of the population - life's great leveler is death - funerals constituted valuable conduits for aggrieved organizations to connect with the oppressed populations they aspired to lead. In Ireland where mourning practices were quite intricate and involved communities, not just families, nationalist obsequies' organizers played upon the people's emotions and customs as much or more than their political inclinations. They gained easy access to the public consciousness and lodged their message into the collective memory.

Irish nationalists intended to use the heady mixture of sacred ceremony and political imperative to create a secular sainthood. A clerically officiated performance of the complete Christian burial service would stamp the funeral organizers' immediate and long-term designs with a liturgical seal of approval. Dublin's Ultramontane Cardinal Paul Cullen (1803-78, see figure 1) resisted such obvious manipulation. As the Catholic liturgy reflects not only ceremonies but also values, Cullen, who did not concur with the goals of the men who sought his cooperation with their obsequial ventures, would not countenance the use of church resources or rituals as tools to accomplish their ends. In the competition for the political allegiance of Ireland's Catholics these demonstrations came to epitomize the divide between the cardinal and nationalists from both parliamentary and militant camps. The thrust and parry between Cullen and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB, aka the Fenians) led funeral committees derived from his stances when Terence Belle w McManus (1861), the Manchester Martyrs (1867), John O'Mahony (1877), and Charles McCarthy (1878) all died in the embrace of what the cardinal considered irreligious republicanism.

Making use of a life lived and transforming it into an institutional device made for interesting contests between nationalists of different stripes who battled for control of the departed's corpse. What the funeral planners sought was leadership of nationalist (largely Catholic) Ireland and authority to advance a political agenda on its behalf, two things that they sought to wrest, at least in part, from the Church. Public obsequies allowed their planners to skirt the on-again, off-again Party Processions Acts that prohibited partisan demonstrations in Ireland that would arouse sectarian distemper. British authorities rarely interfered with Irish nationalist funerals because more often than not they heightened tensions among the varying groups seeking hegemony. The mild British reaction differed substantially from what the Poles encountered with Russian authorities. The occasion of the funeral of Warsaw Archbishop Antoni Melchior Fijalkowski on October 10, 1861 (almost a month before Cullen endured the first such Fenian display) spurred a large nationalist demonstration and incited a tsarist crackdown that included Cossacks breaking into Catholic churches to disperse worshippers and ban patriotic songs. …

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