Early Modern European -- the French Disease: The Catholic Church and Irish Radicalism, 1790-1800 by Daire Keogh

By Comerford, R. V. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Early Modern European -- the French Disease: The Catholic Church and Irish Radicalism, 1790-1800 by Daire Keogh


Comerford, R. V., The Catholic Historical Review


The French Disease: Catholic Church and Irish Radicalism, 1790-1800. By Daire Keogh. (Dublin: Four Courts Press. Distributed by International Specialized Book Service, Inc., Portland, Oregon. 1993. Pp. xii, 297. $39.50.)

The political status quo of many European societies was transformed in the 1790's by the influence of revolutionary France. Ireland was not exempt, even though, unlike the Low Countries, the Rhineland, or Italy, it had no extended period of French intervention. French example together with the prospect of French invasion combined to make a radical reordering of Irish society seem feasible. One source for the impulse for change was a group of radicals mainly from professional and mercantile backgrounds (and mainly Protestants or Dissenters) whose inspiration and anti-establishment ambitions mirrored those of the revolutionary counterparts in other countries.

Their main focus of activity was the Society of United Irishmen. The Catholic population, subjected by law to political and educational disabilities, had an obvious interest in change. After a trickle of concessions, including the granting of the vote in 1793, Catholics seeking full emancipation became aware that the government had no more to offer them and moved into an often ambivalent alliance with the United Irishmen.

Daire Keogh explores the consequences of these developments for the Catholic clergy in Ireland, and does so with admirable clarity, conciseness, and authority. The destruction of the ecclesiastical establishment in France, culminating in the mass expulsion of non-juring priests in 1792, left churchmen in no doubt about the implication of the "French disease." The French invasion of the Papal States and then of Rome itself, followed by the sending out of Pope Pius VI as "a poor fugitive priest through the world," cast the British state as the protector of the Catholic Church in its time of direst need. In these circumstances the Irish bishops aligned themselves ostentatiously on the side of the British government and the status quo in Ireland. When an ill-fated French force did land at Killala in September, 1798, the local bishop, Dominic Bellew, conducted himself in such a way as to leave himself open to accusations of disloyalty. …

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