19th Century Concept of Irish-Catholic 'Spiritual Empire' is Topic of Nov. 6 Lecture

Historian Irene Whelan of Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, will discuss the concept of an Irish-Catholic “spiritual empire” in a lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6, in the O’Shaughnessy Room of the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center on the St. Paul campus of the University of St. Thomas.

Irene Whelen

Irene Whelan

The lecture, free and open to the public, is sponsored by the university’s Center for Irish Studies and the Center for Catholic Studies.

This concept of an Irish-Catholic “spiritual empire”  a belief that the Irish were destined to lead the world back to the Catholic faith  gained huge popularity in the latter part of the 19th century. Though the idea seems preposterous to present-day Catholics, Whelan says, it once was embraced by historians, politicians and churchmen. They looked to both the ancient and the more recent past to justify a view of the Irish as a chosen people.

One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the notion was Archbishop John Ireland, the Irish-born founder of St. Thomas, who made it a feature of many of his St Patrick’s Day sermons. In 1869, for instance, he declared that “Nations, no less than individuals, receive from Heaven a vocation.” According to the archbishop, Judea held this position in the past but “in modern times this high office has been assigned to Ireland.”

This thesis, Whelan says, provided a sense of purpose to a people dispersed throughout the world by forces over which they had little control. Whelan argues that the view allowed for the creation of a virtual “empire of the spirit” to parallel the great mercantile and land empires being carved out by the great powers during the heyday of imperialism.

In the years immediately following the Easter Rising, the notion of the Irish as a people of destiny and a “martyr nation” gained wide currency among those seeking a new identity for an independent country; chief among them were Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne and Irish President Eamon de Valéra. Mannix termed de Valéra “Ireland’s man of destiny”  an idea that would have profound consequences for the new state, particularly in church-state relations and the anti-modern culture that became a feature of the new Ireland from the 1930s onward.

A native of Clifden, County Galway, Whelan is associate professor of history and director of Irish studies at Manhattanville College. Her research and publications focus on popular religion in Ireland. She is the author of the 2005 book The Bible War in Ireland: The ‘Second Reformation’ and the Polarization of Protestant-Catholic Relations 1800-1840, an account of the evangelical movement and the sources of modern religious and political polarization in Ireland.

For more information, contact the Center for Irish Studies at (651) 962-5662 or email jrogers@stthomas.edu.