Dr John Lanigan

Post Advertiser, 1985, Vol. 1 No. 16


Fr. Christy O'Dwyer's otherwise excellent Outline History of the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly for schools contains one glaring omission - there is no mention of Dr. John Lanigan, the famous ecclesiastical historian from Cashel who lived between 1758 and 1828. 

He was born in the Moor Lane-Chapel Lane area of Cashel, where his father Thomas Lanigan, who had been evicted from his mother's farm near Dundrum by the notorious landlord, Sir Thomas Maude, reared sixteen children. Of the four girls in the family, Catherine, was considered the belle of Cashel and Ann, Mrs. Ann Kennedy, died in. Clonmel on October 30, 1860. The mother of this large family was Mary Anne Dorkan from Beakstown, Holycross, She was a very superior woman whose mind was as original as her appearance was beautiful. 

Thomas Lanigan had as a boy intended to be a priest but family circumstances prevented. it. However, with that intention he had received a tolerably good classical education. After arriving in Cashel, therefore, he started a school and instructed son, John, in the rudiments of general knowledge. Later, in order thoroughly to cultivate his son's high talents, he placed him under the care of Rev. Patrick Hare, a Protestant clergyman who for many years kept an academy of considerable repute in John St.,Cashel.

The Hare Academy

Hare of O'Hehir was a most interesting character. From Corofin, Co. Clare he went to Trinity College where he obtained college honours and distinctions. He finally became,a clergyman, having converted to Protestantism. He became Vicar-General of the Diocese of Cashel under Archbishop Agar but threw up the office under his successor and started a school. 

There is an anecdote about Lanigan from his time at the Hare Academy. Mrs. Hare had a son and the Reverend was so delighted he brought the squalling babe into the classroom. 'I have to introduce you to a new scholar,' he said, 'but I am sorry to say he has not as yet got a name. '

'Call the young Hare, Leveret,' exclaimed Lanigan with a flash of impulsive humour that occasionally characterised him in later life. Hare was awed and the boys amused and for some time after he enjoyed the name of Leveret Lanigan. 

From what we read Lanigan possessed a solidity of intellect and, a steadiness in the pursuit of excellence as a student. He used to read books at night by the light of the moon which, probably accounts for the fact that in later life he was nearly blind. But, we also hear that he learned to dance the Irish reel 

Journey to Rome 

He decided to become a priest and in 1776 he went to Rome with letters of introduction from the Most Rev. Dr. James Butler, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly. He sailed from Cork and befriended a passenger on the journey. They got on well and Lanigan revealed the purpose of his journey. He was informed that, his friend was also going, to Calais. They stayed in the same hotel near St. Pauls and in the same roam. When Lanigan woke in the morning he, found his 'friend' gone and the hour of sailing past. He was informed by the waiter that.he had to pay the bill. He put his hand in his pocket to discover his money was taken during the night. In great distress he, cntacted ,the Administrator of the diocese, who came to the hotel and befriended Lanigan. He paid the bill and brought him to his house, where he remained 'until a remittance came from home. 

Interestingly the vessel on which· his 'friend' had gone was wrecked. soon after sailing. The administrator put Lanigan in touch with a party of priests on their way to Rome and finally he arrived at his destination. 

He started his studies at the Irish College and his progress in theological and philosophical studies was brilliant and rapid. One Bishop Black said of his stay in the College - I can say with certainty that his talents and extraordinary acquirements as welI as his amiable, natural disposion gained for him the love and admiration of all who knew him. By a special dispensation he was ordained to the priesthood before the canonical age.



The extraordinary. reputation for learning and ability he had acquired brought him, soon after his ordination, the Professorship in Hebrew, Eccclesiastical History and Divinity at the University of Paris. In 1794, in recognition of his character, writings, and learning he was granted a doctorate by the University of Sacred Theology and Canonical Jurisprudence. On one occasion the Emperor, Joseph II attended a Latin oration by Lanigan, which was received with unbounded applause. The Emperor remarked that so young and so enlightened a professor reflected new lustre on the Irish nation and reminded him of the ancient literary glory of that people. A sign of his fame was that he received the freedom of the city during his stay in Paris. 

Lanigans sojourn in Paris came to an end after nine years with the dispersal of the university which followed the arrival of Napoleon in the city in 1796. Lanigan fled to Ireland, leaving behind many valuable books. Plundered and penniless, haggard and hungry he arrived in Cork to a cold reception from the Bishop of Cork, who suspected him of Jansenism. That suspicion was to prevent him from getting the Professorship of Sacred Scripture and Hebrew at the new Seminary of Maynooth. 

Unable to get a parish in the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly he proceeded to Dublin where he became attached to the old Francis St. Chapel. Here his rooms were searched by Major Sirr in 1798. Through the influence of General Vallancey,  whom he had  known in Italy and who had been sent to Ireland as an architect and engineer to erect fortifications around the coast, Lanigan got a job  as an assistant librarian in the Royal Dublin Society. First appointed for three months he was to stay for 20 years. His  job involved the translation of speciaist papers from other languages into English.  His pay was thirty shillings a week and this was raised to three pounds in 1808 when he was appointed  librarian. 

Church History

This job was a blessing in disguise and gave Dr. Lanigan the time to write and to engage in the controvercies of the period. The latter he did with relish and the former with erudition. His greatest work is undoubtedly the Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, published in 1822 in four volumes. This is a work of immense scholarship which Rev. J. Brennan claimed to have placed the ecclesiastical antiquities of Ireland on a solid and imperishable basis. But, it is impossible to do justice to a man  of the stature of Dr. John Lanigan in this short letter.  

Among his other claims to fame was his belief in a pagan origin for the Round Towers of Ireland. He was an ecumenist before the word was thought of. In one place he wrote: '..and were I ambitious of having my tomb distinguished by any peculiar epitaph, I should prefer' Here lies an advocate for the union of Christians. He took a lively interest in the Gaelic Society of Dublin, established in 1808, not only for the investigation and revival of ancient Irish literature, but also for the development of the history and literature of this island. 

As well as intellectual and spiritual  delights Dr. Lanigan was also fond of the pleasures of the table. He was a rigid observer of the fasts and abstinences from flesh meats on fast days. He loved fish.  One account has this to say of his love of  the finny tribe - 'I knew Lanigan in later  life - a great wall-faced, overgrown mass of antiquarian erudition, who moved on his course as if he had fins. I saw him eat more fish on a Friday in Lent than probably any other Christian could  devour during the whole. seven weeks. Cod, eels, haddock, sole  - all were masked on his plate with mustard,  vinegar, red - very red pepper, catsup, oil and soy, and this he  seemed to get through at the rate of a hundred weight an hour, if he could have held out. Daniel Maclise celebrated etching of old Fr. Prout, devouring the endless succession  of fish dishes in Lent, might well pass, for a portrait of Lanigan.  


Premonitions of insanity in Dr. Lanigan appeared first in 1813 and though he recovered somewhat as a result of a three-month stay with his sister in Cashel the softening of the brain continued and he ultimately became a permanent patient at Dr. Harty's asylum at Finglas. The Rev. P.J. O'Hanlon gives a very sad picture of this great man during this period. Calling on him one day Dr. Lanigan said to him - 'I know not what I had for breakfast and except that I feel no craving, I do not even know what I have breakfasted. I, who could formerly grasp any course of study, how obstruse soever, cannot now apply my mind to a recollection of the simplist event of yesterday: I know that I am now speaking.to you but in ten minutes, after you have left the house, 1 shall have no remembrance of our conversation or of you. 

And so this man of many talents and undoubted genius passed away on July7, 1828. He had been so long out of the world that even his friends seemed to forget him. He got no obituary notices. Two days later he was buried and for 33 years not even a headstone marked his grave. He was buried in the old churchyard of Finglas. Not until 1861 as a result of a national collection was a monument erected over his grave. A twelve foot high cross in Tullamore imestone designed by Petrie, rescued Dr. Lanigan from obscurity. 

I hope that this information will rescue him from the obscurity that Fr. O'Dwyer's account would commit him. Otherwise a grave injustice would have been done to a man who used to style himself Joannes Lanigan, Hibernus Cassiliensis.