Cashel Man of Letters - Dr John Lanigan (1758-1828)

Times to Cherish: Cashel and Rosegreen Parish History 1795-1995, edited by Bernie Moloney, pp 187-198


It is arguable that Dr. John Lanigan, who was born in Cashel in 1758 and died in Dublin seventy years later, was the most illustrious son of the City of the Kings. His beginnings were modest. His chief biographer, W. J. Fitzpatrick, has him born two doors from the Archiepiscopal Palace (now the Cashel Palace Hotel). Another gives it as Chapel Lane (near the present Folk Village). His father was Thomas Lanigan, originally from Dundrum where his family had been evicted by Sir Thomas Maude. Thomas Lanigan came to Cashel and set up as a schoolteacher. His wife was Mary Anne Dorkan from Beakstown, Holycross: 'a very superior woman whose mind was as original as her appearance was beautiful.' The couple had sixteen children of whom John was the eldest. There were four girls, Mary, Catherine, Hobanna and Anne. Catherine was considered the belle of Cashel. Anne, the youngest, became Mrs. Anne Kennedy and died in Clonmel on 30 October 1860.



His father, Thomas, as a boy had intended to be a priest and, with that in mind, had received a good classical education. Family circumstances prevented him from realising his intention and, on arrival in Cashel, he started a school. It was in this school that John was instructed in the rudiments of general knowledge.

Later, he was placed under the care of Rev. Patrick Hare, a Protestant clergyman who, for many years, kept a seminary of considerable repute in Cashel. Hare, or O'Hehir, from Corofin, Co. Clare, went to Trinity College, Dublin, where he obtained college honours and distinctions. He finally became a parson, having converted to Protestantism. In the course of time he was made Vicar-General of the Archdiocese of Cashel under Archbishop Agar, with whom he was a great favourite. When the Archbishop was translated to Dublin Rev. Hare threw up the position and appears to have opened a school. This was located in John's Street (in Osbornes' house). It appears to have been a later addition to the rear of the house and it would also appear that
the entrance was from Agar's Lane, which has a built-up doorway.

From what we read, John Lanigan possessed a solidity of intellect and a steadfastness in the pursuit of excellence as a student. On the other hand we hear that he learned to dance an Irish reel. He was reputed to have great eyesight and had a love of letters. He used to read his books at night by the light of the moon. In later life he was nearly blind. At the age of sixteen Thomas Lanigan was assured by Mr Hare that his son's studies were finished. He was appointed an usher in the school. John Lanigan was already thinking of the priesthood and he prepared himself for his vocation by study and reading.



In 1776 he was recommended by Dr James Butler, Archbishop of Cashel, for a burse in the Irish College at Rome. He sailed from Cork to London. On the journey he befriended a passenger who informed the young Lanigan that he too was going as far as Calais. They shared a room in the same hotel near St Paul's Cathedral. On waking the following 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. On putting his hand in his pocket he discovered that his money had been taken during the night. In great distress he contacted the Administrator of the diocese, who came to the hotel, befriended Lanigan, paid the bill and brought the young Cashel man to his house. There he remained until a remittance came from home. The Administrator put Lanigan in touch with a party of priests on their way to Rome and he accompanied them at small cost. They travelled through Brussels, Aix-le-Chapelle, down the Rhine to Strasburg and through the Tyrol to Rome. Earlier, the vessel on which his 'friend' had gone was wrecked soon after sailing.

Fr. Luke Wadding had helped to establish the Irish College in 1627. Until it was suppressed by Napoleon in 1798 it was scarcely able to receive more than eight students within its walls. Among its distinguished alumni were St Oliver Plunkett and Dr John Brennan, Archbishop of Cashel. It had mostly been run by the Jesuits. Shortly before Lanigan's arrival control had been wrested from the Order and the College was taken over by the secular clergy.

There is no record of Lanigan's academical distinctions whilst a student in Rome because the period of his stay was followed by such confusion and ruin, connected with the suppression of the College in 1798, that most records were destroyed. However, we are informed that his progress in philosophical and theological studies was brilliant and rapid. Bishop Blake, an alumnus of the College, and later its President, said of Lanigan's stay there: '1 can say with certainty that his talents and extraordinary acquirements, as well as his natural disposition, gained for him the love and admiration of all who knew him.' He was ordained in 1782, shortly after he had won his doctorate 'magna cum laude'.


Sometime later Dr. John Lanigan is to be found in Pavia, whither he went on the invitation of Professor Gaggei Tamburini. Beginning as a lecturer at the university he was promoted to a Professorship in 1789 and occupied with distinction the Chair of Hebrew, Ecclesiastical History and Divinity for seven years. On the occasion of his acceptance of the Chair he gave his inaugural address in Latin and this was later printed.

According to M. J. Brennan several of the Hanoverian and Austrian nobility and even princes received their education under this distinguished Irishman. His extensive acquirements ranked him among the first characters of the university. The learned Tamburini was accustomed to designate Lanigan the pillar and brightest ornament of the establishment. On one occasion the Emperor, Joseph II, having visited the university was pleased to honour Dr Lanigan's lectures by his presence. The doctor delivered a Latin oration which was received with unbounded applause, the Emperor at the same time observing '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.'

Many of Dr Lanigan's sacred writings published during his time in Pavia were unrivalled for their historical research and profound erudition. One work in particular was pronounced highly valuable, Prologomena to the Sacred Scriptures, a work of over 600 pages. It was printed in Pavia in 1793 and Lanigan styles himself 'Joannes Lanigan, Hibernus Cassiliensis' (an Irishman, of Cashel). In this work he set out to give theological students a complete treatise which would enable them to understand the aim and object of the Sacred Scriptures and to draw therefrom 'as from an armoury of truth, those weapons which might be used with deadly effect against Lutherans, Calvinists and other sects . . .'

Not long after its publication the university conferred on Lanigan the degrees of Doctor of Divinity and Canon Law. In the course of his address conferring the degrees, the Archbishop of Pavia, Joseph Bertieri, stated that Lanigan had greatly excelled 'not alone owing to an unblemished and spotless character, but likewise in every kind of literature and erudition, particularly in the teaching and cultivation of theological studies and of canonical jurisprudence ... ' The conferring took place on 28 June 1794 before a distinguished audience.


Return to Ireland

Two years later Napoleon took Pavia and dispersed the University. The professors fled and Lanigan returned to Ireland, leaving behind his valuable collection of books. He sailed from Genoa to Cork and arrived penniless to a cold reception. He vainly applied for pecuniary assistance to Doctor Moylan, the bishop of the diocese, and his vicar-general, Dr McCarthy. The reason for the cold shoulder was Lanigan's known intimacy with Tamburini, the Administrator of Pavia University and the man responsible for organising the Council of Pistoia in 1786. Lanigan had been invited to attend but, whether he smelled trouble or not, he turned down the invitation on the grounds that as the synod intended to deal very much with matters of purely local discipline it was not in his province. As it happened the Council did not confine itself to disciplinary matters but extended its deliberations to discussions of predestination, morals, grace and other delicate questions. The Council was presided over by the Jansenist bishop, Scipione Ricci, and was regarded as schismatical.

With no help forthcoming in Cork, Lanigan was compelled to walk to Cashel where he was welcomed by his surviving relatives. Among his siblings was a sixteen-year-old sister, whom he had never seen. Thirty years had intervened between John Lanigan's birth and that of his youngest sister. The latter related to Fitzpatrick, shortly before she died on 30 October 1860, how she met her brother unknowingly in the Main Street of Cashel on his arrival from Cork and how he clasped her in his arms to her surprise and said: 'Yes. I know you are my little sister.' Apparently, the girl bore a striking resemblance to her brother.

Lanigan hoped to obtain a position in his native diocese and seems to have had an interview with the Archbishop, Dr Bray, but the latter did not give him much encouragement to stay. Dr Lanigan, therefore, proceeded to Dublin, where he was fortunate to find a few friends. One of these was Very Rev. Martin Hugh Hamill, Vicar-General and Dean of the diocese, with whom he had studied in the Irish College at Rome. Through the latter's invitation Lanigan was able to attach himself to Francis Street chapel, which was located between Christchurch Cathedral and St Patrick's Cathedral.

Shortly afterwards the Chair of Sacred Scripture and Hebrew at Maynooth (established in 1795) became vacant as a result of the resignation of the incumbent, Dr Clancy, in 1797. Lanigan was proposed for the position by the Primate, Dr O'Reilly, and seconded by the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Troy, and received his appointment to the Chair. However, the Bishop of Cork, Dr Moylan, still suspecting Lanigan of Jansenism, suggested that the latter should subscribe to the formula which had been drawn up as a test of orthodoxy for the French clergy after the Revolution.

This Lanigan indignantly refused to do, though he declared that he would cheerfully subscribe to the bull 'Unigenitus Dei Filius' issued by Clement XI in 1713. The result of the dispute was that he resigned the professorship and left Maynooth in a huff, his dignity having been offended. Those who accused him of being a Jansenist were in the wrong but Lanigan probably over-reacted in the situation. The Chair was not filled for some years afterwards.

The ex-professor walked the journey from Maynooth to Dublin, where he was re-attached to Francis Street chapel under his friend, Rev. Dr Hamill, and with the blessing of Dr Troy, who does not seem to have believed anything of these Jansenistic accusations.


Royal Dublin Society

Two years later, on 2 May 1790, Dr Lanigan was appointed a translator for the Royal Dublin Society. The minutes of the Proceedings of the Society for that day state: 'Resolved: That the Rev. Mr. Lanagan (sic) be appointed to translate the Essays on Agriculture from the German, in the room of Mr Taafe.' He secured his position through the good offices of General Vallancey, whom he had known in Italy and who had been sent to Ireland as a architect and engineer to erect fortifications round the coast of Ireland against the threat of a Napoleonic invasion.

The General was a longtime member of the Society and a Vice President from 1799 to 1812. From a translator Lanigan progressed to be Assistant-Librarian in 1803 at a salary of £100 per annum, which was increased to £150 in 1808. He performed the duties without the title of Librarian.
His job involved the translation of specialist papers from other languages into English. Lanigan was fluent in many tongues, including German, French, English, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Spanish and Irish. One writer has described Lanigan's situation thus: 'The income was small and the work full of drudgery. Lanigan's immense learning found no higher official use than in translating what we would now call Department pamphlets from various foreign languages. In the picturesque words of one of his friends, "this Doctor of Divinity plodded along shearing sheep, curing fish, analysing manure and sowing hemp", for such were the subjects of the translations entrusted to him.

But he earned enough, after providing for his mother, to keep body and soul together as a result of this drudgery, and there were compensations in his lot.' In the minutes of the Society for 25 March 1802 it was ordered: 'That the sum of twenty guineas be paid to the Rev. John Lanigan as a compensation for the extraordinary trouble he has had in correcting the proofs of the statistical reports, published this year under the direction of the Society.'

He was intimately associated with the literary enterprises of the time in Dublin. His wit, learning, liberal Catholicism and the dignity and suavity of his continental manners were a ready passport to the best society. As well as General Vallancey, his friends included Richard Kirwin, President of the Royal Irish Academy, Archbishop Troy, Rev. Denis Taaffe, and the Celtic scholars, William Halliday and Edward O'Reilly. He took a lively interest in the Gaelic Society, founded by the latter in Dublin in 1808, not only for the investigation and revival of ancient Irish literature, but also for the development of the history and literature of the island.

His friendship with Dr Troy was intimate. He used to attend archiepiscopal dinners every Saturday at Liffey Street, presided over by the Archbishop. The latter had an income of £300 a year and was renowned for his hospitality and generous disposition. R. Lalor Shiel's sketch of Dr Troy is not over-flattering: 'He had the look, too, of a holy bon vivant, for he was squat and corpulent; had a considerable abdominal plentitude and a ruddy countenance, with a strong determination of blood to the nose. Yet his aspect belied him, for he was conspicuous for the simplicity and abstemiousness of his life .. .' He was educated in Rome and was nineteen years older than Lanigan. They obviously got on well together. The Cashel man, too, was fond of the pleasures of the table but was a rigid observer of the fasts and abstinences from flesh meats on abstinence days. He loved fish and indulged his appetite for it on the Fridays of Lent.


Dr. Lanigan wrote many controversial articles and pamphlets under the pseudonyms of 'Irenaeus' and 'An Irish Priest', usually defending a Catholic position. He edited a very fine edition of Rev. Alban Butler's posthumous meditations and discourses. He prepared for publication the first edition of the Roman Breviary ever printed in Ireland. His most memorable achievement was a piece on the means of affecting a reconciliation between the churches. He spoke of his efforts to soften controversial asperities. However, although written to conciliate Protestants, Lanigan's points must have thrown some of them upon their mettle.

He showed a profound acquaintance with the writings of Protestant divines and the manner in which he made them propound thoroughly Catholic dogmas by accurate citations from their writings, was very ingenious. At the end of one particular tract he says he has no other object in view than the general good of Christianity and: 'were I ambitious to having my tomb distinguished by any particular epitaph, I should prefer: "Here lies an advocate for the union of Christians".'

In the political and religious questions which then agitated popular opinion, Dr Lanigan took an active part and by powerful and timely contributions to various national journals and magazines he influenced and directed that opinion along sound Catholic and national lines. He argued strongly against the Veto, the proposal for allowing the government to interfere in the appointment of bishops. He exposed the worthlessness of the celebrated Quarantotti Rescript, which presumed to authorise the Irish Catholic Episcopacy to vest in the government a Veto in the appointment of members to that body.

An Ecclesiastical History of Ireland

Dr Lanigan's principal work and his major claim to fame is An Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, published in four volumes in 1822. The work was begun in 1799 and fourteen years later he commenced the arrangement of the materials for publication. This took nine years of tremendous labour before the completed enterprise appeared in four octavo volumes in 1822. According to the historian, Rev. J. Brennan: 'There has not perhaps been ever written in any nation or in any language, a work more distinguished for accuracy, impartiality and sound criticism than this inimitable production; the precision with which he balances the several statements of our national records prove him to be an antiquarian of the first order; while the immense mass of authority to which he refers may enable us to form some idea of the herculean task which this great man had to encounter. By means of this immortal work, he has rescued from oblivion, as well as from obloquy, the genuine records of his native land; he has placed the ecclesiastical antiquities of Ireland on a solid and imperishable basis. He attends to facts, to truth, and to nothing else.'
In the course of the Preface he gives his reasons for writing the history: 'Most books written about the Ecclesiastical History of Ireland have long since become scarce or are inaccessible because they are in Latin.' And: 'In the civil histories of Ireland that have been written by Keating, MacGeoghegan, O'Halloran and others, little of our Ecclesiastical History is to be found, beyond a few detached anecdotes, in great part fabulous, destitute of chronological accuracy, and often contradictory.' The work begins with the first introduction of Christianity among the Irish and continues to the beginning of the thirteenth century. The book was published with the aid of subscribers and sold for £2-12-0. The names of the subscribers, almost three hundred and twenty, lay and clerical, were published in the first volume. Lanigan's old friend, Dr. Hamill, canvassed for subscribers among the clergy. A second edition appeared in 1829.

The Ecclesiastical History terminates with a very erudite essay on the origin and use of the Round Towers. Dr Lanigan claimed a pagan origin for them which conflicted with Dr Petrie's claim of a Christian origin. Lanigan's line of argument was that the Round Towers, influenced by Eastern pagan practices, were fire temples wherein the Irish venerated the sun.

Another controversial claim made by Lanigan was to name France as the birthplace of St Patrick and to show scant regard for the long-standing tradition that his place of birth was Scotland. In formulating this arbitrary theory he may have been influenced by the intense goodwill which Irish people of his day felt towards France. By contrast, Scotland at that time was viewed unfavourably as being especially hostile to Catholicism.

Declining Years

Dr. Lanigan began to reveal symtoms of cerebral decay in 1813. On May 6 he presented the Royal Dublin Society a certificate, signed by two physicians, who urgently recommended extending leave of absence to their patient. His biographer, W. J. Fitzpatrick, paints a sad picture of the great man: 'The old priest, with failing gait and haggard mien, tottered off to breathe the free air of Tipperary. He came to Cashel and was received with open arms by his sister, Mrs. Kelly, who kept a small woollen drapery establishment in the town. His society was sought by local gentry and clergymen. He left Cashel hurriedly in 1814 after a strange apparition about his brother's
death and rushed back to Dublin to find him dead.'

Refreshed from his sojourn in Cashel he was able to resume his duties as Librarian in the Society on 10 February 1814. He superintended the removal of the Royal Dublin Society's library from Hawkins Street to Kildare Street. A letter dated 28 April 1814 contains many suggestions by him on the improvement of the library. He was presen~at the ceremony of laying the first stone of the Pro-Cathedral in Marlborough Street on 14 November 1815. The old church had been in Liffey Street. His good friend, Dr Troy, blessed the stone and later was the first corpse to be laid out in the new edifice.

Despite this return to activity all was not well with Lanigan. During 1814 there were complaints that he was not able properly to discharge his Librarian's duties. On November 17 he wrote a letter resigning the care of the library 'thankfully retaining,' he adds, 'my former situation of translator, editor and corrector of the press, which I had the honour to hold for nine years previous to the year 1808.'

Dr Lanigan's mind was going and he suffered from delusions which related to stones. Many anecdotes are related, including one of an alleged attack on a member of the Royal Dublin Society with a paving stone. A more innocent explanation of the incident may be that he intended to illustrate a philosophical argument under discussion with a paving stone.

Mr Quinlan, a one-time editor of the Dublin Evening Post, and a native of Cashel, remembers its townspeople much puzzled while they described Dr Lanigan boiling stones in a metal pot at the house of his sister, Mrs. Kelly, with whom he stayed during his illness. This illness is supposed to have happened in 1814. Lanigan's mind continued to give way and he found himself unable at times to concentrate his attention on finishing his Ecclesiastical History. His manuscripts got confused in their arrangement, piles of notes which he had gathered lay about hopelessly disconnected: He had only momentary flashes of light and his doctors forbade him to enter his library. At this juncture he got help from a Capuchin friar of great learning, Rev. Michael Kinsella, who organised much of the material for publication, particularly the fourth volume.

Ultimately he became a permanent patient in Dr Harty's Asylum in Finglas. Before that he used to go there voluntarily when he felt bad attacks in the head coming on. In his closing days he would spend hours in silent and solitary prayer before the altar. He suffered from a softened brain, impaired sight, a faulty memory and a failing gait. He was forbidden reading and all occasions of excitement. Sleeplessness also overtook him. He was often bled. He became a withered, wasted, little, old man. To Rev. P. J. O'Hanlon, a friend, who called on him, he said: '1 know not what I had for breakfast and, except that I feel no craving, I do not even know that 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 simplest event of yesterday. I know that I am now speaking to you but, in ten minutes after you will have left the house, I will have no remembrance of our conversation, or of you.'

His mental ailment finally merged into an intense melancholy. He did not read or write. A miserable fascination led him to sit Mrs. Kennedy's death was reported in the Tipperary Free Press on 2 November 1860.

In 1925 the University of Pavia celebrated its eight centenary. The President of U.C.C., Professor P. J. Merriman, represented the National University of Ireland at the celebrations and, on the suggestion of the Senate of the National University, proposed to the Academic Senate of the University of Pavia that a memorial tablet be erected to the memory of Dr Lanigan. The proposal was cordially received and, on the occasion of the inauguration of the academic year 1925-26, the tablet was unveiled. A suitable inscription in Latin was prepared by Professor D'Alton of Maynooth (and later Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh) and the National University was represented at the unveiling on November 4 by Rev. Professor T. A. Corcoran, S.J.

Irish Wits and Worthies, W. J. Fitzpatrick (Dublin, 1873).
Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, Rev. M. J. Brennan (Dublin, 1864).
Centenary History of Maynooth College (Dublin, 1895).
Proceedings of the Dublin Society, vols. 35, 38, 44, 48, 49, 50, 51.
An Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, Dr John Lanigan (Dublin, 1822).
Dictionary of National Biography, vols. XI, XX (Oxford, 1973).
Sunday Independent, Helena Concannon (Dublin, 8 November 1925).