24 October 1878: Paul Cullen, Ireland’s first Cardinal and the most formidable man in the 19th Century Church died on this day. He was given the titular Roman church of San Pietro Montorio as his cardinality– a Church with Irish associations. He was born in Co Kildare in 1803. Paul Cullen himself was named after an uncle executed by crown forces in May 1798. Cullen's father was also involved with the United Irishmen, was arrested, and narrowly avoided court-martial and a probable death sentence. He was released in 1801. His family were prosperous Tenant Farmers.
Educated locally, incl time spent in a Quaker School he spent many years in Rome studying. He took his Doctorate in Theology in 1828, and defended it in the presence of the Pope. He was ordained there in 1829. He was later the Rector of the Irish College in the Holy City and was also appointed Rector of the College of the Propaganda of the Faith/Congregatio de Propaganda Fide – a most senior appointment. Due to his position as head of the Irish College he was the conduit for correspondence between the Irish Bishops and the Holy See for many years and became intimate with all aspects of the Church at home in Ireland.
When the revolutionary events of 1848 swept through Rome Cullen offered sanctuary to a number of clerics and cardinals wanted by the republican regime. He secured the protection of the United States Consul over his palace in Rome, which then flew the flag of the USA. The sight of that emblem precluded the Revolutionaries from setting foot inside. This act of some cunning earned Cullen the eternal gratitude of Pope Pius IX. His status in the eyes of this long lived and very conservative Pope was further enhanced in 1859 when he helped to organise an Irish Brigade that was sent to Italy to fight alongside the Papal troops in defending the Papal Estates from Garibaldi.
He was appointed Archbishop of Armagh in 1849 and returned home the following year. He convened the Synod of Thurles (1850), the first national synod held with due public solemnity in Ireland since the beginning of the Reformation period. The main purpose of the synod was to restore the authority of ecclesiastical order in Ireland, and this was in the fullest measure attained. The synod none the less marked the introduction of distinctly Roman devotional forms across the island. Cullen considered the synod's decrees to be his greatest achievement and worked hard to secure their implementation.
A noted conservative in politics he was opposed to the Young Irelanders and also the Fenians. He wanted the Irish Catholic Church to stay aloof from politics unless there were specific Catholic issues involved. His lifelong ambition was to see established a Catholic University in Ireland. While one was established in 1854 under John Henry Newman it never really got off the ground and limped on for years in a sort of educational limbo. He also wanted the Protestant Church of Ireland to be disestablished. While only partially successful in the 1st the COI was disestablished in 1869 – much to Cullen’s satisfaction.
He became Cardinal on 22 June 1866 and his motto was ‘Ponit Animam Pro Amicis’. He attended the Vatican Council in 1870 where he was a staunch defender of Papal Infallibility. His definition the Pope’s Authority on Theological matters infallibility was the one that was adopted with just minor modifications. He was Rome’s Representative to Ireland and ensured that the Church here was run under disciplined and regimented lines. The squabbles and localism of earlier times were suppressed and the Catholics of Ireland were ‘Romanised’ in a way that was not there before Cullen took over.
He was first and foremost a Roman. His allegiance to Rome, in the person of the pope and his authority, temporal and spiritual, was uncompromising. How Rome stood … on any question was Cullen’s point of departure.
Cullen died suddenly at Eccles Street, Dublin on 24 October 1878. His funeral was a great public event. He was buried, according to his wishes, below the high altar in Holy Cross College, Clonliffe - the college he had done so much to have founded.