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Under the influence – Jesuits in Ireland

‘Under the Influence – The Jesuits in Ireland’ was the title of a two-day history conference to mark the bi-centenary of the Restoration of the Jesuits. It was hosted in Belvedere College by the Irish Jesuit Province and the Catholic Historical Society of Ireland, and up to one hundred people attended over Friday 19 and Saturday 20 September The keynote address was given by Professor Maurice Whitehead of Swansea University. He examined the period leading up to the expulsion and on to the Restoration (1759 – 1814), asking if it was a time of crisis for the Jesuits. In his talk he concluded that it was indeed, in so far as there were weaknesses in the Order which played into the hands of their enemies.

Over the two days many topics were covered in split sessions. People streamed out of Dr Alan Titley’s lecture with wide grins on their faces having been royally entertained by his colourful portrayal of Irish Jesuits who had made invaluable contributions as editors of Irish language texts.

Vera Orschel  is a member of the 1814- 2014 committee, set up by Provincial Tom Layden to organise the Irish Jesuit commemoration of the Restoration. Her ‘Rome Archival Project’ is one of the works of the group. Vera has been to the Jesuit Curia archives in Rome where she has been creating a calendar of papers relating to the early Irish Jesuit missions from the mid 15 hundreds until the suppression of the Society in 1773. She gave a illuminating presentation of Jesuit communications featuring the annual Jesuit letters between Ireland and Rome, 1604-1675.

There were papers on controversial, inspiring or high profile Jesuits also. Martin Walshe (Limerick University) spoke on Richard Devane SJ and his campaigns to prevent foreign cultural influences from corrupting the youth of Ireland in the 1920’s up until the ’50’s. Declan O’Keefe (Clongowes) chose Thomas Finlay SJ as his subject, a Jesuit once described  as ‘probably the most universally respected man in Ireland’. And Patrick Maume of the Royal Irish Academy reviewed the life and career of Fr Francis Shaw in a lecture with the intriguing title, ‘The forgotten man behind the famous article: Fr Francis Shaw SJ and the historiography of Easter 1916.’

Caroline Martha McGee of Trinity College Dublin spoke about Jesuit patronage of art and architecture, using the altar of Clongowes College chapel as a potent symbol of the issues surrounding that patronage. And Noel Barber SJ, shared the room with her, following her talk with his own unique insights into the often tortured Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Addressing the dark sonnets  of Hopkins which coincided largely with his time in Ireland toward the end of his life, Noel said it was his conviction that Ireland was not the cause of Hopkins’ deep suffering. He pointed rather to his obsessive tendencies, and sadly to his belief that his poetry was of no real value in terms of his vocation or his spiritual life.

For someone of such a scrupulous nature as Hopkins, the prevailing Jesuit spirituality of the time would also have been a factor. The influential Father General of the Jesuits in Hopkin’s time, was Jan Philip Roothaan. He was known for his legalistic and authoritarian approach to spirituality, and Hopkins would have struggled to see his poetry (or indeed his life) as worthwhile in such an ascetic enviornment.

Noel Barber’s talk dovetailed well with the final paper of the conference given by Brian O’Leary SJ. Brian spoke to a captive audience in the O’Reilly theatre, addressing developments in Jesuit spirituality, pre and post-suppression. He outlined how the mystical tradition of the St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, was superseded by an ascetic tradition that was consolidated under Roothaan and held sway until the early 1960’s. Brian O’ Leary ended his talk in that decade, leaving many with the sincere wish to hear  him  follow up with an analysis of the last fifty years.

Professor Daire Keogh, President of St Patrick’s College Drumcondra and member of the 1814-2014  committee, spoke for everyone in his final words of thanks when he remarked on how fruitful this collaboration between the Jesuit province and the Irish Catholic Historical Society had been. He said  it is planned that all the papers of the conference will be published in the not too distant future, marking a valuable contribution to the commemoration of the Restoration here in Ireland.