Education had very early in the Society’s history become ‘a part of the Jesuits’ self-definition’, as John O’Malley puts it, and the Restoration of 1814 around the world had become possible to a significant extent because of the desire of the political powers-that-were, many of them not particularly well-disposed to religion as such, to have the traditional excellence of Jesuit schools available in their territories.
When Clongowes was founded, the aim, in Michael Sweetman’s phrase, was to effect ‘the gradual infiltration of the system by highly educated Irish Catholics’. The beleagured, largely uneducated Catholic population, still labouring under the disadvantages of the Penal Laws, needed education but they also needed educated leadership. Whether as part of a conscious strategy or not, providing it would form a large part of the Jesuits’ agenda in Ireland for most of the 19th century.
What all this meant was that when the province was founded in 1860 – Ireland had been a vice-province since 1830 – schools bulked large in the institutional presence and apostolic endeavours of Jesuits. This is not to discount the extent or importance of other work, not least that of parish missions, so carefully documented by Kevin Laheen. The historian Emmet Larkin has called ‘the parish mission movement … the single most important factor in making and consolidating the Devotional Revolution that took place in Ireland between 1850 and 1880′.
‘In literally a generation’, he added, ‘the Irish people as a people were transformed into those pious and practising Catholics they have remained down until almost the present day’. Jesuits were substantially involved in this response to the Synod of Thurles and the efforts it inspired to counter proselytism and transform the quality of Catholic life among the population at large.
What has been called the ‘cullenisation’ of Ireland, after Cardinal Cullen, would gradually change the profile of the Irish church. Ireland was recovering from the famines of the 1840s, but their bitter legacy remained in the depletion and further impoverishment of the population and the upsurge in revolutionary violence, as reflected in the abortive movements of 1848 and 1867. The Church, increasingly self-confident, would enjoy an ambivalent relationship with the nationalism which continued to agitate for land reform and, eventually, home rule. Jesuits in Ireland seem to have been largely in step with the bishops in these matters throughout the 19th century and into the 20th.