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Our founding father: James Cullen SJ

30 November, 1999

James Cullen from New Ross, Co Wexford, was a secular priest in the diocese of Ferns before he joined the Jesuits. Founder of the Messenger he later devoted his enormous energies to working for the Pioneer League. Thomas J. Morrissey SJ tells his story.

James Cullen was born in New Ross, Co. Wexford, in 1841. It was an auspicious year: Daniel O’Connell was elected lord mayor of Dublin – the first Catholic for centuries – and Fr. Mathew’s total abstinence crusade reached its peak, with three million pledged adherents. Census returns that year showed a population of 8,175,124.

In the remaining years of the decade, O’Connell held his ‘monster meetings’ for the repeal of the Union, capitulated, was imprisoned, and, eventually, died at Genoa. Also in that period, Thomas Davis died, a new era was heralded with the development of the Great Southern and Western Railway, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society was introduced into Ireland. And there was the Great Famine. All these, as well as the attempted revolution in 1848, formed part of the background to James Cullen’s early years.

His family were comfortable business people, which saved him from immediate experience of the Famine; but the spirit of Home Rule generated by O’Connell remained with him all his life, and he was to prove a staunch supporter of the Irish party for many years. As he reached his tenth birthday, the population had fallen to six and a half million, and 14,500 families had been evicted from agricultural holdings.

Evictions and reaction to them, and large-scale emigration, were to be a constant motif during most of his life, and he was frequently to preach against the draining of the country’s lifeblood as its young people left for foreign lands. It confirmed him on the need for Home Rule. He was sent to Clongowes Wood College in 1856, the year in which Fr. Mathew died and the Crimean War ended. After four years there, he moved to Carlow College to study for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1864 and served as curate first in Wexford town, and then, from 1866-’81, in Enniscorthy, where he had a profound influence.

They were historic years for the country. Archbishop Cullen was created the first Irish cardinal. The Fenian rising occurred, and the movement was condemned by the bishops and by the Pope.

In 1869 the Vatican Council commenced. The following year, the decree of papal infallibility was promulgated and France declared war on Prussia, and was defeated and then humiliated as William I was proclaimed Emperor of Germany at Versailles. The seeds for future war were sown. In September 1870, Rome fell to Italian troops and the temporal power of the papacy came to an end.

These events necessarily impinged on Cullen and the Irish population, though, in his very busy life, he seldom made reference to outside events. During the 1870s the Home Rule movement came to life, the Land League was formed, and in 1880 Parnell became head of the Irish parliamentary party.

The next year, Cullen entered the Jesuits. He took his first vows at Miltown Park in 1883. The following year he served as spiritual father in Belvedere College, founded sodalities of Our Lady not only in the college but throughout the country, and was much in demand as preacher and as a director of priests’ retreats. In November 1887, he was appointed director for Ireland of the Apostleship of Prayer, which marked the beginning of the countrywide spread of devotion to the Sacred Heart. To that end he founded the Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart which, once circulation was secured, he also used to promote temperance as an expression of one’s devotion to the Sacred Heart.

In these years, from 1887 to 1992, he displayed his remarkable powers of organization, zeal, and unflagging energy. At the same time, the country was being torn apart politically. The Times’ charges against Parnell were overcome, but were followed by the Mrs. O’Shea revelations which split the Irish party, caused a rift between Parnellites and the bishops, and led ultimately to the death of Parnell in October 1891.

In February 1892, Cullen published his Temperance Catechism, and was happy to accept an invitation to the Cape Colony of South Africa. He travelled widely throughout the Cape, kept a lengthy diary with a view to contributions to the Messenger, preached missions and gave retreats.

In 1899 he was invited back again and gave a retreat, to great effect, to a British regiment. Meanwhile in Ireland, the centenary of 1798 had brought nationalists of all kinds together and gave a new impetus to supporters of Home Rule and to republicans. Cullen was transferred to Gardiner Street in 1904 and removed from editorship of the Messenger. He doubled his work for the Pioneer League, if that was possible. In 1905 there were 43,000 members. In 1906, 70,000; and by 1910 there were 100,000. In 1917, even though a considerable number had been expelled for failure to live up to the pledge, membership came to 250,000.

Shortly after his transfer to Gardiner Street, he built St. Francis Xavier’s Hall to provide a place for popular and ‘instructive lectures on historical, scientific and moral subjects’ and also concerts and dramas so that the poorer classes might have ‘the legitimate amusements to which they are rightly entitled’.

It was an aim dear to James Larkin, the labour leader who sought a better lifestyle for the workers of Dublin whom he raised up by his rhetoric, the primeval force of his personality, and by his uncompromising devotion to the cause of temperance. Many workers were heavy drinkers, and alcohol was the greatest drain on the weekly earnings of the family. Larkin insisted that women and children receive first consideration.

Cullen linked temperance to patriotism. He ascribed the disaster at Vinegar Hill ‘to the treachery of drink’, and through 1913-1914 he constantly pointed out to the Volunteers the importance of temperance. He had a deep love of country, was an advocate of the Gaelic League, and after 1916 became a warm sympathizer with the Sinn Féin struggle. He had inherited something of the ‘1798’ tradition of his county and this continued to the very end. On the morning of 6 December 1921, when the newspapers arrived, he was told that the Peace Treaty had been signed during the night. ‘Thank God,’ he replied, ‘I have lived to see Ireland free.’

A few hours afterwards he said to the Sister attending him, ‘I am going into port’. He died peacefully about 12 pm. He had never held any position of authority in the Society, apart from twelve months as acting-rector of Belvedere, yet no priest in his day occupied so prominent a position before the country, and none possessed a fraction of his public influence among all ranks and classes. 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (January 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.