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Colin Barr, Ireland’s Empire. The Roman Catholic Church in the English-Speaking World, 1829-1914

Alexandra Slaby
p. 213-215
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Colin Barr, Ireland’s Empire. The Roman Catholic Church in the English-Speaking World, 1829-1914, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020, xvi + 566 p.

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1Canadian-born Colin Barr received his PhD from Cambridge and held academic positions in Ireland and the United States prior to his current post as senior lecturer at the school of divinity, history and philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. His work on Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin (1852-1878) and Ireland’s first cardinal (1866), is well known to Irish Studies scholars (Paul Cullen, John Henry Newman, and the Catholic University of Ireland, 1845-1865, Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 2003). He now offers us a magisterial volume which is poised to become the authoritative study of “Greater Ireland”.

2Building on his earlier research, Barr presents the rich harvest of his work on new Cullen-related material discovered in Australia in 2004 and on 104 archives scattered across twelve countries on five continents. The organic metaphor applies here: the growth of such a substantial, solid, comprehensive body of work requires an abundance of time – in this case sixteen years. The fruit appears as soon as you delve into the book: the map of Greater Ireland, an ecclesiastical, cultural and political universe structured by the “global Cullenite network” (p. 283), and one that is charted here with a scholarly rigour perfectly balanced with an engaging style laced with dry humour.

  • 1 A History of Irish Catholicism, Patrick J. Corish (ed.), Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1971, vol. VI. (...)

3The book is divided into seven chapters, each of which is a world in itself with its own dynamics and personalities: the United States, Newfoundland, India, South Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Australia enjoys a strong focus, which Barr readily admits, for obvious reasons pertaining to his previous research. The author also acknowledges having left out entire regions, such as South America. Such a choice is understandable, given that the area is already extensively researched from that perspective by Dermot Keogh (Church and Politics in Latin America, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 1990; and another title forthcoming). In the regions Barr has studied, he notes a relative paucity of research by academic historians. Indeed, the secondary sources – based on papers in diocesan and congregational archives – that have been produced so far have amounted to a few confessional publications on the Irish missionary movement (Edmund M. Hogan, The Irish Missionary Movement [1990], 2nd ed., Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1992), on the missionary endeavours of particular orders, and a handful of biographies of prominent bishops. However, such publications are most often confessional, hagiographic and pious. Valuable in themselves, they should perhaps be treated as primary sources. Other studies have been published, but their scope was limited in various ways and they are now dated1. The time had come for a substantive post-pious study, and Barr has delivered it.

4Such a project could easily have read as a long genealogy of “Hiberno-Roman” episcopal appointments, or an arid chronology of the battles between the Irish, Scottish, English, French, Italian secular and regular clergy as they competed to save souls for God – and for Ireland. Instead, this book reads as a novel which is at times hard to put down, so absorbing and entertaining are the stories, intrigues and characterisations of clerics all the way up from the vagabondi priests thrown out of all places for their unedifying behaviour to the Propaganda in the “vestibule of Paradise”. All those endeavours were bound by an intricate web of communication spun from Dublin by Cullen on the strength of his closeness to Rome and of his global network of clerical cousins.

5Finally, Barr places the results of his study in a broader cultural framework of identity formation and retention in the Irish diasporic world. He reveals the mechanisms whereby loyalties that could be seen as conflicting at home (Irish and imperial for example) could live together in the hearts and minds of the diasporic Irish. And on the strength of this body of research, he analyses the role that the Irish Catholic Church has had in perpetuating an exceptionally strong and enduring loyalty across Greater Ireland to Hiberno-Roman Catholicism and Irish political aspirations, and in colouring (“greening”) Catholicism in the English-speaking world.

6From the perspective of my own current research into Irish-South African Catholicism, I wholeheartedly welcome this publication and am grateful for Barr’s work, as it not only fills lacunae, but also justifies the enduring importance of academic religious studies and shows the way in tone and approach for future research into what Barr has convincingly described as the first and “only truly global institution the world has ever known” (p. 1).

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1 A History of Irish Catholicism, Patrick J. Corish (ed.), Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1971, vol. VI.3: Canada, 4: South Africa, 5: South America. Contributions by journalists and amateur historians: Joe Humphreys, God’s Entrepreneurs. How Irish Missionaries Tried to Save the World, Dublin, New Island, 2010; Marian Keaney, They Brought the Good News: Modern Irish Missionaries, Dublin, Veritas, 1981; and Irish Missionaries from the Golden Age to the 20th century, Dublin, Veritas, 1984.

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Alexandra Slaby, « Colin Barr, Ireland’s Empire. The Roman Catholic Church in the English-Speaking World, 1829-1914 »Études irlandaises, 45-2 | 2020, 213-215.

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Alexandra Slaby, « Colin Barr, Ireland’s Empire. The Roman Catholic Church in the English-Speaking World, 1829-1914 »Études irlandaises [En ligne], 45-2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2020, consulté le 12 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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