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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Book Review: The Life of Dr Thomas Hussey, 1746-1803: Bishop of Waterford and Lismore

Liam Murphy, The Life of Dr. Thomas Hussey, 1746-1803: Bishop of Waterford and Lismore (Kingdom Books, Dublin, 2016), ISBN 978-0-9524567-8-0, pp 175.

On a wall in the grounds of Holy Trinity Cathedral on Waterford’s Barronstrand Street is a thick limestone memorial with the following inscription: ‘D. O. M. Hic jacent sepultae exuviae mortales Reverendis: & Illustris: Dom. Thomae Hussey L.L.D. Qui per septem annos Ecclesiam Waterfordiens: et Lismoriens: rexit Obiit anno 1803 Die Julii 11mo Aetatis 62o Requiescat in Pace’. It takes only a little rudimentary Latin translation to learn that here are buried the remains of Thomas Hussey, once Catholic Bishop of Waterford and Lismore.

Hitherto, those wishing to learn more about Hussey’s life and times had a range of sources which they could consult. There was an article by Patrick Power in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in 1935, and more recently an entry by Dáire Keogh in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, among several others. What was lacking was a full, comprehensive and up-to-date biography, and Liam Murphy has filled that gap with what will surely become the definitive work on this remarkable prelate.

Born in Co Meath in 1746, Hussey led a fascinating and varied life. In addition to being Bishop of Waterford and Lismore in his later years, Hussey also became the first president of Maynooth College when it was established in 1795.  His time as chaplain to the Spanish Embassy in London led indirectly to him gathering intelligence for the Spanish during the American War of Independence, and subsequently acting as a diplomat in Anglo-Spanish negotiations.

Murphy’s approach is basically chronological, with greater focus on some elements of Hussey’s career (unsurprisingly, scant information survives concerning his formative years, and these take up a mere six pages). A whole chapter is devoted to the pastoral letter he wrote in April 1797, concerning Catholic soldiers being forced to attend Protestant services, publication of which ‘was probably Hussey’s most famous action’. The pastoral is also reproduced in full as an appendix. Much of the pastoral consists of condemnation of what Hussey described as ‘this impolitic tyranny’. The pastoral prompted a series of pamphlets in angry response. Murphy is effective in placing the document in context. Its tone was widely considered to be intemperate, and those who took a dim view of the pastoral included his fellow bishops.

One of the threads running through the book is Hussey’s relationship with the philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke, and Murphy draws heavily on Burke’s published correspondence. Hussey attended Burke’s funeral and there is a belief that not only was he present during Burke’s final days, but that he also received him into the Catholic Church.

Murphy explains in the introduction that the book began life as an MA thesis completed in UCC in 1968. In its new incarnation, it takes account of relevant scholarship published in the intervening decades, and it is to the author’s credit that the sewing together of original thesis and new material is seamless. Occasional indications of when the original work was written are to be found, however – for instance in the bibliography, the Rebellion Papers are located in the Public Record Office, not the National Archives. Typographical errors occur, but not in abundance, and those that do are generally insignificant.

Canon J. Anthony Gaughan in his foreward to the book describes it as ‘a valuable contribution to the history of the diocese of Waterford and Lismore’; this it undoubtedly is, and to the history of Irish Catholicism more broadly.

Cian Flaherty

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