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Dr Thomas Hussey, an Irish Bishop and a Spanish diplomat in London

A retired civil servant from our Department of Finance in Dublin, Liam Murphy, who like me is a native of Waterford, recently sent me a copy of a biography he has published on The Life of Dr Thomas Hussey, 1746-1803, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, who as it happens spent a good part of his life in London.

Reading Murphy's biography of this Catholic prelate with strong London connections brought to mind two encounters I have had this past year with the history of recusant Catholicism in England.

The first occurred when I visited Stonyhurst College in Lancashire where the Jesuits established a school during the 1790s when they and their English pupils fled the continent in the wake of the French Revolution. Ireland’s Daniel O'Connell, later the architect of Catholic Emancipation, was a pupil at the school when it was located at Saint Omer in France.

The school had been operating on the continent since the 16th century and provided education for generations of English Catholics. When they returned to England, the Jesuits acquired a building belonging to the Shireburns, a recusant Catholic family that had managed to retain the property throughout the troubled post-Reformation centuries. The buildings the returning Jesuits acquired were built on a grand scale in the early 17th century, although they were dilapidated by the 1790s, having lain vacant for 40 years or more.

On my visit to Stonyhurst, I was shown the college's rich collection of memorabilia connected with past pupils, including the Waterford-born Young Irelander, Thomas Francis Meagher. I delivered a lecture on another Stonyhurst past-pupil, 1916 leader, Joseph Plunkett. The chairman of Glasnevin Cemetery, John Green, another former Stonyhurst pupil, presented the school with a plaque containing the words of Plunkett's best-known poem, 'I see his blood upon the rose/And in the stars the glory of his eyes.'

I suspect that not that many years ago this prestigious English Catholic school would have been wary of being associated with an Irish rebel, but not now. This changed mood mirrors the great improvements in Irish-British relations and in our understanding of each other in recent years.

My second encounter with the history of English Catholicism came when I was invited to deliver a lecture on the Easter Rising at Ushaw College, which, like Stonyhurst, has a fascinating back story. The College was located from the 16th to the late 18th centuries in Douai in northern France where it acted as a seminary for English Catholics wishing to study for the priesthood. The College also ran a secondary school where Daniel O'Connell spent some time.

When the priests came back to England in the 1790s, they acquired land from another recusant family. With the penal laws against Catholics on the wane by then, the Catholic Church, with the involvement of the famous Pugin family of architects, built an impressive seminary full of fine buildings. Ushaw College became the principal Catholic seminary in the north of England, a role it fulfilled until 2011 when it became part of the University of Durham.

The College's library is full of bibliographic treasures and precious artefacts from the underground history of English Catholicism. The names of those priests ordained at the college during its exile in France and subsequently executed following their return to England during those centuries of religious strife are recorded on memorial plaques within the college. It should be recalled that many Protestants were also put to death on religious grounds during the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-58).

But back to Thomas Hussey whose story highlights yet another Irish contribution to British history. Educated in Seville, he was ordained a priest in 1769 and was immediately appointed chaplain at the Spanish Embassy in London. In the post-Reformation period, Embassies of the Catholic powers operated their own chapels and provided vital support for London's Catholic community by offering a safe place for them to worship. No doubt the fact that Hussey was a native English speaker worked to his advantage when it came to ministering to London’s Catholics. Other Irish priests played similar roles as diplomatic chaplains and Hussey occupied the post of head chaplain at the Spanish Embassy until his death in 1803, by which time he was also Bishop of Waterford and Lismore.

During his time in London, Hussey, who was by all accounts a talented preacher, moved in exalted social and intellectual circles. He made a positive impression wherever he went, including on King George III, Samuel Johnson and his biographer, Boswell and Government Ministers such as Home Secretary and later Prime Minister, the Earl of Portland. He struck up a notable friendship with the Irish orator, philosopher and politician, Edmund Burke, with whom he carried on a voluminous correspondence and with whom he shared an aversion to the violent upheavals of the French Revolution.

While assigned to the Spanish Embassy, Hussey frequently engaged in what would be considered traditional diplomatic activities. During a breach in Anglo-Spanish relations at the time of the American War of Independence, for example, Hussey acted as the unofficial Spanish representative in London and sought to broker agreement between London and Madrid. He was also involved in negotiations on a concordat between Napoleonic France and the Vatican.

In his later years, Hussey took a more active interest in Irish affairs. He was instrumental in the establishment of Ireland's national seminary at Maynooth and became the College's first President. In 1796, he was appointed Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, and, according to his entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, throughout his episcopate he 'assumed a confidence unprecedented in penal Ireland'. In 1797, Bishop Hussey published a hard-hitting pastoral letter criticising 'the legal injustices and cruelties' of the penal period in Ireland. This naturally stirred considerable controversy and put him offside with the British authorities for the rest of his days.

During his time as Bishop, Hussey supported Waterford businessman, Edmund Rice, who founded a new teaching order, the Irish Christian Brothers, whose first school opened in Waterford in 1803. I was a pupil of that school between 1959 and 1972.

During Hussey's time in London, he had a falling-out with another Irish priest, Fr Arthur O'Leary, who also served for a time as a chaplain at the Spanish Embassy (the Embassy had up to five chaplains, such was the demand from London’s Catholic community). After O’Leary left his post at the Embassy, the two priests traded allegations of misconduct, but this clerical spat clearly did not damage either man's prospects. Fr O'Leary is memorialised today at St. Patrick's Church in Soho Square, one of the first Catholic churches built in post-Reformation London and which he helped to found in 1792. The memorial plaque at the Church pays tribute to his 44 years of service as a priest in France, England and Ireland.

By coincidence, in that same church on the 18th of November 2016 I attended a performance of Marbhna 1916 Requiem composed by Odhrán Ó Casaide to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising.

Fr Arthur O'Leary died in London on the 8th of January 1802. Bishop Hussey died in July of the following year while swimming at Dunmore East in County Waterford, a place I know very well and of which I have fond memories.


Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London