John Lanigan, D. D. (1758-1828)

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 2, edited by Charles A. Read

This eminent ecclesiastical historian was born at Cashel in the year 1758. He was the eldest of a family of sixteen, and his parents were both persons of education, his mother especially displaying marked natural abilities. The chief part of his early education he received at the school in Cashel kept by the Rev. Patrick Hare, where he had for companion "pleasant Ned Lysaght," with whom he had many a wit encounter.

While only sixteen years of age he went to Rome, where he entered the Irish college, and in a short time made himself so remarkable for his learning and abilities that the celebrated and eccentric Tamburini of Pavia had him appointed Professor of Hebrew, divinity, &c., in the university of that city. In this new career he continued to add to his fame, Joseph II., Emperor of Germany, and other princes, attending his lectures. In 1793 he gave to the world his Prolegomena to the Holy Scriptures, a work written in elegant Latin, and rich in ecclesiastical lore. It is in one volume, but, according to Mr. Fitzpatrick, it "seems to have formed only a portion of his plan; for it is evident he desired to prepare another volume, if not more, to complete his design. So far as this work goes, for erudition and lucid arrangement it is unrivalled."

In 1794 he received the degree of Doctor in Divinity from the University of Pavia. Two years later the city was besieged, taken, and sacked, and the university broken up. Dr. Lanigan fled with such haste from the sad scenes that he left most of his property behind. Arrived safely in his native land he found that his connection with Tamburini told against him among the bishops of his own church. The chair of Hebrew and Sacred Scriptures being vacant at Maynooth, then recently established, he applied for it and was appointed; but one of the bishops interfering, questions were put to him which he considered insulting, and he resigned the appointment.

Actual want was now staring him in the face, when he had the good fortune to meet General Vallancy, the eccentric and enthusiastic but good-hearted philologist. Through the general's influence, who was vice-president of the Royal Dublin Society, he obtained a post in that institution at the exceedingly moderate salary of a guinea and a half a week. His duties seem to have been something of a sub-editorial kind—translating, correcting proofs, and making catalogues. During the first few years of this employment he received occasional sums for extra work, and in 1808, when he had outlived the opposition to him because of his religion, his salary was increased to £150 per annum, and he was also appointed to the duties of assistant librarian. In this year also he took a great share in the formation of the Gaelic Society of Dublin.

While labouring for the Royal Society almost like a pack-horse, Lanigan still found time at home to prepare for publication the first edition of the Roman Breviary ever published in Ireland. In 1809 he published his letters which had appeared up to that time in different magazines over the signature "Irenaeus," and he still continued to write further letters up to 1811, when we find one in the Irish Magazine for May "On the Imbecility and Breaking up of the Present Ministry."

In the spring of 1813 Lanigan's brain began to show signs of overwork, and rest from mental labour became necessary. A holiday was granted him, during which he visited his friends at Cashel. He returned to his labours apparently restored, but the rest had been too short, and the recovery proved only temporary. During 1814 he grew rapidly worse, and in November he resigned his post as librarian, but continued to perform the duties of his other office. For years he had been engaged on his Ecclesiastical History of Ireland to the Thirteenth Century, and now made a strong effort to complete it. He procured the help of the Rev. Michael Kinsella a learned Capuchin friar, and with his aid the work was prepared for the press. In 1824 it appeared in four volumes, and "is a work which," says Dr. Doyle, "for extensive knowledge, deep research, and accurate criticism, surpasses, in my opinion, all that has ever been produced by the Established Church collectively or individually in Ireland."

Success had at last come, but it was too late for the unfortunate author to enjoy. After the appearance of the History he became partially deranged, and remained so in Dr. Harty's asylum at Finglas near Dublin, till the 7th of July, 1828, when he passed away at the age of seventy. He was buried in Finglas churchyard, and his fellow-countrymen of all creeds joined in erecting a monument to commemorate his simplicity, deep learning, true patriotism, and immovable honesty. His life has been well and sympathetically written by W. J. Fitzpatrick, author of "The Sham Squire."

See also:—

John Lanigan on Saint Ita of Munster

John Lanigan on Saint Columba