- Patrick McAlister: Bishop of Down and Connor, 1886–95
Down and Connor is the Catholic diocese whose see is Belfast—in the eighteenth century, a Scots Presbyterian town surrounded by a Protestant countryside. During the nineteenth century the population of Belfast grew from about 20,000 to 350,000. Industrialization attracted migrants from well beyond the city's immediate hinterland, and by mid-century about a third of its inhabitants were Catholic. Moreover, the tolerant ethos of the Enlightenment town was being undermined by sectarian competition for industrial employment, demagogic exploitation of increasingly democratic politics and an evangelical turn in Irish Presbyterianism. [End Page 401]
Throughout the nineteenth century Down and Connor required an exceptionally able bishop who could deal effectively with Protestant civic leadership while also energetically building a Catholic institutional base. That requirement was not always met. William Crolly (1825–35, afterward archbishop of Armagh, 1835–49) was able to make the most of his good relationships with liberal Protestants, but his successor, the scholarly Cornelius Denvir (1835–65), faced increasing hostility from the Belfast elite while lacking the drive to develop resources to meet the spiritual needs of the growing Catholic population. Patrick Dorrian (1865–85), however, took decisive steps to reorganize pastoral care in Belfast and increase its manpower while providing facilities for the educational and social welfare needs of Catholics.
Our knowledge of this diocesan history rests mainly on Macaulay's earlier monumental biographies of Crolly and Dorrian. This time he has chosen a less formidable subject whose episcopal career lasted only nine years. At the time of Dorrian's death, McAlister was sixty and had spent nearly his entire career in relatively quiet small towns of the diocese. We learn that although the bishops of Armagh province preferred him to another parish priest who was tied with him for first place in the poll of parish priests, they were uneasy over entrusting him with responsibility for such a complicated and difficult post.
The book confirms that the bishops' misgivings were well founded, though the failings that the author identifies are perhaps not exactly the ones that they anticipated. McAlister, like some of his fellow bishops, opposed compulsory school attendance legislation for fear (unfounded in Macaulay's view) that it would lead to lay control of state-financed denominational education. He revoked Dorrian's policy of allowing students of the diocesan college to obtain an arts degree from the Royal University by sitting for an examination before completing their theological training in the national seminary at Maynooth. He engaged in a prolonged and seemingly senseless dispute with the Passionist religious order concerning the terms for pastoral responsibility that they had undertaken in the Ardoyne neighborhood of Belfast.
The split in the Irish Parliamentary Party occasioned by divorce court revelations concerning its leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, posed a challenge to all the bishops, but McAlister was especially clumsy in addressing that challenge. The result was two competing Belfast Nationalist/Catholic newspapers and bitter local clerical-lay divisions, a legacy that his successor did little to remedy even when the reunification of the Parnellite and anti-Parnellite parties presented the opportunity for reconciliation. The name of that successor, Henry Henry, is, alas, guaranteed to confound copyeditors, but this reviewer hopes that Monsignor Macaulay will not be deterred from turning now to that fascinating bishop of Down and Connor. [End Page 402]