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Paul Cullen (1803–1878)

by John N. Molony

This article was published:

Paul Cullen (1803-1878), Catholic cardinal and archbishop, was born on 29 April 1803 at Ballitore, County Kildare, Ireland, son of Hugh Cullen, farmer, and Judith, née Maher. He was educated at the local Quaker school and Carlow College. In 1820 he went to Rome, where after a successful course of studies at the Propaganda he was awarded his doctor's cap by Leo XII in 1828. After ordination in 1829 he professed oriental languages at the Propaganda and developed an interest in the history of the Irish church. Cullen passed on both interests to his nephew, Patrick Francis Moran, who became archbishop of Sydney.

In 1830-50 Cullen was rector of the Irish College in Rome and acted as agent for the Irish and Australian bishops. In 1842 John Bede Polding, in Rome to plead for the setting up of an Australian hierarchy, was in close contact with Cullen whom he recommended for the archbishopric of Malta. The Roman authorities, however, were unable to dispense with his services in connexion with the Irish church. During the revolution and the Mazzinian triumvirate of 1848 when Pius IX fled from Rome Cullen was deemed a suitable person to deal with the revolutionaries, so he held for some time the joint rectorship of the Propaganda and the Irish College. In these years he forged the links between himself and the students in both colleges who were later to form the nucleus of the Australian hierarchy.

In 1849 Pius IX passed over the three names submitted by the Armagh chapter for its vacant archbishopric and named Cullen to the post. He was sent to Ireland with the express purpose of bringing the Irish church into line with Roman canon law and usage. Until his death he directed his activities to this end. He coupled it with an attempt to secure for Irish Catholics a complete system of Catholic education, which he saw as the most important political issue of his day and for which he was prepared to work with the political groups most likely to help in achieving his aim.

Despite opposition from the British government Cullen was translated to Dublin in 1852. From this key position in the Irish church he was able to exercise wide influence. Through the years no important decision on the church in Ireland or on its dependent churches in America, Canada or Australia was made by Rome without reference to Cullen. His value was recognized in 1866 when he was created the first Irish cardinal. In that year he also became one of the cardinals who directed the affairs of the Propaganda, and in that position the church in Australia was subject to his constant attention.

Even while he was in Rome, but more especially after his return to Ireland, Cullen was able to influence the choice of appointments to episcopal sees in Australia. Polding, the patriarch of the church in Australia, lamented that, while his own influence in this field was slight, Cullen's was decisive. The twelve Irish priests appointed to Australian sees in 1846-78 were all in some way Cullen's men. He was related to three of them, he formed most of them in their student days in Rome, and he was their friend and confidant either in Rome or in Dublin. Cullen was thus the moulder of the early Australian hierarchy and it was to Dublin that these men looked for guidance and inspiration. In the questions of education, relations with Churches and with civil authorities, or attitudes to Rome, these Australian bishops thought and acted in the mould stamped by Cullen. After his death his influence continued through Cardinal Moran. In Ireland Cullen's attempt to romanize the church gradually waned in its effect and Maynooth was able to reassert the characteristics of Irish nationalism. In Australia the work he initiated has continued; despite the long episcopate of Archbishop Daniel Mannix most of the Australian hierarchy is still shaped in the Roman mould through their education in the Propaganda or the Irish College.

Cullen was most notable for his unflinching allegiance to the see of Rome. He took a leading part in the defence of the Papal States, helped to formulate the definition of Papal infallibility and tried to impose upon Ireland Roman uniformity in teaching and discipline. He was hated by the Fenians, whose condemnation he was instrumental in obtaining, and even in Australia, where he was always regarded as a churchman rather than an Irish nationalist, the Age, 17 September 1875, called him 'an Italian of the Vatican type'. He died at his home in Dublin on 24 October 1878.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Mac Suibhne, Paul Cullen and His Contemporaries: With Their Letters from 1820-1902, vols 1-3 (Naas, 1961-65)
  • E. R. Norman, The Catholic Church and Ireland in the Age of Rebellion (Lond, 1965)
  • Cullen, Polding, Moran and others, letters (Roman Catholic Archives, Sydney).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John N. Molony, 'Cullen, Paul (1803–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 April, 1803
Ballitore, Kildare, Ireland


24 October, 1878 (aged 75)
Dublin, Ireland

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