They are 14 boxes and three volumes of transcripts put together by Fr. John MacErlean SJ, a Belfast man born in 1870 whose immense linguistic skills were turned to great use when he became the Irish Jesuits’ Province Historian in 1917. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor Fr. Edmund Hogan SJ, MacErlean went on a series of extended visits to Jesuit and other archives. The bulk of the Roman Jesuit archives was then at Exaeten Castle, near Baexem, Holland: they were taken there in 1893 for safety from confiscation by the Italian government.
In 1919 and 1920, MacErlean went through several collections at Exaeten, to gather material for the cause of the Irish martyrs, and to collect records of Irish Jesuit activity. He was interested in the mission at home, but also in the formation of Irishmen in Jesuit colleges around Europe, and in Irish Jesuits in Latin America, Goa, and the Philippines. In November 1919 he wrote to the Irish Provincial, that “there is a great deal of matter to be gone through and some of it very tedious, but necessary for the sake of completeness”. The tedium was relieved when he was joined by John Ryan SJ (then studying for the priesthood, later Professor of Early Irish History, UCD) who had come to photograph documents: presumably MacErlean did some of the work from photographs when he returned to Ireland. After Exaeten, MacErlean paid extended visits to Bruxelles, Drongen in Flanders, Rome, and Salamanca. The work that he and Hogan did means that there will be transcripts for the vast majority of the documents I will work on: this is tremendous help!
“Illegible letters”: MacErlean’s notes about documents from 1665.
What is in the letter? The General writes in reply of one from Talbot (which we don’t have), promising he will write to the Superior of the Irish mission (Fr. Sall Benedicti) and other Irish priests, not saying what that concerns. Then he refers to some non-Jesuit priests who made demands on Talbot or on the mission, and Oliva advises that the superior, his consultors and others including Talbot should investigate their demands, and let Oliva know. (Consultors were men assigned to the Provincial to listen to on all matters regarding his governance.) Oliva signs off with a formulaic wish that he may be of service to them, and asking Talbot to pray for him (“be mindful of me before God”).
We know a good deal about Talbot’s background – for instance, that he had entered the Jesuit order in Portugal – and in 1665-1666 he was one of six Jesuits in Dublin, working as a catechist and administering the sacraments wherever possible. He was 54 or 55 years old, and was one of the Provincial’s consultors himself. To me, the non-Jesuit priests Oliva alludes to don’t mean anything yet. It is possible that this concerned a long-standing dispute over another Jesuit priest’s inherited property, because Talbot was deeply involved in it. I know this much from MacErlean’s other transcripts, and from Fr. Francis Finegan SJ’s unpublished Irish Jesuits, 1598-1773. It is a good thing to perch on the “shoulders of giants”!
As an aside: MacErlean was a Gaelic scholar before he became the Irish Province’s historian, most importantly editing Dáibhí Ó Bruadair’s poetry for the Irish Texts Society. For further information on Fr. MacErlean see: Dr. Elizabeth Mullins, ‘Fr. John MacErlean SJ and the development of the Irish Jesuit Archive’ in: Ailsa C. Holland and Kate Manning (eds) Archives and Archivists. Dublin: Four Courts, 2006) pp.166-176.