Item 9 - Lecture on the Irish College in Rome

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Lecture on the Irish College in Rome


  • [1926] (Creation)

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(15 February 1870-24 March 1950)

Biographical history

Born: 15 February 1870, Belfast, County Antrim
Entered: 28 September 1888, St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, County Offaly
Ordained: 31 July 1904
Final Vows: 15 August 1907, St Francis Xavier, Gardiner Street, Dublin
Died: 24 March 1950, Milltown Park, Dublin

Brother of Andrew MacErlean - LEFT 1908

Educated at St Malachy’s College, Belfast

by 1893 at Exaeten College, Limburg, Netherlands (GER) studying
by 1895 at St Aloysius, Jersey Channel Islands (FRA) studying
by 1906 at Manresa, Spain (ARA) making Tertianship
by 1925 at Rome, Italy (ROM) writing Province History

◆ Royal Irish Academy : Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge University Press online :
MacErlean, John Campbell (Mac Fhir Léinn, Eoin)
by Vincent Morley

MacErlean, John Campbell (Mac Fhir Léinn, Eoin) (1870–1950), Irish-language scholar and church historian, was born 15 February 1870 in Belfast, son of Andrew MacErlean, legal clerk, and Eliza MacErlean (née Campbell). Having attended St Malachy's College, Belfast, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Tullabeg, King's Co. (1888), and graduated with a BA from the Royal University (1892). After further study on the Continent he returned to Ireland and taught classics and four modern languages (Irish, French, Italian, and German) at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, for six years. His colleagues at Clongowes included Fr Patrick Dinneen (qv), and MacErlean has been credited with arousing the latter's interest in Irish.

MacErlean showed an interest in Irish as early as 1887 when he collected phrases while on a brief visit to Rathlin Island, although it was not until 1895 that he published this material. He was elected to the Gaelic League's central branch in 1899 and his first scholarly work, an edition of the poetry of Geoffrey Keating (qv), appeared in 1900. After his ordination in 1904 he completed his religious training at Barcelona, where he also acquired a knowledge of Spanish. On his return to Ireland he began to research his most important work, an edition of the poetry of Dáibhí Ó Bruadair (qv) that appeared in three volumes between 1910 and 1917. In the same period he assisted his fellow Jesuit Edmund Hogan (qv) in the preparation of Onomasticon Goedelicum, an index to Irish placenames that was published in 1910. MacErlean was also drawn towards church history: in 1912 he edited seven poems addressed to Eoin Ó Cuileanáin, bishop of Raphoe (1629–c.1658) in the first volume of Archivium Hibernicum; in 1914 his study of the synod of Ráith Bressail, based on the evidence of Keating's Foras feasa ar Éirinn, appeared in the same journal; for many years he was a frequent reviewer of books on church history for Studies; and in 1939 he argued in Analecta Bollandiana that the ‘Silva Focluti’ mentioned in the Confessio of St Patrick (qv) should be identified with modern Magherafelt. Charged by his superiors with the task of collecting materials for a history of the Irish province of the Society of Jesus, he spent two years researching the subject in the archives of Italy, Spain, and Portugal and compiled copious notes, but the history remained unwritten at his death. He also researched the history of the Irish Sisters of Mercy, and the material he collected was used by a biographer of Catherine McAuley (qv).

MacErlean taught theology in the Jesuit novitiate at Milltown Park, Dublin, for twenty-five years and continued to live there until the end of his life. He died in Dublin on 24 March 1950.

‘Irish in Rathlin’, Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge, Dec. 1895, 140; Roland Burke Savage, Catherine McAuley: the first Sister of Mercy (1949), p. ix; Ir, Independent, 25 Mar. 1950; Proinsias Ó Conluain and Donncha Ó Céileachair, An Duinníneach (1958), 102–5; Hayes, Sources: periodicals, iii, 460–62; F. X. Martin and F. J. Byrne, The scholar revolutionary (1973), 317; Aubrey Gwynn, ‘A forgotten Irish theologian’, Studies, xliii (1974), 259; Beathaisnéis, iii (1992), 53

◆ Irish Province News

Irish Province News 25th Year No 3 1950


Fr. John MacErlean (1870-1888-1950)

Fr. John MacErlean was born in Belfast on 15th February, 1870: and was educated at St. Malachy's College. He entered the noviceship at Tullabeg 28th September, 1888, and graduated in the Royal University in 1892. He did philosophy at Exaten in Holland and in Jersey. He taught for six years in Clongowes. He did theology in Milltown Park and was ordained 31st July, 1904; Tertianship followed, in Barcelona.
As a young man he collaborated with Fr. E. Hogan in the compilation of the standard work on Irish place names. He worked for two years in the libraries and archives of Italy, Spain and Portugal. He devoted many years of strenuous research to the promotion of the cause of the Irish martyrs.
For twenty-five years he was Professor in Milltown Park.
He published scholarly editions of the works of Keating and O'Bruadair for the Irish Texts Society, and contributed many articles to “Analecta Bollandiana”, “Gaelic Journal”, “Archivum Hibernicum”, “Studies” and “Irish Monthly”. He supplied much of the matter for other historical writers.

An Appreciation :
In the old Gaelic economy there was a class of men called fir leighinn: men of learning, professors, lectors. From these Fr. John MacErlean got a surname of which he was proud and to which he brought honour.
Father MacErlean was a versatile man, He excelled not only in the usual studies of the Society, but in much else. It is doubtful whether any one of our time had such a comprehensive and accurate knowledge of the language, history and literary monuments of Gaelic Ireland. He was an admirable Latin and Greek scholar. He knew Sanskrit and Hebrew, and among modern languages, German, French and Spanish. He had a special gift for languages. He was not, perhaps, specially fluent in speaking, though the writer remembers his free German spoken in the Roman Forum to a lady who sought information about a monument. It is a little difficult to define in what his power lay. He seemed to reverse the conventional direction in language study which is to work from the periphery to the centre. He appeared to begin at the centre and proceed outwards. Even a Cursory examination of his editions of Keating and O Bruadair attests the power and accuracy of his scholarship in a domain in which he had to depend on his own resources and could not with impunity fall below the exacting standards of Irish textual studies.
For many years Fr. MacErlean taught Church History in Milltown Park. He specialised in the History of the Irish Church and of the Irish Province of the Society. In the former domain he had few peers, in the latter none. He devoted much time and labour to collecting and collating materials for Irish hagiography, for Irish Causes for Beatification, in particular for the Cause of Mother Catherine McAuley, Foundress of the Sister's of Mercy. We have heard it reported that an ecclesiastical judge acclaimed him as an incomparable witness before such tribunals.
But the quality of Fr. MacErlean's learning was even more remark able than its range. His mind was acutely critical not only in professional subjects, but in the discussion of current topics or of a newspaper report. It was also very exact. He was impatient of approximations and of loose generalities. He acquired the scholastic genius for bringing the question at issue to the test of the simple proposition with subject and predicate clearly defined. He had considerable dialectical skill and could defend his views with great ingenuity. He enjoyed nothing better on a rustication evening that defending some unpopular cause against all comers. He had a natural attraction for difficult studies and problems, and was never satisfied until he had got to the root of a question or reached the prime sources. He had a bent for establishing indices and vocabularies. The index to Migne in the Milltown Library is his, so is a vocabulary to the Writings of St. Patrick, so, too, is a valuable glossary of words and phrases from old Irish Texts. Apart from the daily paper he had little or no interest in ephemeral literature, but there was no new publication of scholarly interest which escaped his attention.
Fr. MacErlean's production in later years did not answer common expectation. We are the poorer for want of a history of the Province from one who wrote well and had a unique knowledge of the sources. As an offset to this loss we may notice that the Archives are the richer for the mass of historical material which he collected for others to exploit. Further, it may be fairly contended that the less he published over his own name in later years, the more he helped and inspired others to write. He was constantly reviewing some MS at the author's request, providing references and reading lists, solving historical and textual problems. He gave freely of his learning and time to many, and the annotations which he wrote in his neat legible hand in answer to a question were a model of accuracy and relevancy,
In fine Father MacErlean was a scholar of the first rank, not surpassed in his own field by any contemporary and worthy of a place among the eminent Irish scholars of the New and Old Society.
So far we have dealt with Fr. MacErlean's academic achievements. Of other things we must speak briefly. He was a man of strong character and uncompromising opinions strongly held on many subjects. He defended them in a spirit of independence and with great moral courage, though without rancour or bitterness. For all his learning he was the most modest and simple of men. He had a special charism for the direction of religious women. Communities to whom he had given the Exercises in his youth were still asking him twenty and thirty years later. He was much consulted by convents of the Dublin district, Nor should we omit to record his apostolate over many years in Donnybrook Convent. Only those who have met the sisters in charge could credit the amazing influence and power for good which he exercised over the penitents.
Not so long ago Fr. MacErlean told the writer that every night he recited a Gaelic quatrain which dedicates lying down to sleep as lying down to die. This was one of the rare and fugitive glimpses of the inner life of a great and good man who was not given to self-revelation, Ar Dheis De go raibh a anam.

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Notes by Fr John MacErlean SJ for a lecture on the Irish College in Rome (not delivered).

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The Irish Jesuit Archives are open only to bona fide researchers. Access by advance appointment. Further details: [email protected]

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