Despite living in a time when anti-Catholic legislation was in full force, Cornelius Nary managed to combine scholarship and religious controversy with being a Dublin priest. Little is known of his early life. He was born in Co. Kildare, probably at Tipper, near Naas. Though details of his parents have not been found he was probably the son of a substantial tenant farmer. Two brothers and three sisters are named in his will. He was ordained a priest in Kilkenny in 1682 before starting a course of studies in the Irish College in Paris in 1683. He remained there until 1695 when he obtained a doctorate in civil and canon law 1.
He then appears in London as tutor to the son of Alexander MacDonnell, Catholic third earl of Antrim. His first publication was in 1696, A modest and true account of the chief points in controversy between Roman Catholics and protestants, in which he castigated the late John Tillotson (1630–94), archbishop of Canterbury.
Nary returned to Ireland around 1698, become the parish priest of St Michan on Dublin’s northside. His reputation preceded him, but he avoided public disputation, instead collecting funds for a new chapel which was opened in 17042. He is included in the Register of Popish Priests (1704), appearing 6th in the list of parish priests in the City and County of Dublin.
From 1705 to 1715, Nary’s major scholarly task was translating the New Testament into English. Despite approval in Dublin the resulting translation (published 1718) was not well received by critics, nor by the Church because of its supposed Jansenist and Gallicanist leanings. It was withdrawn, but not put on the index of prohibited books3. Nary also compiled A new history of the world, a huge (496 folio page) chronology of the world from creation to the time of Christ, published in 1720. The book was aimed at answering historical objections raised by atheists, deists and the like. He carried out research for these books in Marsh’s Library. Muriel McCarthy speculates as to what conversations Nary might have had with Elie Bouhéreau, Marsh’s first librarian and a Huguenot, given Nary’s disapproval of the banishment of the Huguenots from Paris4. Copies of both these books are part of the Marsh’s Library Collection 5.
For this time period, Harris’ updating of Ware’s The Writers of Ireland also includes five other works attributed to Nary, including a catechism and a history of St Patrick’s Purgatory, plus three translations 6
By the 1720s Nary was something of a public figure and unofficial Catholic spokesman on religious and political matters. However this does not mean the Penal Laws were being relaxed. In 1719 a law was put forward which included the penalty of castration for unregistered priests. It was rejected by the British authorities. A 1723 bill was to require all Catholic bishops and clergy who were members of orders to leave the country, along with secular priests who did not take an oath of abjuration. As part of a campaign against the bill Nary wrote a twenty-one page pamphlet, The Case of the Roman Catholics in Ireland (1723), published anonymously. This pamphlet was the only substantial pamphlet putting forward the Irish Catholic case in the first 40 years of the 18th century. It was later used as an appendix to The impartial history of Ireland (attributed to Hugh Reily) in the 1742, 1744 and 1762 reprints. 7
In the pamphlet Nary outlined the articles of the Treaty of Limerick and showed how the Penal Laws breached those articles. One of these breaches was the requirement for laity to swear the oath of abjuration, despite the Treaty asking only for an oath of allegiance, which Nary insisted Catholics were ready to take. He outlined in four pages the reasons he could not swear the oath of abjuration, though willing to swear allegiance: that it required the swearer to agree that the late King James and his son had no right or title whatsoever to the Crown, despite this being factually dubious and that it required swearing to maintain the Protestant succession, meaning if the King converted to Catholicism, they would be bound to rise against him. Nary praises King William and liberal-minded protestants and regrets that they are a minority among their confessio. He also warns how Heaven may repay those who break treaties, citing the expulsion of the Huguenots which, Nary claims, led to calamities befalling the French King Louis XIV. Finally Nary outlines the policy reasons to avoid demanding the oath of abjuration from Catholics – the royal attempts to make peace with Catholics, the likely mass exodus of Catholics from the country, the need to import (armed, non-conforming) protestants to replace them and the effect on trade8.
Since 1722 Edward Synge the Bishop of Tuam had been advocating replacing the oath of abjuration with a new oath acceptable to Catholics. He is known to have discussed this with Catholics, probably including Nary. On 23rd October 1725 his son, also Edward, the prebendary of St. Patrick’s, preached an acclaimed sermon advocating a degree of toleration for Catholics, which drew criticism from the vicar of Naas, Stephen Radcliffe (see more in the post on Edward Synge fils). Synge replied with an vindication of his sermon, Radcliffe replied again and at this point Nary, with a co-writer, intervened to support Synge’s proposals for toleration. They pointed to Germany, where “Lutheran and Roman priests do in some churches successively celebrate divine service”. They highlighted Synge’s view of the Reformation as something that can survive without Penal Laws, while Radcliffe argued for the necessity of force. And complaints made by Radcliffe about Catholic baptisms in Naas are answered with the benefit, clearly, of local knowledge. Radcliffe clearly knew who was replying to him, and may be referring to Nary where he talks about the Catholics’ Champion. 9.
From supporting the younger Synge Nary next argued with the father in a return to the first theme he wrote on, the points of difference between Catholic and Protestant doctrine. In 1727 Edward Synge, Bishop of Tuam, published a pamphlet Charitable Address to all who are of the communion of the Church of Rome, which goes through all the issues that divided the churches, from papal infallibility to transubstantiation. Nary took up the gauntlet thrown down, writing a Reply to the Charitable Address (1728), which Synge in turn replied to in 1729. Nary replied again in the wonderfully titled A Rejoiner to the Reply to the Answer to the Charitable Address (1730). Another reply from Synge came in 1731, but Nary made no further response until July 1737, when he finished an appendix to his two previous pamphlets. He closed with a solemn declaration, that “this being in all likelihood the last time I shall ever put pen to paper to write…relating to Faith” he submitted all he wrote to the pope and the Catholic Church, “for errare possum, sed haereticus nunquam ero” (I can make mistakes, but never will be a heretic) 10.
Cornelius Nary died eight months later, on 3 March 1738 (OS) at his lodgings in Bull Lane in St Michan’s parish, Dublin. In his will he asked to be buried in Tipper graveyard near Naas, where his parents were buried.
Patrick Fagan (1991) Dublin’s Turbulent Priest: Cornelius Nary 1658-1738, Dublin:Royal Irish Academy.
Diarmuid Breathnach agus Máire Ní Mhurchú “NARY, Cornelius (1658–1738)” ar ainm.ie
Cornelius Nary (1702) A modest and true account of the chief points in controversy between Roman Catholics and protestants (originally 1696) [google books]
Cornelius Nary (1719) New Testament [archive.org]
Cornelius Nary (1810) “The Case of the Catholics of Ireland” in Hugh Reilly et al The Impartial History of Ireland …: In Two Parts, Dublin: Wogan and Larkin. Reprint of The Case of the Roman Catholics in Ireland (1723). [archive.org]
Cornelius Nary (1728) A Letter to … Edward, Lord Archbishop of Tuam; in answer to his Charitable Address [google books]
Cornelius Nary (1730) A Rejoiner to the Reply to the Answer to the Charitable Address [google books]
- Patrick Fagan (2004) “Nary, Cornelius” in Dictionary of Irish Biography ↩
- Patrick Fagan (2004) “Nary, Cornelius” in Dictionary of Irish Biography ↩
- Patrick Fagan (2004) “Nary, Cornelius” in Dictionary of Irish Biography. Patrick Fagan (1991) Dublin’s Turbulent Priest: Cornelius Nary 1658-1738, Dublin:Royal Irish Academy, pp. 82-3. ↩
- Patrick Fagan (1991) Dublin’s Turbulent Priest: Cornelius Nary 1658-1738, Dublin:Royal Irish Academy, pp. 91-4. Muriel McCarthy (2003) “Elie Bouhéreau, First Keeper of Marsh’s Library” in Dublin Historical Record, Vol. 56, No. 2, pp. 132-145. ↩
- Marsh’s Library Catalogue, online search ↩
- Patrick Fagan (1991) Dublin’s Turbulent Priest: Cornelius Nary 1658-1738, Dublin:Royal Irish Academy, p. 95. ↩
- Patrick Fagan (1991) Dublin’s Turbulent Priest: Cornelius Nary 1658-1738, Dublin:Royal Irish Academy, p. 114. ↩
- Patrick Fagan (1991) Dublin’s Turbulent Priest: Cornelius Nary 1658-1738, Dublin:Royal Irish Academy, pp. 114-120. Patrick Fagan (2004) “Nary, Cornelius” in Dictionary of Irish Biography ↩
- Patrick Fagan (1991) Dublin’s Turbulent Priest: Cornelius Nary 1658-1738, Dublin:Royal Irish Academy, pp. 166-173. ↩
- Patrick Fagan (1991) Dublin’s Turbulent Priest: Cornelius Nary 1658-1738, Dublin:Royal Irish Academy, pp. 179-184, quote on p. 184 ↩