Corish, Patrick Joseph (1921–2013), priest and historian, was born on 17 March 1921 in Ballytarsna near Ballycullane, Co. Wexford, the son of Peter William Corish, a schoolteacher, and his wife Brigid (née O’Shaughnessy). Patrick had five brothers and one sister, and remained close to his extended family, taking annual holidays in Rosslare; Wexford featured prominently in his research, and he bequeathed his book collection to Wexford County Library. He was educated at Gusserane National School (where his father was headmaster) and St Peter’s College, Wexford, receiving a first-class scholarship on his intermediate certificate results, seven leaving certificate honours (including first in Ireland in physics), and a university scholarship.
In 1938 he entered St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, to study for the diocesan priesthood. Maynooth was both a Pontifical University and a recognised college of the NUI. In 1941 Corish took a first-class honours BA (NUI) in ancient classics, graduated BD from the Pontifical University (1944) and was ordained a priest on 17 March 1945. He then studied at the Dunboyne Establishment (Maynooth’s postgraduate centre), graduating STL in 1946, and MA in history (1952) from UCD with a thesis on attitudes of Irish historical writers in the Cromwellian and Restoration era to the excommunication by Papal Legate GianBattista Rinuccini (qv) of supporters of compromise with the royalists. In 1947 Corish received a DD from the Pontifical University for a thesis on the doctrine of the fall in pre-Pelagian Greek Fathers, and was appointed professor of ecclesiastical history at St Patrick’s College. He joined the Catholic Records Society of Ireland in 1948 and edited its journal Archivium Hibernicum for almost thirty years. In 1949 he was appointed to the Irish Manuscripts Commission (IMC), where his initial work was on Irish-related material in the papal registers.
Corish was deeply influenced by his UCD supervisor R. Dudley Edwards (qv) and the professionalisation of Irish academic history associated with Irish Historical Studies. His first academic publication was an article on ‘Bishop Nicholas French and the second Ormond peace, 1648–9’ in Irish Historical Studies (Sept. 1948) that drew on original research in Rome (at the Vatican Archives and the Irish College); Corish later claimed the article was ‘guided out of him’ by Edwards. He subsequently produced numerous edited documents, articles, book chapters and reviews in journals including the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Studies, The Furrow, Irish Historical Studies and Catholic Historical Review, and in 1950 helped revive the Irish Theological Quarterly, joining its editorial board.
Although Corish was renowned for the breadth of his historical interests, extending from St Patrick to mid-twentieth century Ireland, his core area was the early modern period. In 1953 he addressed a seminar in the Gresham Hotel on the tercentenary of the death of Rinuccini attended by dignitaries including President Sean T. O’Kelly (qv) and Taoiseach Éamon de Valera (qv). He placed the legate’s mission in the context of Counter-Reformation attempts to implement Tridentine reforms throughout Europe. Sixteenth to eighteenth-century attempts to apply the Tridentine model under unique Irish circumstances (a non-catholic ruler and governing class and survival of an ecclesiastical hierarchy without state support) were a major theme of his work. He expanded this interest to cover the nineteenth and early twentieth-century ‘Romanisation’ of the catholic church in Ireland popularly associated with Cardinal Paul Cullen (qv), whom he saw as slandered because of his shyness and reserve.
Elected MRIA (1956), Corish was commissioned by the Irish bishops in 1958 to design and edit a multi-volume, multi-authored history of Irish catholicism to appear in the 1961 Patrician Year, consisting of three volumes covering the medieval, early modern and modern periods. It proved impossible to co-ordinate the contributors and the project was never completed, but several fascicules containing two chapters were published 1967–72. Corish wrote four chapters. In 1976 he contributed the narrative of the Confederate and Cromwellian period to volume III of the New History of Ireland.
An academic without episcopal ambitions, Corish was notably unsqueamish about gaps between the ideal and reality in catholic history. This should not detract from his fundamental commitment to catholicism and belief that understanding history involved necessary spiritual maturation. There was also a strong relationship between his lectures to students, local historical societies and radio audiences and the post–1945 endeavour of the catholic church in Ireland to retain its flock by improved communication and raising its intellectual standards. He recalled 1950s Maynooth as financially overstretched, emphasising pastoral over intellectual development, and excessively monastic. His academic duties fed into popularisation of knowledge of the catholic faith and its relation to Irish history, and his historical professionalism reflects a wider movement in post-1945 Maynooth towards aspiring to international academic standards while retaining a distinctive catholic perspective. He participated in the Christus Rex Society (promoting empirical study and implementation of catholic social teaching) and the Columban League for Irish-speaking priests.
Prominent in the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (CTSI), he contributed a brief history to a publication marking its first fifty years (1899–1949), noting in 1949 that pamphlet sales had increased from 6,000 a year in 1900 to 2.3 million in 1945. By 1957, however, he was warning the annual CTSI conference that fewer people were reading its pamphlets and that it should be prepared to embrace television which he saw as a transformative technology. Although aware of the shortcomings of literary censorship, he defended it as necessary. He often preached on ecclesiastical occasions such as consecrations of bishops in his native Ferns diocese, and in 1956 was theologian to Bishop James Staunton (1889–1963) of Ferns during the Fourth [National] Synod of Maynooth, which Corish recalled as more concerned with reiterating old rules and making new ones than anticipating imminent upheavals. In the early 1960s he applied his knowledge of the Council of Trent (1545–63) to inform the public on general councils during Vatican II, and later became a reserved observer of the decline of the Roman-modelled form of ‘traditional Irish catholicism’.
In 1963 he was elected to the finance committee of St Patrick’s College and three years later became secretary to a commission on the college’s expansion, leading to admission of lay students. This was presented as implementing the vision advanced by the Second Vatican Council; Corish later admitted it reflected incipient decline in priestly vocations and higher drop-out among seminarians. In November 1967 he reluctantly became president of Maynooth with Jeremiah Newman (qv) as vice-president. They were charged with working out post-Vatican II changes implemented by their predecessors as the collapse of previously rigid college disciplines, devotional and educational changes led to significant upheavals, and handling proposed restructuring of the NUI by Minister for Education Donogh O’Malley (qv). In January 1968 Corish was elected to the NUI Senate and appointed a pro-vice-chancellor, while Pope Paul VI appointed him a domestic prelate (monsignor). He resigned in October 1968 on health grounds and returned to the chair of ecclesiastical history, though he later served on a staff-student committee formed to address curricular issues and other student grievances. Corish’s bicentenary history of Maynooth (1995) guardedly describes ramshackle governance structures, tensions caused by an influx of (unionised) lay staff as single-professor departments became obsolete, increasing dependence on state funding, and failure to plan how the catholic tradition might inform the developing NUI Maynooth. In 1977 he was one of seven staff members who opposed an Irish Federation of University Teachers protest against dismissal of two recently laicised seminary teachers.
His transfer to the chair of modern history in the Faculty of Arts in 1975 indicated the growing importance of lay students (though he continued to teach seminarians). He is remembered by former students for his ability to bring historical events to life and for his provocative asides. His lecturing manner is reflected in his published works, with asides toned down and impersonal-sounding remarks whose significance is revealed by awareness of his career. Despite his intellectual curiosity and articulate oratory, Corish, like many priests of his generation, was a private man; his favourite relaxation was cultivating the college garden.
Whatever his reservations about academic secularisation, he worked and lobbied to recruit new history staff and develop postgraduate research at a time of fiscal stringency. He showed particular concern for student living conditions and was elected dean of the arts faculty (1980–83). His research and the researchers he encouraged followed the international trend of expanding church history beyond institutions, authorities and clerics to explore how the church and its teachings not only shaped audiences but were themselves received and reshaped. In this he was influenced by John Bossy (1933–2015), historian of early modern English catholicism.
Corish chaired the IMC (1973–6), coping with the collapse of its publisher Irish University Press, the retirement of several long-serving members and the replacement of lifetime by five-year appointments. (This did not apply to existing members; Corish remained until 2005.) In 1974–5 he worked with scholars such as Tomás Ó Fiaich (qv), Diarmuid Ó Laoghaire SJ (qv) and Donnchadh Ó Corráin (1942–2017) on revising the Irish section of the Roman Martyrology to incorporate modern research and include additional saints. From 1981 he chaired a Dublin diocesan commission established in 1975 to investigate Irish candidates for canonisation, particularly early modern catholic martyrs. In 1989 he published a pamphlet on the martyrs, and in 2005 co-edited with Benignus Millett OFM (qv) a collection of short lives of seventeen martyrs beatified in 1992.
In 1981 he published a widely praised short volume on The catholic community in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the ten-volume Helicon History of Ireland. Much of this was recycled in The Irish catholic experience (1986), covering in fewer than 300 pages the territory of the abandoned ‘History of Irish catholicism’; it stands as a late example of the essays on central themes of Irish history produced in the 1960s and 1970s by such figures as Conor Cruise O’Brien (qv) and A. T. Q. Stewart (qv). Corish’s conclusion that confessional churches might be the strongest forces for pluralism in Ireland, and retrospective endorsement of Sean O’Faolain’s (qv) remark that priest and artist should combat vulgarity together, reflect evolution since the 1950s. In the late-1970s he participated in meetings on Irish inter-church relations at Ballymascanlon, Co. Louth, and in a Merriman Summer School exchange with the historian John A. Murphy, he conceded that the church had bullied the laity in the past and that massive collapse in Irish catholic observance, as in Quebec and the Low Countries, was possible (Ir. Press, 22 Aug. 1984).
On retiring from his chair in 1988 Corish became archivist to St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. His reordering of college records (until 1991) underlies his magnum opus, Maynooth College 1795–1995 (1995), ending with an elegiac meditation on the cemetery. It was well-received, though some critics called it the work of a frank but ultimately loyal ‘company man’ that failed to ask whether the Maynooth model of priesthood was fundamentally flawed. Corish never responded in detail to the clerical abuse scandals disclosed after 1995 in which his Ferns diocese and alma mater St Peter’s College acquired shameful notoriety, and his fellow-Ferns diocesan Fr Micheál Ledwith, Maynooth president (1985–94) and praised in the history, resigned in controversial circumstances. In the 2000 television documentary series on post-independence Ireland, Seven ages (dir. Seán Ó Mórdha), Corish expressed the hope that the catholic church might revive after addressing its faults. In 1990 he was appointed canon of Ferns Cathedral Chapter, and in 2005 was made protonotary apostolic supernumerary by the Vatican. One of the last staff members to live on in the college after retirement, after seventy-two years’ residence he moved in 2010 to Mill Lane Nursing Home, Naas, Co. Kildare, where he died on 10 January 2013, aged ninety-one. He was buried in the old Maynooth staff cemetery.
An annual Patrick Corish Lecture in ecclesiastical history was instituted at Maynooth in 2000. In May 2016 a monument, consisting of a tree sculpted into figures of an owl and a book, was unveiled in the college garden.