Hagan, John (1873–1930), priest, writer, republican, and college rector, was born near Rathdrum in the parish of Avoca, Co. Wicklow, one of three brothers and three sisters. At least one parent was an Ulster catholic, probably influencing his nationalist sympathies. He was educated locally and later entered Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, Dublin's diocesan seminary. He also attended the Irish College and the Propaganda College, Rome, before being ordained in 1899. Hagan was appointed curate in the Dublin archdiocese, but was sent back to Rome in 1904 as vice-rector of the Irish College under Mgr Michael O'Riordan (qv). Although returning to Ireland periodically on political, church and family business, he spent most of his relatively short life in Rome.
Hagan proved extremely versatile in academic administration, teaching, scholarly writing, and political manoeuvring. His auxiliary role at the college allowed him discretion and influence to act, in effect, as Sinn Féin ambassador to Rome. His church contacts reached as high as the papacy itself, while he deftly buffered physical-force nationalism against the Vatican's traditional anti-Fenian censure. Acutely tuned to the divided opinion of catholic Ireland, including bishops and clergy, on militancy, Hagan exploited common opposition to contemporary British political and church intrigue. World war and the 1916 Easter rising in Dublin ensured British catholic solidarity with the crown's view of Irish republicanism.
Arguably the most influential Irishman in Rome, Hagan fostered an unofficial Gaeltacht within the college for both lay and religious Irish-speaking nationalists. He was not an Irish-speaker but encouraged the use of the language as an overt emblem of political identity. A contributor to leading religious journals, including the anglophobic Catholic Bulletin, he wrote on many subjects, notably church history drawn from Irish records at the Archivium Hibernicum in Rome. Throughout the first world war he was uniquely placed to report on the conflict, lacing his work with aspirations of loyalty both to the Vatican and to catholic nationalist Ireland. In 1916 he evaded censorship of his support for the Easter rising through indirect references in book reviews and by classical allusions.
In 1919, as the Irish war of independence erupted, he succeeded O'Riordan as rector of the Irish College. Although widely distrusted by Irish bishops, Hagan now had the diplomatic power to facilitate dialogue between the Vatican and the republican leadership. Significantly, his closest friends in the movement included Éamon de Valera (qv) and Seán T. O'Kelly (qv), president and European envoy respectively. Indeed, Hagan's pastoral influence on de Valera was profound, that of confessor and political adviser. He gathered intelligence on the Anglo–Irish conflict through the Bulletin in Dublin and made the Irish College a virtual haven for trusted republicans. His vice-rector, Mgr Michael J. Curran (1880–1960), was a close supporter. Hagan hosted O'Kelly in 1920, easing his access to the papal court. Sinn Féin slowly garnered international respectability while waging war at home. Spending annual holidays in Co. Wicklow throughout the troubles, Hagan took soundings from political contacts on questions of commitment and compromise. His own republican position was unequivocal when the Anglo–Irish treaty (6 December 1921) precipitated the subsequent split that led to civil war in June 1922. His closeness to de Valera continued throughout the conflict. In September 1922 he unsuccessfully lobbied both the Free State defence minister Richard Mulcahy (qv) and the republican IRA leader Ernie O'Malley (qv) to settle their differences. He subsequently condemned Free State executions of republican prisoners.
After the end of the civil war in 1923 Hagan, the Catholic Bulletin, and abstentionist Sinn Féin maintained their tripartite opposition to the new Irish state. While the Irish church and the new state accorded the turbulent priest grudging, and at times cordial, respect owing to his official position in Rome, he forthrightly disdained their break with the republic. His conflict with the mainly pro-treaty Irish hierarchy was complicated by his necessary correspondence on regular church business. He warned one anti-treaty bishop – John Dignan (qv) of Clonfert – against the danger of provoking pro-treaty colleagues, as Hagan himself fought to keep the balance of relationships within Rome while averting direct Vatican interference in Irish politics. He corresponded extensively with republican activists and with prominent sympathisers, including Archbishop Daniel Mannix (qv) of Melbourne and Dr Peter Magennis (qv), superior-general of the Carmelites (the correspondence is in the Hagan papers, Irish College archives), and wrote historical papers for the Catholic Bulletin. Knowing de Valera's faith in divine guidance and his desire to escape the political self-exile of Sinn Féin, Hagan cultivated him (as he did O'Kelly), sometimes secretly within the Irish College itself, as leader-in-waiting of a progressive republican risorgimento to eclipse the unloved Free State. By May 1925, he had convinced de Valera (who visited Rome disguised as a priest) to undermine the treaty from within the elected parliamentary establishment, ignoring the dáil oath of allegiance to the king as a mere formality.
In 1928 Hagan updated his four-volume Compendium of catechetical instruction, which he had first published in 1910. He was awarded an honorary LLD by the NUI in 1929. Until shortly before his death he supervised a major building programme at the Irish College. He died 8 March 1930 in Rome after a protracted illness and was buried with great ceremony on the Campo Santo at nearby San Lorenzo.