Lanigan, John (1758–1828), priest and ecclesiastical historian, was born at Cashel, Co. Tipperary, the eldest of sixteen children of Thomas Lanigan, a teacher who had studied for the priesthood, and his wife, Mary Anne Lanigan (née Dorkan). Educated at his father's school, and at the Rev. Patrick Hare's (protestant) academy in Cashel, he decided at an early age to become a priest, and was encouraged by the archbishop of Cashel, Dr James Butler II (qv), who in 1776 enabled him to go to the Irish College in Rome for training. In London he fell victim to a confidence trickster and so arrived in Italy penniless. Very quickly his scholastic ability and learning earned much notice, and after he was ordained priest he was invited to teach at the University of Pavia, eventually becoming professor of Hebrew and scripture. In a damaging error of judgement, he attended the ill-fated council of Pistoia in 1786, a pro-Jansenist synod later denounced by the pope. Although he did not speak, his attendance was later used against him by his opponents. He was awarded a doctorate from Pavia university in sacred theology and canonical jurisprudence in 1794, but lost his job two years later after the French invasion of Italy.
Thus in 1796 Lanigan returned to Ireland, and applied for the vacant chair of sacred scripture and Hebrew at Maynooth College, nominated by two archbishops, Richard O'Reilly (qv) and John Thomas Troy (qv). His candidacy was successful, but he refused to accept the position in protest at being asked to sign an anti-Jansenist formula designed by the suspicious bishop of Cork, Francis Moylan (qv). Appointed assistant librarian to the RDS in 1799, his knowledge of French, German, and Italian promoted his application. There he took a major interest in the veto controversy in 1808 and helped to direct public opinion against it with a series of letters written under the pseudonym ‘Ireneus’. He was friends with Richard Kirwan (qv), president of the RIA, and Archbishop Troy, and helped Edward O'Reilly (qv) to found the Gaelic Society of Dublin in 1808. In 1822 he published his magnum opus, An ecclesiastical history of Ireland from the first introduction of Christianity among the Irish to the thirteenth century, in four volumes, which he had begun in 1799. In this landmark contribution to the history of the church Lanigan engaged in furious scholarly debates; for example, he accused Edward Ledwich (qv) of over ninety errors in The antiquities of Ireland (1790).
In his final years Lanigan suffered a nervous breakdown and he retired to an asylum in Finglas, Co. Dublin. He died 7 July 1828, and was buried at Finglas church. A cross with an inscription in Irish and Latin was erected there in 1861. Patrick Francis Moran (qv), when bishop of Ossory, wrote: ‘the most illustrious name on the roll of ecclesiastical historians of Ireland is that of the Rev. John Lanigan’ (Kingston, 30).