Nary, Cornelius (1658–1738), catholic controversialist and activist, is believed to have been born at Tipper, near Naas, Co. Kildare. The names of his parents have not been discovered; however, it is probable that his father was a substantial tenant farmer. Two brothers and three sisters are named in his will, and there were probably others. He obtained his early education in Naas, but we are in the dark as to his further education before his ordination to the priesthood in Kilkenny (1682). It was then the practice to send young men, after ordination at home, to one of the Irish colleges on the Continent for further education. Accordingly, in 1683 Nary was sent to the Irish College in Paris, where he remained until 1695, completing his studies with a doctorate in civil and canon law from the University of Paris. He next appears in London, where a sinecure as tutor to the son of Alexander MacDonnell (qv), catholic third earl of Antrim, allowed him time to complete his first great work of controversy, A modest and true account of the chief points in controversy between Roman Catholics and protestants (1696). In this he had the temerity to take on and castigate quite abusively the just-deceased John Tillotson (1630–94), archbishop of Canterbury, who had had a great reputation as a preacher and had published several volumes of sermons.
Nary returned to Ireland c.1698 and shortly after was assigned to the parish of St Michan on Dublin's north side. Here his notoriety as the author of a work of controversy had preceded him, for he was to find the local anglican rector, John Clayton, spoiling not only for a controversy but for a face-to-face disputation with him on religious topics. Nary's first priority, however, was a chapel for his congregation. He set about collecting funds for this purpose and duly opened his new chapel in 1704.
Nary spent much of his time during 1705–15 on his translation into English of the New Testament. When it finally appeared in print (1718), it was not well received by the critics and landed him in deep trouble with Rome because of its perceived Jansenist tendencies. It was eventually ordered to be withdrawn, but escaped the ultimate disgrace of being placed on the index of prohibited books. Nary also found time during these years to compile his A new history of the world, a giant of a book, which appeared in 1720 but which, despite its title, covered only the period up to the time of Christ.
The heads of a stringent anti-popery bill were introduced in the Irish parliament in 1723. If passed into law, it would have required all bishops and regular clergy to leave the country by a certain date, a similar fate being prescribed for secular clergy who failed to take the oath of abjuration. As part of a campaign by catholics against the bill, Nary wrote a lengthy pamphlet, The case of the Roman Catholics of Ireland (1724), in which he put forward trenchant arguments as to why it was not feasible for catholic priests and laymen to take the oath of abjuration. What effect the pamphlet had it is hard to say, since the catholic lobby launched a number of other initiatives against the bill. The anglican archbishop of Tuam, Edward Synge (qv), supported by his son Edward (qv), had been advocating since 1722 a special oath acceptable to catholics, which would take the place of the oath of abjuration. Synge is on record as having discussed this matter with a number of catholics, among whom it is almost certain Nary was numbered, for the two are known to have been on friendly terms. Nary did indeed produce a special oath of his own which, like Synge's, rejected papal pretensions to depose princes and to absolve their subjects from allegiance to them; unlike Synge's, it contained no denial of the Pretender's right to the throne. According to another anglican bishop, Robert Clayton (qv), Nary, with some other catholic clergy, submitted this form of oath for consideration by the authorities in 1731 when heads of a bill for registering catholic clergy, which included a special oath to be taken, were going through the Irish house of lords. While it did not prove acceptable to the promoters of that bill (which in the event was turned down by the English privy council), Nary's oath was later taken in tow by the earl of Clanbrassill and incorporated in his bills for registering catholic clergy in 1756 and 1757, long after Nary's death. Both these latter bills also came to nothing: the heads of the 1757 bill were passed by the sponsoring house (the lords) with Nary's oath greatly attenuated in favour of catholics, only to be voted down in the Irish privy council. Nary's oath had a final airing in December 1767 when we find Charles O'Conor (qv) of Belanagare still lauding its legal adroitness, when the question of a special oath for catholics was once again under examination. The fifty-year search for a special oath was to end with the act of 1774.
Despite his great learning, qualifications, and ability, Nary – because of his Gallican proclivities – was never likely to be acceptable to Rome when it came to the filling of Irish episcopal vacancies. In any event, his loyalty to the government would be enough to damn him in the eyes of the Pretender, who had in his gift the nomination of bishops to vacant Irish sees. Nevertheless, it is clear that Nary coveted advancement in the church, and on two occasions when the archbishopric of Dublin was vacant (1724, 1729) he was at the centre of unseemly wrangles in the Dublin chapter as to who should be postulated to Rome for these vacancies. From 1727 until his death he carried on a controversy on doctrinal matters with Archbishop Synge. While these two were privately on friendly terms, they did not spare each other when it came to defending their respective churches' positions. The controversy took the form of a succession of books and pamphlets written in reply to each other, totalling around one thousand pages.
Nary died 3 March 1738 (OS) at his lodgings in Bull Lane in St Michan's parish, Dublin. It is presumed he was buried – as he had directed in his will – in Tipper graveyard near Naas, where he tells us his father and mother were also buried. Two fine engravings of portraits of him, one in clerical and the other in lay dress, are in the NLI. He had a controversy in 1727–8 with one Radcliffe, vicar of Naas, who dubbed Nary the champion of the catholics of Ireland. But, while Nary was arguably the most significant catholic figure in Ireland in the first half of the eighteenth century, the historian is faced with a great lack of sources from which to assess adequately his role in the political arena. As a registered priest and a doctor of civil and canon law who was an admirer of the British constitution and was prepared to accept the reality of the Hanoverian succession, Nary was allowed considerable latitude by the authorities in his writings, where he was often critical, not to say abusive, of church and state. Despite the turbulence of the times in which he lived, he managed to follow a very civilised lifestyle in his lodgings in Bull Lane as a biblical scholar, controversialist, and, from the 1720s onwards, public man.