Dáire Keogh, Edmund Rice and the first Christian Brothers, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2008.

Dáire Keogh, Edmund Rice and the first Christian Brothers, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2008. €45.00, ISBN 978-1-84682-120-2 (hardcover), pp. 288.

Reviewed by: Dr. Joos van Vugt, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, January 2009

This biography of Edmund Rice (1762-1844), businessman, father and widower, benefactor, ‘monk’ and founder of the famed Irish congregation of the Christian Brothers, amounts to much more than the description of a man’s life, even if it was an interesting life. Author Dáire Keogh of University College Dublin not only writes about Rice’s life but also about his times, in which Catholic emancipation and Irish emancipation – the two have long been tangled in a way that is hard to grasp for a foreigner! – first gathered momentum. As a context of Edmund Rice’s ventures, Keogh offers a balanced picture of the Penal Law period of Irish history, in which Catholics were kept far away from any political power. However, the situation in the eighteenth century was not one of straightforward repression as later Catholic and nationalistic historiography would have it. There were many loopholes and distinctions, and considerable regional differences. Neither did the Irish Catholics always display solidarity and unity against the oppressors. Keogh places the birth of Rice’s congregation of brother-teachers in the context of the Irish Catholic revival of the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. Interestingly, this revival was both a belated manifestation of the continental Counterreformation and a preliminary to the Catholic revival of the nineteenth century. The Irish Catholic revival capitalized on the aggressive Protestant campaignof the 1820s to achieve a ‘Second Reformation’ in Ireland.

The founding of the Christian Brothers is one of those confused episodes which seem to have preceded the birth of many a congregation. What strikes me again is that two hundred years ago today’s sharp distinctions between contemplative and active religious communities, between orders and congregations, between pious associations and religious communities, between papal and diocesan communities, between autonomous convents and centrally-led congregations had not as yet gelled.

Rice and his followers were called (and called themselves) ‘monks’ – which they were not. But Irish Catholics knew what ‘monks’ were and had perhaps been suspicious of unspecified ‘brothers’. In 1820 an important step was taken towards definitive structures, as Rice’s community received papal approbation. The papal approval of its Rule gave the community a superior general, a general chapter and, as a rule, more independence from local bishops. In itself this new structure was a good thing but some bishops became wary of accepting these autonomous ‘monks’ into their diocese.

In his efforts to help the poor youth of his hometown, Waterford, Rice chose to concentrate of primary education. All the same, Ireland in general and Waterford in particular were not devoid of schools. Rice’s brothers found a niche between existing schools which were either poor quality Catholic hedge schools or expensive, non-denominational or Protestant fee-paying schools. Their main achievement was the founding of charity-schools which were unequivocally Catholic in character and which benefited from the consistent and well thought-out pedagogy Rice propagated. In the 1830s, the congregation’s charity-schools became the centre of an internal conflict between brothers who clung to the principle of free education for all and those who would add fee-paying schools to the congregation’s teaching activities.

Rice and his brothers represented a radical wing of Irish Catholicism. Their radicalism sometimes betrayed them, as in 1836 when they opted out of the national school system because it did not fully integrate religious instruction into its curriculum. This decision put the Christian Brothers on the sidelines for quite some time. In the end, however, their radical Ultramontane brand of Catholicism would win the day, making Ireland into a country where religion and national identity were intertwined as nowhere else. The Christian Brothers played an important role in this development.

From Keogh’s biography Edmund Rice does not emerge as a man of flesh and blood. Perhaps the accounts of his character are too few and/or too biased for that. Keogh does remark that Rice could inspire affection and hostility with equal ease.  Sometimes he appears a hard-nosed businessman, sometimes a religious zealot (who made his brothers live the life of ascetics), sometimes a soft-hearted idealist who, for instance, insisted that there should be no corporal punishment in his schools (an instruction which after Rice’s death was soon ignored). A pretty complicated man, it would appear, who did not have an easy life. He experienced many disappointments and was more than once the centre of nasty controversies. As a latter-day Moses, Rice did not witness the success of his endeavours. At the time of his death, the community of brother-teachers was still modest in size and so far it seemed more of a success abroad than in Ireland. But great things were to come. Dáire Keogh offers a knowledgeable description of the troubled start of a congregation but only a comparison with the historiography of other congregations would reveal what was normal and what exceptional about the birth of the Christian Brothers.