Rathcline man's excavations led to many findings in Rome

An Abstract from the work of Leonard E Boyle, OP

Joseph Mullooly was born at Lanesboro (Rathcline), Co Longford on March 19, 1812, a son of Gilbert Mullooly, a farmer, and his wife, Brigid Dowd. In 1840, armed with a testimonial letter signed by his parish priest, Patrick Dawson, and authenticated by the signature and seal of the Bishop of Ardagh, William O'Higgin's, he set out for Italy. A year later, on September 7, 1841, he took the dominican habit as a member of the Irish Dominican Province at La Quercia near Viterbo, north of Rome, where as fellow novices he had Alexander Jandel, the future head of the Dominican Order, and some other disciples of the famous French Doninican preacher, Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, all of whom had spent some months in early 1841 at San Clemente in Rome.

He never returned to Ireland again, and of the thirty-nine years he spent in Italy before his death in 1880, all but five were passed as member of the community of San Clemente.

Mullooly took his first vows as a Dominican at La Quercia on September 8 1842 and sometime within the next three years, and certainly before being sent to Perugia, he was assigned by the General of the Order, Fr Ancarani, to San Clemente in October 25th 1846, and had arrived there by November 14th, when his signature (but as Mullowny not Mullooly) first appears in the Mass ledgers.
By then, he had completed his second year of theology and had had a favourable report on his progress from the Perugia Dominicans.

It was not until the following May (1847), however, that he resumed his studies, obtaining permission from Fr Ancarani to study at the Minerva convent in Rome for a degree of Lector in Sacred Theology. He took the degree on January 23 1849, and the examination for confessions on April 20. By now, he had been cursar of San Clemente for some eighteen months and was beginning to make this presence felt.

Six months after Mullooly had become bursar in December 1847, San Clemente acquired its first Irish superior for years on May 5 1848 in the person of Thomas Mullins, but in effect, it was Fr Mullooly who was running the place.

After the flight of Pius IX to Gaeta on November 24, 1848, a Republic was proclaimed on Rome on February 4, 1849. Fr Mullooly made a spirited protest.

On April 19, the 'Deputy Accountant of the Presidency' came to San Clemente and took and inventory, however, Fr Mullooly was one step ahead and buried all the account books for 1831-1846 in the Torione vineyard. A month later, Republican soldiers invaded the vineyard, found the books and burned them.

In Spring of 1849, Fr Mullooly was very busy in an effort to establish beyond all doubt to the Republican administration that San Clemente and its property were under the protection of the British crown. What really worried him was the threat by the forces of the Republic to take over part of San Clemente as a military hospital.

On May 8, 1849, some officials of the Pubblica Sicurezza burst into the vineyard, beat up the custodian, and made off with 200 barrels of wine. In reaction to the news, Fr Mullooly went with some men to protect the vineyard against "the brigands of the insane Roman Republic."

His role in protecting the San Clemente and his able administration of the communities' finances, were rewarded by his appointment as prior of San Clemente. Fr Mullooly set about returning San Clement to its previous position as a house of studies, in effect, an Irish and National college between 1854 to 1857.

His term as Prior ended in November 1857 when he was replaced by Fr Thomas Folan from Galway. It was in the late summer and autumn of 1857 that he made the first discoveries that let to the great series of excavations, under the church, for which he was responsible over the next twelve years, between 1858 to 1870.

The finds that Fr Mullooly made under San Clemente were examined by the Papal Commission on Sacred Archaeology in mid-November of that year, and on November 29, the Commission voted to undertake excavations as soon as possible. The Commission attempted to begin excavations in January 1858 under its architect Francesco Fontana, but was forced to give up almost at once, possibly because Fr Mullooly felt that the Commission was acting high-handedly and as though it had made the initial discovery.

Between January and June, Fr Mullooly appears to have pushed on with the work himself in presumably a dogged attempt to make sure that the discovery could not be claimed by anyone but that 'National Establishment' (San Clemente) for which he had worked so tirelessly for ten years and more.

Architect, Francesco Fontana and the master masons, Andrewas Lelli and Angelo Ponpili began the work on behalf of the Commissions in early June 1858. Much of the summer was spent drafting away the rubbish which was already excavated. By November, the removal of the cross-walls and the propping up of the floor above had progressed sufficiently to allow visitors to enter the excavations in some numbers and in safety.

The Commission stopped work at San Clemente in February 1860 and some eighteen months later, Fr Mullooly was able to take the work up again due to a decision of his in the Spring of 1860 to "procure sufficient funds" on his own for the continuation of the excavations.

Within three months of the departure of the Commission, Fr Mullooly had obtained permission from Cardinal Patrizi, President of the Commission and Vicar of Rome, to collect money for the work, and on May 20 1860, he began to send out printed circulars in Latin, English, Italian and French to prospective donors.

By September 1861, there was enough money to reopen the excavations on a limited scale. A new series of excavations resulted in the discovery of the San Clemente frescos, which measured 5x3m and stretched from the floor to the nave to the pavement of the church above. It was intact save for the upper compartment where the figures of Popes Linus, Peter, Clement and Cletus, had been shorn of their heads when the pavement of the church above had been laid in the early 12th century.

On March 21, 1862, Fr Mullooly appealed to Cardinal Patrizi for money to continue the excavations and within a few days, work was underway again and not interrupted until 1870.

Fr Mullooly was one of the two outstanding products (the other was Fr Burke) of the Irish Dominican province in the 19th century and in 1873, the Irish Province petitioned the Dominican Order to give him the honorary degree of Master in Theology, an award which was granted to him on January 12 1874.

Now that San Clement had escaped suppression because it was a Collegium or educational establishment distinct from the religious community that served it, it was essential to have some students on the premises. In the summer of 1876, Fr Mullooly suggested to the Irish Province to consider sending students to Rome one more. Fifteen months later. on November 3 1877, the first students in ten years arrived at San Clemente from Ireland. Fr Mullooly was only 68 at the time of his death in 1880 in his room at San Clemente. He was buried in the plot he had bought in 1876 in the Campo Verano cemetery at San Lorenzo. In 1912, his remains were returned to San Clement and placed under an inscribed slab at the east end of the south aisle of the church he had laboured so selflessly and single-mindedly to excavate.

Courtesy of The Longford Leader.