The Sodality of Our Lady was first established in Ireland in 1598 by Father Henry Fitzsimon, S.J. When it was first established the people as a whole were firmly attached to the faith but defections from the faith, external conformity to Protestantism and assistance at heretical services were not unknown. The Sodality's first task was thus the revival of piety and religious practice.
"At a time when it was unusual for Catholics to communicate more than once a year, the Sodality introduced the practice of monthly confession and communion and fervent Sodalists communicated every week. Other Catholic practices such as the family rosary, were also developed, and it was not unusual for Sodalists to devote a certain fixed time every day to meditation, spiritual reading and examination of conscience. The works of charity and mercy prescribed by the rules were accurately carried out. The chief of these were: fostering vocations in the young, the care of the sick, the relief of the poor, the instruction of the ignorant, the visitation of prisons. Sometimes Sodalists were called on to undertake more hazardous tasks. On occasions of danger, the younger Sodalists would act as scouts to warn the priest of a coming raid or they would mount guard to resist attack until the priest had time to disguise himself and escape. At a time when capital punishment was very common and no Catholic priest would be admitted into a prison, Sodalists made every effort to introduce a disguised priest to those under sentence of death.
"The Vicar-General of Cashel, the Rev. Daniel Kearney, writing on the 27th June, 1621, says that the Sodalists “by the stimulus of their good example excite others to piety and being them on gradually into the service of Our Most Holy Mother; and thus it has come about that the Sacraments of Confession and the Blessed Eucharist are now more frequented here than has ever been known within living memory; peace is fostered among friends, and restored where disturbed by dissention; the poor and those confined to prison are relieved; the offices of the dead and such like exercises of piety are carried out with particular care by the Sodalists, and in imitation of them by others also.” In the story of the Counter-Reformation in Ireland, the Sodality was the first to make a determined effort to organise the Catholic laity to resist the oath of supremacy, just as it was the first to organise the providing of suitable recruits for the priesthood." From Madonna, Official Organ of the Sodalities of Our Lady in Ireland, July, 1934.
"A big name in connection with sodality work in Dublin was that of Fr. John Bannon of Gardiner Street. He was the founder in 1870 of a flourishing Ladies Sodality at Loreto College, Stephen’s Green, and a still better known one for Commercial Young Men attached to the Church at Gardiner Street, in the following year. Prior to joining the regular house staff at Gardiner Street in 1870, Fr. Bannon had been for many years on the Mission Staff, and was no doubt equally zealous there in promoting the interest of the sodality which he had so much at heard.
"In the year 1885, the tercentenary of the sodality was celebrated throughout the world and special indulgences extended to all sodalists for the occasion. No less than three novenas were preached at Gardiner Street “to enable the sodalities” attached to the Church, “to avail of the indulgence granted by way of Jubilee to all sodalists” – the preachers for the occasion being Fr. Walters, Fr. Cullen, and Fr. Hayden.
"In 1897, a triduum on the occasion of the silver jubilee of the Men’s Sodality was conducted there by Fr. Bannon, and in 1901, just outside the limits of the century with which I am dealing in this article, the various Gardiner Street sodalities went in procession with their different Directors, Frs. Bannon, James Walsh, and Cullen, four times to the different churches appointed for the gaining of the indulgences of the “Holy Year”.
"The name of Fr. Cullen has been mentioned more than once already. A few words about him in particular at this point will not be out of place; for it is I think safe to say that if anyone has a claim to stand at the head of the list of sodality promoters in Ireland during the last part of the 19th century and the opening years of the 20th, that honour is his due.
"We have seen that between the years 1860-70 the sodality make very great strides in Ireland, but that the names of those chiefly responsible for this advance are lost to memory. Between the years 1870 and 1880, for no particular reason upon which I have been able to light, the pace was distinctly slower. Between 1880 and 1890 the falling off in the number of affiliations was arrested and renewed progress was made. A considerable amount of the credit for this revival seems to have been due to the tireless energy and zeal of Fr. Cullen. Already a secular priest for upwards of 15 years he entered the Society of Jesus in 1881; did his noviceship in Belgium at Arlon and Louvain and returned to pursue the active work of a priest of the Society in Ireland in 1883. he had a very great and tender devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and threw himself at once into the promotion of her honour and service by means of the sodality. As a missioner he did much for the sodalities with which he came into contact throughout the country and later when stationed permanently in Dublin showed an immense personal enthusiasm in rousing the sodalities that came under his influence to increased activity and zeal. From Dublin he exercised a similar influence throughout the country by his writings and the publication in 1890 of a regular sodality manual.
"Already two years earlier the first numbers of the Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart had been produced by him and the welcome with which they were greeted was itself more than sufficient return for the labour that had gone towards getting them under way. Though primarily a vehicle for the promotion of devotion to the Sacred Heart, Fr. Cullen determined to utilize the Messenger for the propagation of devotion to Our Blessed Lady also. Here are some lines from Fr. McKenna’s Life of Fr. Cullen which give a good summary of the position:-
"“To the work of consolidating the already existing sodalities and of inspiring them with new zeal, his personal visits to the colleges and convents in and near Dublin, and his constant journeys throughout the country while giving retreats contributed much, as everywhere he made it a point to see how the sodalities were working. From January, 1888, he had in the Messenger an additional means of furthering this object. For instance, in almost the first issues and constantly thereafter, he describes in various ways the high standard of holy conduct which he expected the sodalists to live up to. He spoke to them as to boys and girls completely consecrated to God’s service and bound to perform that service in imitation of Mary their Mother. He looked to them to be exact in their duties and fervent in their piety…”
"So things continued for some years. But Fr. Cullen was still far from satisfied. He saw the need for a special sodality magazine and in 1898, achieved a long cherished ambition with the appearance of Madonna for the first time. Nor, I imagine, is any apology needed here for reproducing a few lines from the opening page of the first number:-
"“After prayerful thought and serious deliberation we have decided, dear Children of Mary, on issuing from the Messenger Office this tiny quarterly magazine for Children of Mary, who dwell in Holy Ireland and the larger Ireland beyond the seas. Long ago we recognized the advantage of such a periodical but hesitated to issue it until the little Messenger of the Sacred Heart had paved the way to its more successful publication.
"The object at which we aim in publishing this magazine which we have placed under Mary’s blessing and care, is to help, however slightly, to bring into clearer light the history, nature, privileges, and indulgences of the Primary Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to unite its members in closer bonds of spiritual friendship at the feet of their Mother, their model and their Queen, to lift them in their daily devotions and daily duties into practices of holier and higher living, and so enable them in their married or single lives to be in the midst of that world where Divine Providence has cast their lives, not only models of every virtue in their own households but also apostles of Mary the Holy Mother of God…”
"Thus was the stage set for a new and still more effective campaign, for Fr. Cullen’s work for the sodalities did not, of course, end with the production of Madonna. For many years still to come he continued to be an active director of sodality work in Dublin and though the pages of Madonna to promote its interests in the most distant parts. The date of the founding of Madonna – 1898 – is, however, sufficiently near to the end of the century to warn us against transgressing the limits, which we have set." FromThe Sodality of Our Lady in Ireland in the 19th Century, by Fr. Charles O’Conor, S.J., Jesuit Directory, 1945.