Patrick Moran was born at Rathdrum, County Wicklow, Ireland, and baptised there on 24 May 1823. He was the son of Anne Doyle and her husband, Simon Moran, a farmer. Privately tutored until the age of 12, Patrick attended the Vincentian school in Dublin; St Peter's College, Wexford; and St Vincent's College, Castleknock, Dublin. He studied for the priesthood at the Royal College of St Patrick, Maynooth, from 1841 to 1847; during this time he spent three years as a senior student at the Dunboyne Establishment studying metaphysics and theology. He was ordained in 1847 and served in Dublin parishes from 1848 to 1856.
On 30 March 1856 Moran was consecrated titular bishop of Dardania by Paul Cullen, archbishop of Dublin, and appointed vicar apostolic of the Eastern Province of Cape Colony in South Africa. He was possibly the youngest Catholic bishop in the world at the time. Henceforth he was to be a kind of missionary; working to spread his religion not by making converts but by helping build the institutional structure of the church around Catholics, many of them Irish, who had joined in the vast nineteenth century movements of population from Europe. Cullen exercised much influence on the appointment of bishops to serve these people.
Moran remained for 13 years in Cape Colony, during part of Sir George Grey's governorship there. From his base at Grahamstown he proved himself to be a capable pastor and a zealous but prudent organiser. He built several churches, presbyteries and schools allowing no post to be more than a day's ride distant from another, opened a seminary, and introduced Dominican nuns from Ireland as teachers.
Moran was also an energetic defender of his faith, in which role he opposed not only sectarian attack but also the movement for representative government. To him this system implied approval of the belief, which he found unacceptably secular, that law-makers should be guided only by the will of the majority, and not by the principles of Christian morality. Moreover, believing that the churches (especially the Catholic church) were the proper teachers of the religion from which valid moral standards were to be derived, he also argued that they were thereby entitled to government support for their educational work. It was a refrain he would sound throughout his career. While neither his causes nor his combative manner of urging them won Moran much popularity, his abilities and sincerity did earn respect. Farewelling him in 1870 the Grahamstown Advertiser described him as 'honest, fearless and outspoken' and stated that no diocese could 'lose by his administration'.
In 1869 Moran was appointed bishop of the newly created diocese of Dunedin, which embraced the provinces of Otago and Southland, formerly included in the Wellington diocese. He accepted the post reluctantly but dutifully, as became a protégé of Archbishop Cullen and a professedly staunch supporter of papal authority. Leaving South Africa early in 1870 he went to Rome to attend the First Vatican Council. He had previously visited Rome in 1856 and 1867 and was to do so in 1881 and 1889. From Rome Moran went to Ireland to recruit staff before heading for New Zealand. He reached Port Chalmers in the Gothenburg on 18 February 1871, accompanied by 10 Dominican nuns and a priest, William Coleman. They were enthusiastically welcomed by their compatriot co-religionists.
Catholicism in Otago and Southland was mainly a product of the gold rushes. Between 1858 and 1864 the number of Catholics rose from 140 in a population of 7,000, to 7,500 in one of 57,000. Their first pastors were mainly itinerant French Marists, diverted from their primary task of evangelising the Maori. Devoted to their ministry, the Marists, contrary to Moran's expectations, had done little to build up the material basis of the diocese. Moran was harshly, and unfairly, critical of this state of affairs, which left him with an enduring distrust of the Marists. But he was determined to rectify matters. In a strongly worded pastoral letter dated 3 March 1871 he appealed to his flock for help. He asked for a 'long sustained and generous effort and sacrifices of no small magnitude', and received them.
By 1895 the diocese boasted 43 churches and a cathedral. The latter, designed by F. W. Petre and opened in 1886 in the presence of Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran of Sydney, cost £22,000 and was debt free by the end of 1889. Moran also promoted Catholic schooling. Within two days of arriving in 1871 the Dominican nuns opened a school for girls, and in 1876 the Irish Christian Brothers set up a boys' school. By 1895 the diocese had 27 Catholic schools catering for 2,000 children. Besides his own diocese, Moran also had temporary oversight of Wellington (1872–74) and Auckland (1875–79). In 1889 two of his nieces, Sarah and Kate Murphy, came to Dunedin to become Dominican nuns.
In addition to building schools Moran campaigned strenuously, but unsuccessfully, for the state to subsidise them. From the principle of distributive justice he argued that the Catholics, as taxpayers, were entitled to have the education of their children paid for from public funds even if the children attended non-government schools. He reinforced his demands with a relentless attack on the public school systems, which he alleged were hostile to Catholics.
From 1871 to 1877 he assailed the Otago provincial education system on the grounds that through its text books and the saying of class prayers it was a vehicle for the teaching of Protestantism. Certainly it served a predominantly Protestant society, and one which harboured a strong strain of anti-Catholicism; yet there is scant evidence that Catholics were subject to undue Protestant influence in the public schools. Indeed, in 1871, after inquiring into Moran's complaints, the provincial council resolved that schools be conducted so as to give as little offence to Catholics as possible.
A similar conciliatory hope lay behind the Education Act 1877, which established a national system of secular education. The objective was to create a system acceptable to, and serving to unify, the whole population. As Charles Bowen, who introduced the bill, argued, the variety of 'energetic and powerful' denominations meant that a comprehensive education system could not offer religious teaching. He stressed that the bill embodied secularism not as a positive doctrine but only as a means of avoiding conflict.
Moran had profoundly different views. He argued that the government's refusal to aid separate Catholic schools was equivalent to the penal laws by which Irish Catholics were once oppressed and, moreover, that secular education was a weapon being used in a worldwide conspiracy against the church. Behind this conspiracy, he claimed, was a malevolent chain of command reaching back from the Freemasons to 'the powers of darkness'. ' "Free, compulsory and secular education" is the war-cry of the great army that is marshalling its hosts against Heaven'. Secular education had for its sole object the destruction of Christianity and, as a means to that end, the destruction of the Catholic church. Such notions, which are of a piece with ideas he expressed in South Africa, go far to explain the uncompromising urgency of Moran's educational campaign. It is, therefore, not without irony that in seeking to advance his own cause Moran should have opposed the efforts of the Bible in schools movement to introduce a modicum of religion into state schools, and thereby assisted the continuance of the very secularism he professed to abhor.
In 1873, after engaging Thomas Bracken to raise funds for the venture, Moran founded the New Zealand Tablet to carry his views beyond the pulpit, and beyond his diocese. It published his sermons and he regularly wrote the editorials. He also tried to mobilise Catholic voting power and in 1883 even stood for Parliament against William Larnach. He was soundly defeated, yet claimed success in that he had obtained a public hearing on the schools issue, although the Tablet commented bitterly that 'Scotch honour and Orange bigotry would not permit the Peninsula to be represented by an Irishman and a Catholic.' Perhaps with this in mind the Otago Daily Times claimed to 'admire the pluck and boldness of the doughty Bishop more than…his discretion.'
In leading his diocese Moran assiduously identified 'Irish' and 'Catholic'. One reinforced the other. He often spoke of the Irish tradition of suffering for their religion, and the Tablet carried much Irish news. It also served as an instrument for fostering support for the Home Rule movement. Moran believed that his diocese was a branch of the Irish church, and also that it was unnatural for an Irishman not to be a nationalist.
Indeed, when in the 1880s he came to suspect that the Vatican was disposed to restrain Irish nationalist demands in order to win political favour with Britain, his respect for the papacy was sorely strained. The crisis came in 1887 when Rome set aside the recommendation that Dunedin should become the Metropolitan archdiocese of New Zealand with Moran as its archbishop. Instead, Wellington was designated, with Francis Redwood, English by birth and a Marist, as archbishop. The decision can be explained adequately by the facts that Wellington was the national capital and that most of the clergy there were Marists. Similarly innocent reasons explain why English-born bishops, Edmund Luck and John Grimes, were also appointed to Auckland and Christchurch in 1882 and 1887 respectively. Moran nevertheless displayed his displeasure by avoiding Redwood's investiture and Grimes's consecration, while the Tablet commented acidly that Irish Catholics should have Irish leaders. Given that sentiment, it was fitting that Michael Verdon, Moran's personal choice for the position, was appointed to succeed him following his death in Dunedin on 22 May 1895.
In his often belligerent stand on educational issues Moran attracted much hostility from supporters of the state system and from members of other denominations. He did little to integrate Catholicism into the wider community. But then that was not his aim. Rather, he aimed to imbue New Zealand Catholicism with a strong and cohesive sense of identity. In that he would appear to have succeeded. Insofar as he was an articulate, consistent and widely heard opponent of the increasing power of the state over the lives of its citizens, he was also significant as the expounder of a political message that had relevance beyond his own following and his own time.