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Map images and hard-headed pragmatism: the Roman Catholic Church and the two Irish states - Dr Daithí Ó Corráin;

25th November, 2021

Repudiation of political violence but not the goal of Irish independence, obeisance to the legally constituted government, advocacy of majority rule, hostility towards partition, and a desire for order and social stability characterized the stance of the Irish Roman Catholic hierarchy between 1918 and 1923. This required considerable political and theological dexterity. While the political influence of Catholic bishops and clergy during this traumatic period should not be overstated, the church was sensitive to the shifting political landscape and determined not to alienate the laity. Three aspects touched on by Professor Ferriter were of particular significance to the Catholic Church: democratic principles and the national will, the Ulster question, and the ultimately misplaced hopes in the boundary commission.

The bishops and clergy were nationalist and supported Irish self-government but as revealed by the scholarship of Dermot Keogh, Mary Harris and Patrick Murray, among others, there was a variety of political stances among them.[1] Some retained their loyalty to the Irish Parliamentary Party, whereas others travelled at different speeds towards Sinn Féin. In their statements in 1920 and 1921, the hierarchy continuously instanced the right of Irish people to self-determination and how the national will was trampled by failed British policy. But the hierarchy stopped stop of formally recognizing the Dáil. Once the truce was declared, the bishops bestowed moral sanction on Sinn Féin as the Irish government in waiting. This was a pragmatic move ahead of peace negotiations.

The beginning of the Treaty negotiations on 11 October 1921 coincided with the hierarchy’s annual general meeting. The bishops issued a resolution welcoming the peace conference, hoping for ‘permanent friendship between the two countries’ and calling for ‘a great act of national freedom untrammelled by limitations, and free from the hateful spirit of partition, which could never be anything but a perennial source of discord and fratricidal strife’.[2] The references to partition and fratricidal strife are significant. The hierarchy in general and the influential Bishop Joseph MacRory of Down and Connor in particular were greatly perturbed by the conditions endured by beleaguered northern nationalists. Between July 1920 and July 1922, communal violence and disorder claimed over 450 lives in Belfast, its epicentre, two-thirds of whom were Catholic. In addition, thousands of nationalists lost their jobs and homes, and hundreds of nationalist-owned businesses were destroyed.[3] MacRory played a leading role in organizing relief efforts. In late 1921 the archbishop of Dublin stated that £3,000 a week was sent to Belfast through the Irish White Cross, a relief body for all of Ireland.[4] In June 1921 the hierarchy delivered a scathing condemnation of the Government of Ireland Act – the British government’s ‘sham settlement’ – which had facilitated a ‘campaign of extermination’ and left the Catholic minority ‘at the mercy of Ulster’s special constables’.[5] Many more condemnations of the northern government followed in 1922 but during the Treaty talks the hierarchy refrained from such pronouncements.

The London negotiations were welcomed by Pope Benedict XV in a telegram to King George V. The monarch’s reply that he joined the pontiff’s prayer that the conference ‘may achieve a permanent settlement of the troubles in Ireland’ prompted de Valera to send a message to the pope. In another example of the fastidiousness with words referred to by Professor Ferriter, de Valera challenged the use of the preposition ‘in’ and insisted that the trouble was between Ireland and Britain as Irish liberty had been denied by force.[6] John Hagan, the republican rector of the Irish College in Rome, played an important role in keeping the pope informed about Ireland and preventing any condemnatory statement by the Holy See. Episcopal policy toward the Vatican was strongly influenced by the memory of Rome’s ill-judged condemnation of the Plan of Campaign in 1888 which soured relations between the church and the laity. There was also a perception, more exaggerated than real but firmly held by Hagan, that the Vatican was ‘vulnerable to British lobbying’.[7] In fact, the Holy See under Benedict was keen not to involve itself in contemporaneous political questions, whether in Ireland, Poland or Yugoslavia.  A papal letter was issued in May 1921 with Hagan and Archbishop Daniel Mannix playing the role of ghost authors. It called for a negotiated settlement but displeased the Foreign Office for appearing to take sides.[8]

            Whereas the hierarchy had been regularly consulted by the Irish Parliamentary Party on home rule, the same facility was not enjoyed by the church ahead of the Treaty negotiations. An exception was the involvement of five bishops and eight senior clergy in the Committee of Information on the Case of Ulster established in September 1921 to assemble information for the Irish delegation.[9] They were Bishops MacRory, Mulhern of Dromore, McHugh of Derry, McKenna of Clogher and O’Donnell of Raphoe and from January 1922 coadjutor in Armagh. This reflected Sinn Féin’s lack of knowledge of conditions (most of its northern political representatives were southerners like Michael Collins) as much as the predominance of the church in northern nationalist political life.

Unsurprisingly, the bishops welcomed the Treaty and favoured its ratification because it offered a means of preventing the resumption of violence. Privately, Cardinal Michael Logue, the archbishop of Armagh and primate of All Ireland, revealed his utter surprise ‘that such favourable terms could be squeezed out of the British government’.[10] On 13 December the hierarchy issued a careful statement that praised the ‘patriotism’ and ‘honesty of purpose’ of the Irish negotiating team and hoped that when Dáil Éireann began its deliberations, the following day, its members would ‘have before their minds the best interests of the country’.[11] As opposition to the settlement intensified during increasingly bitter parliamentary debates, the bishops exerted political and moral pressure on TDs to uphold majority opinion by supporting the Treaty. Edward Byrne, who succeeded William Walsh as archbishop and shared his predecessor diplomatic touch, wrote to de Valera on 3 January 1922 to suggest a means whereby de Valera and others could register their protest but avoid ‘being placed in the undesirable position of acting against the declared will of the people’ and creating ‘a miserable split in the national forces when all should act in consolidating what has been gained’ even if not perfect.[12] This was unsuccessful. In an address on New Year’s Day, Logue suggested that the settlement gave everything necessary for the progress of the country and prayed that God would preserve them from ‘the disaster that rejection of the Treaty would bring’.[13]

Enthusiasm for the settlement among Logue’s fellow northern bishops was tempered by anxiety about partition – ‘the big blot on the Treaty’ – as Bishop McKenna of Clogher put it.[14] In December 1921 Bishops McHugh of Derry and O’Dea of Galway were assured by Arthur Griffith that safeguards for education and Catholic patronage in the North would be inserted in the Treaty as a precaution should the Northern government not incorporate with the Free State under Article 12. Whereas Seán MacEntee, TD for South Monaghan and the only Belfast man in the Dáil, attacked the Treaty because it perpetuated partition, the northern bishops reluctantly concluded that the Treaty offered the best hope of all Ireland unity.[15] This was not as absurd as it might appear in hindsight. It was rooted in the expectation, encouraged by Griffith and Collins, that Northern Ireland would be forced to accept inclusion into the Free State. At a meeting of the provisional government on 30 January 1922, MacRory urged that James Craig ‘be urged to come into the Irish Free State at once’ as well as outlining his fears for Catholic education and that were a policy of non-recognition adopted ‘the people in the North would have to fight alone’.[16] Non-recognition was championed by Collins as a crucial bargaining tool. He mollified the bishop by undertaking to pay the salaries of teachers who refused to recognize the northern ministry of education. In a further gesture, a North-Eastern Advisory Committee was established in March which included ten clerics along with Bishops MacRory, Mulhern and McKenna.

Against a deteriorating political and military situation, and acutely aware of the political opportunities at stake, many bishops used their Lenten pastorals in February 1922 to bolster support for the Treaty. For Archbishop John Harty of Cashel, the benefits of the Treaty far overweighed its limitations, none more so than ‘England’s renunciation of its claim to govern Ireland’. Likewise, Archbishop Byrne emphasised that ‘the unsympathetic, wasteful and unintelligent rule of men alien to us in blood and traditions’ would be replaced by a native one with ‘knowledge of our people’s needs’. Archbishop Gilmartin of Tuam prayed for deliverance from the curse of disunion, a theme put more forcefully by Bishop Michael Fogarty of Killaloe: ‘Ireland is now the sovereign mistress of her own life. The rusty chains of bondage are scrapped for ever – unless, indeed, by our own folly we put them on again.’[17]

In word and deed the hierarchy attempted to avert the disaster of civil war. Following the occupation of the Four Courts the bishops issued a statement on 26 April. This made clear their view that the Treaty was a national question that could only be settled by the national will at an election. Any claim by the army to independence was ‘a claim to military despotism and … an immoral usurpation and confiscation of the people’s rights’.[18] A second statement on the north-east offered a bitter reflection on the northern government which was ranked ‘more nearly with the government of the Turk in his worst days than with anything to be found anywhere in a Christian state’ and where Catholics were subjected to ‘a savage persecution which is hardly paralleled by the bitterest suffering of the Armenians. Every kind of persecution, arson, destruction of property, systematic terrorism, deliberate assassination, and indiscriminate murder reign supreme’.[19] This was a reference to a number of gruesome atrocities such as the killing of six children on Weaver Street in February and the murder of the McMahon family in March. Archbishop Byrne was a notable absentee from this meeting. With the lord mayor of Dublin, he had invited pro- and anti-Treaty representatives to a conference in the Mansion House that ended in failure.[20] 

            Nationalist divisions and the outbreak of civil war in the south dismayed northern nationalists and their clerical leaders. It was perceived as a betrayal in their hour of gravest danger. As early as January 1922 Logue had to be talked out of publicly condemning the stance of de Valera. The death of Collins ended the policy of non-recognition. In fact, Ernest Blythe, the Antrim born Protestant minister for local government and a member of a government committee on northern policy, wanted to reverse Collins’s approach by rejecting as counterproductive any coercion of the northern government.[21] Nationalist grievances were augmented by the abolition in September 1922 of PR in local government elections, the redrawing of electoral boundaries, and the imposition of a declaration of allegiance and service to the monarch and his government in Northern Ireland. Predictably, any vague hopes of an all Ireland settlement were extinguished on 7 December 1922 when Craig excluded Northern Ireland from the jurisdiction of the Free State which legally came into being the day before.

            Fearing anarchy, the hierarchy unequivocally upheld the authority of the Provisional government on the outbreak of civil war and was committed to the survival of the Treaty settlement. Throughout the summer individual bishops repeatedly decried violations of moral law. This was easier in 1922 than during the War of Independence because, in Murray’s phrase, the church was ‘sustaining’ and reinforcing the authority of an Irish state.[22] This extended to producing a partisan pastoral on 10 October 1922 to coincide with an amnesty offer to republicans by the government before the imposition of a draconian public safety act. The pastoral rejected the legitimacy of the republican campaign because ‘no one is justified in rebelling against the legitimate Government … set up by the nation and acting within its rights’, an argument reinforced by the overwhelming endorsement of the Treaty at the June election.[23] The hierarchy threatened to deprive those engaged in unlawful rebellion of the sacraments of eucharist and confession, and to suspend priests who gave spiritual aid to the anti-Treaty IRA (in the event neither was stringently applied). Lastly, the pastoral enjoined republicans to pursue grievances through constitutional action.

            Outraged by the attempt to use religious sanctions to enforce a political standpoint on a constitutional matter, republicans petitioned Pope Pius XI who despatched Monsignor Salvatore Luzio to report on the Irish situation. Cold-shouldered by church and state authorities, the government petitioned the Vatican to recall the envoy for endeavouring ‘to interfere in the domestic affairs of the country’.[24] The effectiveness of the October pastoral was uncertain. It may have emboldened the government in its ruthless prosecution of the civil war. The bishops were privately aghast at the policy of summary executions, which Edward Byrne considered ‘not only unwise but entirely unjustifiable from the moral point of view’.[25] Episcopal appeals for clemency, such as for Erskine Childers, were ignored. However dismayed the bishops were in private at the excesses of the Irish government or the National army during the Civil War, no public condemnation was issued. In this there was an element of pragmatic self-interest. The unpalatable reality of a Northern unionist government hostile to Catholic interests increased the hierarchy’s determination to secure the Irish Free State and the opportunities that it promised, not least for the Church.

            Until the failure of the Boundary Commission in November 1925 north nationalists and church figures continued to look to Dublin to protect their interests. They were committed to the Treaty settlement and the Boundary Commission as an instrument of salvation from the northern government. Lobbying by clergy in border areas led to the establishment of a North East Boundary Bureau in October 1922 to compile data in anticipation of the commission which was delayed until November 1924 by the civil war and political instability in Britain. For unionists the prospect of the Boundary Commission posed a threat to the territorial integrity of Northern Ireland. That Justice Feetham, the commission chairperson, favoured economic and geographic considerations over wishes of inhabitants shattered the hopes of northern nationalists. After the findings were leaked in the Tory Morning Post in November 1925, the report was suppressed, and the British, Free State and Northern governments signed an agreement on 3 December 1925 which ensured the boundary line remained unaltered.  The depth of disillusionment and bitterness towards the Free State government was captured by Cahir Healy’s description of the agreement as ‘a betrayal of the Nationalists of the North and a denial of every statement put forward by the Free State in their alleged support of our cause since 1921 … John Redmond was driven from public life for even suggesting partition for a period of five years. The new leaders agree to partition forever.’[26] There was a sense, as Oliver Rafferty argues, that northern nationalists and their clerical leaders felt alienated from both parts of the island.[27]

            The traumas and legacies of the early 1920s shaped church-state relations in significant ways. First, all the main Christian Churches continued to operate on an all-island basis despite contending with two political jurisdictions. Some bishops refused to accept partition. In his consecration address as bishop of Derry, almost a year after the Boundary Commission, Bernard O’Kane referred to the ‘anomaly and absurdity’ of having one part of his diocese ‘in one kingdom and the remainder in another state’ and pledged to work for a united Ireland.[28] There was never any question that the political border would compromise the religious unity of the Catholic Church whose map image remained an all-Ireland one. Second, partition proved deeply traumatic for the Catholic Church given the appalling civil strife between 1920 and 1922, the number of its adherents in Northern Ireland, its conviction that the unionist government was inimical to the nationalist community regarded as a security problem, and its overwhelming desire to safeguard Catholic education. Unsurprisingly, resentment and political aloofness lingered. The northern Catholic experience before the 1960s was marked by a sense of being in but not of the state, where, as Marianne Elliott suggests ‘their religion was their politics’.[29] After the Second World War the opportunities occasioned by the welfare state saw the northern Catholic bishops adopt a more pragmatic approach as they moved from highlighting the injustice of the state to injustices within in. Relatedly, whereas clerical involvement in politics declined throughout most of Ireland in the 1920s it remained significant in the north. Third, partition reinforced the association of political allegiance and religious affiliation on both sides of the border. It produced a remarkably homogenous population in the Irish Free State. In 1926 Catholics accounted for almost 93 per cent of the population. This had a significant bearing on the political and public culture and the status enjoyed by the church. Fourth, the Catholic Church was uniquely well placed to contribute to the state-building project in terms of enhancing national unity and self-definition, providing an unmatched institutional presence, and controlling policy areas, none more so than education. Fifth, Catholicism helped bind some of the wounds inflicted by the conflict in the south. There was remarkably little republican resentment towards the church, no anti-clerical party developed, and de Valera and his soldiers of destiny could demonstrate their devout Catholicism. This facilitated a remarkable level of continuity in harmonious church-state relations when Fianna Fáil took office in 1932. Lastly, as they had during the War of Independence and Civil War, the hierarchy, particularly the northern bishops, continued to renounce political violence.

[1] Dermot Keogh, The Vatican, the bishops and Irish politics, 1919-39 (Cambridge, 1986), Ireland and the Vatican: the politics and diplomacy of church-state relations, 1922-1960 (Cork, 1995); Mary Harris, The Catholic Church and the foundation of the Northern Ireland state (Cork, 1993); Patrick Murray, Oracles of God: the Roman Catholic Church and Irish politics, 1922-37 (Dublin, 2000).

[2] Irish Catholic Directory 1922, pp 600-601.

[3] Much has been written on this. See Alan Parkinson, Belfast’s unholy war: the troubles of the 1920s (Dublin, 2004); Robert Lynch, ‘The People’s protectors? The Irish Republican Army and the “Belfast Pogrom”, 1920-22’, Journal of British Studies, 47, no. 2 (2008), pp 375-91; Brian Feeney, Antrim: the Irish Revolution, 1912-23 (Dublin, 2021).

[4] Irish Catholic Directory 1922, p. 582.

[5] Ibid., p. 595.

[6] Irish Catholic Directory 1922, pp 576-7.

[7] Keogh, The Vatican, the bishops and Irish politics, p. 11.

[8] Ibid., pp 70-1.

[9] ‘Committee of Information on the Case of Ulster’, Sept. 1921 (TCD, Erskine Childers papers, 7784/66/4). See for example Bishop Mulhern of Dromore to Seán Milroy, 2 Oct. 1921 (NAI, DE/4/9/8).

[10] Logue to John Hagan, 10 Dec. 1922 (Irish College Rome, Hagan papers) cited in Keogh, The Vatican, the bishops and Irish politics, p. 80.

[11] Irish Catholic Directory 1923, p. 538.

[12] Byrne to de Valera, 3 Jan. 1922 (UCDA, de Valera papers, P150/2903).

[13] ICD 1923, p. 543.

[14] McKenna to John Hagan, 31 Jan. 1922 cited in Murray, Oracles of God, p. 356.

[15] Eamon Phoenix, Northern nationalism: nationalist politics, partition and the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, 1890-1940 (Belfast, 1994), p. 161.

[16] Provisional government minute of meeting, 30 Jan. 1922 (NAI, G1/1).

[17] Irish Catholic Directory 1923, pp 551-3.

[18] Ibid., pp 598-600.

[19] Ibid., p. 603.

[20] Byrne to Hagan, 1 May 1922 (Irish College Rome, Hagan papers) cited in Thomas Morrissey, Edward J. Byrne, 1872-1941: the forgotten archbishop of Dublin (Dublin, 2010), p. 84.

[21] ‘Policy in regard to the North-East’, 9 Aug. 1922 (UCA, Blythe papers, P24/70); Ó Corráin, ‘“Ireland in his heart north and south”: the contribution of Ernest Blythe to the partition question’, Irish Historical Studies 35, no. 137 (2006), pp. 63-4.

[22] Murray, Oracles, p. 34.

[23] Freeman’s Journal, 11 Oct. 1922.

[24] Michael Laffan, Judging W. T. Cosgrave (Dublin, 2014), p. 123.

[25] Draft Byrne to Cosgrave, 10 Dec. 1922 (Dublin Diocesan Archives, Byrne MSS 466) cited in Michael Laffan, Judging W. T. Cosgrave (Dublin, 2014), p. 122.

[26] Irish Independent, 5 Dec. 1925.

[27] Oliver P. Rafferty, Catholicism in Ulster, 1603-1983: an interpretative history (London, 1994), p. 222.

[28] Irish Catholic Directory 1927, p. 615.

[29] Marianne Elliott, ‘Faith in Ireland, 1600-2000’ in Alvin Jackson (ed.), The Oxford handbook of modern Irish history (Oxford, 2015), p. 177.