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The Catholic Church and Irish Independence


The Catholic Church and the Irish Independence Movement       Gerry OShea

The Penal Laws in Ireland were designed to bully Catholics and other Protestant dissenters into accepting the “true faith” as proclaimed by the English monarch. By the late 1790’s these laws had drifted into abeyance, and in 1795 the leaders in Westminster agreed to the construction of a seminary in Maynooth where aspirants for the Catholic priesthood could be trained.

This was a momentous political decision with consequences that extended throughout the 19th century and beyond. Prior to the development of Maynooth, priests were prepared for their work in European seminaries, especially in Spain and France, where revolutionary thinking was in vogue. They returned to serve in Ireland only to be further radicalized as they were chased and harassed by the authorities to prevent them from ministering to the people.

The new college in Maynooth changed all of that. Priests and especially bishops gradually became part of the establishment, nursing their prestige and importance as they built new churches and had the ears of attentive congregations in every parish throughout the country.

 Lord John Russell who served two terms as prime minister in London around the middle of the century stated that oppression and deprivation didn’t work in their plans to dominate the Irish, so they had no choice but “to govern Ireland through Rome.” The Maynooth decision should be seen in that context.

The Catholic Church likes to control the education system because that allows them to teach children the tenets of their religion. The British conceded this power to them by allowing the local clergy to manage the schools. It was an important and consequential alliance: the government provided the building and paid the teachers, and the clergy managed the school making sure that adequate time was set aside for teaching  catechism.

 There was no place in the curriculum for Irish culture or history. The pupils learned about the supposed glories of English kings and prime ministers with no place for Irish patriots like Robert Emmett or Wolfe Tone. Similarly, English writers and poets were always preferred to their Irish counterparts.

The church authority emanating from Maynooth was part of the established order in Ireland. The Catholic hierarchy basically supported the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) in Westminster and were prominent in advocating for land reform and Home Rule, the two issues that dominated Irish politics in the 19th century.

 In 1918 when Lloyd George proposed a policy of conscription, which would have required all young Irishmen to join the war effort at a time when the Germans seemed to be winning, the Catholic clergy joined with the IPP and Sinn Fein in stern and eventually successful opposition to that law.

The outcome of this agitation confirmed the importance of the church in the political sphere and for the next hundred years in Ireland no political party dared to advocate for any policy opposed by the hierarchy. In the Home Rule debate, which dominated the early years of the 20th century, unionist leaders in Belfast argued that “Home Rule would be Rome rule.” Their fears of untrammeled church dominance of a Dublin parliament were realized in the new independent Dail which met first in 1921.

The IPP tradition and approach to governance was not the only one seen as a way forward in the 19th and early 20th century. Theobald Wolfe Tone, drawing on the revolutionary ideas promoted by the American Revolution in 1775 and the French Revolution fourteen years later, preached a non-sectarian doctrine and led the United Irishmen revolt in 1798. Tone was captured and died in prison but his core message of uniting all Irishmen, Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, in a revolt against England lived on.

That doctrine of republicanism had adherents among a minority in Ireland. They argued that only through physical force could freedom be achieved. The Fenian movement, started in the 1860’s, accepted Tone’s philosophy on the use of violent revolution to achieve liberation. They were a secret oath-bound society committed to the revolutionary idea - for those times - of keeping the church away from making civil laws.

Not surprisingly, the Catholic hierarchy condemned the Fenians in the strongest terms, declaring their beliefs and methods morally repugnant. Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin, and the first Irish cardinal, led the assault but nobody could match the diatribe of Bishop Moriarty in Kerry: “God’s withering blasting curse on those Fenian bastards.” Even Pius 1X issued a decree in 1870 describing Fenianism as “the enemy of the church and the (British) state.”

The effort at an uprising by Fenian leaders turned out to be of no military consequence, but, despite the condemnation of the clergy, they had a large membership who kept alive the spirit of revolution at home and in the new locations of many emigrants in places like London and New York. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was a direct descendant and its membership included all the leaders of the 1916 Rising except for James Connolly.

Speaking of 1916, all the signatories on the proclamation read by Patrick Pearse on Easter Sunday died as Catholics, although their relationships with the official church were often strained. Tom Clarke, an old-school Fenian, chased the priest out of his cell hours before facing execution because he insisted that Clarke would have to confess his sins of violence before receiving communion.

Even Patrick Pearse, a committed Catholic, whose writings sometimes flirted with pietism, was rebuked publicly by a prominent Jesuit for his statement that Wolfe Tone’s grave in Bodenstown, County Kildare, was holier and more worthy of veneration than St. Patrick’s resting place outside the cathedral in Downpatrick.

The Soloheadbeg ambush in County Tipperary is usually identified as the beginning of the War of Independence. On January 21st 1919 a group of local IRA volunteers ambushed two policemen who were transporting gelignite as part of their duties. In the ensuing battle the policemen were killed. The response from churchmen at all levels was unequivocal. Fr. Slattery, the local curate, did not mince his words: “it was a frightful outrage, worse than the crimes of Bolshevik Russia.”

Dan Breen, one of the leaders of the ambush, reacting to the ecclesial vitriol directed against himself and his comrades, declared that “it was a terrible pity we didn’t shoot a few bishops!”

 The church had moved away from justifying the religious wars in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries when hundreds of thousands of Christians – Protestant and Catholic -were killed at least partly because of the brand of Christianity they espoused. Instead, the theologians in Maynooth expounded clear moral precepts affirming the biblical injunction against killing or injuring any human being.

Following that logic, Bishop Gaughran of the Meath diocese preached “that the IRA are criminals as savage as the bushmen of the forest.”  County Cork was a hotbed of revolt and the man with the miter there, Daniel Cohalan, felt that he needed to get his flock back in line. In the best authoritarian tradition he issued a decree in late 1920 that anybody engaging in ambushes or any military actions against the government was automatically excommunicated.

Before the war started the vast majority of priests and bishops got on well and co-operated with the police, many of whom were Catholics. Soldiers garrisoned in Ireland generally respected the clergy and didn’t interfere with their work.

 However, to quell the rebellion in Ireland, Lloyd George, the British prime minister, sent over demobilized soldiers, called Black and Tans due to their peculiar uniforms, a name that lives in infamy because of the terror they inflicted on the local people. To strengthen the forces further, a few months later he added about 2000 more men, former non-commissioned officers, supposedly as an auxiliary police force, commonly called the Auxies. These turned out to be even worse than the Tans in their attitude to and treatment of the people.

These new forces showed scant respect for the clergy and earned the condemnation of the bishops who in a joint pastoral published in the fall of 1920 blamed the British Government for their “reign of frightfulness” with only a passing condemnation of IRA attacks.

The killing of three priests by the various forces of the Crown heightened the sense of crisis between church and state. Fr. Griffin in Rahoon near Galway city was shot in a field in dubious circumstances. Canon Thomas Magner was killed by an Auxie in Dunmanway and another priest, James O’Callaghan, was shot dead in Cork city.

The war grew fiercer in 1921 with only a miniscule group of priests backing the IRA war, but the condemnations from the pulpit were  more muted as church leaders saw the often-indiscriminate murders and general terror that the people had to endure.


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