Workers' Liberty #61


What is Irish Republicanism?

Part Four

Parts 1 and 2 of this study (Workers' Liberty 57 and 58) chronicled the history of Irish Republicanism up to the end of the Border Campaign in 1962. Part 3 (WL 59-60) dealt with the interrelations between the IRA and the communist, then Stalinist, movement over the years 1919 to 1931. Here we pause in the middle of the story of the IRA and Stalinism to discuss one of the all-shaping forces in Irish Catholic society, and the greatest factor working against the development of socialism and communism, or even Irish left-populist Republicanism.

By John O'Mahony

Go back to part one | Go back to part two | Go back to part three

In September 1931 the IRA, closely aligned with the Irish Stalinist movement, launched a new political party, Saor Eire, aiming "to achieve a revolutionary leadership for the working classes and working farmers... [and] to organise and consolidate the Republic of Ireland on the basis of the possession and administration by the workers and working farmers of the land, instruments of production, distribution and exchange".

Within a few months, Saor Eire was dead, cut down by an eruption of priest-fostered and pervasive "White Terror" from both Catholic vigilantism and the Free-State government. In late 1931, a few months before the electorate turned it out, the government banned a large number of organisations. The "White Terror" reached its height under Fianna Fail, in priest-led riots and the burning down of the Communist Party's "Connolly House" in Dublin in 1933. In the same year Jim Gralton, an Irish-born US citizen and member of the Communist Party of the USA who had returned to Ireland, was hounded by local priests until De Valera's government obligingly deported him back to the USA.

After the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, an Irish Christian front - the old Blueshirt forces of 1933-4 - went on the rampage throughout the country. In 1938 the Church, through the Irish National Teachers' Union, forced the Labour Party to remove from its program the goal of a Workers' Republic which it had adopted in 1936, vague though that had now become. De Valera's 1937 "Republican constitution", which was endorsed in a referendum, recognised the "special place" of the Catholic Church in the state, while simultaneously claiming jurisdiction over the mostly-Protestant Six Counties. As we will see in some detail, the priests did have a very special place in the 26 Counties, acting as dictators whenever they chose to overrule the will of the elected government or tell it what to do.

In retrospect, it is plain that, leaving aside the question of Stalinism, for revolutionary working-class politics in Ireland to develop beyond a small-scale shallowly-rooted propaganda society on one side, and a hybrid nationalist-populist formation (the IRA) on the other, a culture, even a minority one, of anti-clericalism was prerequisite. The insincerities and zig-zags imposed on the CP by Stalinist policy, and the horrors of the Stalinist state, functioning as a grotesque scarecrow in propaganda against socialism and communism, made for additional complications and difficulties. But the Church would have been a major impediment to working-class politics in any case, given the place of Catholicism in Irish nationalist consciousness.

The roots

The Catholic Church in Ireland had a very different history from Catholicism on the continent. There the priests - in France, for example - had been landlords in their own right, and inextricably entwined with the rest of the old ruling class. Social revolt, in the 1789-99 revolution for example, unavoidably meant revolt against the Church too. Where the Church retained dominance, as in the Vendée, war against the revolution was the result.

In Ireland, the Church had for long been outlawed, driven down into the depths of the submerged Catholic population. For the British and Protestants who ruled, "Their dogs were thought alike to run/ Upon the scent of wolf or friar", as the 19th century Protestant nationalist Thomas Davis expressed it.

The Irish identity which grew up to replace the tribalism and regionalism that had, for example, allowed the Gaels of Ulster in the late 16th century to league with the English state in laying waste to Munster was a Catholic-Irish identity in its very roots. It has been dated back to the 1580s, when the Munster insurgents identified themselves with the Catholic Church and with Catholic Europe against the English heretics.

Priests and itinerant "hedge schoolmasters" were the spiritual and intellectual leaders of the helot old-Irish. The priests came from the people, the peasantry. They were heroes, not grasping landlords. Even when the Catholic Church allied with the British state in Ireland - in the 1790s, and facing the common threat of the French Revolution - and the British state helped to set up and undertook to subsidise the seminary at Maynooth, as it did, not all priests went over to the Establishment. There were peasant priest leaders in 1798, like Father John Murphy in Wexford, though the British government and the Catholic hierarchy were then close allies. After Britain and Ireland were "united" under one parliament, British and Irish Catholics were still not equal citizens in law. The Catholics had to conduct a thirty year long campaign for equality ("Catholic Emancipation"). The peasant priests were the political organisers and leaders in this movement, led by Daniel O'Connell.

In the first half of the 19th century, the Catholic Church in Ireland underwent a tremendous institutional strengthening. Ostentatious churches were built to replace the obscure halls where masses had been said; education was brought entirely under control; orders of nuns took control of health care. The Church was, under the British government, the power of powers in Ireland. With a new-found freedom to operate, it aggrandised itself, dotting the land with imposing new churches, towering over mostly tiny and squalid towns. The belief among Protestants that Home Rule would inevitably mean Rome Rule was not only sectarian bigotry. One consequence was the going over of the children and grandchildren of the Protestant United Irishmen to support for the Union in the first decades of the 19th century.

Even in its rise to great power in Irish society, the Catholic Church kept its popular roots. The priests were still largely a peasant draft. Irish Catholics maintained tremendous missionary efforts. Irish migration spread Catholicism in the USA, in the British colonies, and in Britain itself, where Catholicism had long been a small sect of upper-class recusants. Religion and national identity remained symbiotic, and not only in Catholic-nationalist, but also in Protestant-Unionist Ireland.

Protestant Ireland had a triumphant, long-dominant national-religious identity; Catholic Ireland, a defeated, long-persecuted identity, which in the ages of persecution was more defined by Catholicism than any other single thing. To be Irish meant to be Catholic1.

The paradox

Since the French Revolution no radical politics in Catholic Ireland has ever been possible except by opposition to the Catholic Church. No stable, expanding, socialist politics have been possible in Ireland without a break with the Church and with religion

The Church repeatedly condemned and anathematised the republicans. The professional-class leaders of Young Ireland in the 1840s - most, but not all, of whom were Protestants - came into conflict with the Church in its successful sectarian drive to control higher education (the "Queen's Colleges", now universities, then being set up in Cork, Galway, and Belfast). It was a strengthened, reorganised, and increasingly triumphalist Irish Catholic Church, stronger than for centuries, that confronted the Fenians - and damned them to Hell. "Hell is not hot enough, nor eternity long enough", to punish Fenians, a typical bishop famously fulminated. The Church deliberately cut down Charles Stuart Parnell although, as a counterweight to radicalism, he had given any priest who wanted to attend (and enormous numbers did) an automatic vote at the conferences of the militant Home Rule party he led.

When the militant labour movement fought for its life in the 1913-14 labour war in Dublin, the Church threw all its weight in the scales against them. The bishops and priests used the then very powerful Catholic equivalent of the Orange Order, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, for sectarian slurs and hooliganism in their agitation against the workers, their unions, and their leaders - against people who were, even in Jim Larkin's case, practising Catholics.

The Church condemned the 1916 Rising, as did most of the Catholic-Irish upper layers. In the civil war the Church threw its entire weight behind the government, refusing the sacraments to Republicans. By refusing them Holy Communion and the Last Sacrament, it forced men about to be shot for their beliefs and activities to "confess" that they had been wrong in the cause that had brought them to an untimely death before the prison wall and the sandbags.

Given this history, the wonder is that no open and avowed anti-clerical tradition developed in Ireland, not even among the socialists. Radical nationalists, the Fenians for example, defied the Church. The labour movement before World War 1 defied the Church; so did the insurgents of 1916, and the founders of Fianna Fail in 1922-3. But no current of comprehensive, developing anti-clericalism grew in Catholic Ireland.Even the best of the Irish revolutionaries, all the way to James Connolly and beyond, temporised with religion and thereby foreclosed on future possibilities.

There was a sort of anti-clerical tradition. The large numbers who took active part in the movements condemned by the priests developed a tradition of defying the hierarchy. They followed the dictum of the early 19th century nationalist Daniel O'Connell - for him, not quite honest - and took "their religion, not their politics" from Rome2. The O'Connell argument - religion, not politics, from Rome - is disingenuous, of course, begging the question: what is religion, and what politics? The Church claimed the right to legislate on all questions, not only of "faith" but of "morals" too - that is, on individual and social practice, and inevitably therefore on social arrangements. Who decides where the border is between religion and politics, especially social politics? The Church decides, and has the right to decide on what it will decide. Who else can claim that right without subverting the "teaching role of the Bishops" and the Church itself?

For the laity to tell the Bishops that something is not religion but politics - that it is for the laity to decide - when the Bishops insist it is theirs to decide, is to set themselves up against the Church hierarchy and assert their right to their own minds on matters defined by the Church as among its own god-given prerogatives. That is the root impulse and idea of Protestantism - not the clerics, but the individual mind and conscience decides, before God and in personal communication with God. There has therefore been a subterranean stream within Irish Catholicism, a never-ripening "Protestantism", running through Irish revolutionary politics and through Republicanism. In face of a conservative Church functioning as an assertive and would-be all-controlling theocracy - before, and even more so after, 26 Counties independence - that was the sine qua non of any revolutionary politics. Yet, except for individuals, it never generalised itself into denial of the hierarchy's competence and claim to speak for God. It kept itself to "special cases", and the great special case of the right to assert the fight for freedom of the Catholic nation against Britain and against those seen as Britain's stooges, the Free Staters and the Six Counties Unionists - whatever the Church said.

Such a conflict-ridden relationship between militant Catholic nationalism and the Catholic Church - but with no clear break - came to be traditional. In Ireland the liberation of the workers of both peoples from the most important ideology binding them to "their" ruling class and "their" priests was one of the preconditions for Protestant-Catholic working-class unity on the island, and especially where the two peoples were interlaced, in the North. Communists might have built upon and developed the tradition of Catholic "Protestantism" into a working-class stream of secular anti-clericalism. Under any circumstances this should have been done in the interests of truth and human self-respect. Yet it was not to be. Defying the priests in ways that had enormous theological implications, the newly organised Irish labour movement in the South early this century was nonetheless Catholic. The "communist" Republicans of the IRA in the late 1920s and early 1930s were Catholic.

In France, Italy, Belgium and Spain, rebels akin to the Republicans and the town workers developed a secular anti-clerical tradition. They established secular space in society, against the Church, in ways reminiscent of the medieval burghers establishing "space" for themselves and their mores in towns walled off from the feudal and feudal-ecclesiastical lords. Such a development might have been possible in Ireland, too. Given the behaviour of the Church again and again, the surprise is that it did not happen.

Take the 1913-14 Labour War. What the Church and the Ancient Order of Hibernians did there, acting as enforcers for the employers, must have driven some Dublin workers away from it for life. No anti-clerical current dared define and identify itself, or had the strength to protect itself and grow - though, if it had, this might have been as pivotal an event in Irish politics as it was in Irish trade unionism. Let us therefore, by way of illustration, look at what happened, and at the vile Catholic sectarianism used against a labour movement that nonetheless came through the experience unemancipated from Catholicism.

The Church in the Dublin labour war

In the years before the First World War, the great Jim Larkin organised the savagely oppressed workers of Ireland's capital city and made them a power in Ireland. Organisation, labour solidarity, the sympathetic strike by workers not directly in dispute - these were their weapons. These weapons began to mark them out as no longer a driven rabble but a class, women and men increasingly conscious of a common interest, a common identity and common goals.

In August 1913, the bosses locked out their employees, intent on using starvation to get them to submit and foreswear "Larkinism" - that is, effective, class-solidarity-inspired, trade unionism. The British state in Ireland backed them, sending hordes of police to attack strikers, some of whom were beaten to death. It turned into a war of attrition.

One episode in this struggle was the attempt to move starving Dublin children to homes in Britain where they would be fed. In mid October 1913, two months into the strike, during a pro-Dublin mass meeting in London, a British Marxist, Dora Montefiore obtained the agreement of Jim Larkin that the starving children of working-class Dublin should be evacuated from the labour-war zone, to be looked after by the British labour movement for the duration of the strike. (Montefiore would be a founder of the British Communist Party in 1920).

Next day, she explained her plan in the Daily Herald. Soon she had offers of 350 places for children, and more were coming all the time. Labour movement bodies, trade union branches and trades councils, offered to take the responsibility for one or more children. So did sections of the militant suffragettes, the WSPU3.

On 17 October, Dora Montefiore, Lucille Rand and Grace Neal, a trade union organiser who acted as secretary in their work, went to Dublin to organise the migration of the children.

They were given a room at Liberty Hall, the Transport Union HQ, and a meeting of wives of strikers was called. These mothers of hungry children eagerly grasped at this offer of help. Over a decade later, Montefiore wrote an account of it in her autobiography.

"When the work of registration was over, 50 children were selected to meet Lucille Rand at the Baths, where a trained woman had been engaged to clean their heads and bodies [of lice, which were endemic]… Grace Neal presided over a batch of volunteer workers at our room in Liberty Hall, who were sewing on to the children's new clothing labels bearing their names and addresses, and small rosettes of green and red ribbon."

But if the strikers saw Montefiore's plan as the rescue it was, so too did the bosses and their friends. They resented this attempt to deprive them of the power to weaken and break the spirit of strikers and their wives by forcing them to to watch while their children starved and wasted. More: they saw the chance to whip up a political and sectarian scandal as a weapon to undermine "Larkin" by lining up Catholic Ireland against him. Catholic charitable organisations such as the Saint Vincent de Paul Society had already refused help to strikers and their families. Now the Church discovered that the strikers' children faced danger worse than starvation. This plan to deport children, was, they said, a plot to convert "Catholic children" into Protestants! They set up a great hue and cry against Montefiore and her friends.

The campaign was led by fanatic young priests and by the then very strong Catholic Orange Order, the "Ancient Order of Hibernians" ("Hibs", "Molly Maguires", AOH). They spread the whisper that Montefiore and her friends were really "agents of the White Slave Trade" - recruiters of prostitutes - who would sell the children to foreign brothels.

They whispered too that it was a plot to wreck the morals of the women of working class Dublin: take away from them the daily responsibility for their children and they would inevitably become adulterous and promiscuous. Those are the stories that were reported to Montefiore. People threw stones and mud at 'the white slavers' in the street.

Dr Walsh, the Archbishop of Dublin, issued a public proclamation condemning the "deportation" of the children, adding his full weight to the frantic agitation of the 'Hibs'. It was not long before sectarian violence erupted. Dora Montefiore describes it:

"It was when I returned to [Liberty] Hall that I heard the first news of trouble being made by the priests, who were taking away the children from the Tara Street Baths. I at once drove down and found Mrs Rand being personally annoyed and technically assaulted by the priests, who were shouting and ordering the children about in the passageway leading to the girls' baths. The scene of confusion was indescribable; some of the women were 'answering back' to the priests, and reminding them how they had been refused bread by the representatives of the Church, and how, now that they had a chance of getting their children properly cared for, the priests were preventing the children from going. Other women, worked upon by violent speeches of the priests, were wailing and calling on the saints to forgive them".

They could not prevail against the priests and their mob.

"When we found we could, in consequence of the action of the priests, do nothing more for the children we had promised to befriend, we drove back to Liberty Hall, through a crowd that threw mud at us as we got into the cab and raised cries of 'throw them in the Liffey!'" What else should they do with white slavers and those who came to steal the souls of Irish children? Back at Liberty Hall, "kindly hands were stretched out to us on all sides, and 'God bless you' followed us as we went up to the rooms where the rest of the children were being dressed for their journey."

When the "little batch" of children was ready, Larkin spoke from a window of Liberty Hall to the crowd gathered down below. He "asked the men to see to it that the children reached the railway station... The whole party of women and children left the Hall under the escort of the men, while Mrs Rand and I drove with a little chap of five to the station." But the priests and the "Hibernian" mob got there first.

"We found at first every door shut against us and we were pulled back and forth and separated from the men and the mothers and children who were crowding the entrance to the station. At last one door was opened", and Montefiore counted through the women and children who were to accompany Rand. Having given out the tickets she found that she had a large block left, bought for those who had "been snatched away by the priests".

She made her way to the carriage where Lucille Rand sat with her group of women and children. "As I approached the carriage door, a priest threw me rudely aside and held me back by the shoulder. I told him he was assaulting me by laying his hand on me, and when he saw I was calm but very much in earnest in the matter, he let me go." Montefiore of course dressed and spoke like the upper-class Englishwoman she was. The ragged Catholics of Dublin's slums were another matter. They could be pushed about with impunity.

Montefiore continues: "The same gross scenes of intimidation of the children that we had seen at the station were repeated at the quay… More children were snatched away from Mrs Rand… and she, feeling her responsibility towards all the children who were in her care, and who, she was told by passengers, would be removed by priests at Holyhead [on the British side of the Channel] left the steamer with her charges at the last moment." When Lucille Rand got off the boat, she was arrested and taken to the police station, to be charged with "kidnapping a child under 14 years of age, and feloniously removing it from the care of its father"!

Dora Montefiore herself, when she got back to her hotel,was visited by detectives and taken to the police station. She too was charged with kidnapping. Constance Markiewicz and others came down to the police station and got her released on bail. Mrs Rand too was bailed out. The charges were later dropped. By this time, the Dublin press was in full cry against them, and their release was greeted with the headline: "English kidnappers bailed out by Dublin Jews"! The "kidnappers" you will recall, were really white slavers.

The Dublin boss-class press stoked up the sectarians. For example, the Evening Herald on 23 October headlined: "Priests' unavailing protest - fifty more to be sent tonight. Priests to attend: hope that all city Catholics will support them" etc.

Larkin was not intimidated. His response to these events was to announce from the window of Liberty Hall that 15 children would start for Liverpool on the boat that same night. He appealed to the men listening to him to see that they got through. The men should go with Grace Neal to see that the children were not snatched by priests or "Hibs". That evening, a small procession left Liberty Hall for the railway station, each of the 15 children perched on the shoulders of a docker.

They were met once again by a horde of priests and "Hibs" and by police who were on the side of the sectarian roughnecks. This time, the union men forced a way through, and the 15 children got on the train and then the boat. Counting them, Grace Neal found that she had 18, not 15: three extra children had been smuggled onto the boat by their parents at the last moment…

Grace Neal and her helpers stayed awake all night, on guard for the children. Cattledrovers with their cows on board the boat milked the cows and brought them fresh milk in the morning. At Liverpool, the fortunate 18 were met by friends and taken to their temporary homes, where they stayed for some months.

The public "manifesto" by Archbishop Walsh of Dublin was the authority by which priests and Hibs claimed to act. So Montefiore wrote him a letter, explaining what she and her friends were doing.

He replied on 22 October. Against the background of mob violence roused by the tales of "white slavery" and soul stealing, he wrote this in a letter that was not intended to remain "private": "If the motive which has inspired the scheme is a purely philanthropic one - and I dare say you have been made aware of some sinister rumours to the contrary that are afoot in Dublin - let whatever means are available be diverted to the fund to which I have referred. If that be done, I can answer for it, the children of Dublin will not suffer want.

"Believe me to be, dear madam, your faithful servant, William J Walsh."

Dora Montefiore commented: "There were, according to Larkin 21,000 slum 'homes' of one room, in which families herd and breed, feed and sleep! And his grace, Archbishop Walsh, who should be the shepherd of his flock, has the insolence to suggest to three women delegates from the workers of Great Britain, that he is not certain whether the 'sinister rumours' in connection with their visit to Dublin have not a substratum of truth!"

Montefiore could see for herself what confidence to place in the Archbishop's assurances. She reported in the Daily Herald on 21 October: "In the gutter in front of our hotel in the main street of Dublin there stood three garbage tins and each tin was being searched furtively but rapidly by ragged kiddies, aged from 4 or 5, who threw the ashes into their bags and wolfed the pieces of broken bread and meat they found among the garbage…" That was normal, lock-out or no lock-out.

Now the end approached. Jim Larkin's sister Delia suggested that the way to answer the charge that the children were being taken to English homes to make Protestants of them was to send them out of Dublin to Catholic homes in Belfast. This was agreed. It was a self-poisoning act of political and ideological submission to the priests and the Hibs. And it did not satisfy them. There were left-wing and labour movement Protestants in Belfast (denounced as "rotten Prods" by the Orange first cousins of the Hibs; they would be driven out of the ship yards along with the Catholics in the Orange Riots of 1920, which were triggered by the war waged for independence against Britain in the south). But it was decided - to Catholic homes in Belfast. Once more Grace Neal met with mobs of Hibs and priests out to stop her! But now the nakedly political - "Smash Larkin!" - motive of the priests and Hibs could not be disguised.

Dora Montefiore went with Delia Larkin to the station. "At one end of the platform, in front of the compartment into which the parents were attempting to get their children, there was a compact, shouting, gesticulating crowd of Hibs. In the centre of the crowd was the little party of children and parents, and among them were the priests, who were talking, uttering threats against the parents, and forbidding them to send their children to Protestant homes. Some of the women were upbraiding the priests for allowing the children to starve in Dublin; and according to an American paper, whose correspondent was on the platform 'one woman slapped the face of a priest who was attempting to interfere'."

The union had to abandon the attempt to get the children out. Jim Larkin - the practising Catholic - commented bitterly: "The religion that could not afford to send children away for a fortnight [for fear they would 'lose their faith'] had not much to boast of". Some of the priests, he pointed out, had shares in the companies of William Martin Murphy, the bosses' leader. (The use of religion and nationalism for commercial advantage, against Protestant shopkeepers and others, was a feature of the "national movement" throughout Ireland).

The union was now forced to play hideous politics with hungry children. Archbishop Walsh had promised publicly that the church would "deal with all cases of distress". The union tested the promise by suspending free dinners at Liberty Hall, and the women and children were sent to the Church to ask for their dinners. They were turned away - there was "nothing for them", nothing for "Larkin's crew".

The Church in power

What the power of the Catholic hierarchy meant for the evolution of the independent Irish state is best shown in another episode - the conflict between the Minister of Health in the 1948-51 Dublin coalition government, Noel Browne, and the bishops who stopped him from developing a rudimentary Irish National Health Service. This story is of direct interest for understanding Irish Republicanism. Browne's party, Clan na Phoblachta, was a "new start" leftish Republican party, rooted in the IRA of the 1930s and led by former IRA chief of staff Sean MacBride. In the coalition government it was one of a group of small parties - including two Labour Parties - clustered around Fine Gael (the 1930s Blueshirt party). It expelled Browne after a ludicrous "trial". It was, so to speak, a logical sequel to the collapse of MacBride and Saor Eire before the bishops 20 years earlier. As Minister of Health Browne made war on TB and in an amazingly short time came within sight of wiping out this disease which had been killing tens of thousands every year. That achievement alone would mark Browne as one of the greatest men in Irish history.

Then he turned to creating a new health care system. But after 30 years of 26 County independence, the Bishops had the real power, and were used to exercising it. They objected to doctors and paramedics in Browne's "Mother and Child" scheme instructing women on matters to do with sexuality and children. That was contrary to the "social teaching" of the Catholic Church. Hold on, Mr Browne!

And they objected most emphatically - hand in hand with the Irish medical establishment - to Browne's insistence on making the services free: a means test was essential, they insisted. Anything else was immoral.

On 10 October 1950, Browne was "peremptorily ordered" to the palace of Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin by a telephone call from his secretary. "I was told to attend a meeting, to be held on the following day, concerned with the proposed mother and child health service and the bishops' position in regard to it.

"I could not understand why any bishop should not be prepared to meet a government minister in his department. Yet my Cabinet colleagues informed me that it was in fact the practice, under Irish government protocol, for a minister to be expected to attend, when told to do so, at a bishop's palace. There would be three bishops present while I, though requesting permission to do so, was bluntly told that I might not bring my Departmental Secretary."

Browne went into a large and imposing room, "where two bishops were introduced to me as Dr Staunton, the Bishop of Ferns, and Dr Michael Browne, the Bishop of Galway. As soon as we were settled, a letter from the hierarchy was read to me by Dr McQuaid.

"'Dear Taoiseach [Prime Minister], The Archbishop and Bishops of Ireland at their meeting on October 10th had under consideration the proposals for a Mother and Child health service and other kindred medical services. They recognise that these proposals are motivated by a sincere desire to improve public health, but they feel bound by their office to consider whether the proposals are in accordance with Catholic moral teaching.

'In their opinion the powers taken by the State in the proposed Mother and Child Health Service are in direct opposition to the rights of the family and of the individual and are liable to very great abuse... If adopted in law they would constitute a readymade instrument for future totalitarian aggression.

'The right to provide for the health of children belongs to parents, not to the State. The State has the right to intervene only in a subsidiary capacity, to supplement, not to supplant.

'It may help indigent or neglectful parents; it may not deprive 90% of parents of their rights because of 10% necessitous or negligent parents.

'Gynaecological care may be, and in some countries is, interpreted to include provision for birth limitation and abortion. We have no guarantee that State officials will respect Catholic principles in regard to these matters. Doctors trained in institutions in which we have no confidence [this meant students - like Noel Browne - at Trinity College, the "Protestant University", where Catholics were then forbidden by their Church to study] may be appointed as medical officers under the proposed services, and may give gynaecological care not in accordance with Catholic principles...

'The Bishops desire that your Government should give careful consideration to the dangers inherent in the present proposals before they are adopted by the Government for legislative enactment'..."

Dr Noel Browne remembers:

"Having read the letter to me, the bishops appeared to assume that the interview was over." That was how things stood between the hierarchy and the elected Government: the Bishops simply told the Government what it would do. But Browne stayed to argue.

"Bishop Browne of Galway then took up the question of the burden of rates and taxation. He claimed that it was unfair to tax the rest of the community in order to give the poor a free health service. I pointed out that taxation was surely not a matter of morality; as far as I was concerned, it was a problem for the government, the Minister for Finance and myself..."

And so the lines were drawn. The hierarchy - accustomed to telling the Government what it would do and unaccustomed to being given an argument about anything it declared important - proved adamant, insisting on a drastically diminished, means-tested service. Explain themselves? No. They peremptorily refused to answer the question why had they not denounced the British National Health Service, which Northern Ireland Catholics used. Together with the medical profession, they organised a tremendous campaign to break Noel Browne.

Browne: "In Cabinet I decided to make a stand on two issues: the fundamental rights of the electorate, with power coming from the people to the elected government, and the right of the public to a proper health service. Under no circumstances could we concede to the bishops the right to set aside a law already passed by the Oireachtas."

Noel Browne quotes Archbishop Kinane of Cashel from the Irish Independent of 2 June 1951. You will not find a more brazen public assertion of the Bishops' claim to dictatorial power, to the exercise of which they had long grown accustomed in the independent Ireland: "I have recently emphasised that certain graduates of TCD, while openly parading their Catholicity, have, at the same time, publicly set themselves up in opposition to a fundamental part of Catholic religion, namely the teaching authority of the bishops. These people are now claiming the right to determine the boundaries of their jurisdiction. They should not oppose their bishop's teaching by word or act, or by any other way, but carry out whatever is demanded by him. They must carry out political, social and economic theories which are in harmony with God's laws."

Browne: "The hierarchy had become the factual instrument of government on all important social and economic policies in the Republic. Our prospects for the preservation of an effective Cabinet and a badly needed health scheme were now changed utterly".

Sean MacBride insisted that Browne should call on Dr Michael Browne, a member of the Episcopal Committee.

"Dr Browne was a big man, well over six feet tall, his height enhancing the long black soutane with its thousand and one split pea-size scarlet buttons. The bishop had a round soft baby face with shimmering clear cornflower-blue eyes, but his mouth was small and mean. Around his great neck was an elegant glinting gold episcopal chain with a simple pectoral gold cross. He wore a ruby ring on his plump finger and wore a slightly ridiculous tiny skull-cap on this noble head. The well-filled semi-circular cummerbund and sash neatly divided the lordly prince into two. "He handed me a silver casket in which lay his impeccable hand-made cigarettes. 'These cigarettes', he intoned, 'I had to have made in Bond Street'. Then he offered me a glass of champagne. 'I always like champagne in the afternoon', he informed me in his rich round voice... My feeling of awe was mixed with a sense of astonishment that this worldly sybarite considered himself to be a follower of the humble Nazarene [Jesus Christ]."

The Bishop was concerned with what he thought would be an impermissible increase in the "burden of the rates and taxes" needed to pay for the scheme. In 1909 and 1910 the right of the House of Commons to unimpeded control of the fiscal affairs of the state had provoked a major constitutional crisis in the United Kingdom, when the unelected House of Lords presumed to challenge Lloyd George's "People's Budget" at the start of Britain's rudimentary welfare state. There was an open fight in the course of which the Lords were defeated and their unqualified power destroyed. 30 years after independence, Browne, as a member of the Government that in 1949 made the 26 Counties a Republic, conducted the same fight, but behind closed doors, against Ireland's own, much more powerful, Lords - and against both the Coalition government and his own "Republican", ex-IRA, party, which lined up on the side of Ireland's ecclesiastical lords spiritual and temporal.

Finally, on 31 March Noel Browne went to meet the Primate of All Ireland, Cardinal Dalton, of Armagh. The Cardinal made no attempt to answer "the one crucial and pertinent question" that Browne insistently put to him: why were Catholics in Northern Ireland allowed to use Aneurin Bevan's National Health Service? "His disdainful reply smacked of royalty standing on its dignity: 'We are prepared neither to apologise, nor to explain'." They did not need to explain or argue reasons where they could command, as they could and did command the Dublin Government. The coalition Cabinet bowed to the hierarchy. Browne was forced to resign.

"Grudgingly the Taoiseach allowed my request that I ask every one of the Cabinet the question 'Do you accept?'... First I asked the Labour leader Everett, then the patrician McGilligan. Difficult to believe, there was no difference between the landlord and the peasant. Then from [Labour leader] Norton, prostrate obeisance. Michael Keyes, a Labour minister... was the only one to demur meekly, 'They shouldn't be allowed to do this'. But he too nodded his head. Sean MacEoin [a legendary hero of Ireland's war of independence celebrated in popular ballads about "the Blacksmith" he had been] was outraged that I had even dared to question him. Angrily he blustered, 'How dare you invite me to disobey my church?' The hierarchy had spoken, in no uncertain terms.

"He asked, 'Who would oppose the positive teaching of those entitled to teach?' Then he went on ingenuously, and with a welcome edge of blacksmith's humour, 'I don't want to get a belt of a crozier'... "Later Taoiseach Costello was to say, 'As a Catholic, I obey my authorities.' [Sean] MacBride was quoted as saying, 'Those in the government who are Catholics are bound to accept the views of their church'."

The crisis proved fatal to the coalition, which soon fell. De Valera's Fianna Fail Party won the ensuing General Election.

The power of the Catholic Church in the 26 Counties would not diminish much for 40 years - until the last decade, and then as a result of a big series of scandals involving Irish priests in child abuse and sexual hypocrisy. It could have diminished earlier in some parts at least of 26 County society. It is one of the great strange things of history that a large part of Catholic working class Ireland did not turn violently against the Church in 1913-14 as town workers in Catholic France and Belgium had done before them. The sound of that Dublin working-class woman's slap in the face of a hooligan priest - something shocking and almost unimaginable in Catholic Ireland - should have echoed and re-echoed through Irish political life, announcing a new start. But it did not.

One reason was that the leaders, Larkin, Connolly and others, themselves remained, or proclaimed themselves, Catholics. Larkin - who had for a while in 1907 united Belfast's Protestant and Catholic workers - could say this about the priests and the AOH: "I have tried to kill sectarianism, whether Catholic or Protestant. I am against bigotry or intolerance on either side. Those who would divide the workers have resorted to the foulest methods"

But he, like Connolly, argued with the priests from inside Catholicism, in their own territory and on limited issues, without making the root and branch challenge necessary if their power over at least some of the people was to be broken.

James Connolly wrote a powerful pamphlet, Labour, Nationality and Religion, arguing as if from within Catholicism (and probably, at that point, insincere; but because of it he is claimed as a founder of "liberation theology") with the anti-socialist teachings of the Church. But none of the socialist labour leaders challenged the Church as such. In their relationship with the Catholic Church, the militant labour leaders continued in the tradition of the older radical nationalists. The Stalinist-influenced populist-nationalist IRA left of the 1930s would try to continue the same tradition, until the contradictions destroyed them - as we shall see in the next issue of Workers' Liberty, when we complete the story of Stalinism and the IRA.


  1. Thus, nationalists of Protestant origin would often convert to Catholicism - Maud Gonne (who was in fact English, like some of the best Irish nationalists), Roger Casement (an Antrim Protestant, who converted while waiting to be hanged), and Constance Markiewicz (a "horse-Protestant" from a "Big House" in Sligo).

    James Connolly wrote to his confidant, the Scottish De Leonite John Carstairs Mathieson, that he only "posed" as a Catholic to ease his socialist work among Catholics. He worked to question the then social teachings of the Church, from "within" Catholic assumptions, and he has been plausibly claimed as one of the originators of "liberation theology". Yet Connolly confessed and took Communion and the last rites of the Church. As the Easter Rising was drawing to its unavoidable end, in the burning insurgent headquarters the atmosphere was one of fervent religious-national self-awareness. For whatever reason or mix of reasons, personal, political or both; whether from renewed religious conviction or the desire to identify completely with the cause as it was, Connolly died a Catholic.

  2. A few made a full break with the Catholic Church. Tom Clarke, who had been an "Invincible" dynamiter in the 1880s and had served a long prison sentence and enforced exile for it, broke with the Church because of its attitude to the Fenians. About to be shot, in May 1916, he would have no truck with the priests. His, much younger, widow, Kathleen, became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. So did the widow of Thomas MacSweeney, Lord Mayor of Cork, who died on hunger strike in Brixton jail in 1920.

    In the vast Curragh internment camp, where thousands were kept until 1924, Republican leaders discussed the idea, in all seriousness it seems, of starting an Irish national Catholic Church around the Republican priest Father Michael O'Flanagan. Paedar O'Donnell, the future Republican Stalinist, helped scotch the idea on the ground, among others probably, that they did not have theological differences with the Church...

  3. This was not, as critics said and the Stalinist historian Desmond Greaves repeats in the official history of the ITGWU, an irresponsible stunt by busy-bodies, but a properly organised part of the effort of British labour to help Dublin.
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