The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Ireland

The following is an editorial from Church and State magazine (the organ of the old Campaign to Seperate Church and State), January, 2010:

The Age Of My Craven Deference Is Finally Over.” That was the headline on Professor Ronan Fanning’s article on the Murphy Report (Sun. Independent, 6 Dec.). Well, it was almost the headline. Fanning used the collective “our” rather than the personal “my”. But in the case of the Professor of Modern History at the chief College of the National University the personal and the collective merge. The Professor (singular) determines in great part what characterised the plurality of those who went through the educational system to its highest level.

It became well known to us long ago that the paid intelligentsia of the state were craven in their attitude towards the Church. They were sceptics in private but were cynically respectful in public, because they were craven.

When we set out 36 years ago to reduce the role of the Church in the State, and to establish a viable national culture independent of the Church, and therefore necessarily in conflict with the Church, at least in the first instance, we met with very few amongst the official intelligentsia who were in private disagreement with us, but not one of them was willing to say in public what they said in private.

They were cynical participants in the status quo. They functioned by mental reservation.

Because their scepticism was not deployed against the Church in the public sphere, it remained primitive and undeveloped. They were private Know-alls, who in fact knew nothing because what they thought they knew could not be articulated in public.

Desmond Williams

The Professors of History at UCD bear the main responsibility for this. We assumed to start with that those Professors were believers who shared the outlook of the Church Hierarchy. Post-1945 that was no longer the case. In 1948 T. Desmond Williams was piloted into the Chair of History at UCD from British Intelligence, and that was when the funny business started.

Williams’ chief public intervention was to defame the wartime Irish Ambassador in Spain (Leopold Kearney) as a Nazi collaborator. He knew this because he had been in British Intelligence. But, when the Ambassador sued him for libel, he was not able to make good his defamation. And British Intelligence did not back him up, for reasons of both diplomacy and truth.

When Williams died an obituary in the Irish Times was written by an Englishman making a career in Irish political journalism, Kevin Myers. Myers had been one of an inner circle of students cultivated privately by Williams. He deplored the fact that Williams had published so little. He put it down to perfectionism. He was certain that Williams’ executors would find masterpieces in his drawer and publish them.

But nothing was published. Williams had nothing to say beyond his contributions to a few little collections of essays by various authors that he published. Or he had nothing that he could say. His paradoxical status as a British intelligence operative in the major History Professorship in Ireland stultified him.

Bill Sharkey

The students he cultivated in his inner circle outside the University were greatly impressed by him. Some, like Desmond Fennell (when confronted with the fact by Manus O’Riordan) found it hard to believe that he was from British Intelligence. Others, like Dermot Keogh (now History Professor in Cork) valued him because of it.

The fact that he served in British Intelligence is indisputable public knowledge. Such inside information as we had about his informal late night tutorials came from the late Bill Sharkey.

Sharkey was born in a remote region of the Donegal Gaeltacht. He shot up through the academic system through sheer brain-power when his family moved to Derry. He was at Maynooth with John Hume and the future Cardinal O’Fee before realising that he had a secular destiny. He was expert in ancient Irish, got work with the Manuscripts Commission, and sought out the Dublin academic intelligentsia with a view to getting his teeth into the modern world. And so he came into contact with Williams’s late night get-togethers with favoured students. Being himself a high-minded and hard-thinking intellectual, he soon concluded that Williams was a wastrel. So he took himself off.

Sharkey was but one instance of how rural Ireland gave rise to impulses which urban Ireland was unable to provide for the development of. In Paris or Freiburg he would have been in his element. When he realised the futility of academic life in Dublin—and he was very much an academic in his intellectual rigour, and therefore was never quite at ease with us—he went to London. In London he applied the most modern philosophy of France and Germany to the technique of advertising. When we first met him he had reached the top of his profession. He was selling Mars bars—and there was nothing higher than that—and lived in an exclusive flat just off Trafalgar Square.

That provided an exercise for skill acquired through philosophical/sociological analysis (for which theological analysis was not beside the point), but he later concluded that that too was a waste of life, and so we met him again. He concluded that even though we didn’t have a Professorship, or even a lectureship, between us, we were the best there was—or we were the only thing there was.


Irish academia refused to establish ground for itself with relation to the Catholic Church that was in accordance with the general European position. But it did not even maintain the craven silence that Fanning now pleads guilty to in the plural. When the occasion required it, it snatched at straws in order to make the debating point that the relationship of Church and State in Ireland was the normal European relationship.

The best of the academics a generation ago was John Whyte. But even he relied heavily on evasive debating points. However, it should be said in his favour that he seems to have been a sort of old-fashioned believer, and not a craven cynic.

The best of the journalists a generation ago was Gene Kerrigan, who said, in print, that it was unnecessary to engage in conflict with the Church, and it was therefore better not to do so, because globalism was undermining the position of the Church anyway.

This meant that there was no reason for journalists to damage their careers by taking on the Church prematurely.

It also meant that no secular national culture was being established beyond, and in conflict with, the culture of the Church.

It meant that there was no Irish Voltaire—not to mention Rousseau. Or, rather, there were many Irish Voltaires at late night sessions in pubs, but there were none in print or in the lecture rooms.

We did our best to play the part of Rousseau in public. We got no support in public from academics or journalists, but the private Voltaires condemned us in private for not being Voltaireans.

Voltaire jeered at the Church from the vantage point of enlightened despotism. Rousseau, as a democrat, was of the opinion that religion represented something that was necessary in human life, and therefore did not jeer at it.

Voltaire, from the safety of Potsdam or Annecy said Encrase l’infame — Wipe out the infamous thing — and Europe heard him. Our craven Voltaires said it where no one could hear them but themselves, and they felt very bold when they heard themselves.

The infamous thing has gone, no thanks to the cravens. But, now that it is down-and-out, is it a sign of moral backbone to denounce it? Or are they craven still? And, if they are craven still, is it still the fault of the Church, which gave them habits they cannot throw off, even though the Church is now prostate at their feet. The enemy they dared not oppose is down, and now they dare to kick it.


The Roman Catholic Church’s great achievement in Ireland has been to so disable our capacity to think about right and wrong that parents of abused children apologised for the abusing priest“: that is the blurb on Fintan O’Toole’s Irish Times article on November 11th. Well, if the Church has disabled O’Toole’s capacity to think why does he continue to pontificate? A disabled capacity to think is not cured by denouncing to order.

The headline on O’Toole’s article on December 1st was An Abysmal Abdication Of Responsibility. It would be more applicable to the Irish Times than Bishop Willie Walsh, who was the object of the tirade.

If we must take it that the Irish Times has been an Irish newspaper with Irish concerns at heart (rather than a British newspaper that was kept viable for an ulterior purpose), then the abysmal abdication of responsibility lies at its door. As we explained in detail in the last issue, TDs under the PR system could not act out of joint with the electorate and hope to retain office. Nor could the mainstream Irish newspapers and remain in business. The Irish Times was in the unique position of having a readership that was semi-detached from the body politic of the system, but was yet big enough to sustain daily publication, and it was a title which was widely read abroad. It was therefore in a position to tell unacceptable home truths to the democracy, and have them heard. It chose not to do so.

“Up to very recently, the working Irish definition of democracy was simply majoritarian. If 50% of the population plus one wanted theocratic laws, then it was their democratic right to get their way. Clerical bullying found a potent ally in this understanding of democracy-as-numbers as distinct from democracy-as-equality, since they could say that their democratic right to free exercise of religion was being infringed if their wishes were thwarted. Judge Murphy has taught us a harrowing lesson here, showing a later generation why the majoritarian chorus must not alone dictate the conditions of social life….”

That is from an article in the Sunday Independent, 6th December, headlined Past Politicians Defied The Church. The writer is the pretentious Cork City petty bourgeois, John-Paul McCarthy, who has made it to the magic circle of Oxford University but still bestows his grace on us.

But he does not explain to us how, finding ourselves in a democracy, we are to escape from democracy—or how within a democracy we can bring about a subordination of the majority to something else.

Indeed, we have often had it said to us, during our campaigning over the decades, that the Church did not actually express the will of the democracy in Ireland, but had somehow subordinated the majority to its will. It seemed to us that the Church did in fact act in accordance with the will of the majority. We took it therefore that our task was to alter that will, and we have been doing our best ever since 1973 in this publication.

If the Church had been an unrepresentative power-structure carried over from feudalism, the task would have been different, and simpler.

McCarthy at least recognises that the Church was interwoven with the democracy. He does not suggest how the democracy might be over-ruled on occasion by some element that is functional within it.

At Oxford he is employed by an institution that held out for a very long time against democracy, and then helped to shape democracy once it became inevitable. In other words, he works for the residue of a ruling class.

England was a widely-based aristocracy from 1688 to 1832. After 1832 the populace was admitted to the electoral franchise by stages. That process of enfranchisement was not completed until the late 1920s. It was conducted within the structures, practices, conventions, and over-arching ideology of a party-political system developed in the 18th century, long before the enfranchisement began, and its development was directed, shaped and curbed by that system. And it preserves to this day the electoral system which, combined with the party system, tends to produce strong government by enabling a party to win an overall majority in Parliament on a minority vote and to do almost what it pleases for four years.

But, when setting up the Free State for the section of Sinn Fein that bowed to its will in 1921-2, Whitehall set up a system designed to produce weak government by preventing any party from gaining an overall majority, and by keeping TDs insecure in their Constituencies, in which they are always in contention with other TDs, and even with other TDs of their own party.

The Whitehall statesmen knew what they were doing when they broke up the Republic and set up the Free State in its place.

Fifth Column?

On December 12th, Fintan O’Toole’s headline was Agents Of Foreign State Should Not Control Our Schools. The “foreign state” is the Vatican. This is how he establishes that the Vatican is a foreign state operating in Ireland:

“The Vatican, in its refusal to deal with the Murphy commission on child abuse in the Dublin diocese, made it clear that it wishes to be regarded, not as a church organisation, but as a foreign state. Which raises the rather stark question: why do we allow a foreign state to appoint the patrons of our primary schools? If some weird vestige of colonial times decreed that the British monarch would appoint the ultimate legal controllers of almost 3,200 primary schools in our so-called republic, we would be literally up in arms. Why should we tolerate the weird vestige of an equally colonial mentality that allows a monarch in Rome to do just that?

“Last week in the Dail, Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe told the Dail that questions like these are of no importance because ‘the current management of the schools is working exceptionally well. The patron is in place in terms of ethos but has nothing to do with the overall management of schools. That is the responsibility of the board of management.

“That is wildly inaccurate, not least because the boards of management are themselves both appointed by and accountable to the local bishop. The handbook given to every school principal… spells this out with admirable clarity: “In appointing the board of management of the school, the bishop delegates to the members certain responsibilities for the Catholic school in the parish. Such delegation carries a duty of accountability by the board of management to the bishop and—where appropriate—to the Department of Education and Science.” (Note that accountability to the State is qualified, that to the bishop is not).

“Batt O’Keeffe misled the Dail (presumably through sheer ignorance…)

“Crucially, the bishop as patron has a legal stranglehold over the appointment and dismissal of teachers…

“The current line from both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael is not to defend the retention of these powers by unelected and unaccountable people who may or may not recognise Irish law, but to insist that they are little used. This is typical of the slithery sleeveenism that still infects Irish politics. Anti-democratic powers are okay so long as they are not used.

“There are just two possibilities here. Either the statutory powers of the bishops have fallen into disuse, in which case who can object to the clearing away of this offensive anachronism? Or they have not fallen into disuse, in which case they remain as an affront to a republican democracy…

“We need to grow up as a society, and that means growing out of our dependence on a 19th century instrument of power and control. Every intelligent theologian knows that the institution (as opposed to the faith it has distorted and betrayed) is effectively dead. It is long since time that politicians who claim to be republicans stopped prostrating themselves before it is a corpse…”

Well, no doubt the safest time to flog a horse is when it’s dead.

It is not a very long ago since the Church was a powerful institution. It is only 30 years since the Pope made his Visitation and the only dissenting voice was this publication. And the power of the Church did not dissipate for many years after that.

We took on the Church in its prime and had little or no support, even in private, from the furtive Voltaireans.

One of the first things we had to do was to establish in the minds of the small section of the public we could reach some idea of the distinction between the proper sphere of the Church and the proper sphere of the State. It required a considerable effort of imagination for some people to see that distinction at all in the actuality of Irish life. And then, when the distinction was grasped, there was a tendency to deny any legitimate public sphere to the Church.

Education Act

One of our first successes was to get it understood that it was inappropriate for a system of education to be conducted without an Education Act. The British Government saw no need to have an Act of Parliament setting out provision for national education when it was established under the Stanley Letter. Then the Free State, set up under British supervision saw no need for an Education Act. Cosgrave, Professor MacNeill, Kevin O’Higgins etc. were busily putting down the Army that had fought the British to the negotiating table without the approval of the Church—and, when the British put them in power, they allocated the sphere of education to the Church, which excommunicated their opponents for them.

When Fianna Fail came to office ten years later, the system of state established on British authority had ten years of functioning behind it. Fianna Fail set about amending it piecemeal. It could not be re-made from scratch because vested interests had grown up around the various parts of it. But, when we made as much fuss as we could about the fact that the Free State practice of having an education system not governed by an Education Act, it was Fianna Fail that took up the matter. After an impressive consultation exercise the Education Act of 1998 was passed.

That Act had a considerable effect in democratising education, both in providing for representative Boards of Management, and introducing the concept of Ministerial approval in the management of schools. The sphere of action of the Patron was accordingly restricted. Fintan O’Toole seems oblivious of that significant change.

Here is how Bishop O’Reilly has described the current position:

“Whether Catholic or otherwise, a patron can only be recognised and registered as such by the Minister for Education. Thus no person can act as a patron unless recognised in law by the Minister.

“All patrons are fully accountable to the law of the land for the responsibilities which they exercise for the schools under their patronage. However, in all schools, whoever the patron, complete responsibility for running the schools rests with the board of management.

“Regarding the appointment of boards, the patron’s role is in no sense autonomous. In common with other patron bodies, Catholic patrons nominate only two members out of a board of eight. While the patron appoints all the board members, these appointments are subject to the sanction of the Minister.” (Catholics Entitled To Their Schools, Irish Times 19.12.09.)

O’Toole is a British Commonwealth lobbyist. When Ireland was still a member of the British Commonwealth, and therefore a properly conducted state, the Church was in total control of Education. State encroachments on Church authority always came from the Anti-Treaty side. The Treaty party and the Church Hierarchy were Siamese Twins, who founded the Free State on British authority. Fianna Fail was formed by the opponents of the Treaty who had been excommunicated en masse by the Church Hierarchy and survived. Fianna Fail did not declare itself to be an Anti-Church Party. And it wasn’t an Anti-Church Party. But it was known to be the Party that would not let itself be pushed around by the Church.

Is slíbhínism the right name for the Fianna Fail approach to political reform? It is a strange word to hear from a British Commonwealth man in the Irish Times, even though he is an upstart native. The slíbhín slyly reinvents himself as a supporter of popular causes which he had not supported when they were not popular, and then acts as a drag on them. The term might be applied to the Irish Times in its relation to the Anti-Treaty development of the subordinate state set up by Britain in place of the Republic.

But, in the matter of education, there was no deviousness in the Irish Times position. It was entirely supportive of the confessional system—or the apartheid system—which funded Protestant schools in which the Protestant community, having lost the monopoly power which it enjoyed for centuries, might preserve the Anglo-Irish way of life to some extent within the alien State under which it was placed by the British abdication of responsibility in 1921-2. The campaign launched by this magazine for the ending of Catholic clerical control in the National Schools was therefore not supported by the Irish Times because it would have called into question the funding of separate Protestant schools. (The Protestant Schools were formally National Schools, but everyone knew that they were refugees from the national development—despite which many Protestants chose to take part in the national development.)


Eoghan Harris appeared on Radio (Dec. 1st) to say that Ireland fell under the government of a foreign power in the 1930s. He himself rebelled against the authority of this foreign power, on a date which he did not mention, by giving up Nationalism, Catholicism and Socialism. The events through which Ireland fell into the grip of this foreign power were the Fianna Fail electoral victory of 1932, the holding of the Eucharistic Congress in the Phoenix Park in 1932, and the adoption of the 1937 Constitution in a referendum. Through that development Ireland lost the freedom it had enjoyed under the Constitution conferred on it by Britain in 1922—and no doubt the even greater freedom which it had enjoyed under direct British Government until 1922!


John-Paul McCarthy—whose article was headlined Past Politicians Defied Church—seems to be much of the same way of thinking as Harris:

“It is striking to remember that this distinct tradition of subterfuge and collapse in the face of clerical bullying is in many ways a 20th century phenomenon, and is really something that emerged after independence in the 1920s.

“Irish politicians in the 19th century thought it beneath their dignity to be bossed around by ecclesiastical politicians like John McQuaid and his colleagues.

“Daniel O’Connell… would not tolerate any bullying from the bishops. O’Connell publicly warned Bishop Paul Cullen at one point in the 1830s not to think of blocking his campaign to repeal the Act of Union by recruiting a hostile papacy to the anti-repeal crusade.

“O’Connell is also known to have publicly defied the Vatican in the 1840s when they told him that the drip feed of ecclesiastical and financial concessions from the Government of Robert Peel was good enough for Irish Catholicism, and that they should accept these myriad half-loaves with a happy heart… O’Connell told the Pope and his local minions that he would determine the Catholic political strategy and he would do it unaided by clerical advice.

“Charles Stewart Parnell… led the Home Rule movement in the 1880s, donning the mantle of O’Connell’s long-term successor. And while he gave the Catholic hierarchy everything they wonted on the education system, he still retained many elements of O’Connell’s undeferential style. He once threw a Catholic priest out of his hotel suite when it seemed that he was being dictated to on the question of a local by-election.

“Parnell dined with exotic French intellectuals like Victor Hugo, who were no friends of the Catholic Church in France.

“If Parnell cared little for the schemes of local priestly tyrants in by-elections, he cared even less for their strictures in his private life.

“The question remains, however, as to what happened to this maverick tradition, to O’Connell’s brand of almost Gallican Catholicism which emphasised local and national religion rather than papal control, and to Parnell’s distinct froideur? The Vatican Council in 1870 declared war on modern liberal democratic thought, thus suggesting that something profoundly regressive had calcified in the heart of this religious faith.

“Independence in 1921 was also a major factor in encouraging a new aggression in the Catholic Church. The British connection had always acted as a kind of brake on the more obscurantist clerical appetites.

“Political leaders from O’Connell to Redmond had to wend their way through a British House of Commons and a British culture that was saturated with lurid images about marauding Jesuits and papal assassination plots against the British sovereign. The need to put up the best show possible in the Commons gave the political leadership every incentive to stand up to any clerical bullying, since this only confirmed the worst Protestant suspicions about Irish popery and priestcraft.

“The other major problem was the way religious ideas became democratised, so to speak, that is to say, the way clerical demands donned the robes of “democracy”, and thus made themselves more potent…”(The paragraphs quoted earlier on the need to over-ride the majority in the cause of democracy follow here.)

If this O’Toole/Harris/McCarthy kind of thing had been published in the Irish Times and the Sunday Independent in the early 1970s—when the Northern eruption called out for it—this magazine would never have been launched. But nothing of that kind was published then nor for many decades afterwards—in any daily paper, or weekly or any commercially distributable magazine or pamphlet. It is not that what they say is accurate. Considered as history they are ignorant tirades. But they would have been to the point as expressions of rebellion against a dominating power. But there is nothing rebellious about them today. They are very much the fashion of the moment. So the history they spin must be taken as history. And, as history, it is, at best, evasive.

Consider Parnell. He brought the Catholic clergy officially into public life in the Home Rule movement, by giving it a place in the structure of the party: and the clergy did not direct strictures against his private life. It was a well-known fact, long before the divorce case, that he was living with the wife of one of the Home Rule MPs, and certain of his actions (including that of foisting Captain O’Shea on the Party as an MP) were thought to have resulted from blackmail by the cuckolded husband. But the Catholic clergy did not make an issue of the adultery. It was the Protestant clergy of the Liberal Party that made an issue of it. The Catholic clergy supported Parnell against the Liberals in the first instance. A motion of confidence in him was passed by the party. It was put to him that, in order to ward off the wrath of the English Non-Conformist Liberals, he should stand down from the Parliamentary leadership for the time being, while remaining leader of the Party in the country. He refused this compromise, demanding in effect that the Party should break with the Liberals—an alliance which he himself only a few years earlier had insisted on—while outlining no alternative strategy, except by implication a return to Fenianism.

When the Parliamentary Party did not support him in this, he set about appealing to the country against the party. He had worked himself into the frame of mind of a dictator who had created his own mass movement and thought he could sweep aside the disobedient Party by appealing to the mass. He found to his surprise that his lieutenants were not his creatures. The Party was not a mere creature of his will. But that did not deter him. He set up his own Party—or following—and set out to destroy the Party that had won the election. It was in the heat of a number of by-elections that a clericalist Party was forged against him. And McCarthy, in his new status as an Oxford man, should understand that, in Parliamentary electioneering under the British system, all bets are off and restraint is Utopian eccentricity.

It is down to Parnell, not to the priests, that the Home Rule movement was split three ways for ten years and that a clericalist party was formed within it.

There was already an opinion before then that Parnell had undermined the authentic Home Rule movement launched by the Dublin Tory, Isaac Butt, by radicalising, rushing it and bringing the Catholic clergy into it. That was the view of Frank Hugh O’Donnell, who published a book about it in 1910. In that book he also complained that Irish education was arranged by Whitehall and Rome in a way that stultified middle class development.

When this magazine was setting out to explain the Church with a view to reducing its influence, we collected some of the writings of the Parnellite Anti-Clerical propagandist, and later supporter of Ulster Unionism, M.J.F. McCarthy of Midleton, and issued them as a pamphlet with the title, A Belligerent Liberal. We circulated it widely amongst the Dublin media, hoping for a review, but it was read privately and ignored publicly by the slíbhíns. And, of course, McCarthy’s notorious book, Priests And People In Ireland is never mentioned by historians in search of the origins of the unique position of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

McCarthy also wrote about Parnell’s contemptuous attitude towards the party, which he observed from the inside. This brought Parnell to grief when he discovered that his position with relation to the party was not what he supposed it to be. He was not its benevolent despot, and the discovery of that fact made him try to become its malevolent despot. And his dismissive attitude, as a Protestant gentleman of the Ascendancy, towards the vulgarity of the Ulster Unionism which sprang up against him, set things on a line of development which has continued ever since.

The “maverick tradition” of defiance of the Church in politics, which McCarthy (John-Paul) derives from Parnell and O’Connell, is groundless. Neither of them defied the Church. Parnell defied his Party, and the Church backed the Party against him. John Redmond, who led the Parnellite faction in the 1890s (when he indulged in a spurious Fenianism) was made Chairman of the re-united Party in the early 1900s, and it was under his leadership that a Catholic secret society, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, was built into the structure of the Party—provoking the resistance to it as Catholic Ascendancy in Munster, led by Canon Sheehan and William O’Brien.

O’Connell & The Veto

And O’Connell—well it was O’Connell who made the movement to Repeal the Union an essentially Catholic movement, not only in numbers but in spirit. He began his political life as a rationalist English Utilitarian in London and a nominal Catholic by virtue of his family in Dublin. He moved to Dublin in the late 1790s, shortly after Catholics were admitted to the legal profession and was admitted to the Bar. The Bar was a Protestant Ascendancy stronghold. It opposed the Act of Union on the ground that it would undermine the Ascendancy by depriving it of its Parliament. O’Connell supported that anti-Union movement, and he paraded with the Lawyers Corps of Yeomanry in 1798 and again in 1803. He said that he would accept the Penal Laws against Catholics as the price of Repeal.

1808 was a watershed year in political life in Ireland. Grattan introduced a Catholic Emancipation Bill in Westminster which included a clause for Government supervision of the appointment of Bishops. The proposal was that the Government should be informed of who was being considered to fill vacant Bishoprics, and should have a right to veto any it thought politically subversive. The proposal had been cleared by the Irish Hierarchy. Having been educated on the Continent (because of the Penal Laws), they considered this as a normal arrangement between the Church and the Government—and that was how Rome saw it.

But Grattan’s proposal sparked off an instantaneous upsurge of opposition amongst the middle class Catholics in Dublin. Grattan was transformed on the instant from a hero to a villain. The Bishops were denounced as virtual apostates and traitors, and were obliged to discard the agreement they had made with the Government. And Rome was told, in effect, by the middle class Catholic laity in Dublin that it must have direct, unmediated, control over its Irish branch whether it liked it or not. That was the Veto Controversy.

There was not complete unanimity amongst Catholics against the Veto. There were old-fashioned Catholics who preferred old fashioned ways—reactionaries—and who knew how Church and State managed their relationship in Europe and liked it. The most determined of these was the Rev. Charles O’Connor, nephew of the Charles O’Connor, Catholic gentleman of Connacht and descendent of the last High King of Ireland, who somehow held onto a remnant of his hereditary estate, and played the part of a native gentleman and scholar at home amidst the bogs under the Penal Laws.

In 1760, on the accession of George III, who aspired to restore a degree of monarchical independence from Parliament, O’Connor founded the Catholic Committee. The Committee drew up a humble Petition of Loyalty which George agreed to accept. Until then, under three generations of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 while it was in its prime, the King could have no Catholic subjects. The long slow process of Catholic Emancipation began in 1760, when George III decided that he could have Catholic subjects even though Parliament would accord them no rights.

The Rev. O’Connor knew Gaelic and Jacobite Ireland, and he knew Catholic Europe, and after 1808 he led the Catholic campaign to establish the proper, customary Church/State relationship in Ireland, against the Anti-Vetoism of the progressive middle class.

The Veto Controversy lasted for a generation. It was the most substantial, prolonged, and intense dispute there has ever been within Catholic Ireland. The Anti-Vetoists won. Twenty years after its outbreak Catholic Emancipation was enacted without any role for the Government. O’Connell sloughed off his Ascendancy Repeal outlook in the course of the Controversy, became a practising Catholic (or converted, one might almost say), and took the Catholic cause and the Catholic body to be the substance of his nationalism. And the Ascendancy Repeal movement withered.

Emancipation (admission of Catholics to Parliament) was conceded in the face of an intimidating mass mobilisation in Ireland. The Prime Minister was Robert Peel, who might be fairly described as an anti-Catholic bigot. It would have been distasteful to him to negotiate terms with Rome about the governing of the United Kingdom, and that is what making arrangements for a political say in the appointment of Bishops would have involved. And so, to the satisfaction of all concerned, the Catholic Church in Ireland came under the direct control of Rome for the first time, and it was the only national branch of the Church that was without an intermediary between itself and Rome.

The 1808 revolt of the Dublin middle class against the Veto was entirely unexpected. About fifteen years earlier, at the start of the United Irish period, the Dublin Catholic middle class had adopted Resolutions denying any real authority to the Pope and depicting him as a remote and defunct figurehead. So what had happened in between? The United Irish movement was banned, provoked into insurgency, and suppressed with the assistance of the Orange Militia set up by the Irish Parliament, and then the Irish Parliament was abolished against Orange resistance. Some Catholics supported the Act of Union, seeing that it would undermine the Protestant Ascendancy. And so it did in the long run. But, in the aftermath of the Union, the Ascendancy provocation of the Catholic populace ran on for a while, and the Union was presented as a better safeguard of Protestant Ascendancy than an Irish Parliament surrounded by a sea of natives who had been accorded the right to vote under Whitehall pressure in 1793 (but not the right to sit in Parliament). The reasoning was that the Catholics would be reduced from a big majority in Ireland to a small minority in the United Kingdom and Catholic pressure on Protestant institutions in Ireland would be relieved.


But the abolition of the Irish Parliament sent the Protestant aristocracy flocking to London, reducing their physical presence in Dublin, and the moral influence produced by that physical presence. And this happened at a moment when Dublin had, in a sense, just been created. During the twenty years of Legislative independence prior to the Union, the aristocracy had built it up in a style appropriate to the “second city of the Empire“—because the independence of Grattan’s Parliament was never anything but the independence of an English colony participating in the Empire. Then, on a sudden, the colony abandoned its own recent construction. Grandiose Dublin collapsed from being a great Capital City to being a mere provincial city, of less consequence to the state than any slave-trading city in England. It became a grandiose hulk. And the Orders of the Catholic Church moved into that hulk and took it in hand. The city became thick with monasteries and convents in endless variety. And some of the convents belonged to new orders of nuns founded in Ireland, which were active in the world amidst the populace abandoned by the Ascendancy.

In the early 1790s there was a strong tendency amongst Catholics to conciliate their Protestant rulers by what they said about the Pope. Ten years later, after the Union and what had happened during the three years preceding it, the Catholic middle class had become resentful of restrictions in the interest of the ruling class which had abandoned the city. The Veto proposal sparked that resentment into a kind of nationalism. But the issue for that nationalism was direct Papal control of the Church. This was not entirely understood at first, but as it became understood it was accepted and the kind of Roman Catholicism that was presumed to be extinct in the early 1790s was re-asserted with gusto.

McCarthy (John-Paul) describes O’Connell’s position as “almost Gallican“. Gallicanism means the Government acting as intermediary between Rome and the local Church. It seems that O’Connell was Gallican at first—that the Government Veto was acceptable to him, as it was to the Bishops. But the revolt of the laity obliged the Bishops to revoke their agreement with the Government. And O’Connell embraced the Anti-Veto position. He jettisoned the futile Ascendancy nationalism of earlier years and set about forging a strong national movement out of Catholic grievances.

He did not stand for a Gallican Church—not even “almost“—he stood for an independent Church, i.e. a Church under the direct authority of Rome.

At one point Rome indicated that a ‘Gallican‘ arrangement was acceptable to it. That was done in the “Quarantotti Rescript“. But the Anti-Vetoists, getting stronger and more self-confident by the day, would not submit to Gallicanism from the authority of Rome, any more than from the Irish Bishops, or from London.

Maynooth Seminary was set up in 1795 in a major breach of the Penal Laws forced on the Irish Parliament by the British Government. The reasoning behind it was profoundly misconceived—and how could a ruling body moved by blind anti-Catholic bigotry calculate these things realistically? It was that, if Irish priests were educated at home, they would be less Roman Catholic, and less hostile to English Protestant government, than they were through being educated abroad. The contrary was the case. Maynooth in the first generation was run by priests who had imbibed Gallican principles in Europe. As it adapted to Irish life, it became progressively less Gallican.

Elaine Misses The Point

The Irish Times has recently added a PhD in Corruption to its columnists, Elaine Byrne, and she is of the opinion that the distinction between Church and State is a Protestant development. In fact, it is one of the essential positions of Roman Catholicism, and it was abolished by the English Reformation, in which Church and State were made one and the monarch not only administered the Church but laid down its doctrine. In Roman Catholicism there were always distinct authorities of Church and State, but with unavoidable overlaps.

Party politics originated in this distinction in the great historic conflict of Empire and Church within the same polity—the conflict of Guelph and Ghibbeline. Dante, the supreme poet of mediaeval Catholic Europe, was an Empire man. A Ghibbeline.

Ireland departed from the Roman Catholic order of Church/State relations under the influence of the British State. It became a kind of Catholic mirror-image of the British State, but without the formal merger of Church and State, and with the Church setting limits for the State, instead of the State laying down doctrine for the Church.

The British State throughout the 19th century provided for an increasing sphere of action for the Church, while refusing to establish any secular sphere of Irish self-government. This was done on the assumption that Rome could be used to curb nationalist developments. O’Connell’s superficial disagreements with Rome had to do with countering British moves of this kind. He had tried to get administrators in Rome to understand that nationalism in Ireland was a democratic Catholic force, completely unlike what they saw in Italy.

His major endeavour in this sphere in Ireland was to stop a kind of Gallican development in education in the 1840s that the Young Irelanders supported—the provision of higher education in non-denominational Colleges conducted on the authority of the Government—Godless Colleges as he called them. Rome did not denounce them. And some of the Irish Bishops in high places were old enough to be Continental Gallicans still, and to support them.

Thus what we get in McCarthy (John-Paul), O’Toole etc. is a travesty of the history of the structure of Catholicism in Ireland, a construction which is now falling apart. It was not in any sense a Roman imposition. It was sought by the burgeoning nationalist movement of the early 19th century as a kind of defiance of perverse British government. And it developed consistently with that nationalism throughout the century as Britain denied any measure of secular self-government. Rome would often have liked to do what Britain asked of it. It had wider interests in the world which Britain facilitated. But the secular Irish nationalists at the start, and the Bishops later on, made it clear to them that Rome would lose a lot if it accepted Britain as a Gallican intermediary with the Church in Ireland.

When we set out to erode the abnormal dominance of the Church in the early 1970s, we figured out how it had happened and published a book about it: The Veto Controversy. That book was widely circulated for review but not a single review of it was published.

One bookshop took a dozen copies. They sold out within a week. But it refused to re-stock. Other shops refused to take it at all.

The early issues of this magazine carried a series of articles on The Rise Of Papal Power In Ireland, explaining it more or less as it is explained here. They were issued as a pamphlet, under that title, on the occasion of the Pope’s visit in 1979. Again they were widely distributed for review. One curt notice, dismissing the subject as inappropriate, was published, in Books Ireland.

Vatican 2

So the Pope came and he was received with mindless adulation, lay and clerical, with only two noticeable expressions of dissent—this magazine and the Bishop of Cork, who is now taken to be a by-word for obscurantist reaction, Con Lucey.

The Taoiseach was Cork City politician Jack Lynch, who had won an overall majority in 1977 in an election campaign which was unusually Catholic clericalist for Fianna Fail. But, two years later, the Pope did not visit the second city in the state because the Bishop did not invite him. And, some time later, Lucey retired and went off to be a missionary in Africa. He did not ever explain his failure to invite the Pope to Cork, but it is not hard to see a reason for it.

Vatican 2 Catholicism undermined and trivialised the earnest Catholicism of Pius IX on which the Irish Church had formed itself, in association with the developing national movement, since the mid-19th century. That phase of development was not exhausted in Ireland when it was halted by Vatican 2. It was still filling itself out when it was ordered to stop. If the original impulse given by the triumph of Anti-Vetoism in the Veto Controversy was running out of momentum, there would have been evidence of this in the appearance of a sceptical intelligentsia to dispute certain areas of ground with the Hierarchy, and by so doing to provide for an evolutionary transition to a new relationship of Church and State.

What happened instead was that the new Church formed in Ireland in the mid-19th century—by O’Connell’s Roman colleague, Cardinal Cullen—was stopped in its tracks by the Vatican, while there was still no social development against it to take its place. The Vatican 2 changes had to be imposed on Ireland. And their imposition devalued the values to which the generations then in their prime had dedicated themselves.

Religious development in Ireland, with which social development was connected, was suddenly written off as an aberration. My Lord Bishop suddenly became Bishop Jack or Bishop Jim. Communion and Confirmation became occasions for display of fashion. Hell was abolished—and Heaven along with it, for all that was said to the contrary. And convents and monasteries were deprived of meaning.

The ersatz intelligentsia, which is now kicking the Church because it is down, did nothing to bring it down. It was the Vatican that undermined it. But that is an inadmissible thought in the fashion of the moment because the futile scepticism which is the outcome of Vatican 2 must have it that Vatican 2 was a good thing. (The creature must love its creator.)

A Concordat?

McCarthy (John-Paul) says that, in the interests of democracy, the Church should have been prevented from gaining the position it held in the Irish State—or that it should have been excluded from the democracy—or that there should have been a force over the democracy which would overrule it on certain matters: one of those things.

There is only one thing that could have curbed the Church, and that is a Concordat with it. It was the usual arrangement in Europe for the position of the Church in a state to be limited by a Concordat—by a Treaty between the Government and Rome. When we suggested a Concordat movement back in the early seventies, the proposal was met with horror by the Left and private Voltaireans. In Ireland there was “a free Church in a free State“, and the hegemonic influence of the free Church was such that it conveyed to its potential liberal opponents the idea that Concordats were Fascist. Didn’t Franco Spain have one? And wasn’t Franco Spain a form of Clerical Fascism? (The intelligentsia of the Church was the only real intelligentsia of the State, and it was easily able to nip liberalism in the bud.)

In fact, Franco Spain was far from being a Clerical dictatorship. It was a dictatorship in which the Church was allocated a limited and subordinate sphere in the state, in combination with other elements with which it might otherwise have fallen into antagonism, and the whole was organised into a functional State which made an easy transition to democracy.

O’Toole might well be right when he says that the Church disabled the capacity for thought—at least for thought against itself. But, if so, it was not the Church as a Roman imposition—the agent of a foreign State—that did it, but the Church as an organic part of national-democratic development.

We feel we can speak with some authority, as we have been in public opposition to the Church on these grounds since 1973.

Where Do Incorrect Ideas Come From?

How do we explain our existence? As a belated development from the strong movement against Redmondite Catholic Ascendancy around 1910 in Munster, and particularly in North Cork, which defeated Redmondism electorally on this issue in the 1910 Elections. (That movement has been written out of his history by Diarmaid Ferriter etc. And Canon Sheehan, who set it in motion, is depicted as an ineffectual, sentimental, backwoods reactionary.)

The would-be post-Catholic intelligentsia still disables itself by the way it continues the disembowelling of history that was begun by the Catholic regime which it aspires to wipe out. It was in Studies that the disparagement of Canon Sheehan began, back in June 1917.

Human life is lived in history. It is not a closed species, governed by a set of eternal principles. The historical development set in motion 200 years ago, when the Veto was quashed by popular demand of the Dublin middle class cannot be set aside in an act of denial and eternal principles invoked in its place, and it won’t be. Rome is not extinct. The only question is whether a substantial intelligentsia of a kind other than the Roman is still impossible.


Posted on April 14, 2011, in Apologetics, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, Bishop Con Lucey, Bishop Michael Browne, Canon Sheehan, Cardinal John D'Alton, Cardinal Paul Cullen, Cardinal William Conway, Catholic Education, Conversion, Devotions (miscellaneous), Economics, Emigration, English Literature, Irish Church-State Relations, Irish History, Irish Language, Maynooth Seminary, Media Archives, Missionaries, Modernism, Monasticism, Persecution, Reformation, Ryan and Murphy Reports, Second Vatican Council, Spain, Traditionalism, Vocationalism, Vocations, WW2. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Yes, Ireland has certainly left the track of its lazy arse on the Church. I would trace this back to events like the Flight of the Earls, the loss of a whole class of people who could have sustained a ‘high’ Irish culture. All that was left was the olden days equivalent of the green jesters hat and ole, ole, ole, ole…

  2. Sean, you have a point about the Flight of the Earls (accompanied by the subsequent plantations and conquests) with its detrimental consequences for Irish culture and learning. Along with the departure of the native aristocracy so went native leadership – leaving a massive social gap, which clergy were forced to fill.

  3. Irish society never let the Church stand apart yet now gives it a kicking for reflecting its own shortcomings, feeling no irony whatsoever in blaming the Vatican when all along it expected the Church to be an extra-territorial Papal States. It was not Ireland that was ‘priest-ridden’ it was the church that was ‘Ireland-ridden’. Closing Maynooth and taking things in-house can only be a good thing.

  4. Sean, I agree with you to the extent that the Church in Ireland was always pretty much a reflection of what people wanted at the time. A people make up a church, not vice versa. Irish Catholicism was always a profoundly popular religion and so it naturally institutionalized the values and expectations of the society in which it operated. In 1950s Ireland that meant the Irish Church was paternalistic, self-assured, and venerated.

    A lot of ink is wasted nowadays on indignant screeds about church ‘power’ (wherein the Church is usually represented as an involuntary oppressor, or even an external imposition) but what few seem to realize is that the reason the Church was powerful was because the people wanted the Church to be powerful. Or rather the Church didn’t have power in any temporal sense so much as the force of public opinion.

  5. It feels good to get that off my chest! I think that recent trends (the Church retreating from the secular sphere, replaced by faceless ‘Germans’) might prove auspicious in the long term both for Ireland and the Church.

  6. Sean, thanks for your comments.

    One thing I would like to add to my earlier comments is that it would be a very grave error (as is the fashion nowadays) to think of modern Irish society before the 1960s as ever having been particularly insular, isolated, exceptionally unique, or entirely unaffected by the trends affecting the rest of Europe.

  7. You are right Shane: one of the myths that gets portrayed popularly, for particular political ends of course, is that Ireland was a backward, insular place beholden to ‘the Church’. There is so much undifferentiated in this analysis that it serves only itself. It reminds me of the discourse we are part of now that we have to figure out a ‘new Ireland’, as if this is something we can all agree on, apolitically.

    This particular editorial has many flaws, among them the bane of the self-appointed secular cadre: that we have to resort to classical conceptions of church-state separation in order to build clear distinctions between the two. There’s no political materialism in this form of secular analysis. It is not bound to material conditions.

  8. From across the pond (the small one), the Irish Catholic Church lacks a salon. Even Shane’s blog generates few comments although good to see people commenting here.

    This article confused me and I gave up half way. It seems hostile to the Faith so I am baffled as to what purpose it is serving?

    Can I just ask you guys? Do you think the sociologists, economists and historians will tear up the “Murphy Report” in years to come? The woman seems to provide zero context for her list of ‘torts’. Any views?

  9. bmcp4tr01, you’re absolutely spot on about the church in Ireland ‘lacking a salon’. Traditionalism in England is so much more advanced than here thanks to the Agatha Christie indult.

    The closest thing is this forum; there’s not that many posting now — there were problems with registration ’til recently — but most of the posters are very well informed and the quality of discussion is high.

    As for the Murphy and Ryan reports – they were reported very unprofessionally in the media after being released. It’s hard to subject these reports to a critical analysis when feelings are so raw but in future people will be able to give them a more objective and critical examination.

  1. Pingback: The Humble Address and Remonstrance of the General Board of the Roman Catholics of Ireland, 1818 (and the Reply of Pope Pius VII) « Lux Occulta

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