WHILE at university in Texas during the mid-1960s and early 1970s there was very little news about Ireland either on television or in the newspapers.
Blowing up Nelson Pillar made the news in 1966 largely because it occurred in March shortly before St Patrick’s Day.
Television news made a fuss about the contraceptive train on which some of the Women’s Liberation Movement protested against the ban on condoms and “the pill” by going to Belfast to buy them in May 1971. The US television networks highlighted Irish customs officers fleeing from the cameras and the women bearing condoms and other contraceptives.
People in Texas were incredulous at the news that condoms were illegal in Ireland. Of course, Bloody Sunday early the following year made the news.
Many Americans made the mistake of seeing the problem in a purely Anglo-Irish context. They did not realise there were one million Protestants in the North who were determined not to be ruled by people they believed had trampled on Protestant values. Irish politicians really betrayed the Republic into the hands of the virtual dictatorship of the unelected Catholic hierarchy.
I wonder how many people in the Republic now understand the Protestant attitude in the wake of the details of clerical abuse and the obsequiousness of the authorities here over decades. This state continually harped on partition as the cause of all our problems, yet no government made any effort to ensure it had any appeal for Northern Protestants.
The Catholic Church was accorded a special position in the 1937 constitution. It supposedly did not mean anything other than recognising that the vast majority of citizens were Catholics. Some people would later decry it as a symbol of de Valera’s Ireland, which is often depicted as a priest-ridden bog.
But, unlike his most vocal critics, de Valera stood up to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin and Joseph Cardinal MacRory, the Archbishop of Armagh. They tried to insist that the constitution would essentially declare that the Catholic Church was the one true church of Christ.
Gerry Boland not only threatened to quit Fianna Fáil but to leave the country with his whole family if that clause were enshrined in the constitution. He complained that it would be an insult to every patriotic Protestant Irishman who ever lived.
De Valera sent an emissary to the Vatican to seek the Pope’s approval for the clause merely recognising the special position of the Catholic Church. Much to the annoyance of MacRory and McQuaid, the Pope indicated that he would oppose this provision. In 1942 the Americans sent Roland Blenner-Hassett to Ireland on an undercover intelligence mission to find out what was happening on the ground here. In his report he was particularly critical of the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland which, he contended, enjoyed enormous power as a result of controlling education at primary and secondary levels. He was especially critical of the influence that Maynooth had on the training of the secular clergy.
“The attitude of the church arises directly and logically from its immemorial and still very strongly active detestation of all forms of liberalism, all manifestations of the rights of the individual conscience,” he wrote. “Nothing is more detestable to the Catholic Church in general, and especially the Irish Catholic Church, than liberty of the individual conscience.”
He was disgusted, for instance, over a controversy surrounding the appointment of Robert Corbett, Master of the Coombe, as professor of gynaecology at UCG.
Bishop Michael Browne of Galway, whom Blenner-Hassett characterised as “an outspoken clerical fascist,” objected to the appointment “because Dr Corbett had been educated at Trinity College, Dublin.” Corbett was actually a Catholic, but in the face of the bishop’s opposition, he declined the appointment and moved to Britain to go into private practice instead.
“In the eyes of the Irish Catholic Church, the Allied nations, especially America and Britain, are, if anything, only slightly less desirable than Germany,” Blenner-Hassett wrote. He thought it was logical that church leaders would hope there would ultimately be some kind of accommodation with the fascists.
“I am convinced,” he added, “that what the Irish church hopes to see as the outcome of this war is the military defeat of the Axis, followed by peace between the Allies and semi-authoritarian regimes in Italy and Germany.”
The report was well received in Washington. “It was extremely well written and of considerable value with the exception of the part concerned with the church, which was tendentious and prejudiced,” according to R. Carter Nicholas, the head of the Irish desk at American Intelligence headquarters in Washington.
In 1943 the Americans sent another intelligence agent to Ireland. Martin S Quigley paid particular attention to what was happening in the Catholic Church. He promptly secured an interview with Archbishop McQuaid. As far as Quigley was concerned the power and influence of the hierarchy was apparent on censorship here. Archbishop McQuaid had a French film on the passion of Christ banned. Archbishop Pascal Robinson, the Papal Nuncio, told Quigley he would not object to people going to that film.
McQuaid was almost a law unto himself, even in the early days of his reign. “Other bishops resented the fact that his influence with the film censor achieves control of films in their dioceses,” according to Quigley.
THE Bishop of Limerick may not have enjoyed the same influence with the film censor, but he managed to have all movies banned in Limerick on Sundays. “One is frequently told the story in Ireland about there not being ‘26 bishops there but 26 popes,’ ” Quigley noted.
Over the years the State exhibited extraordinary political deference towards the hierarchy and the Vatican. In other countries the longest serving diplomat is usually recognised as the dean of the diplomatic corps, but in this country that honour is reserved for the Papal Nuncio. It is essentially a meaningless title, somewhat like the special position accorded to the Catholic Church in the 1937 constitution.
It was meaningless but the bishops did enjoy special powers that had nothing to do with the constitution. Those were the result of the spineless attitude of our politicians who lay prostrate while the bishops rode roughshod over them, defying the constitution and our laws with impunity. In the process they perverted our democracy.
Faced with the Vatican’s behaviour in relation to clerical paedophilia many have suggested in the past fortnight that the Papal Nuncio should be expelled. That would certainly have made international news.
Des O’Malley, on the other hand, suggested we save money by having only one embassy in Rome. Do we really need two embassies there – one for Italy and the other for the Holy See? In other parts of the world one embassy covers a number of countries. Surely one embassy would do in Rome.
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