Dermot Keogh

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Why the Church kept a ‘vow of silence’ after the Rising

Condemnation would have handed the British a propaganda weapon against Irish nationalists, and, in any case, the leaders were personally known to the clergy, says Dermot Keogh

Why the Church kept a ‘vow of silence’ after the Rising

SOLVING yet another famous case, Sherlock Holmes noticed the ‘curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’ It had not barked: “That was the curious incident,” the detective observed.

The same observation might be made about the Irish Catholic bishops, immediately following the 1916 Rising; why was there no joint pastoral, condemning the Rising?

Apart from the individual condemnations of a handful of bishops — Bishop Denis Kelly, of the diocese of Ross, being the most vociferous and trenchant — there was no unified, episcopal reaction to armed insurrection by an oath-bound society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, even though the penalty of membership — theoretically — was excommunication.

The answer as to why the episcopal dog did not bark is complex. A draft condemnation was prepared, but never issued. That is partly explained by divisions within the hierarchy, and by the speed at which the events occurred. The Archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh, was deliberately slow to react. He resisted being pressurised, by Dublin Castle, to respond within a day of the Rising.

To have done so would have given the British government a propaganda tool to use against Irish nationalists — and the prelate was a strong Irish nationalist, but not a physical-force one. Prudence dictated procrastination. The unpredictability of the rapidly-changing events, between Easter Monday, April 24, and May 12, 1916, proved the wisdom of not jumping into the fray — particularly as such an episcopal condemnation would have been used by the British to justify executions and extra-judicial killings in the suppression of the Rising.

Living through those two weeks, an aged and ailing archbishop of Dublin would have realised that what was happening would likely redirect the course of Irish history. Those executed were not anonymous, anti-clerical [French] commundards or [Italian] carbonari; many were personally known to the bishops, and the clergy, as devout Catholic laymen, leaders in their respective professional fields, active members of the Gaelic League and the GAA.

The perception of respectability was reinforced by the manner in which the executed leaders chose to die — where they were given a choice — with the last sacraments and in the arms of the Church. The relationship of a number of the executed leaders to the Catholic Church was not as simple as the perception that emerged after the Rising, through the testimony of the brave chaplains who tended them, and in the content of the leaders’ letters to family.

Notwithstanding the disposition of individual revolutionary leaders, the dilemma for the hierarchy was that those who participated in the Rising were overwhelmingly Catholic and many had gone to great lengths to hear confession before they ‘went out.’ For example, Patrick and Willie Pearse had gone to Mount Argus on Good Friday, with others, to get confession.

Questions surround the claim of Count Plunkett (with beard, between Éamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith) that he received advance blessing for the Rising, from Pope Benedict XV, right. Picture: PA/Getty
Questions surround the claim of Count Plunkett (with beard, between Éamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith) that he received advance blessing for the Rising, from Pope Benedict XV, right. Picture: PA/Getty

The following day, Patrick Pearse went to the Dominick St. Church, where he got communion with some difficulty, because it was Holy Saturday. He worried about not being able to take his mother to Mass on Easter Sunday, and made arrangements, in his absence, for it to be done. Many other stories of that kind could be reproduced here.

What the hierarchy would have faced, in the wake of the Rising and the executions — had they condemned the Rising — was not merely a revolt among the laity, but also a very strong dissident movement within the religious orders (male and female), the diocesan clergy, and even on the bench of bishops itself.

In speaking about the Rising as a turning point in Irish history, it might be worth proposing that — in the case of the Catholic Church — the rupture with the British Liberal government had occurred long before the events of the Rising. Episcopal patience with the Home Rule project stretched from 1886 — the year after Walsh became Archbishop of Dublin — to the outbreak of World War 1.

Long before the Rising, therefore, the Catholic hierarchy had grown weary of waiting. Apart from the ideological clash between the doctrines of liberalism and Catholicism, the Liberal government had proved a constant source of disappointment, most notably with the Irish Universities Act (1908), which failed to deliver a Catholic University for the country.

But, since then, the hierarchy had witnessed what they perceived as the unchecked and treasonous behaviour of Sir Edward Carson and northern unionists — a view commonly shared by leading Catholic laymen, like the president of University College Cork, the Empire nationalist, Sir Bertram Windle. He wrote in his diary, in April, 1914: “The parliamentary intrigues are still in full blast. Can it be supposed that there is any person, outside parliament, who still retains any vestige of respect for that most contemptible body.”

In July, he wrote in his diary: “No trouble in Ireland, after all [Curragh mutiny], but why does somebody not geld that ass Carson.”

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Prior to the Rising, there was a strong feeling, among members of the clergy and the hierarchy, that the British government was operating a two-tier policy in Ireland, one strict and repressive for nationalists, and one indulgent and permissive for Carson’s northern unionists.

The measured and moderate commander and chief of the Irish Volunteers, Professor Eoin MacNeill, wrote to a clerical friend on March 16, 1916: “The late Dr Tohill, Bishop of Down and Connor, a holy and conscientious man, said to me many years ago: The connext [sic] with England is the one curse of Ireland.’ Every piece of knowledge that comes to me proves this to be true. I hold proof of the dishonourable and degrading character of English government in Ireland that would astonish the Russians.”

He added: “So far as I can judge, the majority of the priests in Ireland are in hearty support of the position taken by the Irish Volunteers, and I thank God for it, for it would be unfortunate for Ireland, and perhaps for the future of religion in Ireland, if they were not.”

Two days before, Éamonn Ceannt, one of the leaders to be executed, thanked the same priest for a sermon he had given to a congregation of Irish Volunteers under Ceannt’s command: “We were greatly delighted, and stimulated, by your remarks, which were as frank as they were unexpected. May we all live to see the day to which we look confidently forward.”

That day was not far off. What Ceannt had recognised was that religion mattered to himself, and to rank-and-file volunteers.

IRB leaders were aware that the disposition of the Catholic Church was of importance to the success of an armed uprising. Joseph Mary Plunkett, at the centre of IRB plans for a rising at Easter, swore his father, Count George Noble Plunkett, into the organisation a few weeks before the rising.

He sent him on a mission to Rome to seek a papal blessing for those who were about to take part in the Rising. The count saw Pope Benedict XV in a private audience, and claimed that he had received the requested blessing. I remain unconvinced of that.

Upon his return, news of the blessing was circulated. Discounting the veracity of Plunkett’s account is for another forum, but what the episode reveals is the lengths to which the IRB went to ensure that the Irish Volunteers would not be put off, by episcopal censure, from participating in a rising.

In the end, the Catholic hierarchy did not ‘bark’ in the first week of the Rising. When episcopal voices were raised a short time later, most notably those of Daniel Cohalan, of Cork, and Edward O’Dwyer, of Limerick, their message was of cold comfort to the British government.

The British Home Rule policy was nothing more than a husk by 1916, and was further devalued by the policy proposal, later that year, to institutionalise the conflict between nationalism and northern unionism, via partition. The latter was the nightmare outcome, for the Irish Catholic Church, of three decades of struggle; the Liberals were now prepared to leave northern Catholics as permanent hostages inside a Protestant north-eastern Ireland. In the immediate aftermath of the Rising, any debate about the ethics and morality of revolution were swept to one side by the executions, and by the hanging of Roger Casement, for treason, on August 3 in Pentonville.

The clergy acting as chaplains during the Rising were edified by the piety of those they tended. Within weeks, the executed leaders received a form of canonisation, vox populi, vox dei. Coupled with the Rising, the mass arrests, the deportations to Britain, and the policy of repression, an insurrection was transformed into a popular revolution.

If there were carbonari, or secular revolutionaries, among the IRB leadership — and there certainly were — what emerged, in the aftermath of the Rising, was a movement ultimately led by Éamon de Valera, who could write to the pope during the Civil War, on April 30, 1923: “Please give to the Holy Father my dutiful homage. Though nominally cut away from the body of Holy Church, we are still spiritually, and mystically, of it and we refuse to regard ourselves, except as His children.”

  • Dr Dermot Keogh is emeritus professor of history, University College Cork

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