Book review: An Unholy Trinity — Medicine, Politics and Religion in Ireland

When Minister for Health Noel Browne attempted to introduce free medical care for expectant mothers and children under 16 he was left alone to face the full might of the Catholic church, writes Ryle Dwyer.

Liam Kirwan

The Liffey Press, €19.95

IN 1950, Ireland had more than 41 deaths for every 1,000 live births, while the rate in Sweden was below 20. 

As Minister for Health, Noel Browne decided to tackle the problem. 

This book is an fascinating in-depth analysis of various aspects of the Mother and Child controversy.

Browne made a name for himself by promptly tackling the country’s tuberculosis problem. 

Of course, he was fortunate that the wonder antibiotic, Streptomycin, had recently been discovered and revolutionised the treatment of tuberculosis.

The Department of Health had prepared draft legislation to tackle the problems of maternal and infant mortality in 1947, but in the face of likely opposition from the Irish Medical Association (IMA), the Fianna Fáil government procrastinated and lost power before it could act. Browne introduced the legislation in 1950.

It would provide free medical care for all expectant mothers and children under 16. 

While he probably expected the opposition of the IMA, he could hardly have expected the determined opposition of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, because the issue had essentially nothing to do with religion.

“We regard with the greatest apprehension the proposal to give local medical officers the right to tell Catholic girls and women how they should behave in regard to this sphere of conduct at once so delicate and sacred,” James Staunton, the Bishop of Ferns, warned the government on behalf of the Hierarchy. 

“Doctors trained in institutions in which we have no confidence may be appointed as medical officers.”

Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin had this letter delivered to the Taoiseach, John A Costello. 

McQuaid was the real inspiration behind the hierarchy’s stand, as he had been leading a campaign against Trinity College with his ban on Catholics attending that institution.

The hierarchy’s letter acknowledged that the bishops realised “the proposals are motivated by a sincere desire to improve the public health,” but they questioned whether the proposals were “in accordance with Catholic moral teaching”.

“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 the individual,” the letter continued. 

“The right to provide for the health of children belongs to parents, not to the state. The State should supplement not supplant.”

There was no attempt in the legislation to infringe of anybody’s rights. Mothers would be free to avail of the services if they wished; there was no compunction. 

Yet the bishops warned that aspects of the legislation “would constitute a ready-made instrument for future totalitarian aggression.”

The author, Liam Kirwan, who was for many years Professor of Surgery at Cork University Hospital, dismisses the allegation as “a nonsensical red herring.” 

The hierarchy made no effort to explain its frenzied allegation.

“Education in regard to motherhood includes instruction in regard to sex relations, chastity and marriage,” Staunton continued. 

“The state has no competence to give instruction in such matters.”

Were the bishops really insinuating that they were more qualified than doctors to instruct women on such matters?

“It is indicative of the State of the Nation at the time that State policy with regard to ‘gynaecological care’ should fall within the ambit of a celibate clergy rather than of scientifically educated doctors,” the author notes. 

While acknowledging that “the clergy were themselves, for the most part, celibate,” he does goes on cite the McQuaid’s use of the absurd term “conjugal chastity”. 

Whatever that means, the author makes no attempt to parse the absurdity.

In time, McQuaid would become “the laughing stock of history,” the author concludes. 

Of course, there has never been any apology to Noel Browne, or to the Irish people, but then the professor notes that it took the Church 350 years to issue even a qualified apology for the victimisation of Galileo for having suggested that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Ignorant church

authorities at the time thought the Sun revolved around Earth.

While the author is highly critical of the Archbishop, he is also very critical of the Taoiseach’s spineless conduct, which essentially involved the betrayal of the Republic in the face of episcopal opposition. 

“You are in office on sufferance, our sufferance, and if you do not do our bidding we will rouse the country against you and your government will fall,” the bishops essentially warned, according to the author.

Costello made no effort to defend Browne. McQuaid actually observed that the bishops were pleased to note “that no evidence has been supplied in the letter of the Taoiseach that the proposed Mother and Child Scheme advocated by the Minister for Health enjoys the support of the Government.”

Browne was essentially left to defend himself. He had to go to the Archbishop’s palace to discuss the matter. He was told he could not be accompanied by any member of his staff, but he found McQuaid was accompanied by both the Bishop of Ferns, and the Bishop of Galway.

The author does not mention that the Bishop of Galway had been at the centre of a controversy in 1942 when he objected to the appointment of Robert Corbett, the Master of the Coombe, as obstetrician and gynaecologist at Galway Central Hospital on the grounds that he had been educated at Trinity College. 

Corbett, who was actually a Catholic, was so incensed at the episcopal intrusion that he emigrated instead.

Noel Browne assured the bishops that he would accommodate any moral reservations they might have about the scheme, but they did not identify any such reservations. 

The Taoiseach and his colleagues lacked the courage and integrity to demand an explanation. The bishops said they were opposed and that was enough for the government.

“Rome rule it was indeed,” the author concludes. “Ulster Unionists, long trumpeting this canard, were again certain that they were ‘right’. The Taoiseach, by his subservience to the Bishops and to Rome, was following a course odious to Northern Unionists and thus serving to cement partition. 

"Although avowedly anti-partitionist, he was doing more than most to perpetuate the division of Ireland,” the author argues.

Seán MacBride, the leader of Clann na Poblachta, duly got into the act by denouncing Browne — his party colleague — for generating a situation that was “highly damaging to the cause of national unity.” 

This, the author rates, as “five star hypocrisy.” 

The Republic was essentially betrayed by a combination of the contemptible arrogance of the Hierarchy, and the gutless behaviour of the politicians.

Costello ultimately “betrays his supine mentality by accusing his Minister of the heinous crime of ‘defiance of the Hierarchy’,” according to the author, who goes on to state that it is “clear that the Taoiseach had no idea whatsoever, his legal training notwithstanding, of what might be an appropriate relationship between Church and State in a Republic.”

Costello was an intelligent man, and it is ridiculous to think that he might not have understood the appropriate relationship between Church and State. He lacked the guts to do the right thing. 

This book demonstrates he betrayed the Republic when faced with a shower of episcopal hypocrites.

Why did McQuaid act so? Was it because he was afraid that the legislation would ultimately undermine the Church’s role running hospitals throughout the country? 

People can make up their own minds on that issue, but a decade-and-a-half later Donogh O’Malley took no chance of McQuaid undermining his plans for free secondary education in the interest of church-run schools.

Other than Taoiseach Seán Lemass, he informed neither cabinet colleagues nor McQuaid before announcing publicly what would become probably the most effective government initiative since independence.


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