Letters show McQuaid’s astounding arrogance

LETTER-writing is in danger of obsolescence and ‘hard copy’ communication is dwindling rapidly.

The powerful now zap off emails, text messages and make mobile calls to minions and yes-people to ensure their ‘will be done’ (cf The Lord’s Prayer), asap.

The instantaneity and seeming disposability of modern communications will pose particular problems for old-school historians of the future seeking tangible documentary evidence of how power works in particular ways, in particular places, at particular times.

John Charles McQuaid was a tireless letter-writer and his missives reveal a major operator in the singularly powerful Irish Catholic Church of post-independence Ireland. The indecent and obscene — to borrow the formulation of the Irish censorship regime championed by McQuaid — underbelly of that power has been gradually revealed since the 1990s, and the arrogance and pomp of McQuaid’s tenure (1940-72) have been replaced by the more modest and understated style of his latest successor as archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin.

The latter is a smart operator who recognises how the sands have shifted beneath the edifice of Catholic hegemony. He projects humility effectively and has negotiated the continuance of his institution’s modified social power subtly and in tune with the changing times.

Subtlety and modesty are blatantly absent in this selection of the correspondence of the man Seán O’Casey dubbed The Archdruid of Drumcondra.

There was nothing magical about this ‘druid’s’ power, however. It was based on the energetic marshalling of networks of allegiance; the blatant exercise of an anti-democratic influence bestowed by a state that had, from its inception, bowed before the Catholic hierarchy; and a reliance on the unswerving obedience of a critical mass of the population to an authoritarian church.

McQuaid’s ‘eyes and ears’ — his web of often well-placed informants and flunkies across all sectors of society — were on constant alert for any hints of deviance from, or challenges to, the conservative norms defined and underpinned by church and state, any green shoot of liberalism or free thought, especially Protestant, alien notions such as women’s rights, and of course the ultimate bogeyman — communism.

Members of the Catholic Action network also performed less ‘ideological’ functions, such as providing the archbishop with inside information from government departments and Dublin corporation’s planning offices, which allowed him to buy land on behalf of the diocese for the building of schools and churches in the capital’s expanding suburbs at bargain prices — a scam that would gladden the hearts of the heathen developers of a later era, and one that reminds us that the Celtic Tiger did not dispense with all the traditions of McQuaid’s Catholic Ireland!

McQuaid was a long-time friend of Éamon de Valera’s, and while still president of Blackrock College advised him at the drafting stages of the 1937 Constitution. The future archbishop’s suggestions were influential on the final draft of the document, though Dev and his legal advisers demurred on McQuaid’s suggestion of the following: ‘The State acknowledges that the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church’, much to his grace’s displeasure.

Not that the reader of this book is told this. McQuaid’s commentaries on the drafts are reproduced with little or no context provided. Those wishing to know, for example, how much of McQuaid’s advice was taken up will have to search elsewhere.

Appointed archbishop in 1940, McQuaid quickly established himself as a brilliant administrator and a force to be reckoned with, relegating his fellow bishops, and even his ‘superiors’ in Armagh, into the background. As Irish democracy became even more diluted than usual during the Emergency, McQuaid deepened and expanded Catholic power where he could. His achievements in establishing welfare services are legendary; the key issue, though, is that this extraordinary work — and there is no denying its many positive material benefits for those impoverished by the wretched failures of Irish policymakers — served to copper-fasten Catholic control at the expense of the state in the welfare realm, as well as in education and health.

In the era of Britain’s Beveridge Report and the social democratic turn in post-war western Europe, McQuaid was building bulwarks against the expansion of the secular state, many of which remain today. The fate of the ‘Mother and Child’ scheme and its champion Noel Browne is but the best-known public example of this dynamic at work.

His Grace is Displeased has many examples of McQuaid’s interventions in these and other areas, and the craven deference of even powerful politicians to ‘his grace’ hangs over this collection like the smell of incense. He campaigned against the creation of a badly-needed children’s hospital because of Protestant involvement, and banned Catholic students from attending Trinity College. He also worked to prohibit ‘mixing’ of other sorts, such as his campaign against ‘mixed athletics’ (i.e. where both men and women take part), which, like ‘all cognate immodesties are abuses that right-minded people reprobate wherever, and whenever they exist.’ He scorned ecumenism, and though he granted ‘permission’ to the Minster for External Affairs, Frank Aiken, to attend a Lutheran service for the late Queen of Sweden in 1965, it was on condition that he attended ‘passively’.

The largest section of the book is devoted to McQuaid’s dealings with moral censorship of film and publications, as well as his interference with theatrical performances and RTÉ. He was concerned about ‘the strange things priests (like Fr Michael Cleary) are doing on TV’ and Gay Byrne’s occasionally “unworthy” activities on the Late Late Show, such as featuring a recruiter of ‘Bunny Girls’ for Playboy clubs in Britain. The Censorship of Publications Board and the Censorship of Films Appeals Board were effectively controlled by McQuaid (though he lost his iron grip on publications in 1957). The gradual liberalisation of this absurdly strict regime in the late 1960s and early 1970s coincided with McQuaid’s declining clout in the post-Second Vatican Council era. He resigned in 1972 and died the following year.

This collection provides a glimpse into Irish mentalities and power relations from the 1930s to the early 1970s, and is to be welcomed for that. It is, however, a flawed book. It fails to fulfil most of the basic functions expected of this genre beyond that of selection — and even that is often curious, including the reproduction of the text of newspaper clippings found in the files. The short, three-and-a-half-page introduction barely scratches the contextual surface and is little more than a summary of existing biographical essays on McQuaid.

As with the initial Constitution section, the others — Education, Medicine, and so on — all lack the requisite robust framework of authoritative annotation, explanation and contextualisation.

The existence of a Conclusion raises hopes of some kind of reckoning, some drawing together of threads, some analysis or interpretation. Instead, it consists of the text of two of McQuaid’s, albeit interesting, Lenten notices displayed in Dublin churches in 1949 and 1971.

Silly, sloppy errors undermine our trust in the editors’ expertise. We are told, for example, that Jack Lynch was Taoiseach from 1966 to 1979, which will be a relief to those Corkonians who always thought of him as the ‘real Taoiseach’, but a shock to Liam Cosgrave, who must now be wondering about those lost years between 1973 and 1977. Films were censored by a single Film Censor, not a ‘Censorship Board’ as suggested, and so on.

Surprisingly, given the availability of the expansive McQuaid papers that are cherry-picked here, he awaits a full, scholarly biography. The closest we have is John Cooney’s sometimes sensationalist treatment sub-titled ‘Ruler of Catholic Ireland’ which, despite its limitations, is still the first port of call for those seeking an insight into the days when, even if Rome didn’t quite rule, the belt of a crozier was the most dreaded political punishment of all.

* Donal Ó Drisceoil lectures in History at University College Cork

His Grace is Displeased: Selected Correspondence of John Charles McQuaid

Clara Cullen & Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh (editors)

Merrion, Dublin and Portland, €19.99


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