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Against Liberalism

Gordon Warren

The Ireland of Edward Cahill SJ, 1868-1941: A Secular or a Christian State?, by Thomas J Morrissey SJ, Messenger Publications, ISBN: 978-1910248317

The 1930s in Ireland witnessed the rise of an impassioned band of social activists operating under the banner of “Catholic Action”. Seeking to promote and strengthen the position of the Catholic church in Ireland in the new state, these lay groupings dedicated themselves to disseminating Catholic teaching on a wide range of social, legal, and economic issues, including monetary policy. At the forefront of the movement was An Rioghacht, (League of the Kingship of Christ) an organisation established in 1926 by Fr Edward Cahill SJ for the purposes of publicising Catholic social principles among those in positions of influence in Irish public life, as well as forming a resistance movement against what he perceived to be the corrosive and pernicious effects of a liberal culture ‑ the unwanted legacy of British rule in Ireland.

In The Ireland of Edward Cahill SJ, 1868-1941: A Secular or a Christian State?, Thomas Morrissey provides a long overdue biography of one of the most singular, provocative and challenging Irish intellectuals of this period. Morrissey, himself a Jesuit priest as well as a noted historian, has previous form in this regard, having written biographies of the educationalist and social reformer Thomas A Finlay, SJ, (1848-1940) and Bishop Edward O’Dwyer of Limerick (1842-1917). In this work, he provides a chronological account of the life of Cahill and assesses his legacy from the vantage point of the twenty-first century. The first three chapters cover Cahill’s life from his birth in rural Co Limerick to ordination into the priesthood in 1887, through to preferment in 1913 as the rector of Mungret College, a Jesuit apostolic and lay secondary school situated on the outskirts of Limerick. Chapter’s four to six emphasise his republican sympathies and the manner in which his allegiances embroiled him in conflict with his superiors. Morrissey also addresses Cahill’s simultaneous intellectual development, outlining the influence that such figures as the nineteenth century French positivist Auguste Comte had on his thought. Cahill, as Morrissey illustrates, concluded that the whole fabric of Irish society was in need of reform owing to the manner in which Catholicism had been weakened and undermined by the influence of liberalism under British rule. Accordingly, An Ríoghacht sought to propagate the Catholic social teachings outlined in such papal encyclicals as Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931). In chapters seven through to nine his focus turns towards Cahill’s most well-known printed works: Freemasonry and the Anti-Christian Movement (1929) and The Framework of a Christian State (1932). With regard to the former, Morrissey takes care to contextualise the intellectual environment in which Cahill composed this work, which is scathing in its denunciation of freemasonry, a movement Cahill feared would overthrow the religious order of the world. Morrissey also addresses the central concerns of Cahill’s most important work, The Framework of a Christian State, which received enthusiastic reviews on publication.

His main purpose in the book was to “summarise and present in a consecutive and more or less scientific form, the main elements of the teachings of the Roman Pontiffs, especially Leo XIII and Pius XI”, but as Morrissey is quick to point out it is a work with universal application. The author acknowledges the impossibility of providing an in-depth review of a work that runs to 700 pages but he succeeds in providing the reader with sufficient detail concerning its content to render it understandable to a lay audience. Chapters nine to eleven highlight Cahill’s ongoing conflicts with members of his order. The particulars of his  involvement in the drafting process of the 1937 Constitution and his failure to substantially influence the final draft of Bunreacht na hEireann are also comprehensibly covered in chapter ten. Chapter eleven explores his reaction to the publication of the Majority Report detailing the findings of the (1934-38) Commission of Inquiry into Banking, Currency and Credit, in the form of substantially contributing to a minority report (Minority Report III), which outlined his misgivings with the findings of the Commission, in particular, his dissatisfaction with the supposition that the prevailing economic system was fit for purpose. The final two chapters of this work deal with Cahill’s twilight years and the circumstances of his death.

There is much to commend in The Ireland of Edward Cahill. One of Morrissey’s principal achievements is to successfully convey the vigour, energy and commitment with which Cahill went about his work and the generosity of spirit which characterised his engagements with those under his guidance and care. It is also to Morrissey’s credit that he does not shrink from relating incidents which reveal his subject’s character flaws, such as his sensitivity to criticism and frequent prickliness when confronted with his shortcomings as a scholar. Indeed the book is characterised throughout by its objectivity. It is rare to encounter a biographer so balanced in his treatment of a subject he clearly admires, and he extends the same courtesy to the entire cast of characters encountered in this work, providing the reader with sufficient intellectual context to render Cahill’s writings and pronouncements somewhat less outlandish to a modern readership.

He relies heavily on primary sources, particularly the Mungret Annual, and extant letters between Cahill and his Provincial, for the bulk of the material in the opening chapters. He has also conducted a thorough survey of the Cahill files housed in the Jesuit archives. Much of the material he has unearthed serves to put meat on the bones of the material relating to Cahill in works such as Maurice Curtis’s A Challenge to Democracy: Militant Catholicism in Modern Ireland (2010). In this regard, and of particular relevance to the Monetary Reform Movement of the period, Morrissey unearths incontrovertible evidence of Cahill’s commitment to the Distributist economic proposals propounded by GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. The secondary literature is not explicit in this regard and such theories as these and the Social Credit principles expounded by the other English Monetary reformer, Major Douglas, are only mentioned in passing in The Framework of a Christian State, making this a potentially fruitful avenue for further research. International dimension are hinted at by references to Comte and Bishop Von Kettler of Mainz. Irish Catholicism in this period has been characterised by some, such as Tom Garvin (in Preventing the Future), as sterile in its thinking and insular in its outlook but the evidence produced here by Morrissey to some degree challenges this view.

Morrissey concludes with an assessment of Cahill’s historical relevance from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, making the determination that from this perspective his impact is negligible. However, it is worth remembering that the twenty-first century is still young and such an assessment may ultimately transpire to be presumptuous. History, and the lives of those who shape it, can take unexpected. “Blue Labour”, a recent intellectual current within British social democracy, bases its proposals for societal reform on the same papal encyclicals (Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno) that galvanised the likes of Edward Cahill and An Ríoghacht to pursue social justice and the fundamental reorganisation of Irish society along Catholic lines. It might be expected that a movement such as Blue Labour be spearheaded by a committed Catholic, yet the current, which helped shape key elements of Labour’s 2015 manifesto, is the brainchild of Maurice (Baron) Glasman, himself a practising Jew. It is too early to tell if such a development constitutes a revival of papal corporatism but it does suggest, contrary to popular opinion, that there may just be life (but not as we know it) in the old dog yet.


Gordon Warren is a first year PhD student in the School of History, UCC. His research focuses on the monetary reform movement in Ireland in the 1930’s and 40’s.



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