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Faith of Our Fathers

James Moran

The Catholics: The Church and its People in Britain and Ireland, from the Reformation to the Present Day, by Roy Hattersley, Chatto & Windus, 640 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-1784741587

One of the most surprising revelations of Roy Hattersley’s new book, The Catholics, comes in the first two pages. Hattersley is known as having been a Labour MP for thirty-three years, a deputy leader of the Labour party for almost a decade and a member of the Wilson government and the Callaghan cabinet. He is also known for providing the inspiration for a memorably slobbering puppet on Spitting Image. But in the opening pages of his new book he reveals something that emerged only upon the death of his own father in the 1970s. When Hattersley senior passed away, Roy opened a letter of condolence which began “as you will know …” and continued “we were at the English College in Rome together and were young priests in the diocese of which I became bishop”.

Roy Hattersley had, until that point in his life, no knowledge that his father had ever been a Catholic priest, although, in retrospect, he began to realise that it was slightly suspicious that he never seemed to have any problem translating the Latin inscriptions found in old churches. Hattersley knew his father as a government official who attended Church of England evensong. But in fact, during the 1920s, he had been a Catholic priest in the Nottinghamshire mining town of Shirebrook. There he had agreed to meet a young woman to prepare her for admission to the Catholic church before her marriage to a young Catholic collier. Father Hattersley gave this “instruction”, and then performed the marriage ceremony. But two weeks later, the priest and the bride ran away together. For the next forty-five years they lived together happily, and eventually married. Roy Hattersley was the fruit of that union.

At eighty-four, Hattersley has now produced a book that begins with that legacy. He is not a believer himself, asserting bluntly that religion is “belief in the unbelievable”, adding that, “the decision to write The Catholics was neither inspired nor promoted by the Church of Rome. Had the commission come from the Vatican or one of its constituent hierarchies, it is unlikely that the chosen author would have been the atheist son of a defrocked priest”.

Yet he does give a broadly sympathetic view of the Catholic church, through a fast-paced narrative that begins with the Reformation and continues until the twenty-first century, full of clear-eyed judgments about a cast of heroes and villains (Augustus Pugin is little short of a wonderworker, while Thomas More is a malevolent lunatic). Hattersley makes the broad case that “during the six centuries from the Reformation to the present day, the Catholics of Great Britain and Ireland were far more sinned against than sinning”. And he hails them for enduring in the face of religious persecution, declaring that “[c]ourage and certainty are qualities to be admired”. While he writes that Mary Tudor “will always be ‘bloody Mary’”, Elizabeth I was also an “obsessive” who had a “determination to rule a country that was totally Protestant in form … ten years before her death, Elizabeth signed into law the last of the punitive statutes which were as much a defining feature of her reign as the more popular notion of the all-conquering Gloriana”.

Indeed the author’s sympathies lead him to see even the clerical sex abuse scandals of recent years as being, at least in part, a phenomenon cruelly refracted through the lens of a slavering press. Hattersley: “the details of these cases, and many more,” he argues, “were lovingly chronicled in tabloid newspaper articles – including one in the now (happily) defunct News of the World that was largely invention”. And he describes how the “News of the World, conscious of its readers’ salacious appetites, joined in the pursuit of pederast priests and the Church’s alleged inclination to ignore their wrongdoing”. Those of us with a less sympathetic take on clerical abuse would have liked the author to include the testimony of abuse survivors themselves, as was done, say, in the 1999 RTÉ documentary States of Fear or the 2011 Brokentalkers theatre show The Blue Boy. Some of Hattersley’s moral outrage about the News of the World might, in any case, be more appropriately applied to the perpetrators of the abuse themselves, and those in the church hierarchy who tried to keep it hidden. (If Hattersley had wanted to bolster his point about the misreporting of clerical abuse he could have mentioned here the RTÉ documentary Mission to Prey, which in 2011 falsely accused Fr Kevin Reynolds of raping and impregnating a Kenyan teenager. RTÉ later accepted that this “was one of the most significant errors made in its broadcasting history”.)

The omission of that well-known example is perhaps part of a broader problem with the book. Although it is ostensibly about “The Church and its People in Britain and Ireland”, Hattersley’s interest in Ireland is never particularly sustained. One will search in vain for a mention of figures like Diarmuid Martin or John Charles McQuaid. There is no description of the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, nor of the papal visit of 1979. Hattersley’s survey of Catholicism and English literature makes no mention of James Joyce, nor any other Irish writer. We learn about Gerard Manley Hopkins’s time as a priest in various English places, but nothing about his almost comically miserable time in Dublin. We read at one stage about more Masses being said in Polish than in Gaelic, but Gaelic-language services aren’t mentioned, described, or enumerated either before or after that. Elsewhere, there is a single mention of the late Eamonn Casey, but not of his misdemeanour: the former bishop’s name appears towards the start of a chapter entitled “Suffer little children”, which therefore gives a rather misleading impression about the nature of the scandal in which Casey was engulfed. Towards the end of the book, figures for Mass attendance do not include any numbers for Ireland, and nothing is said about the gobbledegook translation of the Mass that the Vatican imposed on congregations in Ireland and elsewhere in 2011. Finally, there is no mention of the Ferns Report, the Ryan Report, or the Tuam Babies scandal, the latter of which was generating horrified headlines around the world when Hattersley was working on his book in 2014.

Having said all that, the book does have very interesting things to say about the ongoing interaction between Irish Catholic immigrant communities and native communities in England and Scotland. Hattersley describes how, after the Reformation, the Irish Catholic bogeyman repeatedly reappears as a most terrifying fever-dream for English Protestants. In the days of Charles II, for example, anti-Catholic hysteria included a worry that the king would be murdered so that the crown could be passed to his Catholic brother, James, with some anticipating Charles’s “stabbing by a gang of specially recruited Irishmen”. Later, after William of Orange landed in England in 1688 and James, now king, fled to France, there was another panic “caused by the rumour that Irish immigrants had burned down Uxbridge and were advancing east”. Still later, the anti-Catholic Gordon riots of 1780 began in Moorfields, a part of London which was then home to hundreds of Irishmen. Some of those Moorfields Irishmen had prospered and had taken to employing other Irishmen, thus enraging those described by Hattersley as almost Brexiteers avant la lettre:

The [wealthy Irish] businessmen’s motives for only employing their countrymen were mixed. Some felt a sentimental obligation to fellow Irishmen. Others knew that immigrants would work longer hours and expect less pay than native-born Englishmen, who deeply resented the advantage they imagined the Irish enjoyed.

After trouble kicked off in Moorfields in 1780, ten days of anti-Catholic rioting ensued across the country, and Hattersley documents the way that this fits a wider tendency for anti-Catholic and anti-Irish prejudice to prove mutually reinforcing in England. He quotes The Times in the nineteenth century asking, “What is an Englishman for but to work? What is an Irishman for but to sit at his cabin door, read [Daniel] O’Connell’s speeches and abuse the English?” He also points to Disraeli’s comment that Irish immigrants were “wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious”.

As the book progresses, Hattersley describes the fascinating intra-Catholic tussle for the soul of Roman Catholicism in England. After all, from the Reformation onwards, the Catholic Church in England became associated with a rather exclusive social group. The one place that priests could live and work in comparative safety was in the country houses of the recusant gentry. Upper-crust Englishmen therefore provided secret chapels and hidey-holes for priests, and so played a major part in keeping Catholicism alive in England during the eighteenth century. But by the early nineteenth century, that dynamic shifted dramatically, and the Catholic church in England became less reliant on these wealthy patrons. In the urban centres, a growing number of tradesmen and artisans started coming to Mass, adding their own halfpence to the pence on the collection plate. Naturally, in the era of hunger, many of these new Massgoers were Irish. In particular, during the ten years that began in 1841, the Irish-born population of England, Scotland and Wales ballooned from 415,000 to 727,000. Ninety per cent of those immigrants were Catholic, and Hattersley describes them by saying:

 […] they were Catholics of a sort unknown in England. They had been born and bred in a country in which their faith, although bearing the burden of civic disabilities, was dominant. So they took their Church for granted and often ignored its obligations. Their priests they regarded as the leaders – social and often political, as well as religious – of their communities, on whom they relied for help and advice.

In England, Catholics had used to their role as part of a tiny and vigilant minority, but the Catholics of Ireland had been accustomed to having the weight of numbers on their side. Hattersley implies that this had a direct effect on the relative zeal of those two communities. He writes that “Native-born Catholics [in England] were more assiduous worshippers than were the Catholic immigrants”, and he observes that the archbishop of Armagh Paul Cullen (1803-1878), “discovered that no more than 10 per cent of Irish Catholic immigrants to the city [of Liverpool] regularly attended Mass and that (to him perhaps, even worse) an alarming number entered into mixed marriages”. In Scotland, the seasonal and temporary nature of the migrant workforce in the nineteenth century made the situation even more difficult for priests to manage. As Hattersley puts it:

In 1820 there were 10,000 Catholics living in Glasgow. By 1831 the number had risen to 27,000 […] The transient nature of the new immigrants to Scotland created a special problem for their Church. On Merseyside the immigrants came to stay, and men with families are more likely than men living alone to attend Mass. Unaccompanied men, who came to Lanarkshire because they had heard that there was a pit shaft to be sunk or a canal lock to be cut, returned home when the job was done. So the demand for priests, and the subscriptions to support churches, ebbed and flowed.

Hattersley points to the situation that existed during the 1840s in Glasgow, where, of the large Catholic population

[…] very few of them attended Mass on every Sunday, the attendance on an average Sunday was about 18 per cent of the possible congregation. In Belfast, the average attendance was 43.1 per cent. There is no doubt that the Irish abroad – particularly men who had left the sobering effect of wives and children behind – were less conscientious churchgoers than the Irish at home.

Those Irish immigrants may have been relatively relaxed about their religious obligations. Yet after the restoration of the hierarchy in England and Wales in 1850, the Irish Catholic influence on the English Church was in the ascendant. Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, the first archbishop of Westminster, was himself born to Xaviera Strange of Co Kilkenny, and Nicholas’s father was the Irish merchant James Wiseman. Nicholas was born in Spain, but between 1805 and 1810 was educated at a school in or around Waterford. Thus, unsurprisingly, in later years, bearing a name such as Cormac Murphy-O’Connor would prove no impediment to becoming leader of the Catholic church in England.

Following Wiseman, the second archbishop of Westminster was Cardinal Henry Manning, who supported the idea of Home Rule for Ireland; highlighted “the state of the famishing in Ireland” and gave thanks for the fact that the Irish had arrived in England in such numbers, declaring: “The thing which will save us from low views about the Mother of God and the vicar of Our Lord is the million Irish in England.”

Of course, not all nineteenth century Catholic clergymen in England felt quite so thrilled by those new arrivals. One Kensington priest complained that the Irish were responsible for “immovable belts of stink” in his parish church and that, thanks to them, “bugs walk about in surplices and take possession of gentleman’s hats”. Furthermore, a perceived connection with radical Irish politics had the potential to damage the English Catholic church’s property and reputation. Hattersley points to the interweaving of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish violence in Liverpool, but doesn’t mention one notable incident that happened near his old parliamentary constituency in Birmingham. On November 20th, 1867 a number of Irish men and women in Birmingham held an open-air meeting to support Fenian prisoners who had been condemned in Manchester for killing a policeman. The convicted “Manchester Martyrs” were due to hang in three days’ time, and so their supporters in Birmingham set up a wagon next to the town hall to call for clemency. But when opponents learned of this assembly they furiously attacked the orators, throwing stones and breaking up the gathering in chaos. An anti-Fenian mob of up to 3,500 people then marched through the area chanting anti-Catholic slogans. They tried to smash St Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham (the first English Catholic cathedral to be built after the Reformation) but were chased away by a group of young Irish Catholic men and women. The marauders then decided to smash the residence of John Henry Newman (Britain’s most high-profile Catholic convert), but were again chased away by a police sabre charge.

The bishop of Birmingham, William Bernard Ullathorne (praised by Hattersley as “a man of selfless integrity” and a “plain-speaking Yorkshireman”), viewed these sectarian tensions of the 1860s with alarm. Ullathorne, distantly related to Thomas More, was worried about the recent Irish Catholic arrivals. So in Advent 1868 he tried to restrain the faithful by issuing a pastoral letter against Irish revolutionaries, asserting the Catholic duty to obey the law and civil authority, and condemning Fenianism as something that was only supported by “dupes”. When he received abuse from his co-religionists in response, he changed tack. First he issued another pastoral letter of January 1869, boasting of his affinity with Ireland (“if I looked like an Englishman I felt like an Irishman”). Then, in a clever move, the Catholic church in Birmingham organised a major St Patrick’s Day celebration for March 1869. The celebration, for two thousand people at the town hall, focused on non-revolutionary Irish patriotism and Catholic pride, and set a template for the annual St Patrick’s Day event that continues in the city to this day, and is often claimed as the third biggest Irish parade in the world.

The ideas Hattersley advances about the contrast between the Irish migrants and native English Catholics ultimately make me wonder whether one of the main arguments advanced in his book actually ends up being in opposition to the evidence he has gathered. He concludes that the great strength of Catholicism in Britain and Ireland has been its “certainty”. In the final pages of his book, he writes:

Catholics gained courage and comfort from the knowledge that, no matter how much pressure was put on principle, it would not break. Men and women do not go willingly to the stake or block in defence of common sense, sweet reason and majority opinion. They die for convictions that allow no reservations.

This may be true of celebrated figures such as Thomas More, Edmund Campion or John Fisher. But is it equally true of the Irish Catholics who arrived in England and Scotland in such large numbers from the nineteenth century onwards? Were these Catholics equally comforted by certainty? Or were they pretty flexible in their religious practice and less attracted by certainty in doctrine than by a sense of familial belonging, yearning for something beyond the quotidian, and a search for something to ameliorate the pain of parting and death? As I reached the final pages of The Catholics, I became aware that this counter-argument was being put by another British politician, the Muslim (and former co-chair of the Conservative party), Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. In her new book The Enemy Within, Warsi repeatedly describes Islamophobia as being simply the latest manifestation of a recurring British religious suspicion. To her way of thinking, what Roman Catholicism had been in British public discourse during earlier years, Islam had now become in the twenty-first century. As she writes in relation to Irish Catholicism, “then as now we alienated a much larger group of Catholics than just the terrorists, we dismissed those who sought to highlight genuine Irish grievance as apologists for terrorists and we had an inconsistent approach to the way we treated communities, Protestant and Catholic”.

In Warsi’s elegant formulation, British Islam now needs to be recognised as a significant and unique variant on the global faith, because Islam is “a river which takes the colour of the bed over which it flows”. According to such thinking, a most attractive feature of monotheistic religion might not be the rigid doctrinal certainty that Hattersley foregrounds but a kind of adaptability to specific geographical and historical conditions that makes believers feel both part of a specific local community and part of something of world significance. As Father Ted once put it, “That’s the great thing about Catholicism. It’s very vague and nobody knows what it’s really all about.”


James Moran is head of drama at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of The Theatre of Sean O’Casey (2013) and Irish Birmingham: A History (2010).



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