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Ministering to All

Thomas Fitzgerald

Freedom and the Fifth Commandment: Catholic Priests and Political Violence in Ireland, 1919-21, by Brian Heffernan, Manchester University Press, 290 pp, €19.99, ISBN 978-1526106520

The most remarkable change in Irish life over the past thirty years has been the collapse of the influence of the Catholic Church on society. A particularly common narrative has since emerged which suggests that independent Ireland amounted to a theocracy in which people’s lives were minutely controlled. In this view of things whereas once, like Stephen Daedalus, Ireland previously had two masters, independent Ireland had just one. While this narrative of control has been found attractive, it is potentially misleading in one crucial respect: most people until relatively recently were proud of their Catholic identity and were happy to adhere to Catholic teaching.

The reason for this has something to do with the fact that Catholicism was structurally embedded in the last four hundred years of Irish history. From the plantations onwards most aspects of Irish life were caught up with Catholicism – debates and tensions over land ownership, education and the right to representation in parliament all turned on the social and political status of Catholicism and its adherents. Significantly, the final divisions between the old Gaelic Irish and the Norman Irish were washed away in a shared resistance to Protestant hegemony.

One result of this dynamic is that Irish nationalism as it emerged became explicitly linked to Catholicism and this link extended into the twentieth century. Heffernan notes that Catholic imagery was heavily present in Irish republican propaganda. IRA leader Séamus Robinson, in his memoir, frames his resistance to the British state in Ireland in explicitly Catholic terms. Another IRA leader, Liam Deasy’s, memoir is full to the brim with references to his Catholic faith. The Irish state that such individuals helped set up was one that developed close links with the Catholic Church. Éamon de Valera, a leader of the anti-treaty republican movement from 1917  to 1927 and thereafter leader of Fianna Fáil, created a constitution in which the Catholic Church was given a special place. Some republicans did resent the Church, but they were the exception to the rule.

If Irish nationalism – with the exception of the case of certain often prominent nationalists ‑ became associated with Catholicism, it would be incorrect, however, to assume that all Irish Catholic nationalists shared the same political outlook. Indeed a variety of political opinion was found within the church itself. Brian Heffernan’s book highlights the non-homogenous and often confused reaction of the Catholic Church, at all levels, to political violence in Ireland. Heffernan shows that some priests had complete loyalty to the nascent republic while some others considered that Ireland as a united country dated back to 1172, with the establishment of the Kingdom of Ireland, and that accordingly Ireland was inherently connected to the British royal house.

Using a variety of previously unexplored primary sources, Heffernan examines how Catholic clerics interacted and considered the new revolutionary movement, and how the revolutionaries and their opponents engaged with clerics. His comprehensive research has brought him through every available copy of the Irish Independent and Irish Catholic from the period. This is well complemented by reference to collections in diocesan archives across Ireland, the archives of the Irish College in Paris and of the Pontifical Irish College in Rome.

Roy Foster has written of a distinct “revolutionary generation” emerging in opposition to the achievements of the earlier generation, or unwilling to accept the ideals and compromises of their parents, and Heffernan shows that this extended to the Church. The revolutionary period can be interpreted as a shock to Irish life. From the 1880s onwards constitutional nationalists had, seemingly, settled the land issue and were about to enter into their zenith by establishing an Irish parliament in Dublin. Much to the surprise of the constitutionalists, they found their vision was to be severely challenged and reshaped by, if not their children, their nieces and nephews at least. With some exceptions, such as Tom Kettle, the Home Rule movement was largely composed of veterans from the 1880s. Fearghal McGarry’s excellent biography of one of the awkward products of the revolution, Eoin O’Duffy, includes a constitutionalist complaining of the new Sinn Féin movement that “nearly all I have met (Sinn Féin supporters) have been Government servants, or sons of policemen … and now their sons want to smash the party that emancipated us”.

This change or shift had repercussions for the Church. There was no real incentive for the hierarchy to support violent revolution, Heffernan writes. Most of their vital interests, particularly in regard to education, were being safeguarded by the British state, and “the bishops enjoyed a comfortable working relationship with the Castle administration”. Accordingly many bishops expressed frustration and anger at the republican movement and its use of violence. A division emerged between the young curates, more susceptible to new ideas, and the more conservative and, crucially, older parish priests and bishops. Heffernan notes that many older priests were generally sympathetic to the aims of the republican movement but believed it had no chance of attaining its goals. While it is difficult to quantify historical attitudes, Heffernan concludes that “the generation gap between older and younger priests also found expression in the political field, with the latter being more inclined to support the republican movement than the former”. This reflects the views of Munster veterans of the Irish revolution I have researched. John L Sullivan, of the west Cork IRA recalled:

I remember my mother and father back then being very sceptical about taking on the British Empire. They were very patriotic, as were the majority of Irish people, especially rural populations, and they had the traditions and songs of the past, but they always in any discussion they had with us, said “in the name of God, are you mad taking on the British Empire?” They thought that it was impossible, that we were foolish to go up against the might of Britain, which ruled so much of the world at that time and had everything at its disposal. When they spoke of Ireland and its freedom they were in deep sympathy with the ideals but they were very dubious about the results.

In a similar fashion James Moloney, from Bruff, Co Limerick, recalled people saying to the IRA: “What about the trouble to your poor father and mother?”, “This house might be burned”, or “Can ye succeed where Germany failed?”

The Church leadership, largely, reacted with shock to the development of the IRA’s burgeoning campaign. Initially directed primarily against the largely Catholic Royal Irish Constabulary, the campaign created a whole series of moral and theological problems for the Church. Heffernan notes that condemnations of attacks would emphasise “the humanity and exemplary Catholic virtues of the (RIC) victims” or that ambushes did not give the victims “the right spiritual disposition on the part of the dying person, but also the sacramental ministrations of a priest”. Again this type of violence brought up moral questions for others in addition to the clergy. Sinn Féin government minister Ernest Blythe was initially sceptical of joining the IRB, as he did not want to join any organisation that promoted assassination. Arthur Griffith was also very sceptical of IRA violence. One Kerry veteran would later say that he felt the IRA could have dealt with the RIC differently: “We didn’t handle them properly for their brothers were in the IRA.” One small inaccuracy is that Heffernan writes that the Soloheadbeag ambush, in south Tipperary in January 1919, resulted in the first fatalities of the conflict. This is a common error – an attack by a group of Volunteers on the RIC barracks in Gortatlea in Kerry in April 1918 resulted in the deaths of two of the Volunteers involved.

With the arrival of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries in Ireland matters became simpler as largely British and Protestant forces appeared as genuinely foreign oppressors or invaders. The indiscriminate violence of the crown forces provoked deep hostility from the Church, as it did nearly all sections of Irish society. As reprisals developed in 1920 Heffernan notes that condemnations of IRA violence from the pulpit were replaced by condemnations of the violence of the crown forces and that the “British counterinsurgency campaign was crucial in shaping the response of Catholic priests to republican violence”.

Using graphs, Heffernan shows that as IRA violence increased and became more brutal in 1921, arguably largely in response to the reprisal policy, clerical denunciations became less and less frequent. Britain had effectively driven more and more people into supporting Sinn Féin – their reprisals having the opposite of the desired effect.

The hierarchy’s decision to condemn reprisals and the collapsing Dublin Castle regime reflected a need, the book argues, “to look towards establishing desirable relations with the men (Sinn Féin) who constituted the country’s new regime”. This seems reasonable, but it most likely also reflected a genuine horror at the intensity and frequency with which reprisals were being implemented.

In 1920-21 Sinn Féin remained in the ascendancy but this rarely correlated with direct or active support for the IRA within the Church. Active involvement by priests with the IRA was relatively rare, Heffernan notes – though many were actively involved with Sinn Féin at a local level. It was not uncommon for parish priests to also act as president of the local Sinn Féin club. A small number of “Sinn Féin priests” went on to act as chaplains for flying columns, but “active clerical support for the IRA was relatively rare”.

The 1918 conscription crisis saw the ranks of the Irish Volunteers swelling with significant numbers of new supporters. But when the threat of conscription faded the ardour of these new Volunteers faded too and in 1919 numbers dropped considerably. During 1920-21 there was a noticeable increase in IRA numbers. Joost Augusteijn has written that “even in the most active counties the number of volunteers and their sympathisers was still marginal in many districts”. In Western and Irish-speaking parts of the country many had no involvement in the republican movement. Greg Ashe, Tom’s brother, felt that “shopkeepers in Dingle … were more British than Churchill” and “the western people [people from the Gaeltacht on the Dingle Peninsula] were inclined to follow them [unionist shopkeepers] for slavery was driven into them”.

Full-time IRA activists emerged in the summer of 1920 with Tipperary, Cork, Clare, Longford, Kerry and Limerick developing professional flying columns. In 1921, parts of Galway, Mayo and Roscommon followed suit. Full-time IRA activists were the exception rather than the rule though and the majority of the male population was by no means militarised. Those who were lived a dangerous hand-to-mouth and isolated existence. C,olumns would be based in isolated parts of the country such as the Galtee mountains and the Dingle peninsula. Heffernan suggests that it is possible that these isolated columns were more willing to continually use violence as no longer being able to attend Mass they were less likely to hear clerical denunciations. The priests who did minister to the IRA, he notes, “did so at some peril to themselves”.

The IRA’s campaign from its inception involved intimidation of civilians considered to opponents or potential opponents of the republican movement – usually people with associations with the RIC or British army. Charles Townshend has written that “coercion was, ultimately, a vital element in the state building process”. Heffernan notes that due to the esteem with which they were held by their communities priests rarely fell victim to IRA intimidation. He gives an example of a Tralee priest who had apparently some type of understanding with the local Auxiliaries. The IRA investigated the case and seem to have build up evidence against him, but did not act upon it.

Priests commonly gave spiritual consolation to civilian captives of the IRA before they were executed as spies or informers – in some cases going out of their way to seek out clerics of different denominations for non-Catholics. Heffernan asks whether in the case of priests this amounted to tacit acceptance of the killings but he also suggests the presence of other motivations, such as Christian charity.

One of the many strengths of this book is that it examines how crown forces interacted with the Catholic Church. A major weakness of the still developing historiography is a preoccupation with the IRA and Sinn Féin rather than an engagement with the activities of their opponents. Priests, as Heffernan notes, still had to administer to the IRA, to civilians and to Catholic members of the crown forces. They found themselves “in the confidence of all sections of the population, including volunteers and constables”.

Crown forces frequently targeted the clergy religious houses. While priests were more likely to be arrested than average lay people, few of these raids yielded significant results. Many elements of the crown forces seem to have been infected by anti-Catholicism and to have felt that the Church was promoting the IRA and ultimately responsible for its campaign. The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, Heffernan writes, “widely believed that Irish priests were setting the people up against them”. (Similarly, German Protestant soldiers in occupied Belgium and France in 1914 saw Catholic priests as being responsible for civilian resistance to their presence.) Anti-Catholic verbal abuse was common, and many priests received threatening notices. At least three were murdered by crown forces.

Heffernan’s study also has the merit of examining how clerics reacted to sectarian violence in what was to become Northern Ireland; the book cites numerous Northern Catholic voices. The Church was, possibly, the most powerful all-island organisation that maintained consistent and vocal opposition to partition. And while it applauded the new Free State government and its use of violence it continued to decry the Northern Irish state’s repression.

The book also considers larger theological questions that violence in Ireland raised for the Church. Did the IRA’s meet its criteria for a just war? Did it have any chance of success? Did British government in Ireland amount to tyranny?

In the aftermath of the revolution both Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil wanted to ensure that there was no repeat of the Irish revolution. Both sides of the civil war divide would introduce legislation to ensure their hegemony was never threatened by the physical force descendants of the Irish revolution. The Church also felt it had nearly lost control during the revolution. Afterwards it attempted to ensure that it too would maintain order and also exercise a similar hegemony over the nation’s spiritual salvation. Heffernan’s riveting publication has addressed the myriad views and reactions to political violence in Ireland when Catholic unity was briefly lost and before that unity was rebuilt and the Catholic Church in Ireland came to be the defining element of independent Ireland


Thomas FitzGerald is an Irish research council scholar at Trinity College Dublin

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Roy Foster’s 2015 review-essay, “Feeling the Squeeze”, on the experience of Ireland’s Protestant minority in the newly independent state. Here is an extract:

Invariably, [David] Fitzpatrick ploughs his own furrow. His latest work deals with aspects of the Irish Protestant experience, and like everything else he has written it conceals a faintly contrarian angle behind an urbane and judicious style. The title tells us what to expect, suggesting that the declining fortunes of Ireland’s Protestants will be surveyed; but there is nothing here about Big Houses and decayed estates, nor about the possessor bourgeoisie alleged by Fergus Campbell to have held the reins of privilege well into the twentieth century.

Fitzpatrick is interested in the little people, their associations, how they consort together, their dogged faith and their reaction to the threats of violence and expulsion which hung in the air during the Troubles. Accordingly, his sources are not the diaries, memoirs and estate records of landlords and ladies; instead he has plumbed the archives of the Grand Orange Lodge and of the Methodist Historical Society, the minutiae of census returns and church records, memorials of long-forgotten preachers and the highways and byways of genealogical websites such as ancestrylibrary.com. His work (particularly in the closing chapters) also shows the rich social history to be extracted from the files of compensation claims lodged with both the British and Irish governments after 1922 ‑ as recently demonstrated in Gemma Clarke’s absorbing book on interpersonal violence during the Civil War.

It is a rich and suggestive mix, and the picture that emerges is in some ways a surprising one. Implicitly invoking David Trimble’s memorable phrase about Catholics in Northern Ireland, Fitzpatrick points out that the minorities he surveys “became expert at keeping themselves warm in cold houses”, and the picture that emerges suggests that – in the twentieth century at least ‑ intercommunal tension owed more to land hunger and historic grievances than sectarian animosity. His picture of Irish Protestant life at the demotic level investigated here reminds us of some salient facts, obvious but often implicitly ignored. One is that Irish Protestants were far from universally a middle- or upper-class elite ‑ especially before the 1920s. Another is that, before independence, and partition, a Protestant presence – at all social levels ‑ was distributed more widely throughout the island than later commentators often assume. And a third important fact is that for many Irish Protestants, partition presented itself as a worse evil than the prospect of all-island Home Rule. The recognition may have come belatedly, but it came nonetheless.

As late as the 1960s, the ecclesiastical architecture of provincial Irish towns and cities featured not just the elegant spires of the Church of Ireland, but a surprising variety of modest meeting-places dedicated to Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists ‑ and often a “Protestant Hall” used by all varieties for social purposes. Rural congregations were more scattered, but still hung on tenaciously in places like Co Cork, the subject of much of Fitzpatrick’s research. His early chapters, however, dealing with the Orange Order, necessarily concentrate on Ulster, all nine counties of it (there is much interesting material on Monaghan, as well as a wide gallery of Belfast activists). The origins of lodges are related to an Enlightenment moment, though their idea of “civic and religious liberty” differed from that of the freemasons, with whom their rituals had much in common. The rebarbative ideology of Orangeism widely infiltrated the army and yeomanry, a process carefully traced in this book; this led to serious issues regarding conflicts of loyalty and instability of allegiance, which came into sharper relief when Orangeism emerged as equally dominant in paramilitary organisations.



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