The reader will be displeased
LETTERS:A collection of potentially fascinating material from the archive of Archbishop McQuaid should have been far more rigorous
His Grace is Displeased: Selected Correspondence of John Charles McQuaid, Edited by Clara Cullen and Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh, Merrion/Irish Academic Press, 273pp, €60 (hardback), €19.95 (paperback)
This book is an almighty mess and should not have been published in its current format. It is ironic that the editors of a publication dealing with the archive of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, someone who set such store by the meticulous organisation and preservation of his voluminous collection of correspondence, should display such tardiness and basic failings in their compilation and explanation of his archival material. His Grace was indeed, often displeased, as will be the reader of this book.
Collections of correspondence can be highly valuable and illuminating, but the letters need to be properly introduced, contextualised and mediated. The rationale for the selection, the details of those referred to in the correspondence and the background to the themes they deal with need to be elucidated with confidence, nuance and an awareness of the wider picture. None of this happens here; what is offered, instead, appears hastily assembled, badly edited, shabbily presented and lacking any substantial introduction. This is a particular pity because the archive of McQuaid, Catholic archbishop of Dublin from 1940 to 1972, and one of the towering and most influential characters in 20th-century Ireland, is an extraordinary treasure. Justice is not done to it here, and this book represents a considerable missed opportunity.
There is a three-and-ahalf-page introduction to McQuaid’s career, which spanned six decades, with no attempt to explain him or the Ireland in which he operated, and no reflection on or critical analysis what has been written about him to date. The editors appear to believe that the following clumsily expressed observation – “McQuaid’s attention to detail of all aspects of pastoral and public life in his diocese was all embracing” – will suffice.
The six chapters deal with fascinating aspects of McQuaid’s interests and the political, social and cultural priorities of his era: the 1937 Constitution, education, medicine, republicans, ecumenism and censorship. But they are not linked in any meaningful way by the editors or put in their proper context. All of these themes have produced a significant corpus of historical analysis by a multitude of authors, which is almost completely ignored.
There are countless examples of these omissions that could be highlighted, but to give just one example: how could correspondence around the Constitution be meaningfully introduced or understood without any reference to Dermot Keogh and Andrew McCarthy’s 2007 book The Making of the Irish Constitution? This kind of absence is particularly galling given that the editors acknowledge that McQuaid’s role in the writing of the Constitution “has frequently been debated by historians”. Why ignore that debate and all the other debates regarding the specific areas the chapters address?
The only relief is that some of the letters to and from McQuaid are very revealing, often spiky, occasionally sinister and sometimes funny, and expose much about his modus operandi and mindset. Anyone who wants to understand the nature of aspects of his and the church’s power from the 1930s to the 1960s will, if they are able to ignore the many failings outlined above, find material of interest. In relation to the Constitution, McQuaid’s draft memorandum on religion declared: “The State has the duty of professing and protecting not any sort of religion but only the true religion.”