Diarmaid Ferriter: how OECD reports came to replace the papal encyclicals
Church, State and Social Science in Ireland review: Peter Murray and Maria Feeney details the church's attempts to control research
Church and State: Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin; Cardinal Francis D’Alton; President Sean T O’Kelly; the nuncio, Dr Alberto Levame; the president’s wife, Phyllis O’Kelly; and Taoiseach Éamon de Valera in 1964. Photograph: Dermot Barry
Church, State and Social Science in Ireland: Knowledge Institutions and the Rebalancing of Power, 1937-73
By Peter Murray and Maria Feeney
Manchester University Press
From the middle of the 20th century the balance of power between the Catholic Church and the Irish State was shifting. One book that dealt with this theme was published in 1971 by the political scientist John H Whyte under the title Church & State in Modern Ireland, 1923-1970.
Whyte had been appointed the first lay lecturer in politics at University College Dublin, in 1961, but found himself at the mercy of the wrath of the Catholic archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid when the subject of his research became known. Whyte had to leave UCD for Queen’s University Belfast – in effect a case of constructive dismissal.
It was a reminder of the extent of church control over social-science research and teaching, a control that had produced an Irish Catholic “institutionalised culture of pronounced intellectual caution and hierarchical control”. In essence, Irish Catholic writers constructed sociology “as the social branch of ethics” and a “staple set of topics – marriage, family, church, state, private property, relations between capital and labour – was dealt with in terms of very general principles”.
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By the following decade, however, a professional, secular association of Irish sociologists had been established, suggesting a new dawn.
Wrestling free from church dominance is one of the themes of Church, State and Social Science in Ireland: Knowledge Institutions and the Rebalancing of Power, 1937-73, by Peter Murray and Maria Feeney, which is a welcome update and addition to Whyte’s groundbreaking study.
It dwells on both the general expansion of education and changes to the focus of sociology through a new emphasis on empirical research. This saw the emergence of research institutes independent of the church, such as the Economic Research Institute – which evolved into the Economic and Social Research Institute – in tandem with State refusal of requests from Catholic social movements for funding for their own research centres.
John Charles McQuaid in all his splenetic glory is well captured here, a reminder that he generated an archive that keeps on giving
Another battle front was adult education in the social sciences. McQuaid in all his splenetic glory is well captured here, a reminder that he generated an archive that keeps on giving when it comes to the research of church-State relations. In 1955 he was able to boast: “I have now, at length, been able to take measures in the university” – UCD – “to have Catholic philosophy permeate all the faculties, and I hope that our educated lay folk in the near future will no longer show themselves to be infected by the Protestant English liberalism that had caused and is still causing so much confusion in our country.” He hated the idea that “history, commerce and technology are striving to override the world”.
This book documents the end of the era that produced such episcopal imperiousness, alongside the decline in the high proportion of priests within sociology. Catholic concerns persisted that new approaches would prevent a “wide formation” of students in ethics and sociology, but James Dillon, the minister for agriculture in 1955, told a US embassy official that “vested interests will eventually be beaten down”.
The availability of American finance concentrated many minds in relation to applied research in agriculture, industry and economics, and by the early 1960s such research was a major beneficiary of Irish engagement with US government aid programmes and US private foundations such as the Ford Foundationand the Grant Counterpart Fund.
This book reveals a multitude of tensions over control of research. When the Catholic Workers’ College proposed an industrial-relations advisory and research centre in 1965, the department of industry and commerce was concerned that the “close association of the proposed centre with a religious community might be inhibiting”, and the plan was rejected.
Another interesting development was the degree to which Ireland’s social-security provision became an object of both political debate and social-scientific analysis in the early 1960s. In 1964 Charles Murray, assistant secretary at the Department of Finance, suggested “it would be well to get some work going now on the forms which improved and extended social services might take”.
The key question was whether a social-development programme could be devised; empirical sociology was moving out of the ambit of Catholic social theory
The key question was whether a social-development programme could be devised; empirical sociology was moving out of the ambit of Catholic social theory into that of the State’s policymaking, but not all government departments were supportive enough – and that, combined with recession, strikes and inflation, complicated planning.
Church, State and Social Science in Ireland is a reminder that we need to be wary of simplifying either church or State and their engagement with social-science research and teaching. Seán Lemass, often seen as unreceptive to rural priorities, suggested in 1964 that “we need an institute of rural sociology”, but he could not generate sufficient support among his ministers.
Jeremiah Newman, professor of sociology at Maynooth from 1953 and a future, and very conservative, bishop of Limerick, is revisited as an innovator, pushing sociology towards a more empirical approach instead of just “natural law thinking that tended to reduce the discipline to a fairly sterile exercise in ethical exposition”.
There were many more fraught church-State exchanges at an earlier stage than might be assumed. The UCD economist Patrick Lynch, who chaired a social-research committee under the auspices of the Institute of Public Administration in 1959, wondered if public affairs could be addressed not in relation to faith and morals but with “technical knowledge, experience, intelligence and good sense”.
Fr James Kavanagh, first director of Dublin Institute of Catholic Sociology, was not impressed: “Am I being airy fairy in suggesting that seminars on productivity and management and trade unionism should include always a lecture on some philosophical aspect?” Perhaps both had a point, but in the long run, as another sociologist, Bryan Fanning, puts it, “OECD reports came to replace the papal encyclicals”.
This book is dense, learned and occasionally too crowded and complicated by gazes back and forward midchapter. It is essentially a textbook, and a fine one, but is prohibitively expensive, at £75. It makes excellent use of original archival research to offer new and revised perspectives, the essence of good social-science research, of which Peter Murray and Maria Feeney, of Maynooth University, are admirable and hardworking practitioners.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin and an Irish Times columnist