During an ineloquent but pious contribution to a Dáil debate in June 1929, Seán T O’Kelly asserted: “We of the Fianna Fáil party believe that we speak for the big body of Catholic opinion. I think I could say, without qualification of any kind, that we represent the big element of Catholicity.”
The party he spoke for was then just three years old, and its TDs had taken their parliamentary seats only two years previously, but during the glorious centenary of Catholic emancipation they were not going to be found wanting in expressions of the ferocity of their faith.
Their holy declarations also fulfilled another purpose: just six years after the end of the Civil War it was necessary to begin the process of repositioning Irish republicans who had fought considerable battles with Catholic bishops during that conflict.
This book seeks to document and analyse that battle in the first decade of the Free State’s existence. The book’s title is well chosen given the frequency with which republicans used religious and spiritual images and words to justify their opposition to the Treaty and validate their Civil War actions.
The author, writing his first book, succeeds in locating and unearthing fascinating private and public utterances and correspondence in order to underline the intensity of the religious and political battles being fought and the intricacies of hamfisted and naive Vatican interventions in Irish politics during this period.
But the book is severely undermined by uncertainty on the author’s part about the craft of the historian. Instead of presenting his evidence with clarity as a worthy end in itself, he suffuses his narrative with unnecessary, clumsy assertions and generalisations and an immature, judgmental tone.
His contention is that there has been a tendency to "grant the Catholic Church and especially its leaders, a large measure of amnesty regarding political activity" during this period, and refers bitingly to "authors who have restricted themselves to abiding by the decisions of the [Catholic] Hierarchy", a dubious and unfair dismissal of the work of historians produced when archival access was more limited but that has nonetheless paved the way for his.
He favours histories that are "genuinely objective and critical of the Catholic Church in its involvement in Ireland beyond the scope of religion". There is a basic contradiction inherent in this assertion: it should not be the role of the historian to conduct research with such an obvious agenda; what is required instead is presentation and analysis of the evidence, as opposed to adopting a skewed and confrontational approach to the historic subject matter, fuelled by contemporary values.
McCabe’s flawed reasoning, methodology and awkward prose – “the bishops were listened to because what they had to say synched up with what the majority already thought” – are somewhat compensated for by his interesting overview of the way in which republicans based much of their opposition to the Treaty on the notion of faith, interpreting their movement religiously as guardians of the soul of the Irish nation.
This created serious tension with the bishops, as some republicans were intent on claiming a spiritual authority for their movement that transcended episcopal authority, resulting in an acrimonious battle of words.
The bishops also had critics within the church: Fr Walter McDonald of Maynooth College, for example, suggested that their claims to moral righteousness provided “a very efficacious shield” to cover their real motive, which was political.
Whatever reluctance existed in the spring of 1922 to target republican opposition publicly had evaporated by October, when a bishops’ pastoral excoriated republicans – “how decent Irish boys could degenerate so tragically” – and justified excommunication and the withholding of absolution.
But republicans had their own strategies in response, including appeals to the Vatican, despite the determination of the republican sympathiser and rector of the Irish College in Rome, John Hagan, whose correspondence is used well here, to keep the Vatican out of Irish politics. The republicans Arthur Clery and Conn Murphy took their appeal directly to Pope Pius XI, and, three months later, Msgr Salvatore Luzio arrived as papal envoy and most bishops and government representatives were extremely hostile to his visitation. Galway's Bishop Tom O'Doherty believed the idea of Luzio as a mediator in pursuit of peace was "ludicrous".
The bishops were also concerned that the real purpose of Luzio’s mission was to lay the ground for a permanent Vatican representation in Ireland, which the bishops were indignant about, given its likely consequences for their much-prized independence.
Luzio referred to “the coolness and suspicion” with which he was received; republicans, in contrast, “thronged to him”, and Luzio recorded his belief that republicans were “more religious” than their opponents. He regarded the appointment by the head of government, William T Cosgrave, of Protestants to the Senate as “incredible in Catholic Ireland”. Cosgrave, for his part, found Luzio’s mission “in the highest degree embarrassing to the government”. His cabinet colleague Desmond FitzGerald was dispatched to Rome to complain, and Luzio was recalled shortly afterwards.
Hunger strikes by republicans and the policy of executions during the Civil War are also given much attention. The author shares the view that the bishop’s public silence about these developments was, as Conn Murphy described it at the time, “an appalling cowardly silence”. Although the archbishop of Dublin, Edward Byrne, objected in private, seeing the executions as “entirely unjustifiable from the moral point of view”, McCabe argues that the general episcopal silence was a simple succumbing to the advantages of realpolitik.
Expediency was also at work in relation to their contradictory stance on Partition. The archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Joseph MacRory, was loath to recognise the northern state but wanted the Free State government to do precisely that. He criticised an oath of allegiance required of public servants in the North but urged acceptance of the oath of allegiance that was part of the Treaty, a settlement he believed could be a stepping stone to ending Partition. The IRA also indulged in convenient compartmentalisation, seeing northern and southern Catholics as different.
MacRory had nothing to say about internees in the Free State but much to say about them in the North. In relation to this, McCabe’s inappropriate partisanship once again lets him down: “It seems a shame that the men interned in the Free State did not enjoy the same level of his support due to political inconvenience.” There is no need for personal expressions of shame about the events he documents.
The book’s conclusions are also questionable. In relation to republicans, it is suggested, “the one thing that seemed to resonate with the masses was the sacredness of their objective and he [Éamon de Valera] gave the crowd what it was looking for”. Who were “the masses” and “the crowd”? What sacred objectives resonated with them, given that de Valera could not build a viable political future with the anti-Treaty IRA and Sinn Féin, which was precisely why he formed Fianna Fáil?
The author is correct in highlighting the significance of the fact that between the end of the Civil War and de Valera’s rise to power, 13 bishops died or retired and their replacements were younger and did not carry the same Civil War baggage. But why does the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 not merit a single mention, given that it enabled Fianna Fáil to move even farther from the fights for “moral superiority” of the Civil War era? This event should have provided the author with a logical point for a conclusion, but logic is too often missing in this book.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. His most recent book, Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s , was published last year by Profile Books.