In 1941 Ernest Tilson, a Protestant Dublin Corporation worker, married Mary Barnes, a Roman Catholic. They went on to have four children. “The union has not been altogether happy” as Mr Justice Gavan Duffy understated it in the High Court. In April 1950 Tilson deposited three of the children in a Protestant children’s home, claiming that under Catholic canon law and Ne Temere he had been forced to agree that they be raised as Catholics. But perhaps there was a rather more material reason. Tilson had been summonsed for neglecting his family, and the support payments represented a substantial proportion of his salary; the Supreme Court suggested that placing the children in the home was “an ingenious” way of avoiding his financial obligations.
Mrs Tilson sought their return and the High Court gave judgment in her favour. The president of the court appeared to ground his ruling on the 1937 constitutional “special position” of the Roman Catholic Church and it was interpreted as enshrining Ne Temere in Irish jurisprudence. On appeal, the original judgment was upheld, but the Supreme Court subtly changed its basis. It found that the Tilsons had entered into a contract to bring up the children as Catholics and that neither party could unilaterally abrogate that contract, establishing the principle that parents “have a joint power and duty in respect of the religious education of their children” and the legal equality of the sexes in guardianship matters.
Jameson is critical of the overt and covert Catholicism in the legal judgments and how it influenced the judges’ attitudes. In that regard, northern unionists who interpreted the case as embedding the Catholic Church’s canon law in Irish jurisprudence may not have been too wide of the mark. This significant and forensic book shows how much more complex the case was, and how powerful church interests (both Protestant and Catholic) used the hapless Tilsons to argue what values should govern post-1937-constitution Ireland — as Jameson shows, the dark shadow of Archbishop McQuaid is never far away.
But behind the court cases, and high-powered expensive lawyers lay a story about relationships, sad humanities and little dreary domestic dramas; in the end, it is good to know that in later years the Tilson family got back together again.