Sex, lies and horsewhipping boys: a history of clerical cover-ups

Church and state combined to bully the Irish media into submission, as this extract from The Fourth Estate: Journalism in Twentieth-Century Ireland reveals

Eamon de Valera kisses the ring of  the Archbishop of Dublin, Edward Joseph Byrne  at the Vice Regal Lodge, Phoenix Park, Dublin, in 1933. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Eamon de Valera kisses the ring of the Archbishop of Dublin, Edward Joseph Byrne at the Vice Regal Lodge, Phoenix Park, Dublin, in 1933. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

 

In one of the few self-critical reflections on journalism in mid-twentieth century Ireland, journalist Michael O’Toole observed that up to the 1960s journalists were generally “a docile lot, anxious to please the proprietor, the advertiser, the prelate, the statesman”. The era was, he argued, characterised by “an unhealthy willingness to accept the prepared statement, the prepared speech, and the handout without demanding the opportunity of asking any searching questions by way of follow-up”.

There were many reasons for this. The Censorship of Publications Act had hobbled journalism by curtailing reportage of certain types of court cases; poor pay and employment conditions along with low educational levels among journalists hampered the development of journalism as a viable career; and strict censorship during the second World War, as one journalist put it, “had an effect on both the press and the public for some years after”. As a result, many of the more unpleasant aspects of life in newly independent Ireland were, for many decades, kept out of the public arena.

It is a tradition in Dublin newspapers not to exploit personal scandals, however juicy the news. You can call that anything you like – Hush-Hush, Cowardice, Prudery, Decency

Writing in 1941 Seán O’Faolain noted that “it is a tradition in Dublin newspapers not to exploit personal scandals, however juicy the news. You can call that anything you like – Hush-Hush, Cowardice, Prudery, Decency . . . Whether the thing is good or bad it is an instructive approach to standards of behaviour in Journalism”.

Independent Newspapers editorial department in 1935. Photograph: NPA/Independent Newspapers Collection
Independent Newspapers editorial department in 1935. Photograph: NPA/Independent Newspapers Collection

Unsurprisingly, given their institutional power, court cases involving Catholic priests were an absolute no-go area for the press. In 1941 a High Court case in which two schoolboys sued one of their teachers, Rev John Kearney, was completely ignored by the Irish press but received sustained coverage in the British press. As reported in the Daily Mirror, the boys alleged that “Fr Kearney had forced them to strip and gave them each twenty lashes with a loaded sporting whip”. The description of the assault left nothing to the imagination: the student was “was told to take off his coat and trousers, and even his shirt was pulled up by Fr Kearney. He was told to get across a chair, and received nearly twenty fierce lashes with the whip. He called for mercy, but none was shown. Then he had to witness the same horrible exhibition of cruelty. Later he was expelled.”

In the priest’s defence, it was stated that “the flogging was decided on at a meeting of the college staff and Fr Kearney was directed to administer it”. While he had “demurred at first it was in the course of his duty as a priest and professor that he carried out his most distasteful duty”. In his direct evidence, Kearney denied that the punishment was excessive, though he admitted that he had used a hunting crop to beat the boys.

The following day’s headline in the Daily Mirror – “Flogged boys: priest wins” – was succinct but telling. Summing up the verdict, Justice Martin Maguire declared that “it had been established that the boys got what was a common case of a severe beating” and while objection had been taken to the horsewhip “it was more humane than a cane, being less liable to cause a break in the skin”.

Despite the clear public interest no Irish newspaper reported on the case. Even that most independent of journals, The Bell, encountered difficulty reporting it. In a letter to Frank O’Connor, Seán O’Faolain wrote of the journal’s printer blocking his open letter to then minister for justice Gerry Boland, the banning of a radio debate on education, Boland inviting him into his office for a “talk”, the mixture of promise and threat in Boland’s remarks, and his hopes (unsuccessful) of mentioning the flogging incident in The Bell.

The same self-censorship applied when, in 1943, a case of criminal conversation involving a priest was heard in the High Court. Again, the British press, in the guise of the Daily Mirror, led the way with sustained coverage when it reported how a Co Longford solicitor, Bernard Connolly, was suing Rev Thomas O’Connell for having slept with his wife. Even by today’s standards the case, heard before the president of the High Court, Justice Conor Maguire, was a sensational one.

It was alleged Fr O’Connell had stalked and hypnotised Mrs Connolly [and then] took her to a Dublin hotel and there debauched her. On the following day he took her to Bray and had illicit intercourse with her

It was alleged that Fr O’Connell had “stalked and hypnotised Mrs Connolly [and then] took her to a Dublin hotel and there debauched her. On the following day he took her to Bray and had illicit intercourse with her.” Shortly after Mr Connolly found out about the affair, Mrs Connolly announced she was pregnant. In her evidence, Mrs Connolly stated that Fr O’Connell had told her that “a priest could tell by looking at a person what sins the person was capable of committing, and that the only sin he would be capable of committing would be birth control”. She also stated that they later met in a Dublin hotel where they slept together and he told her he loved her. In later evidence, she stated that “the idea of a priest guilty of adultery going off to say Mass the next morning should have appalled her, but it did not”; she had been “swept off her feet by Fr O’Connell and he could have done anything”.

President de Valera kisses the ring of Cardinal Conway
President de Valera kisses the ring of Cardinal Conway

Fr Connolly’s solicitor stated that he denied “every charge and foul imputation made against him” and noted that British and Northern Ireland newspapers had given the case “so much publicity against the church”. In his direct evidence, Fr O’Connell stated that Mrs Connolly had told him that her husband was “the grandest in the world if he would keep off the drink” and that the invitation to travel to Dublin had come from her. They had stayed in the same hotel “so that he might help her with her religious difficulties” and that evening they had merely “said the Rosary together”. Again, no national title reported on the case and the provincial title most likely to report on the case, the Longford Leader, also ignored it.

A favourite occupation in every news-room is the writing of imaginary headlines for religious news, headlines which, of course, could never be printed

The acquiescent relationship that the press had with the church was neatly summed up in a report presented to Archbishop McQuaid in 1963 by his “public image committee”. It noted that “many journalists believe that the Church enjoys a special protection from criticism in the editorial and letter columns of newspapers\ [and] believe that the clergy enjoy an immunity from unfavourable reports even in instances where the clergy figure as citizens rather than as priests, eg in breaking the law. It is well known among journalists that certain newspapers have a policy of keeping off issues in which the Church may be involved”. The report identified “the intervention of ecclesiastical authority” as the reason for this self-censorship: editors and newspaper proprietors were, the report concluded, “so afraid of falling foul of the hierarchy and clergy that they always play safe”. It also wryly observed that “a favourite occupation in every news-room is the writing of imaginary headlines for religious news, headlines which, of course, could never be printed”.

In a later report, the same committee identified television as a threat to the power of the church. The new medium gave “a new and powerful platform to many people who never had it in the Press” and implied that while the church would seek to influence reportage in the press it would have greater difficulty in curtailing current affairs programming that featured contributions from a wide variety of people. This new situation meant that “a small group, who tend to be very critical of the Church in Ireland, are having a much greater impact on public opinion through the medium of television than was ever done previously.” While prescient, it would take years for this process to have a real effect.

In the 1970s a new generation of journalists cut their teeth on publications such as In Dublin, Hot Press, and Magill that spoke to a distinct demographic – the generation that had grown up in post-protectionist Ireland, that had been afforded the opportunity of free secondary education, that had involved itself in a re-invigorated student movement, that had benefited from an expanding third-level sector and a reduction of the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen-years-of-age, and that was coming of age in an Ireland that no longer recognised the “special position” of the Catholic Church.

Whether they were explaining pop music or police brutality, the magazines brought, for the first time to Irish journalism, a thing called attitude

As one journalist put it, “whether they were explaining pop music or police brutality, the magazines brought, for the first time to Irish journalism, a thing called attitude” . . . [as]. . . a new generation of writers began to deal with issues in ways that defied the journalistic handbooks.” As the 1980s unfolded this new generation of journalists migrated to the national press and brought their attitude with them – as evidenced in the bruising culture wars of the 1980s – the sacking of teacher Eileen Flynn (1982), the insertion of an anti-abortion clause into the Constitution (1983), the Anne Lovett affair (1984), the Kerry Babies saga (1985), family planning legislation (1985) and the referendum on divorce (1986).

It was, in many ways a stark generational clash. This new generation of journalists had a very different perspective on church-media relations, best summed up by one journalist who observed that “journalism operates on the assumption that almost nothing is known, that everything has to be found out [while] the church operates on the opposite assumption: that everything that matters in known, has been revealed to us, and needs only to be interpreted correctly and acted upon.”

It was a decade in which the hierarchy sought in vain to counter this new journalistic criticality: the period is littered with denouncements of the press by the hierarchy – such as in 1983 when then Bishop of Kerry Kevin McNamara criticised the manner in which “certain topics . . . are regarded as suitable topics for chat shows on radio and TV, in which speakers of little or no qualifications parade with confidence the most varying and contradictory opinions”.

he had witnessed “one of the worst of the Christian Brothers break[ing] into the office of the manager and demand[ing] that a court case that mentioned Artane should not be used”

But it was not until RTÉ broadcast Mary Raftery’s State of Fear documentaries in 1999, which featured the vivid testimony of those who had been incarcerated in the industrial schools, that Ireland finally began to face its past. The impotence of the press in the early decades of the State was eloquently acknowledged by former editor of the Evening Herald, Brian Quinn, who admitted that journalists had had “their suspicions of the industrial schools” and knew that certain orders had a “reputation for excessive corporal punishment”. He also recounted how he had witnessed “one of the worst of the Christian Brothers break[ing] into the office of the manager and demand[ing] that a court case that mentioned Artane should not be used”.

Journalists, he believed, “should have tried harder to find out the real truth” but ultimately, such was the culture of the time journalists “would not have been believed and managements and editors would never have held out against a massed attack by the all-powerful Irish Catholic Church”. It was amid such a culture that Irish society and its journalism had tolerated what Quinn referred to as “the edifice of lies and evasion that flourished for so long”.

But no more: by the beginning of the 21st century the relationship between Irish society and its political and religious institutions – and between journalism and those institutions – had undergone a remarkable transformation that is, in the digital age, still unfolding.
The Fourth Estate: Journalism in Twentieth-Century Ireland by Mark O’Brien (Manchester University Press) is launched today at the 1838 Club, Dublin City University, at 6pm by special guest Emily O’Reilly, European Ombudsman. It will be reviewed in The Irish Times on Saturday, May 6th, by Eamon Dunphy

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