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.”

This assertion, which sums up so much of McQuaid’s mission in life, was not a directive Éamon de Valera was prepared to countenance. But in relation to McQuaid’s draft memorandum on authority, his passage on the repudiation of the IRA in its violent quest for Irish unity, including the assertion that “the claim to choose such means can never be substantiated by an appeal to the fact or conditions of Easter Week 1916” was later used, verbatim, by de Valera in a radio broadcast condemning the IRA in 1940.


Far too much of the chapter on education is taken up with repetitive and tedious correspondence – much of it not from McQuaid – about his assertion that mixed-gender athletics was a social and moral abuse, and is followed by a completely unrelated section on the Irish Committee of Historical Sciences. In the chapter on medicine, his correspondence with the archbishop of Dublin, Edward Byrne, when McQuaid was headmaster at Blackrock College, reveals his opposition to a proposal to merge St Ultan’s infants’ hospital with Harcourt Street hospital to become a large children’s hospital. (St Ultan’s was established in 1919 by the doctor and political activist Kathleen Lynn, the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman, though the reader is not told this.) He referred to Thomas Moorhead as “the venomous spearhead of the masonic opposition”, a typical, viciously expressed McQuaid smear. There is no explanation from the editors of who Moorhead was (a Trinity College Dublin physician), and unfortunately this is the case in relation to most of the characters the correspondence relates to.

McQuaid’s fawning attitude to the judiciary is apparent; he wrote in 1953 about “a Catholic member of the judiciary, very highly placed, of the highest integrity and gifted with vision that has often amazed me”. Regarding the republican movement, in 1951 McQuaid poured cold water on the suggestion from an IRA veteran that copies of the 1916 Proclamation should be presented to schools in Dublin. He noted with satisfaction, in another typical McQuaidism, that the initiator of this proposal, when rebuked, “received the reply very submissively”.

There was, however, another McQuaid apparent in the 1960s, a man somewhat under siege and furious with the growing interest in ecumenical gestures in light of Vatican II reforms. (There is no reference, of course, to Francis Carty’s 2007 book, Hold Firm: John Charles McQuaid and the Second Vatican Council.) His correspondence with the Jesuit Roland Burke Savage is delightful and nearly playful as Savage provoked his ire by trying to stitch him into ecumenical meetings against his will: “I take Your Grace’s thunderbolt in my stride . . . I know that you are at your best in dealing with people who have put a foot astray.” McQuaid eventually forgave him: “I have long since forgotten. Have a proper holiday.” But he was not prepared in 1968 to forgive what he called “the confusion here among upper-class Catholics”. This was in relation to the notion, as the bishop of Cork, Cornelius Lucey, expressed it in a letter to him, that “any one religion is as good as another”.

In the last few pages the editors offer what they maintain is a conclusion, but it is nothing of the sort; it is a six-page regurgitation of Lenten regulations from the diocese of Dublin in 1949 and 1971. What it amounts to is a lazy end to a woefully inadequate book.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.