‘The Tablet and the Irish have often struggled to understand each other’

Despite contributions from Daniel O’Connell to Sean O’Faolain, the English Catholic title’s take on Irish politics and culture has been troubled, admits its literary editor, but now may be time for a new chapter

 

There was just the one letter in the first issue of The Tablet, dated May 16th, 1840, and it touched on Irish affairs. “I am rejoiced to find that the Catholics of Great Britain and Ireland have at length an organ to communicate to the public facts of importance to the religious liberty of all classes.” It concluded, “I have the honour to be, Your obedient servant, Daniel O’Connell, Dublin.”

The founder and first editor of The Tablet was Frederick Lucas, a Quaker convert who was to move the paper from London to Dublin in 1849, and to be elected as the MP for Meath in 1852. O’Connell’s loyalty to Lucas was to survive a job advertisement in an early edition which added the rider, “will not suit … an Irish person”.

Always protective of Irish and of Catholic interests, when Lucas went to Dublin in 1843 to promote sales of the paper he was immediately converted to the cause of Irish self-government. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Clarendon, helpfully denounced The Tablet as “one of the most offensive and virulent newspapers in Europe”. That seemed to promise well for the paper’s profile among the Irish in the troubled years to come, but somehow, The Tablet was never to quite shake off its reputation for being “anti-Irish”. Its owners and editors tended to reflect a general concern of English Catholics to position themselves as reliably loyal to the Crown and to English institutions. This inclined to make them hesitate before endorsing Irish demands for independence from the Empire. The Tablet and the Irish have often struggled to understand each other.

There were literary pages and book reviews in The Tablet from the start, always towards the back, often platforms for opinionated rants of one sort or another, a failing that successive editors have not always succeeded in suppressing. Travel books featured frequently in the first year of publication, history, popular medical books; “a life of Mahomet”; a Trollope was noted, but only his account of a summer in Brittany – very little fiction was thought worth bringing to readers’ attention; and there was the occasional review of a biography of a saint, though hardly any theology or “spirituality”, a notion unheard of in 1840.

A reviewer noted with alarm that “In the literary hubbub of our modern Babylon, shrill female voices are beginning to be heard everywhere around us, asserting their own claims to an improved position in society, and denouncing, with energetic protest, the selfishness and the tyranny of man”.

Having leafed through an illustrated guide to Ireland, another early reviewer complacently reported, “We never knew Ireland so contented, so tranquil, or so likely to become prosperous, as we found it during the autumn of the year 1840”. One imagines he or she (reviews were unsigned) was soon hiding that copy of the paper in a bottom drawer.

Lucas, a natural polemicist, was soon being criticised by both English and Irish bishops for his lack of deference, for “uncharitable and violent language” and for lacking respect for the Holy See. His bishop in London, Nicholas Wiseman – the man with family roots in Waterford who was to become the first Catholic Archbishop of Westminster when the English and Welsh hierarchy was restored in 1850 – wrote to Rome to express his regret at The Tablet’s “personal attacks, foul language, gross abuse, and constant interference in ecclesiastical affairs”.

Lucas was not the last editor to come under episcopal fire, and Wiseman was not the last leader of the Church in England and Wales to have to explain to the Cardinal Secretary of State in Rome that he had no control over what the editor of The Tablet chose to publish.

After a bitter row with Cardinal Cullen, who wanted to keep Irish priests out of politics, while Lucas wanted to encourage them to speak out, the paper resumed publication from London. Lucas died in 1855. In 1868 ownership of the paper he had founded passed to Herbert Vaughan, a Catholic priest of great zeal and energy. It was a time when English Catholic leaders, in spite of a few voices of restraint such as that of John Henry Newman, were determined on being “more Roman than Rome”. And although Cardinal Manning, who had succeeded Wiseman as Archbishop of Westminster 1865, pointed out to Vaughan (who was himself to succeed Manning) that four out of five Catholics in England were Irish, and that many of the remaining fifth were sympathetic to Home Rule for Ireland, under Vaughan and his successor as editor, The Tablet was resolutely conservative and unionist.

The literary pages, already a little patchy, suffered further under clerical control. By the 1920s the reviews were reduced to an occasional “literary supplement”. The editor between 1923 and 1936, Ernest Oldmeadow, a former wine merchant and part-time novelist, contributed brusque suggestions for “New Books to Buy or Borrow or Leave Alone”. In January 1933 he lambasted Black Mischief, the new comic novel by the enfant terrible of English letters, and recent Catholic convert, Evelyn Waugh, for its “coarseness and foulness”. A grand row ensued.

When the paper returned to lay ownership in 1936 the prim and parsonical Oldmeadow was succeeded by the more urbane former Times leader writer Douglas Woodruff, who edited the paper between 1936 and 1967. A wider range of Catholic writers, academics, novelists and poets was recruited to bring some elan to the books pages. Hilaire Belloc enthused, “I have not seen such good reviews anywhere else”. A crossword appeared. £500 was splashed out for the serial rights to G K Chesterton’s autobiography (a sum we’d baulk at coughing up for a book extract today). The next big serialisation – a study of Voltaire by Alfred Noyes – hit a snag when the book was withdrawn from circulation on the orders of the Holy Office. The Tablet was sailing close to the wind again.

Woodruff’s sympathies – and proportions – were Bellocian. He was a “Europe is the Church and the Church is Europe” man. And he was “portly without being gross … he used to come down the aisle like a galleon up an estuary.” But while the cream of English Catholic writing was served up – Belloc and Chesterton, Greene and Waugh, Christopher Dawson, Ronald Knox, Christopher Hollis, E I Watkin and all the rest – Irish Catholic writers were neglected. When Woodruff was casting around for the Catholic literati of the day to ornament the centenary edition, there was not an Irish contributor amongst them.

Graham Greene’s name began to appear in the books pages in 1936, reviewing novels in batches. He was allowed to pick whatever new titles took his fancy. Some of his choices were idiosyncratic. The American novelist John Dos Passos was dismissed as a “heavy-handed Socialist Galsworthy”. When Greene’s friend Tom Burns took over the editor’s chair from Woodruff in 1967, he told him that he thought the paper’s books pages had declined over the years. “It does seem rather a waste of space to give up everything to enthusiastic reviews of Morris West.”

A few years later, Burns published Greene’s stories about a Spanish priest called Father Quixote, inspired by his holiday travels with Father Leopoldo Durán, which were to become the basis of his final novel, Monsignor Quixote.

In 1953 a review of Sean O’Faolain’s South to Sicily had acknowledged the shrewdness of his observations of the Italian approach to religion, morals and politics. “His description of the crush in the Chapel of the Treasure at Naples, attendant on the Miracle of the Blood of St Januarius, the crowd shouting affectionate abuse at the Saint to encourage a more rapid liquefaction; his meeting with Padre Pio, the stigmatic – ‘an ordinary, healthy, grizzled, stoutish, middle-aged, tired-looking man’ – all this leaps visibly from the printed word.”

But it would be idle to claim that The Tablet had been a good encourager of the best of Irish writing. In 1955, a theatre review belatedly recognised Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock as providing “the most poignant moment in twentieth-century drama in English.” Four years later, O’Casey’s Cock-a-doodle Dandy reached the Royal Court Theatre in London, and Maryvonne Butcher went along to see what the fuss was about. “There is little at which any ordinary Catholic could take offence, for the jibes at the Church are so parochial, and so contrived,” she concluded. “The language, of course, is intoxicating.”

In his history of The Tablet marking its 150th anniversary, Michael Walsh described Tom Burns tentatively “building bridges with the Irish, whose problems successive editors since [Lucas’ death] had failed to understand.”

In the St Patrick’s day issue of 1973, O’Faolain contributed a wistful tour d’horizon of contemporary Irish fiction. “The Irish Free State”, he reflected, “was … a hard, bourgeois society, cautious, ambitious, pietistic, puritanical, and not at all interested in such time-wasting activities as the arts.” But O’Faolain reminded readers of some flickers of a literary revival in the 1930s in the work of Frank O’Connor, FR Higgins, Liam O’Flaherty, Peadar O’Donnell, Francis Stuart and Elizabeth Bowen.

Censorship, of course, O’Faolain looked on with horror. “I can now say philosophically, at the age of 73, that it was a silly business … During those crazily patriotic puritanical years I must say that the intellectual climate in Ireland was both foggy and filthy and, as one writer proclaimed, ‘indecent and obscene’. I have the feeling now that none of us at that time was entirely capable of complete sanity, detachment, objectivity, or even good humour.”

O’Faolain praised the work of younger writers Tom Kilroy, Jennifer Johnston, John Banville, John Broderick, Kevin Casey and Aidan Higgins. But The Tablet had failed to draw on any of this talent in its pages. As O’Faolain recognised, most Irish writers would anyway tend to pull back in their shells in alarm at the description “Catholic”, and the best of them might have hesitated to be associated with a “Catholic weekly”, especially one widely regarded in Ireland as quintessentially English.

When at the Vatican Council in the 1960s the Church stopped railing at the world and wondered instead if it might try to have a conversation with it, it was already too late for this generation of Irish writers. O’Faolain wrote of how his friend Frank O’Connor had said a year before he died: “If this thing had only happened when we were young we might all be Catholics today.”

On Irish affairs, editors between Lucas and Burns had tended to lurch between the overly-solicitous, the patronising and the plain ignorant. In spite of having several distinguished Irish correspondents, The Tablet had rarely drawn on the best Irish writing and reporting talent. Yet in its register and values it has a natural affinity with the modern Irish Catholic sensibility. I’ve heard senior figures in the Vatican describe The Tablet as “irritating – but indispensable.” Faithful, but irrepressibly inquisitive; appreciative of Catholicism as a matter of the imagination as much as of the intellect; and with a register that is perhaps closer to that of the thoughtful laity and parish clergy than the bishop’s palace or curial office.

The celebrations for The Tablet’s anniversary include a Thanksgiving Mass at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin celebrated by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on June 7th, as well as the literary festival in Birmingham on June 19th and 20th. The opportunity perhaps to rekindle a friendship between Irish Catholics and The Tablet that began with Daniel O’Connell’s joyful welcome at its birth 175 years ago.

Brendan Walsh is literary editor of The Tablet

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