Cosgrave government blocked O Dalaigh trip to Rome


Canonisation of Oliver Plunkett: A request by president Ó Dálaigh to visit Rome was refused amid concern it would eclipse a visit by taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, writes Joe Humphreys

The Cosgrave government refused president Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh permission to travel to Rome for the canonisation of Oliver Plunkett amid fears of creating a "top-heavy" delegation at the event, newly released files show.

President Ó Dálaigh wrote to taoiseach Liam Cosgrave on March 4th, 1975, requesting permission to travel to the canonisation after receiving an invitation to the event from the primate of all Ireland, cardinal William Conway. However, the request was turned down amid concerns about Northern sensitivities, and whether the visit would eclipse a planned visit by Mr Cosgrave to the same event.

In a letter dated March 20th, and marked "confidential", the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Paul Keating, said the question of whether both Mr Cosgrave and Mr Ó Dálaigh would attend the canonisation "would have to be discussed in cabinet in view of the implications it had in the Irish situation".

"The position is a delicate and awkward one," Mr Keating continued. "It could be argued that his [ the president's] presence has not the same political significance; on the other hand it denotes a much greater national and formal commitment to Catholic sympathies. I do not ['not' is underlined] see how either can go in other than an official capacity."

A subsequent letter - marked "secret" - from Mr Keating to D O'Sullivan, secretary to the Department of the Taoiseach, expressed the view that "the presence of both the taoiseach and the president at the canonisation ceremonies would create too elaborate and top-heavy a delegation".

Mr Keating suggested the taoiseach should go to the event, and the president travel to Rome on some other occasion.

However, in a hand-written note to Mr Cosgrave, Mr O'Sullivan recommended a different course of action. "I think that: (a) The interval of 700 years since the last previous canonisation of an Irishman makes the canonisation of Blessed Oliver an unprecedented occasion in regard to the strength of the delegation.

"(b) Opinion in the 26 counties might rather support a strong delegation and criticise a delegation which did not include president and taoiseach.

"(c) Opinion of six-county Protestants against visiting Rome might be more aroused by two formal visits than by one which would include the president and yourself."

In the end, the taoiseach attended the October canonisation as part of a week-long visit to Rome, while the president stayed at home.

Sensitivity over the matter lingered, however, as was clear by a note attached to a newspaper article criticising Mr Cosgrave's handling of the affair.

Writing in the Sunday Independent in December 1975, the columnist "Wigmore" raised questions in a jocular fashion as to why the president was not at the canonisation. To which a department official replied, in the hand-written note next to the cutting, "What an appalling piece of journalism. Mr Frank Delaney [the writer of the piece] should stick to RTÉ and leave journalism to professionals."

Another file showed that accommodation plans for Mr Cosgrave were altered a fortnight before his visit to Rome because of security concerns. Mr Cosgrave had been due to stay in a room at the Irish embassy facing on to a public park near the Spanish embassy in Rome, which had been the target of protests against the Franco regime.

A report by a Garda superintendent, who made an advance inspection of the site, said the accommodation posed a security risk as "the Spanish embassy is under paramilitary guard and large-scale demonstrations can be anticipated following the execution of guerrillas in Spain". In the event of violence erupting, "the suite originally selected for An Taoiseach could prove very dangerous", the report read.

The files also revealed that the Vatican had sought to assure both the Irish and British governments that there was no political or "ulterior" motive in deciding to canonise the martyred Irishman Plunkett.

The Irish ambassador in Rome, Gerard Woods, reported that the Vatican had "anxieties that the elevation would be seen in some quarters as the culmination of history in Blessed Oliver's career and thus some would say he was being canonised to acquit the injustice of his martyrdom".

Mr Woods said a monsignor in the Vatican had sought to assure him that "canonisations have nothing to do with timing or relevance", and that the Vatican had expressed his view to the British government too.