Lemass considered the possibility of divorce legislation


SEAN Lemass contemplated the possibility of divorce legislation in 1965. In a September letter to the then Minister for Justice, the late Brian Lenihan, he raised the question of the Vatican Council decree on religious liberty and whether it called for government action on divorce.

"Do the provisions of the council decree oblige or permit us to change the law so as to allow divorce and remarriage for those of our citizens whose religion tolerates it?"

There was no great hurry, he told Lenihan, but asked him to "institute informal consultations with some members of the hierarchy" to get their views on the decree's implications.

Since most of the bishops were in Rome, Lenihan undertook informal talks with the Chancellor of the Dublin Archdiocese, Mgr Gerard Sheehy. Mgr Sheehy made it clear he spoke not only for himself but for "others", which Lenihan took to mean Archbishop McQuaid.

The message was stark: "There would be violent opposition from the hierarchy to any proposal to allow divorce in the State." He was adamant that divorce did not affect the question of religious liberty. As for the usefulness of informal discussions between the Minister and the archbishop, he said: "Such an approach would not achieve anything."

The file ends with an understated handwritten note from Lenihan: "In view of the above, there would not appear to be much point in pushing the matter any further."

For connoisseurs of clerical politics, there are some particular nuggets in this year's release, especially in the files from the Vatican. The most spectacular is the case of Mgr Panico, apostolic delegate in Australia in the 1940s and who had managed to alienate the entire Irish section of the Catholic Church there, in particular Archbishop Mannix, one of De Valera's closest friends and supporters.

Panico, by most accounts, was not a particularly admirable character. Worldly and greedy, and had, according to his enemies it must be said, amassed a personal fortune, had favoured former Italian fascists, especially wealthy ones, had filled the Australian episcopate with his cronies and had excluded all Irish born clerics from preferment.

These were just some of the charges and, before long, the Irish Ambassador, T.J. Kiernan, was involved. So too was the Irish minister at the Vatican, J.P. Walshe. Walshe lobbied vigorously, first to persuade Archbishop Montini to get Panico out of Australia and then, with growing urgency, to prevent him being appointed to Ireland. The file makes for hilarious reading, especially when De Valera became involved and the wily Panico tried to use the even wilier Taoiseach as a pawn in his game.

Eventually Panico was sent to Peru, and thence to Portugal but he retained his ambition to become Nuncio to Ireland, even though according to Kiernan, he had "a certain contempt for Ireland as a country intellectually backward".

Another Vatican file throws interesting light on British influence there. Their minister, Sir Marcus Checke, objected that Vatican radio's English language programmes were run by Irishmen, even if they were Jesuits.

The ambassador called in the Jesuit in question and apparently behaved rudely to him. Even more significantly, he was annoyed that "a priest with an Irish accent was acting as interpreter for the Pope".

This, of course, was Father Tom Ryan, later Bishop of Clonfert, and it is clear from the many files that he enjoyed a position of real influence in Pope John's entourage, which greatly satisfied the Irish Embassy and enraged the British.

The British even arranged a private audience with the Pope for William Teeling MP, "and suggested to him that if Mgr Ryan was introduced as interpreter, he ought to ask for someone else because of Mgr Ryan's Irish accent." Mr Teeling, however, had no problems - not alone did he like the Irish accent but his wife was Irish. Earlier files show this hostility to have been a permanent feature of British policy at the Vatican, though rarely stooping to such a petty level.