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Diarmaid Ferriter: Church’s insecurity during Civil War set in train its move toward authoritarianism

Clergy were unsure about their role in a state born out of violence and racked by divisions, so they built a culture of obedience and deference

Throughout the recent years of commemoration of Ireland’s revolutionary decade, there has been little sustained attention given to the role of the Catholic Church during that period and its response to the turmoil and violence. Historian Brian Heffernan’s 2014 book, Freedom and the Fifth Commandment, was a notable exception, charting the reaction of Catholic priests to the war of independence.

There were certainly denunciations of violence from the pulpit, but most clergy sought to avoid becoming publicly involved in controversy. While tensions between bishops and priests and between older, more conservative clerics and their younger, republican-minded counterparts were apparent, those clerics who supported Sinn Féin did not automatically support the IRA’s campaign.

Archbishop of Tuam Thomas Gilmartin suggested a priest could have views about politics but should not “take an aggressive part on either side, because we belong to you [the parishioners] and you are all belonging to us”. The delicate balancing act crumbled during the Civil War. Heffernan’s book ends before the Civil War but he observed that, “for the conservatives, the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 was equivalent to the reaching of dry ground again”. It was an important turning point, and the bishops embraced the opportunity to be more assertive, with consequences that were enduring and remain relevant to this day.

This week 100 years ago, the Catholic hierarchy issued a pastoral letter denouncing the anti-Treaty republican campaign during the Civil War and insisting on obedience to the authority of the State. Individual bishops had been vocal in support of the Treaty and in April 1922 the Hierarchy’s standing committee decried those in the IRA who claimed the right to be independent of civil authority, accusing them of an “immoral usurpation” of the people’s rights.


But the timing and content of the October pastoral were even more significant given that, the previous month, an emergency powers act had been introduced by the government empowering military courts to impose the death penalty for a number of offences. Before it came into operation, the government offered an amnesty for republicans if they laid down arms and the publication of the pastoral coincided with this. It condemned the republican campaign as “only a system of murder and assassination of the National Forces,” and pointedly used the pro-Treaty propaganda term “irregular” to describe the republicans and their “demoralisation of the young whose minds are being poisoned by false principles”.

The pastoral also denied those Catholics involved in the republican campaign absolution in Confession or admission to Holy Communion.

The republicans, themselves no slouches when it came to claims of moral righteousness, and too dismissive of public opinion, fumed. Éamon de Valera protested to the Vatican about the politicisation of the hierarchy. The protest words of Frank Gallagher, a devout, interned republican, scorched the pages of his open letter to Catholic archbishop of Dublin Edward Byrne: the bishops, he insisted, were exhibiting “partisan excess”, using the sacraments “as a political weapon” and peddling “grotesque untruth”. The pastoral emboldened the government and executions of republicans began the following month, to public muteness from the bishops.

For all the piety and obedience on display in subsequent decades, some republicans never forgave the bishops and harboured deep resentments towards them. More importantly, the events and temper of 1922 had long-term implications for church power and attitudes that we do not consider enough. The pastoral did not halt violence. The historian Deirdre McMahon has astutely observed that the depth of republican hostility “with its potential for anticlericalism shocked many in the clergy and the hierarchy. In the years after the Civil War the bishops’ pastorals were full of gloomy, doom-laden pronouncements about the inherent sinfulness of the people and the need for constant vigilance against threatening influences which might corrupt them.”

‘Volatile and unstable’

We are long accustomed to the idea of a remarkably powerful and triumphalist Catholic Church from the 1920s onwards, but what is also noteworthy, maintains McMahon, is that “the Church was, in fact, deeply insecure about its role in a new state which had been born out of violence, a violence, moreover, which had revealed how volatile and unstable its flock could be”.

Consequently, it doubled down, and expanded the sense of what constituted transgression, disobedience and sinfulness with ramifications for those, especially women, deemed to be responsible for the scourge of moral laxity. Its concerns, as revealed by the pastoral a century ago, were the “moral and religious issues at stake” during the Civil War, because “Ireland has become a humiliation... disgraceful”.

In seeking to react to that and bolster its authority in a new state racked by political division, it sought to build discipline, obedience and deference around what over 90 per cent of the population of the new state shared: the Catholic faith. But in doing that so forcefully, it also created its own brands of humiliation, with profound and damaging consequences.