An Irishman’s Diary on the long shadow of ‘Humanae Vitae’

The Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, swept into the room full of journalists with an air of quiet triumph. Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul's encyclical rejecting artificial birth control, had just been published in Rome and – although the full text was not yet available in Dublin – the archbishop had arranged what was to be one of the most extraordinary press conferences I had ever attended, at which the encyclical was presented to the Irish media.

He exited the room as regally as he had entered, leaving the organisation of the meeting to his press officer, the former Irish Independent journalist Osmond Dowling (the first press officer to be appointed by any Irish bishop), and the explanation of the encyclical to the professor of moral theology at Maynooth, Msgr PF Cremin, member of a brilliant Kerry family, and brother of Con Cremin, one of the most high-profile Irish diplomats of his era at the UN.

I reported that press conference in The Irish Times of July 30th, 1968, but the bare text of that news report did little justice to the national and international sense of shock that greeted the encyclical, preceded as it had been by no fewer than two papal commissions which had come to a different conclusion, and had raised huge expectations.

It is difficult, at this remove, to explain to a modern readership the shockwaves that rippled outwards from Rome in the days and weeks that followed. Maynooth itself went virtually into meltdown. Senior theologians there held their fire. One of them wisely departed on a fishing trip to a remote Munster river where, in the days before mobile phones, he remained conveniently unreachable.


It was several months before the redoubtable editor of the Maynooth-based Furrow, Canon JG McGarry, published an issue containing a number of articles on the encyclical which navigated skilfully between the Scylla of lip-service and the Charybdis of outright rejection.

If you changed the law on contraception, he warned dramatically, homosexuality, abortion and worse would follow

Ultimately, if Humanae Vitae had been intended to end the debate, it had the opposite effect.

The sense of shock at that press conference would have been even greater if we had been aware that Dr Cremin, at an earlier period, had been a secret adviser to Dr Noel Browne at the height of the Mother and Child controversy, when the theologian had been transported from Maynooth and back by ministerial car late at night for private meetings at which he gave Browne his advice and support. I asked Cremin about this many years later, when interviewing him for my book on Noel Browne. He replied disarmingly: “If it was all right in Northern Ireland, why was it wrong down here?”

Ultimately, of course, it wasn’t the encyclical, or the controversy it evoked, which led to a change in Irish law, but the McGee case in the High Court, where Donal Barrington argued successfully that preventing Mrs Mary McGee, whose life would be endangered by a further pregnancy, from importing contraceptives by post, was an impermissible interference with her constitutional right to life.

The government was in an impossible position. The weight of Catholic episcopal opinion, and indeed of political opinion, was against any change in the law.

At a press conference in Maynooth after Mary Robinson and I and Trevor West had unsuccessfully tabled a private member’s Bill in the Seanad to repeal the 1935 prohibition on contraceptives, Cardinal Conway gave dramatic expression to his favourite domino theory. If you changed the law on contraception, he warned dramatically, homosexuality, abortion and worse would follow.

It was several years later before a future minister, Barry Desmond, cleaned up the whole tawdry mess

Mary Robinson, in particular, suffered for her courage, having to deal with – among other things – excrement sent to her by post. While this initiative did not affect her subsequent vote in the Dublin University Seanad election of 1973, my own NUI Seanad seat was saved only by transfers from Prof John O’Meara and – in his first election – Pat Rabbitte, then head of the Union of Students in Ireland

But the law was then effectively changed by the court, and without further legislation there would have been no curb of any kind on contraception. The then-minister for health, Charles J Haughey, had the unenviable task of drafting a new law to give minimalist expression to the court’s decision, which he achieved by restricting the availability of contraceptives to married couples. It was several years later before a future minister, Barry Desmond, cleaned up the whole tawdry mess.

When the Haughey Bill was introduced, the Labour Party – itself riven on the issue – had decided to oppose the second stage of the Bill (and conceal its own internal divisions) on the pseudo-technical basis that it was irreformable. This meant that it had an excuse for not offering any amendments. It was therefore left to Noel Browne to put down a series of amendments, which he duly did.

However, his own somewhat sketchy acquaintance with parliamentary procedure meant that he never called a vote on any of his own amendments. If he had, neither Barry Desmond nor I, who were vocally critical of the bill in the Dáil, would have been able to support him in a division.

At one point, I accused the minister of enjoying himself as he rejected yet another Browne amendment. Haughey turned his basilisk eye on me. “If the Deputy thinks I am enjoying myself”, he remarked coldly, “he is very much mistaken.”