Diarmaid Ferriter: Bishop Casey – activist and sexist hypocrite
Former Bishop of Kerry was a highly compartmentalised man in his 1970s heyday
Along with his mitre, Bishop Eamonn Casey wore many other hats during his career. He was said to have been perturbed when appointed a young bishop of Kerry in 1969, probably worried about how he would combine what was expected of a prince of the Catholic Church with his favoured style of the broth of a boy.
He found a way to manage that, toeing the line when needed – “One cannot pick and choose when it comes to the church’s teaching,” he insisted – but also becoming a political thorn in many sides by consistently giving meaning to one of his favourite contentions: “One powerful single voice is more important and effective than a number of voices, each of which is in competition with the other for both the public purse and public attention.”
Much good came of that voice. In 1971, he masterminded a national collection in support of Irish welfare centres in Britain that raised £280,000 in a single day. This type of fundraising was convenient for governments that were reluctant to take any responsibility for the Irish abroad, it being noted in 1975 by the minister for foreign affairs that emigrant welfare work was “mainly a Catholic Church effort”. It was thus decided State funding was not justified and, in response, Casey excoriated the government.
When not championing emigrant welfare he was vocal about poverty, suggesting in 1971 that “even a respectable church” had to speak out on social justice. As chairman of Trocáire from 1973, he was again a frequent critic of governments. He insisted in 1977 that the government “was not genuinely committed to aiding the development of the third world” and that official aid was “paltry”.
In 1978, Alex Tarbett, the executive director of Concern, wrote a private letter to taoiseach Jack Lynch expressing concern at Casey’s “rather intemperate attack on your government . . . I presume that you do know that Bishop Casey’s political feelings would not be disposed towards Fianna Fáil. ” In 1979, Casey denounced the government’s “meagre” response to the Indo-Chinese crisis and its slowness to act, calling on it to accept more refugees.
Such was his profile and ego that he was often lampooned. Hibernia magazine reported in 1974 that “since being made Bishop of Kerry, Casey has built up a reputation for fast cars and frequent absences from his diocese; a child in catechism class once said that the difference between God and Bishop Casey is that while God is everywhere, Bishop Casey is everywhere except in Kerry”.
By that stage, of course, he had other things on his mind; he had met Annie Murphy the previous year. In the 1993 book Forbidden Fruit, Murphy recalled their lovemaking: “There stood the bishop, my love, without clerical collar or crucifix or ring, without covering of any kind. The great showman had unwrapped himself . . . He stood before me, his only uniform the common flesh of humanity . . . I witnessed a great hunger. This was an Irish famine of the flesh.”
More importantly, he subsequently fathered a son, Peter, with Murphy and tried unsuccessfully to pressure her into giving him up for adoption: “He is not my son. He’s entirely yours now,” he told her. Murphy was forced to spend time at the St Patrick’s mother-and-baby home in Dublin. Murphy remembered “there were smirking pictures of Mary who had got a child without you-know-what and life-sized bleeding statues of the Sacred Heart . . . One heavily pregnant girl was on her knees shining the already shiny corridor tiles . . . Eamonn began again with his demand that I give Peter up.”
Casey had a remarkable ability to compartmentalise, and alongside his noble and productive social agitation, his sexism and profound hypocrisy persisted. In 1975 he was vocal about the importance of Cherish, the organisation established to support unmarried mothers whose chairperson, Maura O’Dea, estimated there was a 60 per cent rejection rate by the families of Irish women who were pregnant outside of marriage.
Casey became a patron of Cherish, and had this to say about the problem of rejected unmarried mothers in his address to the organisation’s 1975 conference: “If the parents could only be got to act in a sympathetic and responsible manner, the hurt to many an unmarried mother and her child could be greatly lessened. The bitterness resulting from rejection has caused permanent damage to many a girl.
“It is difficult to understand how the total rejection of their child . . . could be reconciled with Christian love and forgiveness . . . Instead of discriminating negatively against such an innocent person ought we not to consider the real handicap in the child’s life where the natural father is not there to fulfil his vital role in his child’s development in every level? Ought we not immediately agree that a child with such a disadvantage to be the ideal subject of positive discrimination? Ought it not be cherished more than the others?”
That was the busy Bishop Casey of the 1970s. You couldn’t make him up.