Saturday, December 15, 2007

Towards a New Theocracy?

Catholic Ireland's dead and gone,
it's with John Charles in the grave.

I have just finished reading two books.

The first is a book I read in college many years ago. It was a sort of a banned book. You needed a licence to read it (yes, in a university — a Catholic university, that is). It was called "The Irish and Catholic Power" and was an intellectual "Catholic Irish for Dummies".

It was written by Paul Blanshard, partly in response to an assertion that the Ireland of its day represented the perfect marriage between the civil power and the Roman Catholic Church, and partly as a means of explaining their Irish Catholic heritage to Irish Catholic Americans.

For those of us brought up in the repressive and closed atmosphere of Ireland in the fifties and early sixties, it was a shocking read, and while I found it an education, I was not impressed by what I took to the be the author's style of bitter diatribe.

On a recent re-read I was, on the contrary, very taken with its restrained presentation and the academic robustness of its argument.

And the banning? Well the book was available in the University library but was kept in a special location and to get hold of it you needed a letter from your tutor stating your "bona fide" reasons for needing to consult it as part of your studies. Thank you Maurice Manning.

Incidentally, the copy I acquired recently originally belonged to the library of the Southern State Teachers College, Springfield, South Dakota. They seem to have acquired it in 1955 and it was in circulation (once every few years) until 1975 when it appears to have been withdrawn. Whether this was from lack of sufficient demand to warrant the storage space or whether there was any other ulterior motive involved I don't know. That institution has since been assimilated into the University of South Dakota, but enquiries to that source have so far elicited no response.

The second book is a biography of "John Charles McQuaid - Ruler of Catholic Ireland". John Charles was Archbishop (RC) of Dublin from 1940 to 1972 and by far the most influential Irish churchman in this period as he strove, by hook or by crook, to mould Irish society to his image of Christian living. It is written by John Cooney, a former religious correspondent with the Irish Times. It draws extensively on the recently released papers of John Charles himself. It is a gripping read, at least for those of us who lived through this period, and you can sense the author just barely keeping his temper in check throughout the book.

I did not set out to read these two books together. I decided recently to try and get a copy of Blanshard and re-read it to see what would be my reaction from the perspective of today when so much has moved on and so much has stayed the same. Then a priest cousin of mine, who was reading Cooney's book, expressed surprise at how all-pervasive had been John Charles's control of Irish society during his Archbishopric.

Reading these two books close to one another really brought me back to the fifties and sixties. You can very easily forget how repressive things were then, particularly as we have now swung, probably a bit too far, in the opposite direction.

The Nation

To understand the background, you must remember that the Irish, or at least a certain influential proportion of them, have long considered themselves an oppressed race and most, if not all, of their woes and deficiencies were the fault of the English oppressors. Being the first country to achieve independence from within the British Empire (1921) was no mean feat and shaped the Irish psyche from then on. That this independence was intially only partial and that it provoked a bitter civil war is neither here nor there. The main point is that we were newly independent and the psyche was delicate and prone to paranoia.

The second thing to remember is the role of the Catholic Church in all of this. While the institutional church frequently condemned Irish rebels to hellfire, particularly if it saw them as a threat to its own position, the church on the ground was, more often than not, sympathetic to the rebels and at times even led the revolution. So there was a strong identity, and coincidence of interests, between nationalism and catholicism.

No surprise then that the State, when set up, was Irish and Catholic. What is surprising is the extent to which these two strands were interwoven, the repressive and stunting effect this had on Irish society and the self confidence of the nation, and the ruthlessness with which the Catholic Church set out to exterminate all other religions and enshrine Catholic teaching in the law of the land.

You can't help thinking "Sharia" as you read these books and you would have to admire the sheer diabolical efficiency of the Church which succeeded, for a considerable period, in moulding Irish society to the dictates of Rome and the "informed" Catholic conscience. I have already touched on this theme in an earlier post.

These books are recommended reading for all budding Ayatollahs. This is how it's done lads.

The Protestants

What really shocked me on reading these books from today's perspective was the sheer ruthlessness with which John Charles set about exterminating the Protestants. That this extermination was of the religion rather than the people themselves makes the word no less appropriate. Protestants were, after all, heretics, mired in subversive error and a blot on the nation's newly polished escutcheon. You (me, a Catholic) were almost not allowed to talk to them for fear they would contaminate your faith. You were forbidden, on pain of mortal sin (eternal hellfire), to debate religion with them (except to convert them and then you needed another licence), or to enter their churches, or to attend their services (including your next door neighbour's funeral). Like the state in the final triumphant phase of communism they were supposed to wither away, and wither away most of them did. Had they been ethnics this would have been ethnic cleansing on a grand scale. And don't mention the Jews. Having crucified Christ what could they hope for from this new theocratic state?

The Catholics

Some Catholics stood out against this. For the most part these were literary people and were banned, and banned again, for their trouble. John Charles was effectively a co-author of the 1937 Constitution though he did not always get his way and on occasions de Valera either ignored him or defused his point with a gesture. But, make no mistake, this was a Catholic Constitution for a Catholic people. It enshrined the "special position of the Catholic Church" in what may have been intended as a gesture with no legal effect, but this provision informed the way people thought and, sometimes, the way the law was applied.

Most Catholic's, went along with this. Some out of fear, others from conviction. One institution which shamefully proved to be the handmaiden of the Archbishop, or as we would say today the Archbishop's poodle, was the University. No, not Trinity College, with its charter from an English queen, the bastion of Protestant proselytism in Ireland. Yes, University College Dublin, where you needed a licence to read Blanshard, where Noël Browne was banned from speaking, and where most of the chaplains and the philosophy professors were spies for the Archbishop.

A particularly close eye was kept on the L&H (the Literary and Historical Society) which was a major potential subversion spot in the intellectual and religious life of the capital. Speakers were regularly banned at the common behest of Palace and President.

In looking back now, I am a bit surprised that my own contribution in 1967 passed divine muster, or maybe it was that nobody knew who I was, nobody had seen the script, and the influence of the Palace was on the wane - though John Charles was nominally in charge up to 1971. His influence at this stage was diminishing and in the light of the nation's gradual coming to terms with the changes following Vatican II, he was probably proving an embarrassment to his colleagues. Still, it is nice in retrospect to have gotten in while the shutters were still down.


Taken together these two books evoke an era which is way beyond the ken of today's younger generation. Try and explain it to them and they would think you were off your head.

It would be nice to forget all about this aberrant era but, unfortunately, there are signs it may not have entirely gone away. The gradual backsliding from the enlightenment of Vatican II, combined with the perceived challenge of Islam, may yet see a resurgence of the theocratic state.

If you find the above depressing, or beyond your ken, go here and have some fun, at the church's expense.

Editor's 50th Anniversary

My cousin, Fr. Gerry, sent me a cutting he found in family papers which reminded me that it is now 50 years since I edited the Shanganagh Valley News in Ballybrack.

The paper was short-lived but served a useful function in the community and was very popular. In addition to its many features, it carried local news snippets and sports results. It had a worldwide circulation as people sent it to family members who had emigrated, in order to keep them posted on the latest happenings at home.

You can get a flavour of it on my website.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Shoots, Leaves and Branches

It's time again to report progress on growing the family tree. I have been solidly hacking at it now for almost two years and am amazed and fascinated by what has emerged in that time.

I was relatively (no pun intended) ignorant when I started out. I had met some family members and had bits of paper and photos relating to others, but in the overall I was very vague on the whole thing. I now know a lot more about the family, including more about the members of some of the far flung branches than they know themselves. Tricky that.

There are now over 500 people, between living and dead, entered in the tree. At some points it spans 9 generations and the earliest births are around 1800. I should really be concentrating on going back further, at least as far as my own ancestors are concerned, but I have found so much fascinating material on the way that I have allowed myself to be seduced into filling out the blanks on those I have already discovered, and moving sideways rather than backwards as my curiosity about some of these people is aroused.


In the tree generally, and not confined strictly to ancestors, I have 3 drownings, 4 generations of coopers (5 coopers in all), 4 members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, 3 British Army (including one who died on the Somme in WWI), and for balance one rebel sentenced to death by the British, commuted to 15 years penal servitude, released within months on the signing of the Treaty, took up arms against the new Irish Government and spent most of the rest of his life interned by his own.

I have 3 native Irish speaking ancestors.

The tree now covers 18 of the 26 counties and among the 70 separate occupations identified so far some of the more esoteric are: Attorney General, Alderman, Blacksmith, Barman, Dance Instructor, Detective, Fireman (railway steam engine), Lock-keeper (Grand Canal), Neurosurgeon, Pawnbroker, Royalette (Theatre Royal dancing chorus), Signalman (railway), Timekeeper (?), TD (Member of Irish Parliament) and Silkweaver.

Some deaths are memorable: in one case a mother and two daughters-in-law died from the same kidney complaint which can be caused, inter alia, by mercury poisoning; in another case the death certificate records the cause of death of an 89 year old female ancestor as old age - without dementia. I'd say she gave the Lord a run for his money when she turned up on his doorstep.

I have also met family members I didn't know I had. One of these found me when he put his Granny's name into Google and got one hit - my website, where his past was all laid out before him, like one of those TV chefs taking a dish out of the oven which they just happen to have put in earlier.

Pursuing the tree has given me an interest in subjects which passed me by in the past:

  • the functions and history of Dublin Corporation (now Dublin City Council). The Council has a long and chequered history, including in relation to the national struggle, and I had an Alderman relation on the Council during some of its most turbulent years in the early 20th Century, when it was even abolished for a number of years.

  • the history and geography of Dublin city. This includes urban planning in general and, in particular, water supply and sewerage systems in which James's St. was central for a period. There are plans underway for regenerating the Liberties, including the old harbour and basin area behind James's St. and I have been following, and participating in, the recent the planning consultations for this project.
  • Guinness has been a significant player in the development of not only the area around James's St., but of Dublin in general as far as employee social welfare and housing were concerned. The company has opened its personnel archive to interested parties and I have got the employee records of three out of the five coopers so far.
  • the RIC, while operating as a native police force, was also the ears, eyes and arms of the Crown and many of its members found themselves in tricky situations as a result.
  • WWI had more or less passed me by until I found that an uncle had died in a botched operation on the Somme and a grand uncle, while injured, had survived the war and returned to hard times in Dublin.
  • Catholic Emancipation more or less passed me by in the history class in school, but in real life it may well have opened up opportunities for my ancestors and their relations and I can't get away from Glasnevin cemetery (the dead centre of Dublin) where many of my relatives are buried. Daniel O'Connell got this non-denominational cemetery established to facilitate Catholics (mainly) who were subject to a certain amount of harassment at funerals to Established Church graveyards.
  • my faith in the Divine Database has unfortunately been shattered by this exercise. The system where you had to produce a recently issued baptism cert to get married and where the marriage was then entered on the original baptism register, looked, on the face of it, like a beautifully closed system which protected against bigamy. However, when you factored in human behaviour the system proved to be full of holes. Pity, it looked great on paper, so to speak.
  • I have also learned the irrelevance of administrative boundaries when it comes to settlement. People may get very attached to their county football team, and you may be lucky to live under a County Council which provides a better service than others, but when you are tracing back family origins and attempting to disentangle the cousins from one another, such boundries are irrelevant. For example, East Limerick and North Tipperary are all the one, genealogically speaking, and it is sometimes not even clear which county a particular village is in, or at least to which it owes its primary allegiance.

The exercise has also put pressure on my own technical competence, in a very constructive way:
  • I can be a bit scattered so I was using a free family tree computer programme to store, manipulate and report my findings. I was getting so much material and my ambitions for presenting it were increasing at such a rate that I invested in a more advanced programme which is great but where I am still on a sharp learning curve.
  • I have always enjoyed taking photos and this venture has put me, my new digital camera, and my photo processing package through our paces.
  • I originally put up a page on my website to carry family material and this has now grown to over half the site. I can practically talk HTML in my sleep at this stage, but the presentation of the material still continues to be challenging and puts pressure on me to master new techniques. I have also enlisted the help of Feedblitz which emails interested parties when I update the site, and have managed to tweak the system so as not to send out alerts for trivial updates.
  • and finally, the most recent technical addition to my armoury - Google maps. I had intended, from the beginning, producing a map showing the geographical spread of the family, particularly in Dublin city itself. However, hardcopy versions become quickly outdated and are not scaleable. Enter Google maps and a little bit of code-nicking and hey presto!

I have had great fun following up sources and squeezing them dry. I exaggerate - so far I have only creamed the surface. I have pored over indexes of births, deaths and marriages and then over the certs themselves. I have read wills that would make you weep. I have visited graves that would bring tears to your eyes, both of sadness and anger, and sometimes even a wry smile. I have got eyestrain from the small and often fudgy print in newspapers, not to mention the microfilm version of them. I have cursed the sloppy digital archiving of newspapers and despaired at the wanton destruction of housing rent records and photo-archives. I have enjoyed picking up on oral history from family members, both old and new. And I look forward to the promised unveiling of the 1911 Census (Dublin) online in the next few days.

You can catch up on all of this, as well as staying in touch with future developments, here.