A strange time of waiting

A strange time of waiting UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George, France’s Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, and US President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Conference, which Pope Benedict XV was not invited to attend.
100 years on..
Catholic voters had to wait a fortnight to learn the results of the 1918 election, writes Gabriel Doherty

Following several months of feverish military and political activity, punctuated by a series of authentically earth-shattering events, The Irish Catholic, in its number for the week ending Saturday, December 21, 1918, registered a sudden and sharp, if temporary, drop in the pace of political affairs.

An interval had to pass between the casting of domestic votes in the General Election on December 14, their merger with the ballots cast by Irish troops stationed overseas (which naturally took some time to make their way back to Ireland), the tallying of same, and the declaration of the results on the 28th of the month.

Given the conjunction of this process with the Christmas festivities there was a natural, and perhaps not entirely unwelcome, sense of hiatus about the edition.

The regular ‘London Letter’ column contained some observations on the poll of the previous week. It noted that, on account of the exceptionally wet weather that marred election day, the difficulty of generating much enthusiasm for political matters during the festive season, and the prospect of an overwhelming victory for the sitting coalition, there had been “little outward sign that a General Election was taking place” in the English capital.

What limited discussion of the contest there was focused on the fact that women (or some of them) could now vote for the first time. It noted that the English press generally treated the subject “with that air of cool, aloof, semi-amused patronage that is more damning than active opposition” – an accusation that could not be levelled against The Irish Catholic’s sympathetic treatment of this major innovation.

While accepting that this historic development was marked by a certain degree of apathy on the part of the female section of the electorate, the column argued that far worse could be said of the much larger number of working-class males who had also received the vote for the first time, but failed to exercise it.

Four years of total war, it seems, had failed to provide the fillip for mass democracy that many would have welcomed, and some feared.

The exclusion of the Pope from the post-war conference continued to rankle with the paper, which argued that any peace that was brokered in the absence of the moral power that the Pope alone could confer would contain within it the seeds of its own destruction. To put it another way, while the paper accepted that statesman could and should meet to discuss borders and treaties, “the basis on which every arrangement must permanently rest is the moral law, and the Pope is the guardian of that”.

Statesmen

These same statesmen, it continued, “may think they can get on without the Pope, but they should not forget the fact that he controls the conscience of hundreds of thousands of subjects of all the States who are ready to hear his voice and receive with humble submission his word as that of the supreme spiritual power on earth”.

The difficulty with this line of argument, however, was that this state of affairs, if indeed it was an accurate description of the power over consciences enjoyed by the Pope, was precisely the reason why such statesmen wished to shut Vatican diplomats out from their discussions.

Were the negotiations to become stuck on certain points (as was inevitable, and actually happened), it clearly would be undesirable that whichever causes the Pope championed would be seen to have an unfair advantage in such an impasse.

Of course the situation was not nearly as black and white as the editor suggested – had it been there would have been a far greater outcry from Catholics across the continent during the war over the rejection of the Pontiff’s various peace overtures, but the diplomatic paradox that had plagued the Church for decades, some might say for centuries, remained as salient as ever: the more emphatic the demand to include the Pope in negotiations on the basis of his supposed sway over the political and moral outlook of Catholics, the more certain would it be that he would find himself excluded from same.

For the most part, however, the edition was dominated by the type of news one would expect during the Christmas season – arrangements for special midnight Masses, carol concerts and the like.

Most of the editorial section was dominated by appeals for the funding of the various social services provided by and through the Church, with a clear emphasis laid upon the duty of Catholics to make voluntary contributions to same (with the inference that any failure in this respect would raise the spectre of state provision).

Such appeals were a staple of the paper at all times of the year, but not surprisingly they loomed particularly large during the festive season.

For the moment, the type of Ireland in which the Church would find itself operating once the election results were known was as uncertain as the results themselves. And frustratingly one more edition of the paper was to be produced before they could be revealed.

The air of hopeful expectancy associated with Christmas was certainly evident across much of Ireland at this time – though perhaps not in huge abundance in the columns of The Irish Catholic.

Gabriel Doherty teaches in the Department of History, UCC, and is a member of the Government’s expert advisory group on the Decade of Commemorations.

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