A tale of three republics

A tale of three republics Cork's Bishop Daniel Cohalan with Fr Patrick McSwiney and members of the Sisters of Charity.
100 years on…
This paper kept its powder dry on the national question in the aftermath of the 1918 election result, writes Gabriel Doherty


The Irish Catholic of January 11, 1919 was very much a tale of three republics – one (Irish) in the process of creation, the other two (French and American) already established but apparently headed in opposite directions in terms of their attitudes towards the Universal Church and the Supreme Pontiff.

To take the case of France first. The oldest daughter of the church had in recent years shown herself to be a most truculent and wilful child. The separation of Church and state in the country that had been pushed through in 1905 in spite of intense (and violent) domestic opposition had also led to a diplomatic rupture between the Holy See and the Paris government, the entire controversy reawakening bitter memories of the traumatic era of the French revolution.

The Great War had seen a partial rapprochement between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities in the country, as both backed the concept of the union sacrée, or national unity in pursuit of victory.

If, however, the Vatican entertained hopes that the end of this military conflict would also mark an armistice in the diplomatic hostilities between it and the Third Republic the report of a debate in the French Chamber of Deputies during the previous week, as published in The Irish Catholic’s editorial section, would have made for difficult reading.


During that debate Joseph Cornudet, an influential Deputy from Seine-et-Oise, referred to the service rendered to the Republic by the Catholic clergy, especially in the disputed territory of Alsace-Lorraine, and the damage done to the national interest by the absence of a French mission to the Vatican, before concluding with the suggestion that the time was opportune for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

The response of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stephen Pichon, while acknowledging the patriotism of the clergy in question, amounted a flat ‘no’ to the principal question. This “sorrowful assurance”, of course, also meant there was no prospect of French support for the admission of Pope Benedict XV to the Peace Conference in Versailles, the formal convening of which was now a matter of days away.

This state of affairs was in marked contrast to the recent uptick in the relations between the Papacy and the great Republic of the New World, the United States of America.

Here was a state whose very DNA was suffused by anti-Catholicism, much of it nurtured within the Ulster-Scots diaspora that had played a significant role in the American revolution 150 years before – from within whose ranks the serving President, Woodrow Wilson, had sprung.

Only 50 years before even the minimal relationship that had existed between the Vatican and Washington since the American War of Independence had been unilaterally repudiated by the Americans, and in 1919 no diplomatic ties linked them (nor did any exist until re-established by Ronald Regan in 1984).

Such an inauspicious backdrop, however, only served to heighten the sense of history that marked the occasion of President Wilson’s recent visit to the Vatican – the first serving US President to take such a step.

There the President and Pope Benedict (along with the Rector of the American College in Rome, who acted as interpreter) spent about 20 minutes in private discussions, consisting, according to a Reuters report, of reports from the President as to conditions in the various countries he had visited since his arrival in Europe.

The question of the visit’s significance was discussed in the edition’s leading article. The starting point was a reiteration of a point that had begun to emerge in the paper’s changing attitude towards the recent conflict – it was now being described as a “suicidal war” lasting “four disastrous years”. A marked shift in tone away from the ‘just war’ premise that had dominated its editorial line during the war, this was without question a direct result of the exclusion of the Papacy from the Versailles conference.

The editor’s thesis was that, in effect, President Wilson’s rhetorical justification for American engagement in the war – that it was a war to end wars – mirrored precisely the language used by Pope Benedict XV in the Peace Note he had sent to all belligerents on August 1, 1917. In this he had appealed to statesmen to accept the principle both that “moral force of Right shall be substituted for the material force of Arms” and that international disputes should be settled via compulsory arbitration rather than war.

This latter point was indeed precisely what Wilson had put forward as the raison d’étre of his most cherished project, the League of Nations – but the article claimed this was not the only point of identity between the two men.


It suggested that prior to the US declaration of war in 1917, President Wilson’s observations on the conflict were as “grossly misrepresented” as the Pope’s had been, and, more generally, that “among secular statesmen he fulfilled a role analogous to that of the Pope in the peculiar spiritual sphere of the world’s affairs that appertains to the Divinely-appointed office of the Father of the Faithful”.

Further, the editor declared that the entire Wilsonian ideal was “practically identical with that advocated by the Holy See”, with the spirit, if not the precise wording, of the President’s famous ‘14 Points’ being anticipated by Benedict’s earlier pronouncements.

The inference was clear: while the Pope would be absent from the discussions at the Versailles conference, his voice would still be heard through the principled demands made by President Wilson. Considering the fractious history of US-Vatican relations, it was a major change – albeit one that must have been a painful reminder to Papal diplomats just how isolated the Vatican was at this point in its history.

What news, then, of the third republic – the Irish one? Well, nothing. In keeping with its minimal response to the sensational outcome of the recent General Election, the paper ignored the preparations then ongoing in anticipation of the first meeting of Dáil Éireann later in the month.

It is impossible to say whether this silence was the result of a conscious ‘wait and see’ policy, or simple incredulity at the prospect, but it would clearly take some time longer for it to figure out how it felt about the new national dispensation.

In the meantime, there were developments on a related front, to moves in Cork relating to the use of the Conscription Fund, a significant sum that been collected – primarily via church collections – in the spring of 1918 in anticipation of an active campaign against the compulsory service then being threatened by the British Government.

This campaign had, without doubt, been key to the growth of republican sentiment in Ireland, and contributed to Sinn Féin’s overwhelming victory in the General Election.

The danger of compulsory military service no longer existing, the Bishop of Cork, Dr Daniel Cohalan, had a definite purpose in mind for the dormant funds – the construction of a new diocesan cathedral.

In a pastoral letter, he said the growing city needed a new cathedral and offered to return money to any individual subscriber who gave “satisfactory evidence of having subscribed” – an impossible task for most, given the ‘church-gate’ manner in which most of the cash had been collected.

For all others, he asked subscribers “to perpetuate the memory of the national opposition to conscription by associating their money with the principal monument in the diocese”: the proposed new cathedral.

The issue of the Conscription Fund continued to fester locally for several years, while the paper would continue to keep its counsel regarding the nation’s future for a while longer – albeit at the price of missing an opportunity to shape that same destiny.

Gabriel Doherty teaches in the School of History, University College Cork, and is a member of the Decade of Centenaries Advisory Committee.