State Papers: Secrets of the powers that be
Republican legend lingered on despite firm denial by the Vatican in 1933
That Pope Benedict XV, in a private interview with Count George Plunkett in the middle of April 1916, imparted his Apostolic Blessing to the men and arms of the Irish Republic two weeks before the Easter Rising, is a cherished notion among many older Republicans.
Though it was very formally and categorically denied by L’Osservatore Romano in 1933, the belief lingered on and was still troubling the Irish Ambassador to the Holy See in the 1980s, who was put to a great deal of trouble to try any confirm it for a friend, Aodhogán O’Rahilly, son of the 1916 commander.
The legend had its origin in a statement Count Plunkett published in the Irish Press on May 26, 1933, which was fully headlined on the front page.
Though the file makes no reference to the fact, de Valera was then on a formal visit to Rome for the opening of the Holy Year, where he had a meeting with Pius XI.
By this date de Valera had been in power for more than a year and Republicans were becoming accustomed to offices of state: he was now wearing the frock coat and top hat which had been despised by Republicans when worn by the Free State ministers at the time of the Eucharistic Congress.
As their political opponents still saw them as tinged with a revolutionary red, and thought them a danger to Irish traditions, the government paper the Irish Press was anxious to show that the Rising, though condemned by the Irish hierarchy at home, had the full-hearted support of the Pope in Rome.
Count Plunkett was back in Dublin by Good Friday. It might seem to have been foolhardy to have disclosed the coming insurrection days beforehand in a place such as the Vatican where few things remain secret for long – indeed it could well have endangered the whole enterprise.
At the time Count Plunkett said nothing about his visit. He claimed to have been “the Republican Envoy to the Continent”. When he had completed one part of his mission in Switzerland, he went on to Rome where he stayed at the Hotel de la Paix from April 13-17.
The Pope was deeply moved, he said, when told the date of the Rising was already fixed. Count Plunkett pledged the Irish Republic to fidelity to the Holy See. At the end of the two hour meeting, the Pope “conferred His Apostolic benediction on the men who were facing death for Ireland”.
In his statement in 1933 Count Plunkett said that John MacNeill “will remember that he signed the commission given to this (unamed) Republican Envoy”. Others too in Rome would recall his visit, he said.
A few days later Eoin MacNeill replied: he denied that the Executive of the Irish Volunteers had formed a provisional government or took “any action as a provisional government”.
Later he added that he signed no such letter of credence, and if one was produced it was a forgery. A volunteer, however, later claimed that he had shared a cell with the Count’s son Joseph in Richmond Barracks. As one rebel to another Plunkett told him the Provisional Government (of which of MacNeill was not a member) “sent an envoy to the Pope to obtain his blessing on our undertaking”, adding that he had met the envoy on his return “conveying the benediction”.
This impasse of opinion in Dublin was affected by an explicit statement in L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican paper, on June 9. The editorial said that a readers had found the news as published in the Irish Press and the London Times “incredible”, and had asked for confirmation of the fact from the highest levels. The paper said “the news was entirely unfounded”.
Moreover it was easy to see that declarations of this kind, attributed to the Pope, were “in open contradiction to the well-known gentleness of the late Pontiff and to his most lively desire for peace and the prevention of any further effusion of blood”.
Again it was contradicted by the fact that the a telegram sent on April 30, 1916 to the Archbishop of Armagh seeking further information for the Pope, expressed the hope there would be no more conflict in Ireland.
The pious belief of some Republicans having been so formally dashed, the matter might have been just another of those confusions about what happened in 1916, which even after a century have not been resolved. As always, legend and myth proved more attractive to the Irish imagination than sober truth. The government went so far at the time as to obtain the text copy of the Vatican statement from the Minister in Rome, but made no comment on it.
Count Plunkett, however, was not to be rebuffed in this way. “The fact is that the that the Papal Blessing given the men of 1916 by Pope Benedict has only one witness remaining – myself. Those who profess to refute me have not evidence to support them” – a remark which seems to also apply to the Vatican.
But nowhere did Count Plunkett state clearly the day and the hour of his visit, how he gained entry to the Vatican and who introduced him to a two-hour private audience, or name other contemporaries in Rome who could support his claim. No-one, even a papal count, just walks into the private quarters of the Pope for two hours without there being some record somewhere.
On October 14, 1980, Aodhogán O’Rahilly visited the Museum in Kilmainham and saw there the hotel bill that Count Plunkett brought home from his visit to Rome in 1916.
In a private letter to his old friend the Irish Ambassador in Rome, Frank Coffey, he said “the name of the hotel was Hotel de la Paix & Helve. I did not notice or make a note of the address, but it was ‘Aouil 1916’ [sic] which I suppose is April. The days Plunkett spent there were 13, 14, 16, 17.” (The Italian for April is Aprile; the French is Avril.)
He went on to ask if the Ambassador could “turn up any record of Plunkett’s mission and its outcome”.
The ambassador app-roached Msgr Charles Burns in the Secret Archives of the Vatican. He asked if Plunkett did meet the Pope or the Secretary of State. Could he have met perhaps a Monsignor of the Household, and if there might be a record of that? Burns replied that though the archives were closed from 1903, he had been able to examine the index, and there was no record of Plunkett.
He suggested that perhaps the meeting had been arranged privately through the Maestro dela Camara. Perhaps the Prefect of the Papal Household might be able to turn up a record.
After all the work put in by the ambassador, and indeed by the officials, in 1981, O’Rahilly returned to the quest in May 1988, speaking to the Tainaiste Brian Lenihan privately. Lenihan contacted Foreign Affairs, who telexed Rome to asks if there was any record of the visit. This failing, Msgr Hanley of the Irish College in Rome suggested going back to the Plunkett family.
But as the idea was to confirm the Plunkett family belief this was little use as advice. And so, unresolved the mystery still recycles from time to time.
It was vital to the Plunketts as firm Catholics that they could say the Pope blessed the Rising, when the hierarchy in Ireland was so opposed to it in 1916. De Valera, too, had need of the support of Rome both in 1933, and retroactively for 1916. The theological view that the Rising had been sinful was a troubling one for some consciences.
Later in the year in October Dr Morrisroe, Bishop of Achonry, preaching in Dublin, referred to the claim by Count Plunkett. On the actual views of the papacy on rebellion, he added:
“On the outbreak of the great world war, the Emperor of Catholic Austria begged the Pope’s blessing on the arms of the Central Powers. With his dying lips Pope Pius X gave the reply, ‘I bless peace, not war’.
“Yet,” continued the Bishop, “his successor was alleged to have sent his blessing to those who, to put it mildly, had less justification to draw the sword.”
Count Plunkett’s statement, he added, was “a cruel calumny on the dead Pontiff”.
In May a Unionist paper in Derry had remarked, in more forceful language, seeing the affair as an attempt by Republicans to claim the Pope’s “high authority” for their present day activities.
“As for linking in Count Plunkett’s interview with the late Pope in 1916 with Mr de Valera’s interview with the present Pope yesterday [May 26, 1933], it will be accepted as an ingenious example of Republican propaganda.”
[National Archives file 2018 / 69 / 3; Derry Journal, 9 October 1933, p. 5; Londonderry Sentinel, 27 May 1933, p. 6]