Echoes of the past… from the archives

Garrett FitzGerald meets the Pope 

On March 28/29, 1977 Dr Garret FitzGerald, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, in Italy for an EEC Summit, paid a visit to the Vatican, during which he had the opportunity of an audience with Pope Paul VI.

So much at least was known to the press, who seem to have been more concerned with Dr FitzGerald’s next stop in Spain. But confidential reports of the meeting, now released, reveal a different story. 

About 10.45am the minister, who was accompanied to the Vatican by Ambassador Woods and others, was received alone in a private audience by the Pope. Confidential notes record: 

“What had originally been envisaged as a standard courtesy call developed in a rather unexpected way and a quarter of an hour was devoted to a more substantial discussion devoted to the situation in Northern Ireland.

“This took FitzGerald by surprise who in the time left to him attempted to make some general points about Northern Ireland.”


He was astonished to find the Pope had a prepared brief, in the form of a statement, which he read and which constituted a confrontation with the minister that Catholic Ireland must remain secure, according to two reports of the meeting. 

“The Minister interpreted this to mean that we must not in our policies in regard to Northern Ireland, neglect the preservation of the essential Catholic nature of Ireland.” What had been intended to be a polite formal meeting had been politicised.

Later FitzGerald told the embassy staff that while he was in the ante-room waiting to be ushered in he heard someone reading over the statement to the Pope.

The ambassador suspected that the brief had been written by Archbishop Giovanni Benelli, the acting Secretary of State, and it was he who was present before the audience. Benelli had been secretary at the papal nunciature  in Ireland from 1950-1953.

At a later meeting FitzGerald had with Archbishop Agostino Casaroli, in effect the Foreign Minister of the Vatican; he gave a very able and comprehensive review of the situation in Northern Ireland.

In the minds of the diplomats, behind the Pope’s statement was the information that was being feed to Benelli by the then papal nuncio in Dublin, Gaetano Alibrandi (1969 – 1989), who the Government in Dublin felt was far too sympathetic to the republicans in the North already. The Vatican talked of the need to withdraw the British army, which the Government in Dublin saw would be the signal for pogrom of the Catholic in Belfast, and elsewhere.

“I advised the minister,” the ambassador wrote, “to make no statement to Benelli about the Irish Government’s view of the nuncio but to concentrate on the fact that we knew from first hand sources that the nuncio was expounding this policy to foreign ambassadors in Dublin.” 

This view of the North was found in Ireland as well. On November 15, 1984 Archbishop Kevin MacNamara followed Dermot Ryan as Primate of Ireland, when Ryan was appointed to the curia. The Government, attempting to reflect the widest views in Ireland, found Archbishop MacNamara, along with Jeremiah Newman, Dermot Ryan and Ó Fiaich in Armagh “unhelpful”.

Documents of this time from the Vatican embassy give interesting side lights on the characters of these prelates, which future historians will value. However a senior official in the Vatican told the Irish ambassador that they had concerns about Archbishop MacNamara. They hoped “he would grow into the job”. He died three years later.

When it was pointed out that he had been appointed to the post by the Vatican, the official remarked that just because one appointed  a person to a position it does not mean one always agrees with him.

In time of change and worse, coming times of scandal, the role of these higher clergy and the even the Vatican would often come to be questioned. 


The changing style at the Áras 

Though they seem to be little regarded by the media, reflecting a long established attitude, left over the era of Seán T. O’Kelly and Éamon de Valera, that the presidency was of little account, the files released over the years by the Office of the Secretary to the President reveal evidence of a changing style, moving from one which might have been thought over-Catholic to one which would be regarded as more inclusive. 

These changes began under Erskine Childers, long before the much vaunted periods in office of Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. Many things were said and done, without the publicity of candles in windows and controversial speeches. 

Certainly newspapers which now often display disdain for Church affairs were the quite happy the to give large space to photographs of de Valera with Archbishop McQuaid as an event such as a High Mass celebrating the golden anniversary of Ireland’s oldest Irish speaking sodality, Cuallacht Mhuire gan Smál in 1966, or at Clongowes Wood College for the 150th anniversary of its opening two years before.

For the period covered by the files in recent years Dr Hillery was in office. As far back as 1982 I can recall speaking casually to his aide de camp when the President was unveiling the bust of James Joyce in St Stephen’s Green to mark the centenary of the writer’s birth. He explained the President had some six engagements that day – yet only one of these was reported by the media. 

Remains true

This remains true today for the heavy duty diary of the President rarely gets attention, yet there are many organisations, parishes and institutions which are only too delighted to receive a presidential visit, which they rightly interpret as a symbol of the nation’s esteem for what they do or have done. 

All of this can be seen in the files just released. There are many engagements not just with Catholic events, such as the celebration of the Marist Brothers in Athlone in September 1984, but also with vents and ceremonies of many minority groups. One such, again in September 1984, was the opening of Ovoca Manor, a Christian adventure centre run by the Scripture Union of Ireland. 

The Rev. Kennth Todd, a Methodist minister from Ulster, later wrote to the President. “We are very grateful for your visit which added not only dignity to the occasion, but delight. Your speech made a great impression and people continue to comment on its sincerity and humour.” They were more than pleased with the coverage in the newspaper and on television.

What had Dr Hillery said? He had opened in Irish, as seems is always to be done, but went on to praise the scheme.

“In a corner of the Earth where peace and tranquillity embrace protectively all who come here, it has set the centre of challenge to the irrepressible energy and enthusiasm and sense of wonder of youth.”

He added: “I have heard much warm praise of the Scripture Union’s work for youth in the great outdoors. What I have heard has filled me with the warmest admiration of its great work I welcome, therefore, this opportunity, therefore, to pay tribute to that work and to wish it ever greater success for the future.”

He concluded: “This is a warm-hearted welcoming centre, a happy home from home with its doors open to all youth.”