From the National Archives – Peter Costello

From the National Archives – Peter Costello


This week the National Archives made available to the general public the new releases of confidential State records and files from 1981 and earlier. In a preview of the documents, The Irish Catholic gleaned from the thousands of files some items of special interest to our readers. The following pages carry some of what Peter Costello learned.

The Neglected Gaeltachta

Some of the oldest papers released this year go back to the days of the Irish Free State and the formation of Government policies with regard to the new Gaeltacht areas.

Under the previous British government these had been the remit of the Congested Districts Board — though many would now think it odd that those depopulated acres of the West could ever have been over-crowded.

But that over-crowding and lack of employment were key factors in the staggering rates of emigrations that drained Ireland down to the 1960s.

In 1928, a commission, Coiside na Gaeltachta, was established to try to co-ordinate the activities of the various different government departments as they impinged on the Gaeltachts.

In one of the early memos it is suggested that priority should be given to civil servants in the west in favour of those who actually spoke Irish. Ironically the whole of this large file, running from 1928 down to 1940, aside from four items at the end, is entirely in English.

By far the most revealing document is a long list of the new enterprises of all kinds in the Gaeltachts to provide employment and new opportunities that had been turned down by the departments.

In these few pages (in file 2011 / 125 / 25) is epitomised the policy failure of successive administrations to make good their election promises to the people.

The schedule of proposals put forward by the Department of Lands and Fisheries and the Gaeltacht Services Division and turned down by one or more of the other departments reads like a litany of neglect. The Department of Finance was ever reluctant to spend money.

(Pictured: Putting a happy face on Conemara poverty, a photograph taken in 1929 by H. V. Morton)

Only some of the 29 schemes can be mentioned here. One was a tailoring scheme in Achill for the manufacture of men and boys suits.

The Department of Finance, acting on the advice of the Department of Industry and Commerce — to the effect that there was no scope for a new industry of this nature, refused to sanction the proposal. A shirt making scheme on the island was also turned down.

There was a notion that ”industries as yet unexplored might be reserved for the Gaeltacht”. One idea was to make the manufacturing of artificial silk (rayon and so on) a reserved industry. But there was opposition, from where is not stated, but various vested interests in Dublin seem likely.

In 1936, hat making was proposed as a Gaeltacht industry. Other ideas were glove making, leather goods, cotton, linoleum, a lager beer brewery for Spiddall, knitted garments, lime making, a spinning mill and finishing plant, making sock suspenders, pottery, a boot factory at Dungloe in Donegal, government contracts to be reserved for Gaeltacht, the exploitation of minerals, the production of vegetables on a large scale in Achill, a saw mill and fish barrel factory for Donegal: the list goes on and on. There was also a scheme to keep girls at home, providing them with training as nurses and domestic servants.

Another was to send all school children to the west for a while to learn Irish. ”The report of the sub-committee was passed by the Gaeltacht Services division to the Dept. of Local Government and Public Health for consideration but no action appears to have been taken.”

In 1937, a company called Fur Dyers Ltd were prepared to extend their activities by offering a bounty on dressed and dyed rabbit skins for export to Great Britain, ”but the application was refused by the Department of Industry and Commerce”.

The last item on the list, however, has an historic echo. It was the ”Application for a loan from Templecrone Co-operative Society Dungloe, Co. Donegal”. This was in 1937 and the loan asked for was £1,000 from the Department of Finance.

The co-op planned to purchase glove making machinery with a view to providing employment in the Donegal Gaeltacht, ”but the Department of Finance refused to sanction the proposal”.

The Templecrone Co-operative is associated with the legendary ‘Paddy the Cope’ Gallagher, a forerunner in many ways of the redoubtable Fr Mac Dwyer of Glencolumcille in more recent times.

But ‘Paddy the Cope’ and people like him could do little on their own. Is it any wonder that by the 1950s journalists were talking about ”the vanishing Irish”.

(The photograph on this page caused great offense when it was published in 1930 by H. V. Morton in his book In Search of Ireland. For many public figures such an image of Gaeltacht poverty was more offensive to national pride than the reality.)

No half-mast at the Áras for Hitler

Historically, the most interesting file released this year is one relating to the end of World War II and Mr de Valera’s courtesy call on the German ambassador to express the official condolences of the Irish government on the death of Adolf Hitler, the German head of state, on April 30 1945.

Though it was reported originally with only a few lines in the Irish papers, this visit caused great scandal. The matter was raised in the Dáil where Mr de Valera defended himself vigorously. The public comments among the Allied nations were largely unfriendly, except from George Bernard Shaw.

The file, however, contains angry private letters addressed to President Hyde and to Mr de Valera from Irish-Americans and from Irish people living in Britain, one still in army service.

De Valera suggested in the Dáil that ”certain parties” were using the visit to tarnish Ireland — as he was replying to Deputy James Larkin, he seems to have had in mind left-wing supporters of the Soviet Union. Most of those who wrote saw themselves as ordinary Irish people.

In Rome, the Pope expressed himself very strongly on the evil nature of the Nazi regime and spoke of his hopes for the German people.

Oddly, the German ambassador to the Holy See remained at his post, though other neutral countries, such as the Swiss Confederation, asked their German ambassadors to leave.

But de Valera was not alone in his visit. After consultation with the Government and on behalf of the head of State, the president’s secretary also called on the legation in Northumberland Road in Dublin to express condolences.

The embassy received many other callers at this time, suggesting that there was much support in some Irish quarters for Hitler, both republican and conservative.

De Valera pointed out that little publicity had been given to the condolences expressed by the Irish Government at the death of President Roosevelt a few weeks before. (Even the Japanese, who were at war with the USA, offered their condolences to the American people at that time.) At the àras, the tricolour was lowered at that time to half mast. However, when Hitler died, the president’s office asked confidentially what should be done then about the flag. The president’s secretary Mr Dunphy, in a confidential memo dated May 7, 1945, specifically raised with the government what should be done in view of the procedure at the time of Roosevelt’s death. The government’s reply was clear:

”The official view was that the special ties of historic friendship which linked Ireland with the US did not apply to the same extent to Germany, and it appeared therefore that the half-masting of the flag immediately on the announcement of the death was not necessary. A decision would be taken later as to whether the flag should be half-masted on the day of Herr Hitler’s funeral. At the moment it did not seem that there would be any funeral.”

There never was a formal funeral. What happened in the Berlin Bunker on April 30 1945 and what became of Hitler’s body remains controversial.

Our weathermen at war

The National Metrological Service is currently celebrating the 75th anniversary of its establishment. So it is interesting that papers relating to the service in war time have been released this year.

Among the releases is one actually marked ”secret” in red — a rare enough thing among these files. Running from the 1930s to the 1960s, this deals with the activities of our weathermen at war.

The Met Office had been specially set up to provide the new State with a service focussed on the particular needs of Ireland.

The British government, however, had helped to fund the station at Valencia and so information continued to be shared on an automatic basis with Britain.

However, the coming of war brought new problems. Firstly, there was a matter of staff. The Met Office had been to great trouble to recruit the best scientists that it could.

Two of the most important men were ”non-nationals” in the terms of the day, one a Czech and the other a Spanish citizen.

When war broke, out the government was anxious that they be naturalised. G2, the military intelligence, had nothing against them and they were settled in Ireland, one with a young family.

The Met Office was asked by the Department of Defence to assess on the basis of past records what would be the months with the best weather when an invasion might be launched on the south coast of Ireland.

Very careful tabulations were made of back data and the months of later summer or early autumn looked likely.

However, as the immediate danger of invasion passed there remained the problem of sharing information. Long term forecasts were no longer broadcast by radio or widely distributed. They were refused, for instance, to the Dutch Meteo office. But the British continued to receive them.

These weather particulars were, of course, an essential factor in the air defence of Britain in 1940 and later.

And though the files do not say so, it is clear that information from the weather stations in the south of Ireland, at Valencia and Foynes, played their part in setting the date for the Allied invasion of Europe in the summer of 1944.

The war with the Axis was hardly over than a new struggle began, the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Here too the weathermen had a role, this time in the more mysterious matters of Irish civil defence in case of nuclear war.

The weathermen were asked in particular about how the weather would factor into the spread of radioactive fallout in the event of atom bombs striking England from the Scottish border to London. Thankfully, at most times of the year, the prevailing winds would have carried it away to the east.

But it adds a new dimension to our appreciation of the weather forecasters who appear on TV — and to the celebrations of Met Office — that they have been in the front line of Ireland’s defence from time to time.

Cardinal Ó Fiaich and women priests

One of the events of 1981, on November 12, was the vote by the General Synod of the Church of England to admit women to holy orders.

Today women rectors are commonplace, even in Ireland; and they have shown what inspired female leadership has to offer at the parish level.

Back in 1981, this development was controversial. In this context a recorded remark of Cardinal Dr Tomas Ó Fiaich strikes a chord.

His elevation to Armagh had been the occasion of much press comment. The political outlook of the archbishop, later cardinal, was suspect in the eyes of the British press.

His comments on the Northern situation and the role of Britain were all scrutinised and assessed for the ‘greenness’ of their tinge, and they were not always thought to be ‘helpful’ by the governments in London or Dublin.

His comments on other matters often passed without notice, except in the context of an archive, where the past often comes back to haunt the present.

In an interview with a southern journalist in January 1978 it is noted that he was asked about the role of women in the Catholic Church. Did they have enough authority? Should their status be enhanced? What could the See of Armagh do for Irish women today?

(Pictured: Cardianl Tomas Ó Fiaich said he “wouldn’t be shocked” to see women priests in the future.)

The archbishop plunged in. ”The question of women’s authority is coming very near the question of ordained women. Nearly 2,000 years of tradition and solid theological opinion are contra. But I must say that if Rome decided in the future to ordain women I wouldn’t be shocked. Of course, for now, the recent Vatican document is there and that is that.”

He went on to speak of the enthusiasm of modern nuns, now that they had cast off the old formalities, for all kinds of novel activities.

He had been sorry to see the Women’s Liberation movement involving itself for years in matters like contraception and abortion. He felt they should have tried to right present wrongs, such as the cause of battered wives. He thought too that women were under-represented in the Dáil.

These remarks from 30 year ago are worth recalling, for as Northern Ireland has become a problem of the past, many issues relating to women, the family and children remain to be solved or ameliorated.

Women priests in the Catholic Church is an issue whose day may not yet have arrived. Will a future Primate of All Ireland be as unshockable on the topic as Ó Fiaich?

Messages to the Vatican — and the replies

Thirty years ago, relations with the Vatican and Ireland stood on a different footing than they do now.

When Pope Paul VI celebrated his 80th birthday in September 1977 the President of Ireland sent a private message through the Irish Embassy to the Holy See:

”On the happy occasion of the 80th birthday of Your Holiness I have the honour to express on behalf of the people of Ireland and on my own behalf, our most cordial felicitations together with our warmest sentiments of affection. We earnestly pray that God may grant your holiness many more years of health and strength to continue your devoted labours as supreme pastor of the Church.”

Patrick J Hillery,

President ofIreland.

After a short delay, Jack Lynch — he had been on holiday — also sent a message with his prayers and the good wishes of the government ”and the success of your endeavours in the promotion of peace and justice throughout the world” — this last being a coded reference to papal support for the Government’s own policy in regard to Northern Ireland.

Papal birthdays were not usually the object of public observance at all, very private celebrations being preferred in the Vatican.

However, since the end of WWII the Church had solemnly marked those of papal octogenarians, Pius XII on March 2, 1956, and Pope John XXIII in November 1961.

For the 80th birthday of Paul VI in 1977 the Irish Embassy to the Holy See laid in a special copy of the Book of Kells, but in the event the whole of the diplomatic corps at the Holy See tendered a collective present.

In a note to Iveagh House on June 10 1977 the ambassador noted that in 1956 Jack Lynch had gone to Rome in his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs and presented a set of vestments to the Pope. In 1961, Mr Sean Lemass had also gone to Rome and his gift was a facsimile of the Book of Armagh.

”I thought,” the ambassador noted, ”we might try to make things simple for ourselves by fore-arming ourselves with the Book of Kells [facsimile].

”If it shouldn’t be used for this purpose, it will serve some purpose later.”

Greetings to the Pope were a controversial matter. In the Senate on October 9, 1981, Professor John Murphy, the ‘public historian’ of the day, raised the matter of messages in the past from the Irish government of ”filial homage to the Holy See”.

The Taoiseach’s department was concerned about his remarks and a memo was prepared on the matter in order that his claims could be rebutted if need be.

”Senator Professor Murphy is very much out of date with his information about Government messages of homage to the Holy See. The fact is that no such message has been sent since 1954 and, in fact, only three messages in all were sent — in 1948, 1951, and 1954.”

(Another memo in the same file says the practice was begun by Mr de Valera in 1933 and had continued down to his leaving office in 1948.)

The message sent by Mr Costello in 1948 was influenced by the fact that Avanti, a Communist paper in Italy, had remarked that ”the Catholic dictatorship” of Mr de Valera had come to an end, and that that ”a government of another colour” had succeeded him.

For the Italian Communist Party this would have been the ‘red’ of Mr Sean McBride, a future Lenin Peace Prize laureate, rather than the ‘blue’ of Mr John A. Costello.

In 1951, Mr de Valera sent a message after the first meeting of his government conveying their filial loyalty and devotion. This message was acknowledged by the Vatican.

However, when the government changed again in 1954 a similar message was sent by the Costello government. This message was not acknowledged. On August 31, the secretary to the Taoiseach’s department took up the matter with Foreign Affairs.

The nuncio had assured them that the message was deeply appreciated by His Holiness. But the taoiseach, or those reacting on his behalf, still felt he had been snubbed.

”The unsatisfactory nature of this acknowledgment,” a memo of March 1973 records, ”was raised with external affairs”. In the meantime, a letter from the Vatican Secretary of State dated August 31 1954 was sent to the Irish Ambassador in the Vatican.

This letter did not express concern or apology for the extremely long delay in acknowledging the message from the Taoiseach as head of Government.

When the government changed again in 1957 no formal message was sent to Rome. So when Senator Murphy raised the matter in 1981, no message had been sent since 1954.

The officer of the department concluded his 1981 memo: ”I do not think that this is the time to revive the practice. The first reason for this is that from the way in which the messages — other than the first — were treated in the Vatican, no great importance seems to have been attached to them.”

As the Constitution no longer recognised the special position of the Catholic Church, so it would not now be appropriate. Given the state of affairs in the North of Ireland ”the message could well do considerable harm”.

Messages of felicitations and of sympathy were later sent, as at the time of the attempted assassination of John Paul II, but none were ever again messages of ”filial devotion”.

The Vatican and the status of Jerusalem

During the years leading up to 1981 one of the pressing concerns of the Vatican was the status of the city of Jerusalem and the other holy places in Israel.

Their concern was shared by many others including the Irish Government.

A released file (2011 / 45 / 4) contains papers relating not only to the views of the Holy See, as understood by our ambassador there, but reports also from the embassies in Athens and in Israel.

The fighting that followed the end of the British mandate in Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel in May 1948 left Jerusalem divided, with the Jordanians in occupations of half the city and the West Bank, and Israel holding the other half (which contained the Christian shrines).

The expressed intention of the United Nations that the city of Jerusalem become an ”international city” came to nothing as a consequence of the conflict.

After the war in 1967 Israel occupied the whole of the city and administered the West Bank.

They declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel. It became the focus of increased settlement, essentially by Orthodox Jews. This change brought significant fears to many Christians.

A document in the file, from the heads of three important Christian institutions in the city, details these fears.


This document was circulated to various diplomats. It speaks of the difficulties they faced, but also of a recent murder and of increasing hostile acts towards both individual Christians and Christian institutions.

They felt that many of these were not being properly or adequately dealt with by the Israeli authorities, under the government of Prime Minister Menahem Begin.

For the Vatican, the problem had a larger aspect, as documents prepared in Rome included in the file, elaborates.

The rights and privileges of the various Christians communities in the city, indeed throughout the region, were long established. They went back to the days of the Turkish Empire and were under-written in some cases by agreements dating from the 1850s.

The Vatican still regarded the internationalisation of Jerusalem as an option, while recognising that this might now be impossible.

They saw that over the decades the problem was coming down to a solution with only two sides, the Jewish and the Muslim, the Israeli and the Palestinian.

They wished to emphasise that the interests of all three monotheistic religions which had their roots in the biblical tradition should be recognised too.

This long-standing Christian dimension to the Israeli / Palestinian problem ought to be kept in mind by all parties. The rights of Christians of all kinds had to be recognised along with those of Jews and Muslims.

To this end, they were in constant contact with the Israeli government, the Palestinian leaders and the various interested Western nations, primarily Britain, France and the USA.

Ireland, too, as a traditionally Christian country was concerned, especially as there were many Irish priests and scholars in the area.

However, all these papers expressed growing concern about the activities of what one memo calls ”a fascist” group of ultra orthodox Jews led by Rabbi Kahane.

These were responsible for many incidents, including attacks on shops selling Christian goods. Kahane was at one stage detained by the Israeli authorities so extreme were his activities becoming.

The situations have not improved. Over this Christmas season, it was reported that Israeli women in Jerusalem were singing and dancing in public places in protests against the fiat of an ultra-orthodox rabbi that no male should be exposed to the ‘sexual’ sound of a women’s voice.

No images of women should be seen in public places, and so on.

Though the women have the support of some liberal rabbis, the now overwhelmingly Jewish Orthodox population of the city is determined to make Jerusalem not just the de jure capital of a greater Israel, but de facto a totally Jewish city. The Vatican’s fears of 1981 have become even more pressing, but require ever more delicate handling.

Irish fears over Papal Nuncio for London

The Irish ambassador to the Holy See, in a memo signed on May 18, 1981, expressed to the Vatican Secretariat of State the fears of the Irish Government that the proposed appointment of a papal nuncio to Britain would lead to political difficulties.

Ambassador Francis Coffey claimed the appointment would result in the ”the creation of doubt and dismay in the minds of Irish Catholics”.

They would, so he claimed, see it as an attempt to separate them further from their co-religionists in the North.

The matter was discussed at a private diplomatic lunch later in the year which Mr Coffey had with Msgr Giovanni Tonucci, a member of the Vatican Council for the Public Affairs of the Church.

The Irish government’s fear was that the nuncio would be seen as having some jurisdiction in the North, and that the appointment would only reinforce in the eyes of the Irish people the ”unnatural division of Ireland”.

These fears were unfounded. The Irish ambassador in London dealt with diplomatic matters relating to the See of Armagh, in so far as it was part of Britain.

But a papal nuncio is a diplomat appointed to a government, not to a hierarchy.

The London appointment would have had no effect in fact on the status of the Archbishop of Armagh as Primate of All Ireland, albeit that a large part of his diocese and of the province of Ulster was part of Britain.

Nor would it have had any affect on the unity of the Irish hierarchy.

Diplomatic relations were finally established between Britain and the Holy See in January 1982, though since the early 19th Century there had been less formal diplomatic links between the two.

The eventual arrival of a Papal Nuncio in London had no effect on the relations of Ireland and Britain, which, unlike Ireland, still maintains a full ambassador to the Vatican at Rome.

The harp has been the State symbol of Ireland since it was adopted by then Lord of Ireland, Henry the VIII, back in the early 1500s.

He had been given a gift by the Pope of a harp that was said to have belonged to Brian Boru that had been brought to Rome by his son who died there back in the 1000s. This inspired the symbol.

However, thanks to its legendary association with St Patrick since the rise of St Patrick’s Day as a national festival in the middle of the 1700s, the shamrock had been adopted as a popular symbol of Ireland. These different symbols cause no trouble at all to Irish people. But they did in the 1970s to the Germans.

The Irish export industry and the Irish government were dismayed to learn that the shamrock, or trefoil symbol rather, was already in use by a German milk company for its products and that they had registered it.

Coras Trachtla was ruled against by a court in DÏsseldorf. They were forbidden by law to use the shamrock in promotional activities, despite its widespread association in the minds of most Germans with Ireland.

This was no trivial matter, nor was it a source of much amusement to the Government. Important issues were at stake.

By August 1981 the legal actions by the German firm had reached Tokyo, where the Irish embassy was forced to take action against them.

A large file is devoted to the war of words with the German company, authorities and law courts over the use of the shamrock.

If it could be said to be a ‘national emblem’ it could be used, as such things could not be registered or patented. But if it was merely a traditional or popular symbol, with no official standing, it could be registered and had been.

The file contains pages of extracts from learned authors and from dictionaries dealing with the history of the shamrock, its mythical use by St Patrick, and its Irish associations over the centuries.

Legal minds of great acuity were bent to the task of winning the war. (Actually the shamrock only began to be used as an Irish emblem in 1681. Indeed, ancient Irish sources are silent about its use by St Patrick, or anyone else.)

The issue was resolved in the end. Deirdre McPartlin of the Enterprise Ireland office in DÏsseldorf had never even heard of it even being an issue, at any level, let alone in high diplomatic channels.

And in any case disallowing Ireland to use the shamrock would now probably be contrary to EU rules of trade.

New claim that papal intervention might have saved Bobby Sands

The newly released papers reveal a claim that an intervention by a papal envoy to Northern Ireland might have saved the life of Bobby Sands.

During the course of 1981, the hunger strikes over political status in HM Prison The Maze at Long Kesh in Co. Down was the cause of continuous anxiety to the Irish and British governments, and to the Vatican as well.

Pope John Paul II was concerned enough to send his own personal private secretary, Newry-born priest Fr John Magee, and long-time Vatican insider, to Northern Ireland. Fr Magee arrived at the prison for talks with Bobby Sands on April 28.

Sands had been elected member of parliament for Fermanagh and Tyrone on April 9.

The hunger strike protest over the removal of ‘political status’ for IRA prisoners which he had begun on March 1 was then attracting worldwide attention.

The papers reveal that Fr Magee later reported to Humphrey Atkins, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that Bobby Sands had told him that he would come off his strike if he could have a meeting with a British official, to be witnessed by three fellow prisoners and two priests.

Offer refused

The offer was refused. The British government saw it as an attempt to open negotiations. They were then adamant they would not talk to terrorists.

Bobby Sands died on May 4. His death was followed by nine others among the hunger striking prisoners.