100 years on…
Threats to Catholic education alarmed this paper as the first Dáil met, writes Gabriel Doherty
“We have seen no reason to change our opinion as to the indefensibility from the point of view of Catholic morality of the Rebellion of 1916, nor can any after events, however deplorable, be made to serve as a justification for it. Hence to us the proceedings of Tuesday seem vitiated at core, however loftily inspired their object.”
At last. Ten weeks after the end of the First World War; six weeks after the casting of ballots in the landmark General Election of December 1918; and four weeks after the results of that contest had been announced, and the extent of Sinn Féin’s victory revealed, The Irish Catholic offered its first meaningful commentary on the radical changes that had swept over the national political scene during that tumultuous period.
The occasion of the judgement, of course, was the inaugural meeting of Dáil Éireann, which had taken place in the Mansion House on Tuesday, January 21, 1919, four days before the paper went to press.
This verdict was a negative one.
While both willing to concede that the motives of those who had gathered in Dublin earlier in the week were patriotic and noble, and prepared to admit that at that moment “no man can forecast” where Ireland’s future would lead, the editor could not help but confess that the state of the country that had given rise to these proceedings gave him “cause for grave disquietitude”.
The causes of this concern were both retrospective and prospective. The retrospective element was the constant reference of the republicans back to ‘the events of Easter Week, 1916, [which] were solemnly made the basic fact of the proceedings.’
For The Irish Catholic, which had not alone condemned the Rising when it had occurred, but (unlike most of the rest of the broad Catholic Church on the island) had not subsequently abandoned that position, this was far from a “good omen”.
In its view, as the quotation given at the beginning of this article indicates, the Republic so declared suffered from a particularly virulent form of original sin that could never be made good. Prospectively, the paper indicated that the logical consequences that must flow from this separatist act could only have the most “grave and far-reaching results”, affecting everyone in the country.
The possibility that these results might be literally fatal was obvious, and this precise scenario was highlighted by the killing of two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary in Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary, on the same day as the meeting of the Dáil.
In contrast to the relatively restrained manner in which the paper had passed censure on the Dáil’s existence, the full range of its vocabulary was brought to bear on the perpetrators of this particular act. It was, by turns, a “foul and cowardly murder”, an “abominable misdeed”, and a “dreadful outrage” that brought “shame and grief” upon the nation. The “shedding of innocent blood” that took place during the ambush called “down the vengeance of heaven not only on the county but on the country it disgraces”.
The paper went further still. Invoking Old Testament imagery it demanded that the bare minimum required of those who lived in the locality wherein the killings took place was that they must take an active part in the detection and capture of the perpetrators, as this alone might suffice to “appease outraged Divine Justice”.
Not alone that, but in expressing its opinion that the declaration of that area and its environs as a military district (in effect temporarily suspending civil jurisdiction over same) was “only what might naturally be expected in the circumstances”, it was, in effect, backing the British Government’s suppression of republicans in a manner eerily reminiscent of its response to the Easter Rising itself.
No more than the country as a whole, the paper was now entering dangerous territory. The editor, however, evidently felt compelled to respond to the separatist gauntlet that had been so spectacularly thrown down that week, for a sense of anarchy seemed to be spreading across the land – and as so often in the past, the rebel city of Cork was a well-spring of the spirit of defiance.
The focal point on this occasion was an on-going dispute over the use of the anti-Conscription fund that had been collected during the mobilisation against the proposal the previous Spring. Bishop Daniel Cohalan was seeking to divert the fund towards the cost of building a new cathedral for the diocese, while local separatists were determined to prevent him.
The latest twist in the saga had seen a combined demand from local branches of Sinn Féin, the Labour party, the Gaelic League and the Irish Volunteers, that new trustees be appointed to oversee disbursements from the fund, which they insisted should “be held intact for possible national emergencies”.
By way of response the bishop, in a letter on the subject to a priest in his diocese, reiterated his previous view that trustees could return funds to any subscribers who could prove they had donated (a practical impossibility in most cases), and added a new observation, to the effect that the fund could not be used for purpose other than that for which it was originally formed.
The editor, inevitably, backed Bishop Cohalan’s assessment, arguing that, in seeking to use the money for a new purpose, his critics were guilty of both a breach of faith with the original donors, and a possible breach of the law.
The difficulty with this line of argument, of course, was that this was precisely what the bishop himself proposed to do! The editor was not inclined to point out the inconsistency, but inconsistent it was.
The matter was set to run and run (even beyond the Civil War) – and it should not be underestimated as a significant backdrop to Bishop Cohalan’s evolving response to the burgeoning military campaign in the diocese over the following years.
If the abundant troubles evident within the nationalist movement were not enough, the paper, in its main editorial, was also alarmed at the on-going threat to Catholic interests in education in the city of Belfast, which arose from the proposal before the unionist-controlled corporation to strike a rate for the purposes of funding local educational initiatives.
The editor clearly interpreted this initiative as the thin end of at least two wedges – namely non-denominational education and partition – both of which presented existentialist threats to Catholic interests in Ulster.
The editorial foresaw that such a system would place Catholic school children in the city under the control of ‘Orange’ educational interests, who would be sure to dominate any committee formed by the corporation for the purposes of managing the scheme.
Why, the editor wondered, was the proposal appearing at this time? The superficial answer was that Protestant schools in the city were over-crowded (which he was prepared to concede was the case), and the finance needed to expand the accommodation was not available through the prevailing centralised funding system.
But why did this situation exist, when Catholic schools in the city, which operated under the same system, were not facing the same problems?
The answer, in his view, was that “the wealthy Protestant community has refused or neglected to burden itself” with the obligation to raise the one-third of the necessary capital to build new accommodation, the obtaining of which was required under the existing system to acquire the balance from Dublin Castle.
The Catholic schools in the city had done so, even though fund-raising from within the local Catholic community was more difficult given its relative poverty compared to its Protestant counterpart.
The proposed rates-based system would, therefore, in effect penalise those Catholic schools twice over.
Firstly, because the proposed new Protestant schools would not have to raise funds locally (whereas Catholic schools had had to do so); and secondly, because Catholics in the city (relatively poor and already out of pocket) would now be required to fund the building of those Protestant schools, with no likelihood that ‘their’ schools would receive assistance as their need was not as pressing.
The editorial anticipated that “the Catholics of Belfast …will offer the most determined opposition to this monstrous proposal” and enjoined “their co-religionists in the rest of Ireland” to offer the fullest “moral and material” support to the campaign.
On the eve of St Brigid’s Day in 1919, therefore, the political skies over Ireland were rapidly darkening, with few reasons to believe that the national mood would change for the better any time soon.
A letter from a correspondent to the paper signing himself ‘Maolmochta’ referenced this impending Feast Day of Ireland’s female patron saint. In it, he made what can be interpreted as an oblique reference to the recent electoral triumph of Constance Markiewicz when asking that “in these days of trial and hope” the public would pray a novena to a saint who “like others…of our women saints …had a part and an influence in the public affairs of her time”.
From the perspective of The Irish Catholic in late January 1919, the hoped-for divine intervention could not come fast enough.
Gabriel Doherty teaches in the School of History, University College Cork, and is a member of the Decade of Centenaries Advisory Committee.