Putting trust in princes

Putting trust in princes Dublin's Archbishop William Walsh
100 years on…
This paper believed President Wilson would support Ireland and Poland in the same way, writes Gabriel Doherty


Given that the Versailles Peace Conference formally convened on the same day that The Irish Catholic of January 18, 1919 appeared, it was inevitable that the paper would give it pride of place in its columns. While most coverage consisted of a restatement of existing opinions, there were one or two novel and noteworthy elements.

The previous week’s adulation for American President Woodrow Wilson continued, with more detail added about Wilson’s visit to Rome, and meeting with the Pope, earlier in the month.

What emerges from the coverage of the ‘secular’ leg of this trip was confirmation that Wilson’s popularity was not restricted to newspaper editors, but was genuinely shared by the ‘ordinary’ people of the city of Rome (indeed of Europe, more generally). The description of his passage through the Eternal City carries distinct overtones of the welcome afforded conquering emperors in days gone by:

“Ovation followed ovation as he passed along the Via Nazionale to the Quirinal [home, then and now, to Italy’s Head of State]. The slope of Monte Cavallo … was alive with people, who closed in after the cortege and who filled the piazza in front of the Palace. Twice Mr Wilson had to appear on the balcony to satisfy the sea of people below. Above, also, buzzing aeroplanes and dirigibles took part in the joyful welcome.”


Ever since the end of Great War, historians have debated the issue of which figure, or what contemporary development, was the most significant in terms of its contribution towards bringing the carnage of the Great War to an end. But for the masses who were alive at the time, there seemed no point to such a debate. For them the story was simple.

Germany had been on the verge of a crushing victory, until Wilson, and the massed armed ranks of the vibrant young Republic over which he presided, had, US cavalry-style, appeared over the horizon and saved the day, the timing of his and their arrival in the ‘Old World’ being not just fortunate but positively providential. Given such a view it is no surprise that the ordinary subjects and citizens of this ‘Old World’ had come to invest in him not just national but their personal hopes and dreams for the future – with little reference to the sad reality that millenarian expectations of any individual are rarely satisfied.

One portent of the rapid fall from grace that was soon to be Wilson’s lot came in the middle of a review of the English press’s coverage of this very visit to Rome. In the course of this reference was made to rumours of the allegedly ‘anti-Irish’ nature of his political outlook. The Irish Catholic was having none of it, for if this were true “his outspoken utterances on the Polish question and his insistent demand that a free and independent Poland…need some explanation”.

With “the position of both countries being ‘on all fours’ as regards their long period of oppression by a foreign Power”, surely Wilson would not be so duplicitous as to consent to the application of a different standard to both countries – to treat the Polish Question as an international one, while the Irish remained a domestic matter for the England to dispose of as it would?

How could a President who, it was rumoured, was contemplating the despatch of an expeditionary force to assist reborn Poland to overcome its labour pains, contemplate with equanimity the prospect of Ireland remaining the plaything of the new ministry, packed with ‘die-hard’ Tories, now ensconced at Westminster? The prospect seemed too far-fetched to even warrant discussion. At least, for now.

The addendum to the paper’s prior coverage of the papal leg of Wilson’s visit to Rome was less to do with popular opinion and more with the substance of the discussions between the President and Pope Benedict XV.

It had been reported in the anti-clerical press in Italy that during these talks that Benedict had sought Wilson’s support, even at this late hour, for his inclusion among the invitees to Versailles; and also that papal diplomats, in circulating a note to European capitals on the Holy Father’s attitude to the Palestinian question, had sought to pre-empt the conference’s discussion of said topic.

The paper stressed that neither rumour was true – although given that it had been championing the former idea for all it was worth for as long as the idea of a peace conference had been in the public domain, it could hardly have been said to have been pleased with this state of affairs.

The paper also reproduced the papal encyclical on the conference that had first been promulgated in Rome, and published in its columns, in December, along with an accompanying updated note from Dublin’s Archbishop Walsh to the clergy of his diocese, who were enjoined to read the encyclical to their congregations at Sunday Mass.

The Archbishop had been on record for some time as repudiating the type of domestic home rule settlement of the Irish Question indelibly associated with the name and party of John Redmond, but if he harboured any misgivings about an international gathering that omitted this same question from its agenda, he had not shown it on this occasion.

Rather did he direct that for the duration of the conference, the Collect during daily Mass, and the Rosary that was enjoined to be said after final Sunday Mass, were to be offered up for the cause of a just and lasting peace.

Interestingly the main editorial for this number was devoted to an entirely distinct topic: the structure of governance and decision-making within the Church of Ireland (with aspersions as to its very legitimacy thrown into the mix). The matter had come into the public domain over a recent case before the Church’s Court of the General Synod, regarding a proposal that candidates for ordination would henceforth be required to have passed a theological examination from a recognised School of Divinity.

The merits and demerits of the proposal was not the issue that primarily concerned the editor of The Irish Catholic; rather he focused on the composition of the Court that had deliberated on the matter, and the comments made by those contesting and adjudicating on the issue.

Noting that this Court had a preponderance of lay over Church lawyers, he concluded this situation was not a matter of chance, but the inevitable consequence of the exclusively political origins of the Church of Ireland. Not alone was this objectionable in itself, but even more troubling were the comments made by the Lord Chancellor of Ireland (one of the lay lawyers in question) while expressing his opinion on the question.

He expressly stated that since the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 all powers enjoyed by its Bishops were derived solely from the new Constitution enacted on foot of same.

How, the editor wondered, was such a state-sanctioned interpretation of episcopal authority to be squared with “the ‘continuity’ or the ‘branch’ theory of the origin” of same – the idea of a ‘divine commission’ held by bwishops through a process of apostolic succession from the original disciples, and thus from Jesus himself.

Of course, from his point of view the answer was that they could not, and the dilemma was simply another example of the “absurdities and inconsistencies of which Protestantism, wherever it exists, is the prolific forbear”.

As a result Catholics could “only regard with pity those Protestants who are kept in the City of Confusion through inability to see the light which should so plainly illuminate their path”.

Read today, the entire editorial is a painful reminder that for all the hopes that were entertained across Europe for a new and peaceful future following the recent slaughter, memories of still older antagonisms and bloodshed within Ireland remained very fresh indeed, and it would require very little for them to be reactivated.

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