Richard Devane SJ: Social Commentator and Advocate, 1876 – 1951
by Martin Walsh (Messenger Publications, €19.95)
Thomas J. Morrissey
This is a welcome tribute to a man of great zeal and energy, of strong social and religious commitment, who influenced many people, but alienated some by his impatience to bring about change.
Born and educated in Limerick, he became a priest in the Limerick diocese, and served for a short while in England before returning to Limerick.
As a curate he became involved in a variety of activities: working with the Vincent de Paul Society, the temperance movement against the abuse of alcohol in the city, and working towards providing leisure outlets for the less well off.
He was active in St Michael’s temperance institute, which provided a variety of clubs for members: clubs in drama, in cricket, rugby, Gaelic games, rowing; and also there were public lectures, a library to encourage reading, and excursions in the summer months.
Devane was responsible for the cricket and drama, but he also availed of the amenities of St Michael’s to run a series of public lectures on social justice and the teaching of Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum. The lecturers were Dr Alfred O’Rahilly and Prof. Smiddy of University College Cork.
Devane supported the trade union movement for workers and especially for women workers in the city factories who were ‘sweating and white slavery without a doubt’.
In November 1917, Devane and two members of Limerick Trades Council called on Frederick Cleeve of Cleeves factory to seek better pay and conditions for its women workers.
They got an improvement in both areas. Devane also set up St Ita’s Association to fight for women’s rights in industry. It represented 400 workers when he left the city in 1918 to join the Jesuits.
Why he joined the Jesuits is not clear. He had been at school with the Jesuits, and he also may have been influenced by the work of individual Jesuits in the field of social justice – Lambert McKenna in his pamphlets on Trade unions and on social justice, the work of Tom Finlay in the Irish co-operative movement, and of Edward Cahill in his promotion of the principles of Rerum Novarum.
As a Jesuit, Devane, like so many in the 1920s, viewed the new Irish state as an opportunity to produce a state that would be fully Irish and Catholic and something of a beacon to the world.
The ideal found expression in the lay organisation set up by Fr Cahill, An Rioghact, and in various expressions of the Catholic Action movement that sought to influence public life. Devane became intensely active in a variety of directions.
He actively campaigned against evil literature and the bad influence of English newspapers, against the danger to moral and physical health of the dance hall craze in the ‘hideous shacks’ across rural Ireland, he disapproved of mixed bathing, sought an extension of the school leaving age, sought to protect Ireland from the false values being promoted on the cinema screens and argued for and may be deemed a founder of the Irish Film Institute.
Devane supported the trade union movement for workers and especially for women workers in the city factories
Speaking generally, he sought to protect youth from what he saw as the degrading influences coming from Britain and America.
He hoped for the development of generations of young men and women who would be deeply Christian, proudly Irish, self-disciplined and an influence for good in the wider world.
In his most celebrated book The Failure of Individualism, published in 1948, which received a prominent and favourable review in the Times Literary Supplement, he argued that since the Reformation the socially united rural world had given way to individualism in social, business and religious practices, which was intensified by the industrial revolution and the migration from the countryside into the cities.
This individualistic, materialistic world had brought about the disaster of two world wars, and that now, in the disastrous condition of post-war Europe, was the time for new structures, new beginnings.
He looked to the middle-class youth of Ireland to provide the leaders needed in the new post-war world.
They, however, it proved, had been largely influenced by the individualism he deplored. Ill for much of his life, Devane kept going, thriving on opposition, not worried at being termed a bigot or a hellfire revivalist.
In fact, his contemporaries in the order termed him a ‘happy warrior’ bent on reforming a world that was out of joint and protecting Irish youth from it.
Just before he died in 1951 he was writing a history of the Vincent de Paul Society and discussing the state of Church and state in Argentina. Peter O’Curry, the celebrated editor of The Standard, on June 8, 1951, dedicated an article on Argentina and the Catholic Church to the memory of Richard Devane.
Devane was very committed to trying to improve the lot of women, especially unmarried mothers. He carried a placard in their support walking up and down in front of the Dáil. Inevitably, he was termed ‘the father of unmarried mothers’.
He strongly argued for better basic education for the workers, and the Catholic Workers’ College in Dublin was one response to that; he impressed on some younger Jesuits the need to help the young boys of the working class and the unemployed, and some responded by going to live with the poor and arguing for the improvement of their housing and their human rights.
Among those younger men was Peter McVerry, who in turn has passed on the baton to a committed body of lay men and women.
This interesting book is marred by one great deficiency: it does not have an index, a serious failing in a historical biography.
The start of the book is slow, having too much padding about relations who might have had some influence on him.
His contemporaries in the order termed him a ‘happy warrior’ bent on reforming a world that was out of joint and protecting Irish youth from it
There are some errors in the book to be noted. The phrase “Catholic action” is used ambiguously, covering all sorts of social activity undertaken by Devane without reference to its parameters set out by Pope Pius XI, in the 1920s not, as suggested, at the end of the 19th Century.
The native place of the Catholic Unionist William Monsell, the first Lord Emly, is usually spelt ‘Tervoe’.
In this biography Martin Walsh has given new life and relevance to a form of “happy warrior” that is very rare in this century.