100 years on…
The end of WWI saw this paper taking a clear anti-Sinn Féin line, writes Gabriel Doherty
Given the seismic nature of the events on the Western Front over the previous month, it is no surprise that The Irish Catholic of November 23, 1918 devoted a portion of its pages to further discussion of several themes it had addressed in the immediate past.
The real focal point of its attention, however, was the immediate future, and specifically the approaching general election, the date of which had just been set as the paper was going to print.
Of the former topics, the ‘legacy issues’ of the war, the most prominently featured were the suggestion (accusation is probably a better term) that Pope Benedict XV had sought the defeat of Italian forces in their struggle against the Austro-Hungarian army, and the re-establishment of Polish independence.
Regarding the former the paper reproduced in full a letter from Pope Benedict XV to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, in which Benedict refuted the charge levelled against him, arguing (convincingly) that he had been even-handed in his attitude to the belligerents during the conflict.
This defence was surely cold comfort, however, given that the Church subsequently found itself shut out of the post-war diplomatic settlements across the continent. This humiliating experience, in conjunction with the enhanced standing of the Italian state arising from its status as a victor in the war, were vital contributory factors that a decade later were to lead the Vatican to seek a way out of its international isolation by means of its signing of the Gasparri-inspired Lateran Treaty.
As regards Poland, the weekly London Letter reported on the joyous scenes attending the celebration of Mass at the Polish church of Our Lady and St Casimir in Shadwell, east London, while at the same time carrying, in its advertising columns, an appeal for Irish contributions to the newly-created Polish Relief Fund.
In the words of the accompanying endorsement in the editorial section of the paper, Poland, “like Ireland…Catholic to the core” whose past “so resembled” Ireland’s own, merited the “practical sympathy” of the Irish as expressed through charity, on the basis that they had been spared the ‘awful experiences’ of their co-religionists in the east of the continent during the war. Based on the figures published in the paper for some time thereafter, the appeal fell on sympathetic ears.
So much for what remained of the past; what shape would the future take? Ireland may indeed have escaped the physical destruction evident in the Russian partition of Poland during the war, but her political landscape had been similarly transformed, and this process was about to move into an even higher gear with the calling of the General Election for Saturday, December 14. Two features of the forthcoming contest were given particular prominence.
The first was the enfranchisement of women, and how they were now eligible to stand as candidates for election. In this context the paper gave extended coverage to a recent, nuanced speech in Manchester by Very Rev. Fr F.C. Hayes, President and founder of the Catholic Temperance Crusade.
During the course of his address Fr Hayes reiterated the Church’s teaching that women’s primary sphere was the domestic one, but added that this did not mean that they should be excluded from the political arena. Far from suggesting that women would be adversely affected by involvement in politics and the accompanying process of social reconstruction, or that their role in the home would be undermined by engagement with the world outside, he argued the opposite: that politics would be enriched, its perspective broadened, and social reform made more complete, precisely because of the addition of women’s voices and their unique perspectives to public debate.
In his own words: “Women’s entry into public life would have an ennobling influence, would purify public opinion and elevate the moral tone.”
It is an argument whose essence is not dissimilar to those who, in our own time, have sought to increase the number of women active in the political life of the country, and a corrective to those who suggest that the Church was uniformly hostile to the cause of female suffrage.
If the question of the proper place of women in Irish politics and society was not a weighty enough subject on its own for one edition of the newspaper, the scope of the second major theme discussed in its pages was even wider: the very destiny of the country itself. It was patently obvious to all that at this stage the home rule party was utterly demoralised and in a state of incipient organisational collapse, even if the cause itself still commanded widespread sympathy, not least in the offices of The Irish Catholic, among the ranks of the senior clergy, and amongst nationalists in Ulster.
It was also patently obvious that the republican bogey, given party political form in Sinn Féin, was straining at the electoral leash. Given this state of affairs, the editor was faced with difficult decisions as to how best to attempt to influence the direction of the Catholic vote in the country over the three weeks before polling day.
One response was to go ‘back to the future’, to revisit older, grander schemes for Irish self-government that were untainted by the stigma of republicanism.
One such, the merits of which had been recently discussed in the nationalist press, was ‘Repeal of the Union’, the cause made respectable by, and indelibly associated with the name of, Daniel O’Connell. The appeal of such a move was that it would create, a la Sinn Féin, an independent Irish parliament (although whether it meant an executive independent of London was not quite clear), while at the same time maintaining a connection with Britain and its empire.
The paper had flown this kite in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, arguing that it offered a means to stem the flow of the tide of public opinion towards the cause of the Irish republic. By November 1918, however, it no longer sufficed to meet the demand for separatism within the country.
The paper’s great fear was that Ulster’s Catholic vote would be split between Home Rule and Sinn Féin candidates in those several seats where there was a genuine prospect of defeating a Unionist candidate. This would gift Ulster unionism a propaganda coup at precisely the moment when the threat of partition was entering the realm of practical politics.
It called attention to the calls from several bishops that some form of pact be worked out to avoid such a scenario – an arrangement that was initiated over the course of the following week following an intervention by Cardinal Logue, perhaps influenced by the paper’s call.
There was, however, a clear anti-Sinn Féin line evident in the editorial columns.
Sometimes this took a mild, allusive form – as when the paper recommended a reconstitution of the non-violent, anti-conscription alliance from earlier in the year, which was characterised by a “spirit of moderation” that was deemed foreign to republicanism.
Elsewhere it was more explicit, such as in its endorsement of the description of the separatist movement as “sinful and foolish” by Bishop Joseph Hoare of Ardagh. The shrill nature of such rhetoric, however, merely highlighted the fact that in this crucial electoral contest, the bishops’ ability to direct their flocks’ political wishes was limited – and they knew it.