100 years on…
Ireland greeted the First World War with a mixture of relief and uncertainty, writes Gabriel Doherty
It comes as no surprise to find that the pages of the edition of The Irish Catholic dated November 16, 1918 were dominated by news of the armistice, which had been signed five days before and which terminated the fighting of the First World War.
While legally the conflict did not end for many months, following the negotiation and signing of the peace treaties involving the various belligerents, such technicalities were understandably overlooked in the first days of peace that Ireland, and much of Europe, had known for four-and-a-half years.
Nowhere was the sense of euphoria more evident than in the paper’s ‘London letter’, a weekly column that provided extensive coverage of events within the Catholic Church of England and Wales, with particular emphasis upon the words and deeds of Cardinal Francis Bourne, the-then Archbishop of Westminster.
It noted that the “dominant note” of public sentiment was “an intense satisfaction that the Kaiser had met his desserts; that the ‘mad dog of Europe’ had been muzzled at last”. In the churches, the column continued, “there was a deep and fervent feeling of thanksgiving that God had heard the prayers of the faithful, and that at last the cause of right and justice was to triumph”.
One senses, however, that much of the public reaction to the news was less to the taste of the columnist: the behaviour of officers on the streets, it seems, was indistinguishable from that of rank-and-file soldiers, and many female members of the armed forces joined in the merry-making, with some seen “riding on the top of taxis”.
One senses that such behaviour might have prompted the observation that had the expression of relief at the news “been more dignified, more restrained, it would have rebounded more to England’s credit”.
It is interesting to note that the paper had no such censure for the public response in Ireland to the news, primarily, it seems, because the evident joy so widespread in England was little in evidence on this side of the Irish Sea, at least among Catholics.
Based on the paper’s coverage, the general tenor of the reaction to news of the armistice in Ireland seems to have been simple relief that the killing was over, perhaps tinctured with uncertainty over the future of the country.
Even this emotion was tempered, however, by the realisation that even after the guns fell silent, many continued to die from the wounds they had received in battle, including chaplains who had been caught in the line of fire.
One such figure was Fr Walter Montagu SJ of Portstewart, Co. Derry, who, the paper sorrowfully recorded, passed away in the days following the ceasefire as a result of injuries incurred while participating in the Allied advance in October – the third such death among chaplains of the English province of Jesuits.
The paper faced a genuine difficulty from a Catholic perspective in reporting on the Armistice. If the war indeed had been a just one, as the paper insisted, with the Allies on the side of right confronting “the blood-stained Kaiser, loaded with the execration of the human race”, in comparison to whom Attila the Hun himself was but “a mild prototype”, then why had the Holy See remained neutral during the war, and why was that neutrality welcomed, indeed championed, by The Irish Catholic?
These questions had been left hanging ever since the start of the conflict, and continued to admit of no easy answers even now, after its conclusion.
One strategy the paper had used to hide its discomfiture was to condemn those who themselves assailed the Holy See for its neutrality. While English papers had been occasionally singled out for criticism on this basis, the principal focal point of the attack was the anti-clerical Italian press, which never passed up an opportunity to undermine the credibility of the Vatican in the eyes of the Italian general public.
Much of this press, of course, had found the need to reorient itself earlier in the war, when the government in Rome in effect switched sides from the Central Powers to the Allies, but once the general alignment of forces in the war had become established, subsequent events were invariably viewed through an anti-papal prism.
To take but one example, these titles had just reported that the victories of Italian forces over their Austrian enemies, most recently at the battle of Vittorio Veneto (October 24 to November 3, 1918), had caused the Pope much anguish, bolstering, as they did, the prestige of an Italian state which the Vatican still regarded as illegitimate, given its annexation of the Papal States nearly 50 years before.
(As an aside, a fascinating study of the involvement of Irishmen fighting in the ranks of the papal forces in various battles during the Risorgimento has just been published by Donal Corcoran under the title The Irish Brigade in the Pope’s Army 1860: Faith, Fatherland and Fighting. It is an inherently interesting subject, expertly addressed.)
The personal response from Pope Benedict XV to such charges was given in a letter to Cardinal Basilio Pompilj, Vicar General of Rome, significant portions of which were repeated verbatim in The Irish Catholic.
In it the Pope expressed his delight at seeing the restoration of peace (and, implicitly, the Italian victory); reiterated his previously stated position, that that “territorial questions between Austria and Italy be settled according to the just aspirations of the populations” in the disputed areas (the implementation of which principle, it was widely believed, would work to the advantage of Italy); and noted that the Holy See was one of the first entities to recognise the independence of the various states into which the Austrian Empire had dissolved (thereby hastening the collapse of that Empire).
The triumph of Italy in the war without doubt had an impact on subsequent relations between the state and the Vatican, which, over time, became markedly less frigid. This process was to culminate in the signing of the Lateran Treaty, which normalised relations between the two, just over a decade later – but much water (some of it bloodied) was to flow under the Ponte Sant’Angelo before that reconciliation.
In the meantime, however, the victory celebrations, and the celebrations attending the birthday of King Victor Emmanuel III, acted as a portent of this rapprochement. The Irish Catholic endorsed the perceptive observation from the Rome correspondent of the London Times, that the enthusiastic, and ecclesiastically-sanctioned, involvement of religious groups in such festivities pointed to a more harmonious relationship between the two sources of authority and loyalty in the city – but it immediately insisted that such gestures “in nowise compromise the claim of the Holy See to its rightful possessions”.
In fact, as time would tell, this is exactly what they did come to mean.
If attacking the enemies of the Pope was one ‘coping mechanism’ by which the paper reconciled its support for the war, and its refusal to tolerate criticism of the Pontiff, another was its emphasis upon those issues where there was consensus between the Holy See and the Allies.
As has seen previously in this series, foremost amongst these was the cause of Poland. The date of the Armistice on the Western Front also marks the occasion upon which Poles celebrate the regaining of their national independence after well over a century of domination by the powers that had partitioned her at the end of the 18th Century – Russia, Austria-Hungary and Prussian-dominated Germany.
It is not immediately apparent from this edition of The Irish Catholic that the paper appreciated just how significant the events of the previous week had been from a Polish perspective – although given the confusion that prevailed in Warsaw and the other Polish territories this was a common mistake, shared across Europe.
The paper did, however, give front page coverage to a report from Reuters, which quoted a recent letter from Pope Benedict XV to Monsignor Aleksander Kakowski, Archbishop of Warsaw. In this the Pope wrote that “History has written in letters of gold what Christianity and European civilisation owe to Poland, but it also records how badly she has been rewarded.”
This last point was clearly a reference to the damaging wounds inflicted by the partitions, and Benedict emphasised how his predecessor, Clement XIV, had ploughed a lonely diplomatic furrow in his contemporary condemnation of the dismemberment of the country.
Interestingly, however, Benedict only singled out the subsequent actions of the Russian government for censure, expressing the hope that the nationalities (including the Poles) previously subject to Tsarist dominion “may now decide their own fate and develop and prosper according to their respective ideals and resources”.
Oddly enough, in the power struggle that was even then developing within Poland between the forces of the emphatically Catholic Russophile Roman Dmowski and the German-aligned socialist Józef Piłsudski, this remark, whether intentionally or not, implicitly favoured the latter. And it was, indeed, Piłsudski who emerged as the victor of the struggle, and it was he who dominated Polish public life until his death in 1935 – with many a clash with the Church during those years.
But this was for the future. For the moment The Irish Catholic was content to note the promise from Benedict to Monsignor Kakowski, that he would be made a cardinal at the next consistory – a sure sign that not alone he, but his country’s cause, was riding high in the Pontiff’s esteem.
Given the ultramontane nature of Polish Catholicism, there is every reason to believe that such favour helped to sustain the Poles during the difficulties they faced during the post-war period, not least in the fight against Russian Bolshevism that culminated in the famed Battle of Warsaw in August 1920.
In this hour of victory, amidst these grand turns in geo-strategic politics and international relations, thoughts inevitably began to turn towards home, and the Ireland of the future. In this context The Irish Catholic, in common with most of the rest of Europe, invested an enormous amount of emotional capital in the figure of President Woodrow Wilson, the “great American statesman to whom, under the Providence of God, Europe and the cause of democracy in general owe it so largely that they are delivered from the menace of Prussian militarism”.
It is difficult now to recapture the millenarian expectations that his name inspired at this time. Leading America’s re-engagement with the ‘Old World’ after a century and a half of self-conscious isolationism, his name recognition and moral authority was second to none.
It was he who, through his rhetoric, had done so much to shape public discussion as to the issues underpinning the conflict – of which none was dearer to the hearts of Irish Catholics than the principle of national self-determination.
But if there was a problem in reconciling of the paper’s endorsement of the ‘just war’ interpretation of the conflict with its championing of the cause of the Holy See, the policy of which had implicitly repudiated such a viewpoint, there was also a difficulty in its endorsement of the ‘traditional’ cause of Irish home rule while at the same time lionising a statesman whose name was indelibly associated with national independence.
President Wilson had made it clear that the right to self-determination was only enjoyed by nations – and could Ireland legitimately lay claim to such a status, and such a right, if it was prepared to settle for mere autonomy (and rather limited autonomy at that) within the United Kingdom?
It was thus clear that The Irish Catholic had much work to do if it was to catch up with the intellectual currents sweeping across the continent of Europe, and the mood of militancy on the island of Ireland – and the first measure of same was now just over a month away, with the seminal general election of December 1918.