Sunday 21 December 2014

The strange ways of a `control freak'

Published 21/11/1999 | 00:11

John A Murphy hails a vivid biography and says the silly bits should be disregarded John Charles McQuaid By John Cooney O'Brien Press: £25 AS A TEENAGER, I had a lively interest in (no, you haven't guessed it) things liturgical and rubrical. On a rare visit to Dublin during the early years of the McQuaid episcopate, I was fortunate enough to see the man himself in full canonicals presiding at a high Mass in the Pro-Cathedral. He looked every inch the prince-bishop and seemed very conscious of the role. Such ecclesiastical grandeur! We had nothing like this in my native diocese of Cloyne, or even in my adopted diocese of Cork. In the clerical circles I moved in as a young teacher (I know, I know!, I should have been a bishop myself) there was a favourite story told about John Charles to illustrate the impact of his intimidating personality. On a confirmation visit to the outskirts of Dublin, he was accompanied by a terrified young chaplain who nervously broke the frosty silence of the journey as the limousine glided through a certain village. ``Your Grace, isn't Goatstown a funny name?'' he giggled. ``Goats, too, Father,'' came the chilling response, ``are God's creatures.''John Charles McQuaid

What a pity then that its publication was preceded by a tawdry controversy about the archbishop's alleged paedophiliac proclivities. The author was badly served by this as it diverted attention from the substance of a serious biographical study. The dustjacket does not even mention the sex allegations which in the text account for only four pages or so out of more than five hundred. Cooney was unwise to let himself be mixed in these media discussions, doggedly insisting that the allegations would be substantiated when the book appeared.

Well, a close scrutiny of the controversial pages and their accompanying references, confirms beyond doubt that there is no firm evidence the archbishop was ever involved in any paedophiliac activity. The whole thing is a bottle of smoke. The `documentation' is nothing more than third-hand stuff, anonymous opinions, subjective impressions, hearsay, dúirt sé - dúirt sé. The notion that Noel Browne's semi-fictional essay `A Virgin Ireland' is a primary source is just plain silly. Browne's notorious bias makes him an unreliable witness, and his description of McQuaid as a `pederast' (a man who indulges in sexual activity with a boy) is outrageous defamation. In short, it was an error of judgement on John Cooney's part ever to have dragged this grotesquely sleazy stuff into an important book.

A biographer who has given years to research and writing naturally tends to maximise the importance of his subject. Thus the subtitle, ``Ruler of Catholic Ireland,'' begs a question. It could be argued, for example, that the Catholic ethos of the State had been firmly formed by the time McQuaid was consecrated archbishop of Dublin in 1940 or even when he became an influential adviser on the drafting of a new constitution some years earlier.

There is also the point that each bishop is the supreme ecclesiastical authority in his own diocese, and some of McQuaid's contemporaries were very important personalities who lorded it locally as well as being forceful figures in the episcopal body as a whole. One thinks of Cornelius Lucey of Cork and of Michael Browne of Galway. The episcopal ban on Catholics attending Trinity College was a national one rather than being a Dublin archdiocesan edict, as Cooney seems to suggest at times. The ban, incidentally, reflected the episcopal anti-Protestant, anti-humanist conviction that there were worse things than violence or even sex. That attitude was well caught in a contemporary jingle: Young men may loot, perjure and shoot

And even have carnal knowledge

But however depraved, their souls will be saved

If they don't go to Trinity College.

In the end the bishop backed down and put the best face possible on their reasons for lifting the ban in 1970. In reality, of course, here as in other areas of Irish Catholic life, their lordships had no choice but to trot after the faithful who were demonstrating their independence from the 1970s onwards. As Voltaire once caustically observed, ``once the people began to reason, all is lost.''

AT ANY RATE Cooney is right in stressing McQuaid's central role in church-state relations. This was partly because of his forceful personality, but also because Dublin is where the action is, both for secular and ecclesiastical politicians, and where direct contacts and access are readily at hand in a way not available to far-away provincials. During critical phases in the `Mother-and-Child scheme' controversy in 1951, for example, crucial developments were played out at the convenient venues of government buildings and the archbishop's palace at Drumcondra.

McQuaid's dealings with the politicians of his time are described here in fascinating detail, particularly the relationship with Eamon de Valera. Their friendship went back a long way, and McQuaid, then president of Blackrock College, did his utmost as adviser on de Valera's draft constitution to `catholicise' that document as far as possible. This led to a certain coolness between the two men. De Valera, though a devout son of the Church, had a fine sense of church-state distinction, and had no intention of accepting a clericalist one-true-church stamp on his constitution. This independence of mind, notably expressed in his resistance to clericalist pro-Franco pressures during the Spanish Civil War, marks de Valera out from the gross clerical obsequiousness of such politicians in the Labour and Fine Gael parties as William Norton and John A. Costello.

As well as dealing with important church-state issues like the `Mother-and-child scheme' episode, the book covers the many instances of the Archbishop's determination to impose Catholic standards of `moral' (frequently read `sexual') behaviour on the Dublin faithful. It is hard not to agree with Cooney's contention that McQuaid was a `control freak,' often to an absurd degree. His concerns ranged from a protest to Radio Eireann about a quite innocuous lyric played on a `Hospitals Requests' programme to his egregious attempts to stop an Ireland-Yugoslavia soccer match. A well-known commentator was among those prepared to boycott the game at McQuaid's request. As I recall, this was the occasion of a splendid press headline: `Reds turn Greene Yellow.'

COONEY'S book meets an essential criterion of good biography that it should illuminate the period as well as the subject. A biographer, it should also be said, is not obliged to like his subject, but must understand him and convey that understanding to the reader. Cooney has a harsh, indeed a hostile approach to McQuaid: the warts dominate. Even the archbishop's charitable endeavours are grudgingly depicted, and his private kindness, amply testified by those who knew him, hardly appear at all. Yet the author writes sympathetically of McQuaid's sometimes difficult and lonely boyhood, and of the pathos of his retirement and final illness.

Though experts like Dermot Keogh and John Bowman have already revealed some of the McQuaid material appearing here, Cooney's use of a wide range of source material gives his work an authoritative stamp. As a controversial portrait of a remarkable figure and as an important contribution to modern Irish historiography, it can be confidently recommended to history students and the general reader, with a strict injunction to disregard the silliness of pages 284 - 287.

* John A Murphy is Emeritus Professor of Irish History, University College, Cork

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