Thursday 24 January 2019

Catholic bishops' 'secret service' kept tabs on communists

John Cooney reveals previously unknown files kept by the Church's hierarchy on suspected red sympathisers in the late 1940s and 1950s.

YOU have heard of the FBI and J Edgar Hoover in the United States at the height of Joe McCarthy's Communist scare. But do you know about the CIB?

The 'CIB' - the Catholic Information Bureau - was an intelligence-gathering secret service set up by the Irish Hierarchy in 1948, when fear of a Communist takeover of Western democracies including 'Catholic Ireland' soared to paranoid levels. The Bureau's 'spy masters' were the Bishops, whose two coordinators were Bishop James Staunton of Ferns and the Bishop of Raphoe, William McNeely.

The CIB's function was "to keep abreast of the activities of Communists". The Catholic Truth Society, the forerunner of Veritas Publications, was the Bureau's HQ and secretariat in Veritas House at 7 and 8 Lower Abbey Street, Dublin. Like ecclesiastical James Bonds, the CIB planted "moles" inside the nascent communist bodies, and kept files on individuals such as the general secretary of the Irish Communist Party, Michael O'Riordan.


It informed parish priests of the names of covert communists in their communities, and on occasions collaborated with Government ministers by handing over files to them for political censure. It also regularly tipped-off trade union leaders about subversive infiltrators in their ranks.

As part of its watch, the Bureau took notes of the public activities of known Communists, assembled confidential information from "moles" of meetings and obtained plans for future communist-inspired events. On more than one occasion, "we were able to give authoritative information to trades unions about certain of their members who were participating in Communist activities", boasted the 1949 report.

"This information was usually unknown to the labour leaders themselves," said the report.

"Where the names of agents throughout the country come to light, the normal course was to account the parish priest of the facts.

"A list of all those active in Communist organisations or attending the meetings of such bodies is being kept," it went on.

CIB was satisfied that through its moles, the efforts of the Communists were making little headway, but they were wary of the activities of Marxist-minded IRA members.

"Hitherto, the Communists have failed to prevent this leakage of information. They seem to have recruited few members.

"Among their most active propagandists have been a few British ex-internees who had belonged to the Left wing of the IRA and who had been involved in the terrorist activities of that body in England. They are now settled in Dublin.

"Unofficially, the Bureau was able to give some information to the Government about some of these agents."

By 1952, the Bureau reported that "a list of communist agents in each of the (26) dioceses has been compiled". It noted that the almost 100-strong Irish Workers' League printed its publications in England with a circulation of about 4,000. It had added the Connolly Clubs to their records. The CIB could not say how widely the 'Irish Democrat' was being distributed in the Republic, because the bulk of its copies were sold among Irish exiles in Britain. "Specialised training for Communists was given in the headquarters in Pembroke Street," the Bureau claimed.

"The course lasted a week and about 40 members attended."

Special efforts, it revealed, were made in 1949 to extend the Connolly Clubs in England

In 1952, it noted that the Irish Workers' League hoped to send 100 Irish delegates to a Communist Youth Festival in Sheffield, but mustered only 40. "One of these took the part of a priest in an anti-clerical play. He wore clerical dress while going through the streets and was under the influence of drink.

"This is in accordance with a well known communist strategy to discredit priests," wrote Bishops Staunton and MacNeely.

The CIB's files provided the Bishops with fire-power for attacks on Communism in their Lenten Pastoral Letters throughout the 1950s.

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