Conway saw Lemass as an ally
Though seen as a 'moderniser', the Taoiseach could be adept at appeasing the bishops, writes Bryce Evans
With the publication of the report into the Claudy bombing the reputation of Cardinal William Conway has taken a pummelling. Cardinal Conway -- a plump, avuncular, pipe-smoking prelate -- oversaw the Irish church's modernisation during the fire-and-brimstone-lite Vatican II era. But last week came dark claims that in 1972, Cardinal Conway colluded with the British government to protect bomber priest Fr James Chesney from prosecution.
Allegations of collusion between the Catholic Church in Ireland and the British state raise questions about what kind of private relationship Cardinal Conway, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland between 1963 and 1977, had with the rulers of the Republic.
For such a significant figure in modern Irish history, Cardinal Conway is under-researched. This is because his personal papers, which are held by the Armagh Diocese, are closed to the public. What's more, Jack Lynch (who was Taoiseach at the time of the Claudy bombings and returned for his second term in office the year Cardinal Conway died) burned all of his private papers on leaving office. This leaves only official documents, which are notoriously stiff in tone and content. Fortunately, while researching a new book on Lynch's predecessor, Sean Lemass, I gained exclusive access to sections of Cardinal Conway's private papers.
Lemass was Taoiseach when Conway was made Cardinal in 1965. Contemporary newsreel shows him kneeling on the tarmac of Dublin Airport, poised to kiss the episcopal ring as the rotund Cardinal Conway steps off the plane from Rome. Yet, according to some historians, "the architect of modern Ireland" verged on agnosticism. Tom Garvin, Lemass's latest biographer, argues that he conformed to the rituals of the Catholic tribe whilst not being much of a believer. Evidence from the Conway papers suggests otherwise.
In the Conway-Lemass correspondence, one document in particular stands out. Beneath a pile of fawning but brief exchanges is a long letter Cardinal Conway wrote to Lemass on his retirement as Taoiseach. This document is particularly telling about the closeness of the Taoiseach to the cardinal and, by extension, the Irish church to the Irish State. At length, Cardinal Conway describes the personal warmth between him and Lemass and heaps praise on him for the "understanding and helpfulness which you showed at all times in church-State relations". It is obvious that Cardinal Conway thought of Lemass as an ally.
Compared to Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid, Cardinal Conway represented compassionate Catholicism and an easing of the authoritarianism of the bishops. And like Cardinal Conway, Lemass was a reformer. But when in office, Cardinal Conway and Lemass's relationship was one of conservative collusion in a decade of rapid social change.
As a 'moderniser', Lemass has been placed closer to Cardinal Conway than McQuaid. But McQuaid regularly corresponded with his superior in Armagh praising the "cooperation" of Lemass. When a book-sharing scheme which threatened McQuaid's sectarian principles was mooted, McQuaid marched to Leinster House; he was "glad to report that today I saw the Taoiseach and that the proposal to conjoin TCD new library and the National Library will not be heard of again".
Lemass had been granting McQuaid favours for quite some time. During the Emergency he'd given the archbishop a petrol allowance of 50 gallons per month when the general public made do with one.
In the same manner as Cardinal Conway assured the authorities in 1972 that he would "see what could be done" about Chesney, quietly moving him to a parish in Donegal, Lemass, like his predecessor de Valera, became adept at appeasing the bishops from behind closed doors.
In the mid-Sixties, the early years of Cardinal Conway's primateship and the last of Lemass's premiership, republican violence lay dormant. By 1969 things had changed. Lemass, his health rapidly deteriorating in retirement, underestimated the political resolve behind the nightmare unfolding in Northern Ireland, predicting that it would only take a wet weekend to dampen the enthusiasm of civil rights activists.
By 1972, the bloodiest year of the Troubles, Lemass was dead and Cardinal Conway, his friend and confidant, was sending Chesney to Coventry. Many things had changed; but private deals between church and State, it seems, had not.
Bryce Evans is a doctoral research scholar at the School of History and Archives and Humanities Institute of Ireland, University College Dublin