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Mary Kenny: Deference not reverence let McQuaid rule country

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Archbishop John Charles McQuaid

Archbishop John Charles McQuaid

Archbishop John Charles McQuaid

IN the Ireland in which I grew up, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid was an all-powerful figure. But he didn't take this power: he was given it.

Politicians across the spectrum prostrated themselves before this Prince of the Church: Sean MacBride, who thought any association with the British monarchy was a despicable form of 'fawning', nevertheless fell to his knees to kiss John Charles's Episcopal ring at every available opportunity.

Pressure from John Charles caused then health minister Noel Browne to recant on his proposal for a Mother and Child scheme (which might have opened the door to fertility control). But no-one forced Mr Browne to recant. He chose to do so, because John Charles represented power, and politicians will defer to power.

So did the media. A call from the Archbishop's Palace at Drumcondra was enough to make journalists and editors alike tremble. He once made it known that he did not approve of the phrase "as an aphrodisiac" (it was reported that rhino-horns, ground down, were "an aphrodisiac"). This had to be replaced with the confusing euphemism "used for medicinal purposes".

The arts, too, bowed before his sway. John Charles had no statutory power to close down theatres when a play displeased him. Unlike in Britain, there was no theatre censorship in Ireland.

But theatre managements usually crumbled when he made his disapproval known, as he did with JP Donleavy's 'The Ginger Man', and a production of Tennessee Williams's 'The Rose Tattoo', which mentioned a condom.

Why didn't people stand up to this domineering ecclesiastic? There was a strange amalgam of motives: fear, maybe, but also a belief that his values represented the majority of the people.

And a kind of Borgia glamour played a part in his status. He acted the Lorenzo di Medici part, sweeping into a room in full canonicals and operatic cloak. At a reception, he would be seated on a throne-like chair, while guests would be led up to be 'presented' to him.

Ireland was often disparaged as a 'poor and plain' state in those decades of the 1940s and '50s. English writers like Nancy Mitford would make mockery of the simplicity of Irish life, and the evident lack of aristocratic splendour. John Charles's imperious style was a kind of compensatory defence. We didn't have dukes -- but, by God, we had John Charles!

It was, of course, deplorable that he prohibited Catholics from attending TCD.

Yet there was a sneaking regard for his chutzpah in standing up to what was still an old Unionist bastion (he wasn't a Cavan nationalist for nothing). Until the 1900s, hadn't Trinity itself refused to admit Irish Catholics? And there was also some sport to be had in devising ways to outwit McQuaid's ban. The Bishop of Kerry was known to be 'liberal' on the TCD issue, and many a dispensation was obtained in that way.

Some people did stand up to McQuaid, though. When Margaret MacCurtain, the historian and Dominican nun, was studying at UCD, John Charles asked to see her academic notes, just to check there wasn't anything subversive to faith. Margaret went to the superior of her Dominican order, and this formidable nun refused McQuaid's request: the Dominican order was not subject to the Archbishop of Dublin!

Nuns and priests had a repertory of jokes about John Charles, which is always a way of dealing with power. One involved McQuaid asking a confirmation pupil a question about the Holy Trinity: but the child had a speech impediment and wasn't able to answer clearly. "I can't understand," the Archbishop said, scoldingly. "You're not SUPPOTHED to UNDERSTHAND," the child lisped. "It's a MYSTERY!" He was rendered speechless.

Among the bohemian classes, amazingly, there was a certain gra for McQuaid, because it was said he was fond of drunken poets (he was good to Patrick Kavanagh). He also had a soft spot for 'the travelling people', at a time when respectable folk disparaged 'tinkers'.

By the end of his reign, his power was dwindling: Vatican II changed much within the church, and television much in society.

He had a reputation for being strict on priests who might be tempted into sexual relationships: there was an army of volunteer busybodies around Dublin ready to report to John Charles if any young priest was even seen with a woman not his sister.

People would have expected him to be draconian in punishing and correcting any form of sexual abuse.

But it now seems that, as Lord Acton so memorably said, "All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Unchecked power, whether assumed or given, always has the same outcome.

Irish Independent