Sean MacBride and the long, baleful shadow he cast
The 'mad monk' was our weirdest foreign minister
Given the weighty contents of his inbox (Vladimir Putin, Ebola, a possible British exit from the EU, and those inescapable and dreary steeples), our decorous and diligent Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan probably does not think too much about his predecessors. But he must have moments when he ponders the apostolic succession, and thinks of the exotic cast of characters who have sat in his chair.
These include, inter alia, a seasoned killer (Aiken), a world-famous hydrologist (Dooge), a medical doctor (Hillery), an English-born dandy with a taste in Imagist poetry (the first FitzGerald), and his son, the designer and consumer of Aer Lingus timetables (the second FitzGerald).
The weirdest of all of Mr Flanagan's predecessors made some headlines last week, though. It turns out that the most abject and servile statement of Catholic piety since independence was not written by the then Taoiseach, John A Costello, as usually assumed, but rather by Sean MacBride, the external affairs minister from 1948-51.
He had the whole cabinet formally profess their desire to "repose at the feet" of the then Pope before resuming his famous search for MI5 spies in the diplomatic bureaucracy. This kind of white noise would matter little if MacBride had not been leader of a small party that prided itself on its social radicalism. His indulgent attitude towards priestcraft and theocracy reads today like a sort of dry-run for the later schemes of Frank Duff, Garret FitzGerald and Declan Costello, that is to say, their cynical attempts to pretend that you can extract the social nutrients from Catholicism without gagging on the doctrinal pulp.
MacBride's prostration before the Bishop of Rome must send us back to Conor Cruise O'Brien's extraordinary profile of him from 1952. Faced here with a man who resembled "some mad monk of romance", O'Brien explained what it felt like to be trapped in a lift with him. "It is as if one of those death-masks, of Tone or of Emmett, which are to be found in glass cases in certain patriotic houses, were to open its eyes and look out at you." Not the type of impression Mr Flanagan would care to generate at a meeting of EU foreign ministers, you will agree, but suggestive all the same. This mad and grovelling monk continues to haunt us today for various reasons.
Firstly, MacBride evolved a diplomatic style that prioritised the occasion over the outcome. And gesture diplomacy of that kind has done us few favours. With little enough rational analysis, MacBride vetoed Irish membership in the post-war common defence arrangements as anchored by Nato on standard Anglophobic grounds. This decision led naturally to an idealisation of the United Nations, just as soon as we were allowed in. MacBride's flamboyant diplomatic paranoia outlived him, and was to be resurrected in style by Charles Haughey during the Falklands War when he chose to antagonise the British at EU level, even though he was simultaneously supposedly wooing Mrs Thatcher during the hunger strikes.
Secondly, MacBride's attitude towards western defence also re-emerged in Justice Brian Walsh's concurring opinion in Crotty v An Taoiseach, the famous Supreme Court case from 1987 that barred Garret FitzGerald from ratifying the Single European Act without a referendum. Justice Walsh hinted ominously here that the Nato members of the EU might construe Ireland's ratification of this act as an Irish promise not to "impede…co-operation in the field of security in the framework of the Western European Union or the Atlantic Alliance", and that they might also go on to form new war-mongering "combinations" at the UN or in the Council of Europe. Only the People could consent to such enormities. MacBride could easily have written this.
He also finally forces us to confront the relationship between ideology and childhood, a good theme for 2016. We know more than we want to today about the capitulation of the nationalist state to bullying clerics who asserted the right to essentially steal the children of unmarried women or rape victims. But what of the effect of nationalism on the children of the revolutionaries themselves?
MacBride makes a melancholy case study here. Consider his domestic arrangements. His father had been executed in 1916, leaving him in the care of his mother, Maud Gonne. Tom Garvin's thumb-nail sketch of mater deserves amplification. He explained how amidst her myriad preoccupations, Gonne made time to develop a tawdry anti-Semitism, date French fascists in her youth, and openly sympathise with Mussolini's system in Italy and with aspects of the Nazi experiment. "She also believed in witchcraft", Garvin noted deadpan.
Baby Sean probably never had a chance. His debts to his parents rather resemble those amassed by Tomas Og MacCurtain, the son of the murdered Cork lord mayor. When faced with a death sentence for murdering a guard on Patrick Street in Cork city in 1940, a petition for mercy reached de Valera.
As mitigating factors, the petition cited "only hysterical and unbalanced advice available from early childhood: unbalanced by female relations' adulation: ghouls glorified the tragedy of his father's death until he became elated: complete absence of balanced male control and advice: heredity: proved insanity on both sides: and the misfortunes of his birth." Only in Ireland.