THE ninth and latest volume of the series Documents on Irish Foreign Policy is remarkable on two counts. It is the first volume on the foreign policy of a coalition government: in this case the Inter-Party government (as it preferred to describe itself) of 1948-51 in which John A Costello was Taoiseach and Sean MacBride (who had been chief of staff of the IRA only 12 years earlier) was the Minister for External Affairs.
In this respect, there are obvious resonances with the present government. Both governments were led by the leader of Fine Gael and the leader of another party chose the foreign policy portfolio. Just as the then-leader of the Labour Party, Eamon Gilmore, became the ministerial occupant of Iveagh House in the present government, so did Sean MacBride as leader of Clann na Poblachta in 1948.
But, on the second count, there are no analogies. What Enda Kenny, supported by Eamonn Gilmore, did in his admirable speech on the Cloyne Report in July 2011 brought an end to the decades of deference that had characteriSed the attitude of successive Irish governments to the Vatican. Eamon Gilmore hammered the point home when Ireland then closed down its permanent diplomatic mission in the Vatican. There followed an unprecedented gap of three years, that only came to an end last week when Ms Emma Madigan presented her credentials to Pope Francis and became Ireland's first female ambassador to the Holy See.
The contrast with Irish foreign policy in 1948-51 is stunning and leaps off the pages of document after document in this volume. For what John A Costello and Sean MacBride then did was to conduct the most cringingly servile and sickeningly obsequious Catholic foreign policy in the history of the State.
It began on only their second day in office when MacBride - over-reacting to an alarmist report from Joe Walshe (the former Secretary of the Department for over two decades and then the devoutly Catholic Irish Ambassador to the Holy See) saying that the Italian left-wing press was reporting that the Inter-Party Government marked a shift to the left - instructed that a message of Ireland's "filial devotion" be sent to Pius XII.
Although it was inspired by MacBride, the message - which is reproduced in facsimile as the first document in this volume - was signed by Costello as 'Prime Minister'. It read: "On the occasion of our assumption of office and our first Cabinet meeting, my colleagues and myself desire to repose at the feet of Your Holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and devotion as well as of our firm resolve to be guided in all our work by the teaching of Christ and to strive for the attainment of social order in Ireland based on Christian principles."
This attitude was rampant and, unsurprisingly, infected even relatively junior officials. One of the more ludicrous examples is Brian Durnin's letter in January 1950 to the secretary to the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, seeking "permission to keep an eye on the (Connolly) Association's literature". He received a reply informing him he had the Archbishop's "permission to read Communist and Marxist literature whenever [his] duties in External Affairs demand it".
A more chilling example is a letter from a First Secretary in Iveagh House to the Consul General in New York relating to the Department's seeking to find out "unofficially and indirectly the conditions on which His Grace the Archbishop of Dublin will allow Irish children to be sent to America for adoption. A statement setting out to these conditions is attached".
But pride of place must go to the unrelenting campaign waged by Joe Walshe from his embassy in the Vatican to ensure that there was no slippage from the most absolutist of Catholic values. Space permits of only one example: his letter to Archbishop McQuaid in March 1950 reporting on the Taoiseach's recent visit to Rome. "I do not, and would not, feel anything in common with my present Minister. It was therefore an immense relief to make such close contact with Jack (John A Costello) and, above all, to feel that his ideas and ideals coincided exactly with my own both about things Roman and things Irish. He gave great edification while he was in Rome and both the Holy Father and Mgr Montini (then in the Vatican Secretariat of State and who became Pope Paul VI in 1963) were very pleased indeed at the visit. Amongst other things about which he spoke to them was the esteem in which he held Your Grace, and he could not say enough about your great work in the Archdiocese. T(hank) G(od) we have such a wonderful Catholic at the head of the Govt.'
A final reflection: Joe Walshe was as notoriously misogynistic as he was polemically Catholic and how he would have reacted to Ireland's sending a woman as ambassador to the Holy See is beyond imagining. Nor can one easily imagine what lies ahead for Ms Madigan in her new appointment. But one can at least take comfort from the fact that the clock will not be turned back and predict that, whatever else she may do, she will not seek to repose at the feet of His Holiness.
Documents on Irish Foreign Policy - Volume IX 1948-1951 (Dublin, 2014). 730 pages. €50.
Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin and one of the joint editors of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy