The Catholic Church and the Easter Rising
By Prof. Oliver P. Rafferty SJ
From the viewpoint of Catholic moral teaching the 1916 Rising cannot be regarded as just. At the time churchmen were divided over the legitimacy of the Rising in Catholic theological terms. Even bishops well-disposed to the rebels, such as Edward O’Dwyer of Limerick, remained silent in their public pronouncements on this particular aspect of the Rising, although privately he and Bishop Patrick Foley of Kildare and Leighlin disputed the relative merits of the question in a long correspondence. For his part Foley told his priests not to give absolution in the confessional to any rebel who was prepared to kill for his cause.
Among the main instigators of the attempted revolution were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) a secret oath bound organisation which had been publicly condemned by no less a person than Pope Pius IX in 1870. The archdiocese of Dublin, presided over by the advanced nationalist and independence supporter Archbishop William Walsh published every year in the archbishop’s Lenten pastoral letter a condemnation of such secret societies, and warned Catholics of the dire spiritual consequences of membership of such organisations.
In the period immediately after the events of Easter week seven bishops and a number of priests repudiated the attempt not only as reckless in itself but also as contrary to the law of God. This reflected some opinion in the country as town and county councils seemed to line up to condemn what they took to be the folly of the men and women of Easter week.
Initially this was also the position of the Holy See. The Secretary of State at the Vatican, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, sent a telegram on 30 April to the Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Michael Logue, asking the Irish hierarchy to cooperate with the authorities in reestablishing law and order and not to inhibit the task of the government in subduing the rebels. He then sent a second somewhat more diplomatic telegram. To this Logue responded on 2 May that the rebels had surrendered and peace had been restored. This message, according to the Daily Mail, gave the pope much pleasure. The source for that intelligence was probably Cardinal Aidan Gasquet, an English Benedictine monk working in the Roman Curia.
In a typical piece of Vatican intrigue the first telegram was leaked to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and it subsequently appeared in English translation in British and Irish newspapers. In some Irish Catholic circles it generated hostility and resentment.
The difficulty for the Vatican was that Pope Benedict XV had advance notice of the Rising. In March 1916 Joseph Mary Plunkett had sworn his father, George Noble Plunkett a papal count, into the IRB and sent him on a mission to the continent. One aspect of the mission was for Plunkett senior to tell the pope what was going to happen in Ireland at Easter. Plunkett probably saw the pope on 8 April. His subsequent account of the audience is so filled with holes that it is difficult to put much store by its veracity. He claimed that in the course of a two hour audience – in March the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had been allotted half an hour – the pope not only wept copiously repeating ‘the poor men, the poor men’, but that Benedict had actually blessed the volunteers. Plunkett when back in Dublin would tell people that the pope had blessed the Rising.
The difficulty in all this was that the Holy See in the context of World War I had declared that its policy would be one of ‘absolute impartiality’. To have encouraged in any way a revolution in the United Kingdom would to have been tantamount to siding with the Central Powers. Furthermore the outcome of the war might have had implications for the status of the Holy See, the so-called ‘Roman Question’. The Italians had invaded and occupied the Papal States in 1860 and 1870 and the question of the legitimacy of those acts had still not been settled.
Plunkett had been astute enough to tell Benedict that the leaders of the Rising supported the restoration to the papal kingdom. The fact remains that the pope, an experienced and highly accomplished diplomat knew the stakes were too high for him to in any way approve an attempt at revolution, the outcome of which was, as with any revolution, uncertain. Plunkett had also falsely represented to the pope that there were 80,000 armed men in Ireland who would participate in the rebellion. A good probability of success is one of the conditions under Catholic moral teaching that justifies war.
The pope advised Plunkett to speak with Archbishop Walsh about the matter. Plunkett claims that he returned to Dublin on Good Friday and immediately went into the countryside to confer with five different bishops. He told his daughter that he was so exhausted from his travels that he could not remember which bishops he spoke with. He was nevertheless certain that none of these bishops had condemned the Rising. Shortly after noon on Easter Monday, when the Rising had already started, he presented himself at the Archbishop’s House, Dublin. Walsh was too ill to see him and Plunkett gave an account of his Roman expedition to the archbishop’s secretary Mgr. Michael Curran and told him the Rising had begun. Curran was then dispatched to the GPO to gather information for Walsh. He saw James Connolly and spoke with Patrick Pearse. Pearse explained in general terms what was happening and said that some of the insurgents wanted to go to confession. Curran undertook to refer the request to the priests in the nearby pro-cathedral presbytery. Having completed this task Curran then, in a remarkably detached manner, went to the Gresham Hotel for his lunch.
At a gathering of the Standing Committee of the hierarchy’s twice annual meeting in early June, it was decided to set up a committee of bishops to draw up at statement on the Catholic view of insurrection. The committee was headed by Archbishop J. M. Harty of Cashel, and included Bishop Patrick O’Donnell of Raphoe, the treasurer of the Irish Parliamentary Party fund, and Bishop Michael Fogarty of Killaloe a close associate of Bishop O’Dwyer.
Some work was done on the statement. There is a long draft on the theology of rebellion in O’Donnell's scarcely legible hand, in the Armagh diocesan archives. But by October the bishops decided the ‘great and dangerous unrest’ in Ireland was such that it would not then be opportune to issue any such statement because to do so would be ‘unwise’. The situation in Catholic Ireland had changed beyond the ability of the bishops to control and to have condemned the insurrection even at that late stage would have brought the authority of the church into disrepute.
At the same time there was a proposal to make a statement both condemning martial law, which had been in operation since the middle of Easter week, and demanding that the people should rally round the Irish Parliamentary Party which had brought the Home Rule policy ‘to the threshold of success’. Such was the disagreement among the bishops, with opposition especially from Forgarty and O’Dwyer, that it was decided not to issue any statement.
Earlier in the summer there had been clashes between O’Dwyer and General Sir John Maxwell over what the military governor of Ireland had alleged was priestly support of the rebels. In particular Maxwell demanded that O’Dwyer should suspend two of his priests whom he said were involved in subversive activity, and whom he threatened with arrest. Even Logue became involved in the issue of priestly backing for the rebels. In June he spoke publically to refute the idea that the younger clergy were supporters of the rebels or of Sinn Féin, although he did say that the Rising had been foolish and perverse. Logue took the view that had government punished the rebels moderately no one could have condemned it, as it was government action in executing the leaders and in staging wholesale arrests that was exacerbating the agitation in the country. He described the repression as a great act of foolishness.
The most positive contribution that institutional Catholicism made in the course of the Rising was in the activity of priests attending to the dying and the wounded on all sides. This was recognised at the time even by the British military authorities. Priests also played a major part in preparing the condemned leader to face death. Nevertheless these efforts were not sufficient to offset the feeling that churchmen, with some notable exceptions, had shown themselves as decidedly against the insurgents. By doing so, institutional Catholicism risked sacrificing its position in Irish society as the arbiter of Catholic public life.
The bishops learned a lesson in 1916 and by 1918 had joined the party of revolution to defeat the will of parliament in its attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland. This provoked an observation from John Henry Bernard the Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin who said of the Catholic bishops that they were thoroughly disloyal and anti-British. More judiciously he commented that their action had enabled them to regain the confidence of Catholic Ireland, something they had endangered in 1916.
Oliver P. Rafferty SJ is a member of the History department and Director of Irish Programs Boston College