While the Catholic Church became one of the most important pro-Treaty organisations in the country, some individual clerics offered support to the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War, as Brian Heffernan explains
Despite the omnipresence of the Catholic Church in Irish society, our picture of its role during the revolutionary era is as yet incomplete. The perspectives and involvement of women religious in particular have only recently begun to attract the attention of historians.
The Irish Catholic bishops and their approximately 3,800 priests shared many of the political views of their lay compatriots during the revolution, but constitutional questions were never as important to them as social and cultural issues. Their primary concern was that, whatever the constitutional outcome of the conflict, the social policies of the new state should be based on Catholic teaching, and the Church's catechetical and pastoral mission should be safeguarded.
To the hierarchy and many of the clergy, the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed on 6 December 1921 seemed quite satisfactory. Lobbying by Eamon de Valera persuaded the episcopate not to explicitly endorse the Treaty in its statement of 13 December 1922, but individual bishops and many priests subsequently preached sermons, wrote letters, paid visits and chaired local meetings to urge TDs to vote for it. After the Treaty was ratified on 7 January 1922, Pope Benedict XV sent telegrams of congratulations to Cardinal Michael Logue of Armagh, as well as to the Dáil and King George V.
Support for the Provisional Government
Over the months that followed, clerics took various initiatives to avert civil war between the pro- and anti-Treaty sides. Archbishop Edward Byrne of Dublin, together with the lord mayor of Dublin, organised a conference attended by Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, Éamon de Valera and Cathal Brugha at the Mansion House in April 1922, but to no avail.
Leadership of the anti-Treaty camp was in the meantime shifting away from the politicians to the military men. The bishops issued a statement on 26 April 1922 asserting that legitimacy resided in the Dáil and the Provisional Government acting together, and rejecting the right of the army to operate independently of the civil power. The strategy of supporting the Provisional Government paid immediate dividends, as the cabinet asked for the hierarchy’s feedback on sections of the draft constitution of the Irish Free State.
The Catholic Church became one of the most important pro-Treaty organisations in the country. Some clerics criticised the Collins-de Valera pact of May 1922 because it would lead to overrepresentation of the anti-Treaty vote at the general election in June 1922. Others gave assistance to the Provisional Government and its army at a local level. Bishop Bernard Coyne of Elphin, for example, spent a night in Sligo courthouse in July 1922 as a human shield to prevent republican forces from shelling the building, which was occupied by the National Army.
But the anti-Treaty side was never without clerical support. The historian Patrick Murray found 582 clerics on record as being involved in pro-Treaty politics, and 176 in anti-Treaty politics. Before the outbreak of hostilities, some priests appeared on republican platforms or nominated anti-Treaty candidates for the election.
Clerics also ministered to the IRA, and they continued to do so after the Civil War began on 28 June 1922. Among the priests with a strong public profile as republicans were the Capuchin friars Dominic O'Connor and Albert Bibby and the Maynooth professor Pádraig de Brún.
Public Safety Act
The bishops’ most significant intervention during the Civil War came in October 1922. The conflict had evolved into a guerrilla war in August 1922, and the Public Safety Act of September 1922 heralded the introduction of a harsh counterstrategy by the government, for which it sought the church’s moral sanction in a pronouncement. The bishops obliged on 10 October 1922 with a strikingly belligerent pastoral letter.
They declared the Dáil and the Provisional Government the legitimate authority, barred anyone engaged in guerrilla warfare from receiving the sacraments, threatened priests who approved of the 'Irregular insurrection’ with suspension, and lamented ‘unauthorised murders’, i.e., killings by republicans.
A later official version of the text dropped the word ‘unauthorised’, as this implied that some murders were admissible, but also emphasised more clearly that penitents needed to repudiate, and not just abstain from, guerrilla warfare. This meant that chaplains were required to refuse absolution to republican prisoners who stood by their views on the morality of the IRA campaign.
The letter thoroughly demolished the legitimacy of the anti-Treaty position from an official Catholic perspective, and it provided moral justification for the government to put the penalties provided for in the Public Safety Act into practice.
Though some bishops seemed unperturbed by the executions policy, others were taken aback by its ferocity and privately appealed for clemency. An intervention by Archbishop Byrne has been credited with halting extrajudicial reprisal shootings of prisoners after the killing of Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joe McKelvey on 8 December 1922. But on the whole, episcopal protests went unheeded. W.T. Cosgrave told Byrne in November 1922 that the government’s stern actions were ‘in the spirit of the solemn teaching’ of the bishops.
The October pastoral enraged republican Catholics, who felt the bishops had no claim to obedience when it came to politics and criticised their public silence on the executions and atrocities committed by the National Army. These grievances did not lead to widespread alienation of republicans from Catholicism, and that was due in part to the continuing ministrations of anti-Treaty priests. In addition to individual priests who offered clandestine support, clusters of sympathetic priests existed in some dioceses and in certain religious orders.
Moreover, Catholic republicans not only asserted their right to hold political views without episcopal direction, but these views were frequently fused with religious beliefs on the importance of sacrifice and moral regeneration. Far from rejecting Catholicism, they criticised the bishops on the latter’s own religious terms.
Republicans took comfort also from the Holy See’s apparent reluctance to endorse the episcopal strictures. The republican rector of the Irish College, John Hagan, facilitated the presentation of an anti-Treaty petition to Pope Pius XI in December 1922.
The Vatican was in the process of reinventing itself as a champion of world peace through diplomacy, and Pius viewed Ireland as a fitting stage for papal good offices. He sent the curial official and former Maynooth professor Salvatore Luzio to Ireland as apostolic visitor in March 1923, on a mission of conciliation. The bishops and the government equally resented Luzio’s presence, and in any case there was little for him to do, as the anti-Treaty campaign was by then on the verge of collapse. He departed at the government’s request in May 1923, a few days before the end of the war, but his contacts with republicans strengthened their belief in their own legitimacy.
The appointment of the anti-Treaty priest John Dignan as bishop of Clonfert in 1924 was a first harbinger of the Church’s retreat from its exclusive alliance with the pro-Treaty party. De Valera’s turn to pragmatism in the late 1920s subsequently paved the way for a rapprochement with Fianna Fáil.
This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.