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  • Bishop Michael Browne of Galway (1937-76) and the Regulation of Public Morality
  • James S. Donnelly Jr.

Much of the history of Irish Catholicism in the twentieth century has so far been written from a Dublin perspective or with what might be called a metropolitan slant. Given the enormous influence and unusually long career of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin (1940-72), this is quite understandable. But there was a western bishop whose career lasted even longer (almost forty years), whose influence was held by many to be just as far-reaching, and who was equally controversial. That prelate was the legendary Michael Browne, who was appointed bishop of Galway and Kilmacduagh in August 1937 at the young age of 41 and who remained in that post through all the changes of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and through the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s until he finally retired in 1976 at the age of 80.1 Browne's tenure, like McQuaid's, thus spanned both the years when the power of the Catholic church in Ireland reached its apogee and some of the years when major cracks had begun to appear in the edifice of its moral and political influence and in its control over public affairs, public morality, and personal behavior. We tend to think of the period before 1960 as a time when the commands of the Irish Catholic church produced a high degree of at least outward conformity in the personal moral behavior of its adherents, as a time when Catholic archbishops and bishops were treated like aristocrats, and as a time when the proverbial "belt of the crozier" was feared by national and local politicians, who exhibited what is now generally regarded as extraordinary deference to the dictates of official Catholicism. There is much truth in this now customary picture. But both popular understanding in our own time and some recent historical accounts have tended to exaggerate the degree to which public attitudes and personal behavior conformed themselves before 1960 to the moral dictates and religious teaching of the Catholic church and its clerical exponents.

In this essay I will be especially concerned with the efforts made and the means employed by Bishop Browne to regulate the public morality of those who lived within the bounds of his dioceses, though it is only fair to say that Browne hoped that his enunciation of Catholic moral principles (as he interpreted them) would extend over the country as a whole and even further afield. In treating this large subject, I have been forced by space constraints and by the extraordinary richness of the sources to be selective in the cases with which I will be concerned. I have decided to address four topics: first, episcopal and clerical censorship of newsagents and county librarians; second, public intoxication and other misconduct at the Galway Races; third, the almost never-ending controversies over dancing and the commercial dance hall; and fourth, the question of immodesty in dress and the closely related issue of so-called "mixed bathing" in Galway and Salthill. On all of these issues Bishop Browne took a highly visible role and earned a reputation for moral puritanism and ideological rigidity that became an integral part of his public persona at home and abroad.

It is appropriate to begin a discussion of these topics with a brief account of Bishop Browne's background and his exalted understanding of his role and position as bishop. Born at Westport in 1895, Browne was educated by the Christian Brothers there, then at St. Jarlath's in Tuam, and finally at Maynooth and in Rome. Ordained a priest in 1920, in the middle of the Anglo-Irish War, he later returned to Maynooth, where he occupied the post of professor of moral theology until his appointment to Galway with a formidable reputation as "a theologian and a canonist of the first rank." His social background was decidedly middle-class. At the time of his consecration as bishop, one brother (R. G. Browne) was the town clerk of Westport and a successful auctioneer; another brother (Fr. Thomas Browne) was a priest in Los Angeles in California; and his sister was married...