- For God and Ireland: The Fight for Moral Superiority in Ireland 1922–1932 by M. P. McCabe
During an ineloquent but pious contribution to the parliament of the Irish Free State in June 1929, Fianna Fáil’s Seán T. O’ Kelly asserted, “We of the Fianna Fáil party believe that we speak for the big body of Catholic opinion. I think I could say, without qualification of any kind, that we represent the big element of Catholicity” (p. 244). The party he spoke for was then just three years old, and its parliamentarians had taken their seats only two years previously; but during the glorious centenary of Catholic emancipation, they were not going to be found wanting in expressions of the ferocity of their faith. Their holy declarations also fulfilled another purpose; just six years after the end of the civil war, it was necessary to begin the process of repositioning Irish republicans who had fought considerable verbal battles with Catholic bishops during that conflict.
This book seeks to document and analyze these tensions in the first decade of the Free State’s existence. The book’s title is well chosen, given the frequency with which religious and spiritual images and words were used by republicans to justify their opposition to the compromise treaty signed with Britain to end the Irish war of independence in December 1921 and validate their civil war actions from 1922 to 1923.
The author, writing his first book, succeeds in locating and unearthing fascinating private and public utterances and correspondence to underline the intensity of the religious and political battles being fought and the intricacies of ham-fisted and naive Vatican interventions in Irish politics during this period. But the book is severely undermined by uncertainty on the author’s part about the craft of the historian. Instead of presenting his evidence with clarity as a worthy end in itself, he suffuses his narrative with unnecessary, clumsy assertions and generalizations and an immature judgmental tone.
His contention is that there has been a tendency to “grant the Catholic Church and especially its leaders, a large measure of amnesty regarding political activity” during this period, and he refers bitingly to “authors who have restricted themselves to abiding by the decisions of the [Catholic] Hierarchy” (pp. 4–8), a dubious and [End Page 174] unfair dismissal of the work of a previous generation of historians, produced when archival access was extremely limited, but work that has nonetheless paved the way for his. He favors histories that are “genuinely objective and critical of the Catholic Church in its involvement in Ireland beyond the scope of religion” (p. 6). There is a basic contradiction inherent in this assertion; it should not be the role of the historian to conduct research with such an agenda; what is required is presentation and analysis of the evidence as opposed to adopting a skewed and confrontational approach to the historic subject matter, fuelled by contemporary values.
McCabe’s flawed reasoning, methodology, and awkward prose are somewhat compensated for by his interesting overview of the way in which republicans based much of their opposition to the treaty on the notion of “faith,” interpreting their movement religiously as guardians of the “soul” of the Irish nation (p. 35). This created serious tension with the bishops, as some republicans were intent on claiming a spiritual authority for their movement that transcended episcopal authority, resulting in an acrimonious battle of words, denunciatory pastorals, and excommunications. The bishops also had critics within the Church; Father Walter McDonald of Maynooth College, for example, suggested that their claims to moral righteousness provided “a very efficacious shield” to cover their real motive, which was political (p. 60).
But republicans had their own strategies in response, including appeals to the Vatican, despite the determination of the republican sympathizer and rector of the Irish College in Rome, John Hagan, whose correspondence is used well here, to keep the Vatican...