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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 345-347
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John Charles McQuaid:
Ruler of Catholic Ireland
John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland. By John Cooney. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. 1999. Pp. 526. $34.95.)
John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland from 1940 to 1972, was one of the most remarkable figures in the modern Irish Catholic Church. He was also one of the dominating personalities of the new Irish state after 1922, a man who was admired and feared in equal measure and around whom many legends grew. McQuaid lived and worked in a period of extraordinary change in Ireland which coincided with the first five decades of independence. [End Page 345]
In recent years McQuaid's name has become synonymous with hidebound Catholic reaction and, like the politician whose name was so intertwined with his, Eamon de Valera, both men have been subjected to crude historical caricatures. The reality is far more fascinating and complex. In examining the role of the Church since independence, there has been a tendency to concentrate on such issues as the preoccupation with sexual morality, censorship, and patriarchy in its various forms, while ignoring for the most part the political, social, economic, cultural, religious, and local contexts in which they operated. We still know little about the institutional aspects of the post-independence Church, and particularly the seminaries and colleges, both in Ireland and abroad, where Irish clergy studied. We are also ignorant about the other members of the Irish hierarchy.
McQuaid's extensive papers were released by the Dublin Diocesan Archives in the late 1990's and offer a wealth of material for potential biographers. For this reason alone John Cooney, a Scottish journalist who has worked in Dublin for many years and who specializes in Church-State relations, would have been well advised to postpone his biography until he had carried out more research on the McQuaid papers. However, as is all too evident from this book, he wasn't interested in a scholarly study. His overriding obsession is to present McQuaid as a sort of episcopal prototype of J. Edgar Hoover, his tentacles reaching into every corner of the land that was the bleak Ireland of the 1940's and 1950's. This is a drearily familiar stereotype by now but a convenient one for Cooney as it eliminates any more nuanced analysis of the pre- and post-independence Church and McQuaid's role in it. Was McQuaid really "the ruler of Catholic Ireland," as Cooney describes him? What were his powers as primate and what was the demarcation between him and the other Irish primate in Armagh? What about the other twenty-five members of the hierarchy whom McQuaid was supposed to have bent to his will? Cooney writes near the end of the book that McQuaid shouldered the blame for the collective immobility of the Irish hierarchy in the face of change, but this point surely deserves more discussion. What of the Dublin laity? Cooney admits, again near the end of the book, that McQuaid was popular with many Dublin Catholics. Why? How? Cooney does not explain.
Cooney makes many contentious points, too numerous to list here, which he fails to support with sources, none more so than the allegation of paedophilia against McQuaid which received enormous coverage in Ireland when Cooney's book was published. McQuaid was very vulnerable to allegations of this kind, given his long involvement in youth work. The allegation was made by Noel Browne, a former minister of health, whose clash with the hierarchy in 1951 over free medical care for mothers and children had resulted in Browne's resignation. It remains an enduring controversy to this day and one over which Browne brooded obsessively until his death in 1997. For him, McQuaid was the undoubted villain of the piece. At the very least there are questions to be asked about such an allegation emanating from a source like Browne, but Cooney has not asked them. However, John Horgan's recent biography of Browne has revealed...