James Connolly warned that Partition would lead to ‘a carnival of reaction both North and South.’ One part of that reaction was the close church-state relationship established in the south after independence, a relationship that gave the Catholic church a significant influence on legislation, and control over education, health and social services – a relationship that has led to almost thirty years of shocking revelations of sexual, physical and psychological abuse inflicted on women and children in institutions ‘dedicated’ to their welfare.
The recent publication of the government’s Mother and Baby Homes report has been accompanied by an attempt to deflect attention from the previous actions of the church and state; and instead blame all of society.
Here we publish an extract from a new People Before Profit pamphlet – Mother & Baby Homes: Separate Church and State, by Willie Cumming – that explores how Irish governments adopted the Catholic Church’s social policy teachings initially as a counter-revolutionary act and subsequently to build a ‘Catholic state for a Catholic people.’
The opening shots on the Four Courts in Dublin, on 28 June 1922, marked the start of what has been described as Ireland’s Counter-Revolution. The previous decade had been one of unprecedented and unbroken levels of struggle – the promise of Home Rule, World War, 1916, War of Independence, massive growth of trade unionism, land struggles, the defeat of the old political establishment.
That counter-revolution was to be both vicious and brutal. The total casualty numbers were greater than those for the War of Independence. There were eighty-one official executions by the Free State government. Many more were murdered in ‘unofficial’ executions. The British had executed twenty-four between 1919-21.
In October 1923 the Catholic Hierarchy issued a Pastoral Letter condemning the anti-Anglo-Irish treaty campaign as:
“[A] system of murder and assassination of the National forces without any legitimate authority… the guerrilla warfare now being carried on [by] the Irregulars is without moral sanction and therefore the killing of National soldiers is murder before God, the seizing of public and private property is robbery, the breaking of roads, bridges and railways is criminal. All who in contravention of this teaching, participate in such crimes are guilty of grievous sins and may not be absolved in Confession nor admitted to the Holy Communion if they persist in such evil courses.”
In effect the anti-treaty forces were excommunicated, condemned to eternal damnation – unless they ceased and repented.
But the counter-revolution was not just a military one, it also involved re-establishing ideological and political control over society. In this the Catholic Church played a central role as willing partners with the state. Some of the hierarchy had supported the struggle for Independence, but the disorder, as they saw it, had to stop. The Catholic Directory expressed its concerns: ‘Owing to the distracted state of the country [civil war], there is reason to fear a considerable falling away from temperance’.
The Catholic Church was to gain significant influence and power in the new state. Under the principle of subsidiarity – the idea that what individuals (the church) can accomplish by their own initiative and efforts should not be taken from them by a higher authority (the state) – the church got responsibility and control of education, health and social services. The provision of Mother and Baby homes, paid for by the state, was one such ‘service’. Pronouncements by the bishops were treated with the utmost seriousness.
Dances, Movies and Cars
The themes addressed in the 1924 Lenten pastorals give a clear indication of the church’s preoccupations … women’s fashions, immodest dress, indecent dancing, theatrical performances and cinema exhibitions, evil literature, drink, strikes and lock-outs. A constant refrain were the dangers attributed to the morals of the young posed by unlicensed dance halls and unsupervised dancing of any sort. A potent brew of alleged sources of evil and degradation: cars, darkness, jazz music, and the prospect of illicit and unsupervised dalliance between the sexes.
Archbishop Gilmartin of Tuam, conveniently ignoring what was happening in areas under his direct control, commented:
“In recent years the dangerous occasions of sin had been multiplied. The old Irish dances had been discarded for foreign importations which according to all accounts, lent themselves not so much to rhythm as to low sensuality. The actual hours of sleep had been turned into hours of debasing pleasure. Company-keeping under the stars of night had succeeded in too many places to the good old Irish custom of visiting, chatting and story-telling from one house to another, with the Rosary to bring all home in due time. Parental control has been relaxed, and fashions bordering on indecency had become commonplace; while bad books, papers and pictures were finding their way into remote country places.”
Dr. Edward Byrne, archbishop of Dublin, was sure that, ‘In these later years indications are not wanting that the moral fibre of our people has become somewhat relaxed, and that the pleasures of the world have found too large a place in the hearts of our young people.’
In response to the bishops’ concerns the government established a committee, The Committee on the Criminal Law Amendment Acts (1880-85) and Juvenile Prostitution, known as the Carrigan committee, to advise them. In its unpublished report it stated:
“Illegitimacy must be regarded as one of the principal causes of the species of crime and vice of which the state takes cognisance in the branch of penal and preventative legislation which we were appointed to examine.”
“…degeneration in the standard of social conduct has taken place in recent years. It is to be attributed primarily to the loss of parental control and responsibility during a period of general upheaval, which has not been recovered since the revival of settled conditions. This is due largely to the introduction of new phases of popular amusement, which being carried out in the Saorstat in the absence of supervision, and of the restrictions found necessary and enforced by law in other countries, are the occasions of many abuses baneful in their effect upon the community generally and are the cause of the ruin of hundreds of young girls, of whom many are found in the streets of London, Liverpool and other cities and towns in England. The ‘commercialised’ dance halls, picture houses of sorts, and the opportunities afforded by the misuse of motor cars for luring girls, are the chief causes alleged for the present looseness of morals.”
An internal civil service memo commented:
‘The committee might equally have concerned itself with housing, education, unemployment or any other matter which might have had an indirect effect on prostitution and immorality. Their suggestions amount almost to a suppression of public dancing.’
With an election pending, the committee’s concerns were kicked to touch, however some matters of concern to the Catholic Hierarchy were dealt with to their satisfaction.
A Catholic patriarchy
Prior to Independence, no divorce court existed in Ireland, so those seeking one had to do so by way of a private bill in the Westminster parliament. Following the establishment of the Free State, responsibility for such bills was passed to the Irish parliament. Three private bills were presented, although not passed. The Cosgrave government amended the rules of the Dáil prohibiting such bills in the future.
Divorce was later banned in the de Valera 1937 constitution.
The negative influence of ‘evil’ films and ‘immoral’ books was a constant refrain. Censorship of both was introduced, in 1923 and 1929 respectively. The censorship of publications included any that advocated or provided information on contraception. Minister for Justice James Fitzgerald-Kenney was particularly fierce on the matter:
“We will not allow, as far as it lies with us to prevent it, the free discussion of this question which entails on one side of it advocacy. We have made up our minds that it is wrong. That conclusion is for us unalterable. We consider it to be a matter of grave importance. We have decided…that that question shall not be freely and openly discussed. That question shall not be advocated in any book or in any periodical which circulates in this country.”
In 1927 a Juries Act prohibited women from jury service, such service being beyond the emotional capacity of women. Within five years of the Free State’s creation, Catholic social policy and nationalist rhetoric had succeeded in reducing the female workforce and confining them in the home or to partake in ‘socially acceptable’ occupations such as home assistance and agriculture.
That Fianna Fáil would be no different was demonstrated by the case of the Mayo County Librarian. Her appointment was recommended by the Local Appointments Commission, established to eliminate jobbery and favouritism in such appointments. But she was a Protestant. The Mayo Library Committee, consisting of a Catholic bishop, five Catholic priests, a Christian Brother, a Protestant rector and four laymen, refused, ten votes to two, to endorse her appointment. The County Council was dissolved by the government.
When the issue was debated in the Dáil a succession of Fianna Fáil speakers rose to castigate the government. Their leader de Valera added:
“… if it is active work of a propagandist educational character – and I believe it to be such if it is to be of any value at all and worth the money spent on it – then I say the people of Mayo, in a county where I think – I forget the figures – over 98 per cent of the population is Catholic, are justified in insisting upon a Catholic librarian.”
So much for the republican, Wolfe Tone, non-sectarian tradition of ‘Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter’.
Continuity Fianna Fáil
When Fianna Fáil formed its first government in 1932, the party of the excommunicated had nothing to prove regarding its religious orthodoxy. It provided a state reception for the Eucharistic Congress. The opening of a factory or new housing estate was invariably accompanied with a blessing by the local bishop.
In 1933 a marriage bar was introduced, preventing women teachers from working after marriage: this was later extended to women civil servants in 1935. However the government did not interfere in the ‘traditional’ role of domestic and agricultural work. Legislation was enacted to prohibit the importation and sale of contraceptives. The Dance Halls Act was passed without a Dáil debate, making it practically impossible to hold dances without the sanction of the trinity of clergy, police and judiciary.
Their crowning glory was the 1937 Constitution which enshrined the special position of the Catholic Church, banned divorce, and emphasised the role of women in the home. Article 41.2 declares that:
“In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved’, and ‘The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”
Although many women’s rights activists at the time campaigned against the inclusion of this Article, de Valera refused to omit it. In his views, he was not alone. A correspondent to the Irish Times wrote: ‘There is a very noble tribute to the married woman embodied in the Constitution which it is important to retain…Women have a right to the protection of the State in fulfilling this vocation [to marry], which is their most important social function.’
Women were to be kept in their ‘natural’ place.
On moral issues there was nothing to distinguish the attitude of the Labour Party from that of the two larger parties. If anything, when ‘faced with an issue in which both parties claimed their attitude was consistent with Catholic principles, Labour chose the more intransigently Catholic of the two’, as in the case of the Mayo librarian.
Not just history
Some reading this may well think ‘that is all old history’, but consider the case in 1984, of Majella Moynihan, a single garda, charged with two counts of misconduct under garda discipline regulations: that she had sex with an unmarried male garda, and had given birth to a baby. She was further accused of “conduct likely to bring discredit on the force (by) giving birth outside wedlock”.
She faced dismissal, until a meeting between the Dublin archbishop Kevin McNamara and the Garda Commissioner Larry Wren, where the archbishop argued that sacking her would tell other pregnant, unmarried, female guards that they would be better off having abortions. ‘If you sack Majella, you’ll open the gates for England.’
That the most senior ranking garda would meet with the Catholic Primate to discuss an internal disciplinary issue in the Garda Síochána, highlights the deep and continuing ties between church and state.
Copies of “Mother and Baby Homes: Separate Church and State” by Willie Cumming, costing €3.50, is available from the People Before Profit website – see here.