Power without Authority in Ireland, II: Church, State and Vested Interests

When in 1940 de Valera pondered the lack of governmental authority, he did not have far to look for one of the underlying causes.  It’s actually embedded in his radio broadcast; his invocation of Catholic ethos the better to sell his argument that society is founded on a surrender of authority to government.  The dominant alternative source of national authority, one that pre-existed the establishment of the state, was of course the Catholic Church.

Since de Valera could not extricate Christianity and ‘right way of living’ from his conception of the state and man’s place in it, he was not going to challenge the Church’s authority.  From God, to the individual, to the family to the state was a progression unified by the divine will and man’s ethical response to it.  So not only was de Valera not going to challenge this powerful rival for authority, he facilitated its continued authority and embedded its role in his Constitution.

For de Valera, Catholicism was inseparable from Irish identity.  Or to put it another way, he saw the Irish people’s devotion to Catholicism, contrary to all the social and economic advantages of conversion to Protestantism and a comfortable place in the British Empire, as confirming his conviction that being Catholic and being Irish were inextricable. De Valera saw in Ireland’s centuries’ long struggle a sign of divine providence that the Irish were meant to be Catholic.

Moreover, like many people, de Valera believed that early Irish Christianity had saved civilisation during the Dark Ages. There is a strong historical case to back this up of course.  However, de Valera believed further that the Irish needed to replay this mission as a new Dark Age beckoned – one of materialism, fascism, and war.  Independent Ireland would be beacon of spirituality, frugality, and the right of living.  On this thesis, de Valera had little company but there was widespread support for the identification of Catholicism with Irish identity. The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 gave expression to this strong public belief.

How had this come about?  How had Catholicism and its institutional expression in the Catholic Church acquired such an authoritative position?

I’d propose four key factors behind it.

The first was that in the 19th century the British Government devolved responsibility to the Catholic Church for much of Ireland’s health and education services.  It was a good deal for both.  London found it cheap and a relief of responsibility, not to mention avoiding endless battles with the Church over ethical issues likely to arise from a largely Catholic country being ruled by a Protestant one.  For the Church it conferred on it responsibility for its flock from the cradle to the grave and gave it unique secular as well as spiritual authority over the Catholic population.

Try dissenting from an institution that blessed your birth, educated you, restored you to health, married you, did the same for your children and then buried you.  Additional benefits accrued if you were male; the system bulwarked the patriarchy and kept woman in highly confined roles and subservient in relationships.

Secondly, the Catholic Church, in cooperation with society, policed sexuality and more particularly fertility.  This was an exceptionally important role in post-Famine Ireland where the inheritance of the undivided farm by one son was such an overriding desideratum.  Fertility, even female beauty, was seen as a subversive of th is social order.  An unwanted pregnancy threatened ordered inheritance, a vital social and economic imperative that was seared into the collective by the Great Famine.  When a pregnancy outside marriage did happen, the Church had the institutional responses to deal with it, from Magdalene laundries and reformatory schools to orphanages and adoption systems.

Inheritance, marriage, and fertility shaped our emigration patterns too.   In contrast to the Litvak Jews arriving in New York who were married young and had children, the Irish were young and single.  They were shipped off before any inheritance complications arose from passion and pregnancies.

The third factor was that nationalist identity became increasingly synonymous with being Catholic, a process that intensified as Home Rule moved centre stage and unionists hewed ever closer to their British identity in resistance.  On the nationalist side, the process intensified particularly from 1916 onwards as the nationalist struggle stripped away the complexities of Irish identity.

This brings us to the fourth factor, namely partition.  Partition enabled the new Irish state to identify as a Catholic one and avoid any tricky questions about how to embrace alternative non-Catholic forms of nationalist identity.  It was a particularly bitter blow to those from Protestant backgrounds and who had been prominent in the nationalist revival from the fall of Parnell onwards, not to mention the Protestant community generally living in the south.

Had a government of a non-partitioned Ireland to create a polity that embraced a large Protestant community, it is clear that the Catholic Church could not have had a virtual monopoly in health, education and public moral discourse.  Aside from the economic damage, this was one of the great wounds inflicted in Ireland by partition socially and politically.

So the Catholic Church had been a nationalist institution long before there was a national government. The newly independent state had to establish itself in the spaces not already occupied by the Catholic Church.  And where government did chose to act it had to contend with the countervailing interests and authority of the Church and those who found it convenient to ally with it.

The key to being influencial in Ireland, to shaping outcomes to suit particular vested interests, was understanding where authority lay and how to manipulate it to your own ends.

There was no clearer public example of this than the controversial Mother-and-Child Scheme, generally misinterpreted as a prime instance of church authority being wielded over government, in short a clash of church and state.

The Mother and Child Scheme had been conceived and developed by the Department of Health as a response to the fact that Ireland had one of the highest levels of infant mortality in Western Europe and much of this was caused by gastro-enteritis: unhygienic practices that could be put right, at least in part, by state support for and education in maternal care.

This idea of such a clash struck me as odd in a society where in fact church and state were in a happy alliance. It prompted me (back in 1986) to dig deeper into it, the results of which were published in the journal of the Irish Historical Society.

My interpretation was that it was really a clash between the state and the vested interests not of the church but of the private medical practitioner.  The notion that this episode represented a clash of church and state obscured what was really at stake: the defence of private practice and associated incomes on the part of doctors against state medical services.

The Irish Medical Organisation quietly organised against the scheme.  Its members feared that it was the thin edge of the wedge as the state took over family practices.  ‘Whoever gets the mother and child gets the family’ was darkly whispered.  The development of the NHS in Britain seemed to point the way to a new future of state provided health services.  Behind the scenes, the IMO astutely used fears that state medicine would led to the provision of godless services.  It mobilised the bishops against the scheme.  It was no contest and the Inter-Party Government backed down.

The doctors weren’t the only ones to see opportunities in the role of the church.  The fantastic career of Joe McGrath and the wealth that he accrued was tied up intimately in the church’s role in health care provision.  IRA bank robber and bodyguard to Collins during the Treaty negotiations, this was a man who knew how the system worked.  Ostensibly to help fund the health services, he and his buddies created the Hospital Sweepstake and made themselves fabulously wealthy.

It would have taken a far more powerful central government, a more determinedly secular generation of revolutionaries, to disrupt the distribution of authority in Ireland vis-a-vis church state relations.  Though he grasped the point about authority, and understood that the government had less than it needed, de Valera was the last man in Ireland prepared to tackle the government’s primary competitor for authority.

Yet I think this is not really the whole story.  The emergence of the Catholic Church as such a force in Ireland from the mid-19th century onwards had to have a conducive environment.  Or to put it another way, its success suggests that it did not have a competitor for authority, at least in those arenas of social and personal life that concerned it.

For an explanation, in the next blog we’ll look deeper into Ireland’s history, back in fact to 1800 when Britain abolished our national parliament.

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