17 February 2011

Anglican Studies (5.2): Understanding sectarianism and transforming societies

Archbishop John Gregg of Dublin, who was assured by the new government of the place of Protestants in a new state, with Eamon de Valera, whom he advised on the wording of the Constitution regarding Church of Ireland

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

MTh Year II

EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context:

Patrick Comerford

Thursdays: 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., The Hartin Room.

Thursday, 17 February 2011, 3 p.m.:

5.2: Understanding sectarianism and transforming societies.

Patrick Comerford


After the formation of the Irish Free State, the General Synod of the Church of Ireland sent an official delegation to Michael Collins to ask if they were “permitted to live in Ireland or if [it is] desired that they should leave the country” – this despite the role of many members of the Church of Ireland in the War of Independence, including Countess Markiewicz (Constance Gore-Booth), Erskine Childers, Sean O’Casey and Robert Barton and that the first President of Ireland would be a son of the rectory, Douglas Hyde.

By and large, things settled down, and Archbishop John Gregg of Dublin, who was assured by the new government of the place of Protestants in a new state, later advised de Valera on the wording of the constitution regarding Church of Ireland.

After partition, the Church of Ireland population continued to decline in the area that is now the Republic of Ireland. Some of the reasons offered for this decline include:

● The impact of the Ne Temere decree from 1908 onwards on “inter-Church” marriages.
● The “Great War” or World War I.
● Partition.
● the migration of civil servants, military personnel and administrators after independence.
● The Civil War.
●Different fertility rates – in 1936, for example, the fertility rate for Church of Ireland couples was 54.7 per cent, barely half that for Roman Catholic couples.

To what degree were numbers retained through maintaining separate social structures, such as schools, hospitals, sports clubs, dances, homes, orphanages, and so on?

Was there a presumed, unspoken definition of community?

Did we create a myth of a shared common ancestry?

Did we imagine a new, separate “ethnic group”?

Did we try to convince ourselves that we are a separate cultural community, united by common cultural traits?

Three post-independence stories

The feeling of exclusion among many southern Protestants was exacerbated by three well-known cases that I referred to in our first session on this module: the Mayo Library case (1930), the Tilson child custody case (1950-1951) and the Fethard-on-Sea boycott (1957).

1, The Mayo Library case (1930):

Letitia Dunbar Harrison … appointed Mayo County Librarian in 1930

The appointment of a county librarian in Mayo in 1930 developed into a controversy that lasted for months and caused a conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the new Irish Free State under the government of WT Cosgrave.

There were heated debates in the Dáil, involving the Minister for Local Government, General Richard Mulcahy, and Eamon de Valera, who was then the leader of the opposition. What began as a small local issue in Co Mayo became a national issue that threatened to bring down the Government.

This story of sectarianism and politics 80 years ago has resonances today.

The Cumann na nGaedheal Government had adopted a strong policy against corruption, patronage and jobbery when it came to government-funded positions. The government set up the Local Appointments Commission (LAC) to oversee recruitment to senior posts in local authorities, removing any opportunity for nepotism and taking away the power of patronage from county councils.

By 1930, over 100 appointments had been made by the commission, and under law these appointments had to be accepted by county councils.

In July 1930, Letitia Elizabeth Aileen Dunbar Harrison, a young graduate from Dublin, was selected by an interview panel of the LAC for the post of Mayo County Librarian. However, Mayo County Council, in defiance of the law, refused to sanction her appointment. Her lack of Irish was initially put forward as the reason but in reality it emerged the main crux was that she was an honours graduate from Trinity College Dublin – and a Protestant.

The library committee was dominated by local Roman Catholic clergy, and in their eyes and in the eyes of the majority of county councillors, she was not suitable for “Catholic Mayo.” Some even invoked the history of Protestant proselytising “souperism” n 19th century Mayo was still firmly within living memory at the time.

Monsignor D’Alton, a member of the library committee, stated: “The only outstanding qualification she has is that she is a Protestant and was educated in Trinity College. Are these not peculiar qualifications for a Catholic county like Mayo? 99 per cent of the people of Mayo are Catholic.”

JT Morahan was quoted in the Connaught Telegraph as stating: “Trinity culture is not the culture of the Gael; rather it is poison gas to the kindly Celtic people.”

The government stood firm, sacked the county council, appointed a county manager, and secured the appointment of Miss Harrison.

Mayo is the county that gave the English language the word “boycott.” All but five of the 130 Mayo library centres boycotted the new librarian and there was a stand-off between central and local government over 25-year-old Ms Harrison.

Facing into an election year in 1932, with a depressed economy and other issues to deal with, the government sought a solution. Secret talks with Roman Catholic Church authorities, caused internal divisions, and one cabinet minister, Desmond FitzGerald (father of Garret FitzGerald) threatened to resign. The Cosgrave Government got itself out of the dilemma by offering Miss Harrison a promotion – working in the Military Library in Dublin.

The government claimed it had stood up to the Church, Miss Harrison had stayed a year in Co Mayo, and it claimed she had voluntarily moved to a new job. But it was a defeat for the government and it set back library services in Ireland for at least 20 years.

After just a few months in her new position, Miss Harrison married the Revd Robert Crawford, a Methodist minister she met when she was living in Castlebar. Then, due to the marriage bar in the public service, she resigned her post and began a new life as a Methodist minister’s wife. From then on, she was known as Aileen Crawford and the couple served on Methodist circuits in many parts of Ireland, including Waterford, Tipperary, Louth and Antrim. They had no children and in the 1950s, after Robert Crawford’s death, Aileen Crawford remained in Northern Ireland, never to return to live in the Republic.

She was a committed Christian, and soon after her husband’s death she felt called to ministry in the church and sought to become the first ordained female Methodist minister in Ireland. She was never ordained, but her move led the Methodist Church in Ireland to change its rules and to allow women to be ordained.

Letitia Harrison or Aileen Crawford continued to contribute immensely to the Methodist Church for many years and died in 1994 aged 88. She had never spoken again of her time in Co Mayo.

2, The Tilson children custody case (1950-1951):

The Four Courts, Dublin ... “the Tilson case confirmed for Protestants just how pervasive was the influence of the Catholic ethos”

Ernest Tilson, a Protestant, married Mary Barnes in a Roman Catholic Church in 1941. The husband signed a prenuptial agreement that any children born in the marriage would be brought up as Roman Catholics. The couple went on to have four boys who, in 1950, were aged 8, 7, 6 and 5, and all were baptised in Roman Catholic churches.

Ernest Tilson left the family home, taking three of the boys with him, but eventually placed them in a Protestant-run orphanage and school, stressing that we wanted his sons brought up in the Church of Ireland.

Mary Tilson brought Habeas Corpus proceedings against the governors of the orphanage. Until that case, English law had been followed in Ireland, and this meant, in practice, that in custody cases the father’s wishes were followed.

The president of the High Court, Mr Justice Gavan Duffy refused to follow the English case precedents and held that Ernest Tilson was bound by the undertaking he had signed according to the demands of the Ne Temere decree. In his ruling, he said:

“In my opinion, an order of the court designed to secure the fulfilment of an agreement peremptorily required before a mixed marriage by the Church, whose special position in Ireland is officially recognised as the guardian of the faith of the Catholic spouse, cannot be withheld on any ground of public policy by the very State which pays homage to that Church.”

He said: “[h]owever wide the unfettered authority of the father may be, a judicial theory which, under cover of public policy would allow a father to spoil his children’s birthright by uprooting their creed at his pleasure in plain defiance of his gravest obligations taken as husband and father, can find no place in a jurisprudence moulded to fit the Constitution of Ireland.”

On appeal, this ruling was upheld in the Supreme Court in 1951. Mr Justice George Murnaghan, giving the Supreme Court judgment, referred to Article 42.5 of the Constitution, which gives the definitive statement of the state’s position regarding their right to interfere in a family’s autonomy: “If a difference between father and mother leads to a situation in which a child is neglected the State, through the Courts, is to endeavour to supply the place of the parents.”

In the only dissenting opinion, Mr Justice Black, a Protestant, wondered whether the same ruling would have been reached had the inter-church promises favoured the Protestant party.

As Heather Crawford concludes, “the Tilson case confirmed for Protestants just how pervasive was the influence of the Catholic ethos.”

3, The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott in Co Wexford (1957):

The Cloney Family of Fethard-on-Sea as they were portrayed in A Love Divided

As a small child, I grew up in the south-east of Ireland under the shadow of the Fethard-on-Sea boycott. In 1957, in a small village in Co Wexford, Protestant shops, businesses, farms, schools and neighbours were boycotted by local Roman Catholics after a local Protestant woman in an inter-Church marriage refused to accept the demands made on her husband under the Ne Temere.

Sean Cloney and Sheila Kelly were married in the Augustinian church in Hammersmith in 1949, and had three daughters: Mary, Eileen and Hazel – Hazel was born after the controversy.

When the Parish Priest of Fethard, Father Stafford, insistently told Sheila Cloney she had to raise the girls as Roman Catholics, she refused and left Co Wexford with her two daughters to the local Roman Catholic school, and eventually fled with them, first to Northern Ireland and then to Scotland.

The parish priest organised a boycott of the local Protestant community, and this boycott was endorsed by Bishop Michael Brown. It was a sad and searing division in that community. Even the Roman Catholic bell-ringer withdrew his services from the Church of Ireland parish church. Eamon de Valera condemned the boycott on 4 July 1957, and Time magazine coined the term “fethardism” to mean a boycott along religious lines.

Eventually, Sean traced Sheila and their daughters to Orkney. They were reconciled, and came home to Dungulph Castle in Fethard-on-Sea. The boycott came to an end when the parish priest bought his cigarettes in a Protestant-owned shop and when Sean Cloney helped to carry a neighbour’s coffin into the Church of Ireland parish church, once again in defiance of the strictures still in place in the 1950s.

What happened to their daughters, you may ask. Well, they were educated at home.

The movie, A Love Divided, was based on the boycott, although dramatic licence was taken with some events.

Many years later, Sean Cloney was one of the people from the area who complained about the behaviour of Father Sean Fortune, including abuse and theft, compiling a dossier with a list of 70 young people who had been in contact with the priest.

Over 40 years after the boycott, Bishop Brendan Comiskey apologised publicly in 1998 for the role of his church in the boycott – an apology that was accepted graciously by Bishop John Neill (later Archbishop of Dublin). That year, I was collaborating with Sean Cloney in the events in Co Wexford commemorating the bicentenary of the 1798 Rising. A few miles from where the Cloneys lived, in the neighbouring parish of Old Ross, there is a mass grave, where the victims of one of the worst massacres carried out during the Rising had been buried in a mass pit.

For 200 years, the victims of the massacre in Scullabogue Barn lay together in a pit, without ever being committed to the earth in a proper funeral service, and without any gravestone to mark their place of burial. Sean and I ensured that the wording on a new gravestone would use none of the language of victims or perpetrators.

In our language and in our violence towards one another in Ireland over the generations, we have all been victims and we have all been perpetrators. And to dismiss those who had been burned to death in Scullabogue Barn on 5 June 1798 by categorising them would amount to trampling on their graves.

The mythical depiction over the generations, by people who remained poles apart, was either that those who died were loyalist collaborators or planters and that those who killed them were their executioners; or that those who died were innocent civilians, who had been the victims of an early form of “ethnic cleansing,” and that those who killed them were sectarian murderers.

The truth is that among the 113 victims, the family names were names that are shared across the two local communities, protestant and Catholic – and, not surprisingly, so too with those who set the barn alight. Catholics and Protestants were murdered together; Protestants and Catholics engaged in the killing together. And all of us there that sun-soaked summer’s evening, as I unveiled the first gravestone on that cold pit in Saint Mary’s Churchyard in Old Ross, shared in that heritage. We were all heirs to those in the barn who cried out for mercy, and all heirs to those outside who bayed for blood.

It stands out as one of the single most appalling massacres in Irish history – worse than Abercorn, Omagh, Enniskillen or Darkley. But the fact that no gravestone had been erected for 200 years was silent testimony to the silence of generations in the locality on this monstrous atrocity, which had never been talked about openly in the local community.

If a wound is left bandaged for too long, and not allowed to bask in the healing rays of sunshine, it becomes infected or even gangrenous. Is it any wonder then, that within a few miles of Scullabogue and Old Ross, the Fethard-on-Sea boycott broke out just a century and a half later, five generations later?

On that summer’s evening, as we adjourned for the traditional bun-fight, I was assaulted verbally by someone who challenged my assertions that John Kelly, one of the leaders in the 1798 Rising, was a member of the Church of Ireland. I was told “Kelly” was not a “Protestant family name.” I knew from my own background of generations of Kellys in the south-east who were just that. Eventually, the argument that had gone down a very different path ended when I pointed out that Sheila Cloney’s name before she married Sean was Sheila Kelly.

Their daughter Mary died in 1998, Sean Cloney died in October 1999, and Sheila died in June 2009.

A closing conundrum

Some images and perceptions that I raised in our first session still have to be dealt with.

How do we relate all this to:

● The decline of the Anglo-Irish gentry?
● The loss of the substantial Church of Ireland working class population in Dublin (and perhaps soon in Belfast too)?
● The changing ethos of formerly Church of Ireland hospitals?

Is there still a sense of “Protestant identity” – north and south?

According an opinion piece by Mary Kenny in the Irish Independent a few years ago, 10 per cent ordinands in the Church of Ireland were former Roman Catholics.

Is that true today?

Does it matter?

What are the social consequences – for Roman Catholics and for the Church of Ireland?

How does this compare with England, where some Anglicans – including some bishops – have become Roman Catholics?

If religion is inextricably linked with culture, then how does the Church of Ireland engage with the context of the culture in which it flourishes in the Republic of Ireland?

And how might these figures eventually impact on how the Church of Ireland in the Republic relates to its closest neighbour?

Additional reading:

Patrick Comerford, ‘The Fethard Boycott,’ in The Encyclopaedia of Ireland, ed. B. Lalor, (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan / New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2003).
Patrick Comerford, ‘Cead Mile Failte to Repentance and Reconciliation’, in Untold Stories: Protestants in the Republic of Ireland 1922-2002, eds. C. Murphy, L. Adair (Dublin: Liffey Press, 2003), pp 59-62.
Heather Crawford, Outside the Glow: Protestants and Irishness in Independent Ireland (Dublin: UCD Press, 2010).
Tim Fanning, The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott (Cork: Collins Press, 2010).
Finola Kennedy, Family, economy and government in Ireland (Dublin: ESRI, 1989).
Malcolm Macourt, Counting the People of God? The Census of Population and the Church of Ireland (Dublin: Church of Ireland Publishing, 2008).
Gerard P. Moran, “Church and State in Modern Ireland: The Mayo Co. Librarian Case, 1930-1932,” Cathair Na Mart (The Journal of the Westport Historical Society), vol 7, no 1 (1987).
Pat Walsh, The Curious Case of the Mayo Librarian (Cork: Mercier Press, 2009).

RTÉ television documentary, “Scannal – The Curious Case of the Mayo Librarian” (2009).

Next Thursday:

Christianity and nationalisms

6.2: The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and its consequences: a reflection on the Hard Gospel Project.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This lecture on 17 February 2011 was part of the MTh Year II course, EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context.

1 comment:

Jim said...

Hi Patrick
Your blogs about the Meath-Dublin coastline bring back memories of my childhood in that area nearly fifty years ago. Thanks for the memories.
Your blog: "Anglican Studies (5.2): Understanding sectarianism and transforming societies" explains why I was incarcerated in Artane penal facility at the age of 13 – my parents were in a “mixed marriage”.
Best wishes,
Jim Beresford