Ireland’s foremost socialist knew that the British Empire and Irish capitalists weren’t the only challenge he and his comrades faced. “In dealing with Ireland,” James Connolly wrote in 1910, “no one can afford to ignore the question of the attitude to the clergy.”
Connolly’s subject of discussion was a 1830s Owenite cooperative that enjoyed brief success, in large part because nearby clergymen didn’t oppose it.
Socialist organizers weren’t usually so lucky. For more than a century — from the mid 1800s until the years after World War II — the Catholic Church was the island’s most consistently reactionary force.
Viewing socialism and communism as moral evils, Catholic clergy assailed radical ideas and snuffed out social progress, throwing their considerable weight behind policies and campaigns designed to marginalize leftists on the island. It called for the expulsion of radicals; organized surveillance of communists; and in response to growth of radicalism internationally, supported repressive Catholic regimes like Franco’s Spain.
Today, the same Church has seen its power greatly reduced — presenting, it seems, new opportunities for the long-beleaguered Irish left.
The Sacra Insula
The Catholic Church’s position of influence can be traced to the mid-nineteenth century. After the 1845–1852 Great Famine (during which approximately one million people starved or succumbed to disease, and a million more emigrated), church attendance, the number of clergy and churches, and the Church’s role in health and education provision grew.
The expanding Church found an ally in the British state, which trusted the Catholic Church as a bulwark against radical movements like the Irish Republican Brotherhood. This faith wasn’t misplaced. As historian Emmet Larkin argues, the Church brought into the clergy the sons of larger tenant farmers and urban middle-class Catholics — groups that were largely unconcerned with the social problems facing Ireland’s urban working class. They set about reshaping Irish civil society — and its social values — in their own image.
In the nineteenth century, many previously devout Catholic regions in Europe saw the rapid growth of anticlerical radicalism. But in Ireland working and middle-class Catholics viewed the Protestant elite, rather than the Church, as the main barrier to social progress. They rallied behind the clergy instead of rebelling against it, fostering a conservative politics that hindered the emergence of a mass secular socialist tradition.
Observers as prominent as Friedrich Engels recognized Ireland’s peculiar trajectory. In an 1869 letter to Marx, he described the country as a “sacra insula” — a place where the “spokesmen” of the Catholic community, afraid their “domination over the peasants” was in jeopardy, attacked socialism as an alien ideology.
The perceived international threat of socialism to the position of the Church wasn’t without basis. The clergy found the 1871 shooting of Archbishop Darboy during the Paris Commune particularly horrific, and erroneously linked Marx’s First International to the killing. Cork’s Rev. Augustine Maguire even claimed that local members of the International “would bring out the priests and bishops, place them against the wall, and shoot them,” if they got the chance.
Such propaganda proved powerful. As a member of Dublin’s branch of William Morris’s Socialist League observed in 1885, “The one fact that the average Dublin working man knows about the Commune is that the Archbishop of Paris was shot.”
Aware of the Church’s sway, Irish socialists generally downplayed their anticlericalism. Connolly even proclaimed himself a Catholic despite declaring privately he had “not the slightest tincture of faith left.”
But the notion that socialists could coexist with a fundamentally anti-radical Church proved naïve. Between 1907 and 1914, following an upsurge in strike activity, the Irish clergy renewed its anticommunist vitriol.
The 1910 Lenten Discourses on Socialism — delivered by Robert Kane, a Jesuit preacher — exemplified the clergy’s sentiment at the time. Socialism, Kane asserted, was incompatible with Church teachings for four reasons: it denied the inviolability of private property, it eroded family rights by making children “the property of the State,” it promoted sexual immorality, and it represented a threat to religious liberty.
Connolly thought Kane’s attack influential enough to refute it at length in Labour, Nationality and Religion. Connolly rebutted Kane’s characterization in two ways. First, he portrayed socialism as a purely economic system — something the Church had no business commenting on. And second, he turned the Church’s words around on itself, deploying quotes from early Church fathers that contradicted Kane.
The clergy’s antisocialist rhetoric did wane briefly in the years after 1914. But it had less to do with Connolly’s treatise than the retreat of the labor movement (after employer victory in the 1913 Dublin Lockout) and the failure of the 1916 Easter Rising (after which Connolly was executed).
If anything, the conclusion of Connolly’s life demonstrated the Church’s abiding influence over the Irish working class. Before he was killed by firing squad, Connolly received his last rites, the Catholic prayer and ministrations delivered before death.
For a brief period, extending through the 1919–1921 Irish War of Independence, the clergy muted its denunciations of radicalism.
Progressive forces were ascendant across much of Ireland at the time. Sinn Féin won a majority of Irish seats in the December 1918 general election at the same time the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began a guerrilla war against Britain.
Ten thousand people gathered at Dublin’s Mansion House to celebrate the 1917 October Revolution in February 1918, and a number of large-scale strikes and workers’ occupations sprang up across Ireland, most notably the 1919 Limerick Soviet. However, the labor movement’s efforts were overshadowed by the IRA war against Britain, and Ireland’s subsequent civil war between supporters and opponents of the treaty with Britain was a considerable blow.
In the aftermath of the civil war, insecurity pervaded the Church. Cardinal Logue warned seminarians in 1924 that “they would have to meet a divided people . . . who had lost much of their reverence for religion and the Church.”
This insecurity contributed to the Church’s fervent anticommunism. While the Holy See first treated the Soviet Union with caution, anti-Catholic repression in the USSR prompted the Church to sever ties with Moscow in the late 1920s.
The Pope’s renewed anti-radicalism reached Ireland itself. In 1928, he met personally with the Rector of the Irish College in Rome, Monsignor John Hagan, to question him about the Irish Church’s anticommunist efforts. Despite Hagan’s assurances that Irish communism was too weak “to take into serious account,” the Pope insisted the Irish hierarchy be “more vigilant in detecting even the faintest signs of trouble.”
The Irish hierarchy and clergy obliged, condemning the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups (RWG). Formed by the Communist International in 1930 as a fledgling Communist Party of Ireland, in the minds of many clergy the RWG seemed poised to grow amid the extreme poverty of Dublin’s tenements. One fretted that, “the virus of Bolshevism and Communistic socialism was being injected into the Irish Catholic worker in Dublin.”
The IRA’s sponsoring of another socialist body, Saor Éire, was met with similar condemnation. In 1931, at the urging of Cumann na nGaedheal, the ruling pro-Treaty party, the Catholic hierarchy ordered priests across Ireland to read their parishes an anti–Saor Éire statement. The organization collapsed soon after.
Cumann na nGaedheal’s concerns about communism extended to Fianna Fáil, the anti-Treaty political party founded by Éamon de Valera in 1926. When the party’s vigorous attempts to smear Fianna Fáil as communist in the 1932 general election failed to prevent the party from winning, a new anticommunist group materialized: the Blueshirts, a fascist paramilitary organization.
Blueshirt ideology was staunchly Catholic, anticommunist, and antisemitic, drawing on the trope that communism was a Jewish conspiracy. They were influenced by arguments like those of Tipperary’s Fr Denis Fahey — an internationally renowned antisemitic polemicist and inspiration to his better-known counterpart Charles Coughlin — whose writings caused much anxiety among Ireland’s small Jewish community. Meanwhile, James Hogan, a leading Blueshirt intellectual, in his 1935 book Could Ireland Become Communist?, portrayed the ideology as part of a broader moral malaise threatening Irish society.
But while their anticommunist credentials were beyond reproach, the Blueshirts were still subordinate to the conservative Cumann na nGaedheal. When they joined with the party to form Fine Gael in 1934, their leader, Eoin O’Duffy, and his fascist beliefs were soon sidelined.
For its part, the Church hierarchy distanced itself from both the Blueshirts and the attempts to paint Fianna Fáil as communist, sensing de Valera was a man they could do business with.
The Church was also content to carry out its own campaign against the far left. In March 1933, religious mobs attacked several Dublin buildings associated with the Left — most notably Connolly House, the RWG’s headquarters on Great Strand Street — after priests across the city delivered incendiary anticommunist sermons. Bob Doyle, who was later to become an international brigadier in Spain, recalled being told by a priest in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral that communists with “big beards” were “spitting on a statue of the Blessed Virgin” inside Connolly House.
Radicals outside Dublin also faced clerical harassment. Miners in Castlecomer, County Kilkenny, encountered dogged opposition from local clergy for setting up an explicitly communist trade union. Several local miners were excommunicated, triggering an exodus of members from the union. Those who remained were stigmatized. Elsewhere, an Irish American RWG member, James Gralton, was deported to the United States following demands from a local priest that he be “ostracised” from Ireland like the “lepers of old.” His story has since been made famous by Ken Loach’s movie Jimmy’s Hall.
Leftists in Northern Ireland weren’t immune from the Church’s hostility either. One radical later recalled: “there wasn’t a pulpit all over Belfast — Catholic, Protestant — that wasn’t denouncing communism.”
The Spanish Adventure
With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the Church hierarchy found an anticommunist cause outside Ireland’s borders. Franco was their man. “Spain at the moment is fighting the battle of Christendom against the subversive powers of Communism,” the hierarchy intoned.
Anticlerical killings in Republican zones provided grist to the Church’s position (priests executed by Franco’s forces received much less attention), and the pro-Franco Irish Christian Front attracted tens of thousands to its rallies throughout the country.
Irish volunteers flocked to join the fight in Spain, forming a pro-Franco Irish Brigade that won the support of Cardinal Joseph MacRory of Armagh. Many of the Brigade’s members were blessed by the Archbishop of Tuam before sailing to Spain from Galway.
The few Irishmen who fought for the Spanish Republic received a very different reception. One Redemptorist preacher declared that “every man who fights for Lenin, Trotsky, or Marx fights for the devil and against Christ.”
Before long, however, the looming threat of a broader European war diverted attention from Spain. With Irish neutrality the overwhelming consensus during the Second World War, the Communist Party disbanded its Dublin branch rather than advocate support for the fight against Germany. As its members joined the Labour Party, to much controversy, the Church remained vigilant.
The Cold War at Home
Anticommunism was never far from the Irish clergy’s mind, and in the postwar years, they saw a red menace seemingly everywhere to their east.
Fearing that a victory for the Italian Communist Party in the 1948 general election would threaten the Vatican’s position, the Irish state — supplemented with money from Church collections — covertly sent £25,627 to Luigi Gedda, head of Italian Catholic Action and a supporter of the Christian Democratic Party.
The following year, the house imprisonments of Cardinals Mindszenty of Hungary and Stepinac of Yugoslavia prompted a popular outcry. A hundred and fifty thousand people thronged Dublin’s O’Connell Street — despite the fact that Stepinac’s conviction stemmed from his collaboration with Croatia’s genocidal Ustaše regime during the war. A decade-plus later, Irish Catholics were still incensed at the conviction: in 1955, John Charles McQuaid, the archbishop of Dublin tried to cancel a soccer match between Ireland and Yugoslavia in the capital city. (The move dampened attendance, but the game was still held.)
The imprisonment and killing of members of the missionary Columban Order in Korea and China also received widespread attention. Upon their return to Ireland, released priests spoke passionately about their experiences in countrywide church tours.
The Cold War shaped the devotional lives of many ordinary Irish Catholics. The thousands of annual visitors to Knock, County Mayo — the site of a supposed Marian apparition in 1879 — were regularly urged to pray for the conversion of Russia, China, and other communist countries to Catholicism.
Ireland’s Catholic Cold War had a domestic dimension as well. A personal admirer of J. Edgar Hoover, McQuaid believed leftist activity should be closely monitored. In a 1963 confidential report on Irish communism, he recalled telling the late Pope Pius XII that “the good state of Catholic life in Dublin can only be secured by unending vigilance.”
McQuaid’s papers reveal that priests under his direction collated voluminous amounts of intelligence on the communist movement in Ireland, gleaned from police, military intelligence, Catholic organizations such as the Knights of St Columbanus and the CTSI, individual informers, and in one case a Taoiseach (Prime Minister), John A. Costello of Fine Gael.
The surveillance extended beyond the Soviet-aligned Irish Workers’ League to a diverse range of organizations perceived as vulnerable to communist infiltration: Ireland’s Labour Party, the trade union and unemployed movements, the IRA, women’s groups such as the Irish Housewives’ Association, and campaigns advocating pacifism and nuclear disarmament.
McQuaid’s invasive anticommunism was no anomaly. Fellow bishops like Michael Browne, a vocal admirer of US Senator Joseph McCarthy, also monitored radicals. And the Standard, a Catholic newspaper with close ties to the hierarchy, regularly printed stories on communist activity derived from state sources.
Anything that smelled of radicalism aroused opposition from anticommunist Catholics. For example, the Irish hierarchy viewed with suspicion the postwar British Labour government’s suite of reforms, particularly the National Health Service. To them, it merely looked like a less severe form of Soviet-type statism.
They fought analogous measures in Ireland, portraying attempts to expand the Irish state’s role in health provision as a threat to the Church’s hard-won control of hospitals and other institutions. It feared that a strong welfare state and “socialized medicine” would dilute its authority over its flock.
The hierarchy played hardball. In 1951, they helped force out the government’s health minister, Dr Noël Browne, for proposing a free health care measure, the Mother and Child Scheme. Despite the plan’s modest goal, Church opposition nixed its implementation.
Following the minister’s resignation, McQuaid confidently wrote that the bill’s defeat had “thrown back socialism and communism a very long time.” But in the long term the controversy actually did the opposite, heightening public distrust of a Church seen as overly powerful.
The Tide Turns
Religious anticommunism declined in Ireland beginning in the early 1960s, particularly after Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council introduced reforms that reduced the emphasis on anticommunism.
To be sure, the Catholic Church still opposed radical activity through the 1960s. Labour’s embrace of the “socialist” label in 1969 prompted clerical denunciation, and the small Maoist presence on Irish campuses attracted disproportionate attention.
But these were fleeting moments. The downward trend was unmistakable.
The liberalization of Irish society helped fuel the growth of the Left, with previously marginalized radical groups like Ireland’s International Brigadiers receiving broader public respect.
The decline of clerical anticommunism also coincided with a shift in the attention of the Church and its lay supporters to “moral” issues like divorce, LGBTQ rights, and abortion. Even on social issues, however, the Church’s power has slipped considerably.
The 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist denied a life-saving abortion at Galway University Hospital, was a grotesque indication that the influence of the Church, particularly in the provision of health care, hasn’t disappeared. But Ireland’s successful 2015 marriage equality referendum was a resounding counterpoint. The Church is no longer all-mighty, particularly in the urban working-class areas where the vote was highest.
For the Left, the question is whether it can capitalize on this new environment. The traditional parties — Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Labour — while still strong, are losing much support, while the pro-choice and anti-austerity movements have grown. Can a different Ireland now be forged? The good news is, at long last, one of Ireland’s historic foes of progress is considerably weakened.