Today’s Irish Labour Party prides itself on its “liberal agenda.” Its former leader, Eamon Gilmore, declared in 2007 that the party’s support for socially progressive causes is one of its core values and that “more than any other political movement, it was Labour and its allies which drove the modernization of the Irish state.”
Although this statement ignores the importance of grassroots activism — which often predated Labour’s advocacy — in forcing social change, it is true that since the 1980s Labour has taken a progressive stance on social issues more often than Ireland’s other major political parties. The party spearheaded the push for reform on issues like contraception, divorce, and secular education at a time when such views were profoundly controversial.
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that progressivism on social issues or secularism were always central to the Labour Party. Indeed, in 1964, American historian Emmet Larkin described the Irish Labour Party as “the most opportunistically conservative Labour Party anywhere in the known world” — a reasonable criticism of a party that, for most of its history, positioned itself well to the right of the British Labour Party and social-democratic parties elsewhere in Western Europe.
A decade earlier, journalist Jack White had a similar assessment. Attempting to explain the lack of a left-right cleavage in Irish politics to a foreign colleague, White told him to draw a line and put all the parties to the right. When asked where Labour should be located, White responded, “Put that furthest of all!”
White’s characterization was based on Labour’s longstanding unwillingness (along with Ireland’s other major parties) to support any policy that could be construed as left-wing; it was also careful to tailor its policies and language to avoid criticism from the Catholic Church, whose influence on the population — around 95 percent Catholic in the early twentieth century — is hard to overestimate.
Like most institutions, political parties reflect the culture they originate from and the people they purport to represent. While the influence of religion on politics is certainly not unique to Ireland — the British Labour Party was said to owe more to Methodism than to Marx — the Catholic Church’s influence on the evolution of Labour was extreme, and provides a useful prism for examining Irish society and politics more broadly.
Under God’s Eye
The Irish church’s power as a political actor has its origins in the early nineteenth century, when the church endured repression at the hands of British colonial authorities, and clerical engagement and popular mobilization spurred the victorious campaign for Catholic Emancipation.
As historian Patrick Murray observes, “having thus acquired a taste and talent for political activity, and for the exercise of political power, priests soon came to regard these as their right, and even their duty.” The Catholic Church remained active in politics, consolidating its power under Cardinal Cullen in the decades after the Great Famine. Beginning in the 1870s, it lent its support to land agitation and Home Rule, and in the twentieth century supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty, during and after the civil war.
Unlike other predominantly Catholic countries in Europe at the time, the Irish church was not identified with ruling elites but with those working against them. This gave the church political and spiritual authority among the Catholic population, and ensured that religion was interwoven with the national cause.
The perception remained strong despite the church’s often-vocal opposition to militant activism. Two cases in particular stand out: the church’s denunciations in the 1860s of the Fenians, a group of revolutionary separatists, and its condemnations in the early 1920s of opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. In the latter instance, the church went so far as to excommunicate anti-treaty republicans.
The church’s hostility engendered a degree of anticlericalism among supporters of these popular causes. But even when the church was unleashing a barrage of attacks, anticlericalism was still a minority point of view — and a seldom articulated one at that.
Fundamentally, there was a high level of support for the church on political matters, and a propensity to keep quiet even among those who opposed the church, because crossing the clergy invited political suicide at the ballot box.
Catholicism and the Left
Widespread allegiance to the church would prove to be a problem for the Irish left. The clergy was firmly opposed to secularism in any form, and in the late nineteenth century was engaged in a battle to prevent increased state control in elementary education.
The Catholic Church was also unequivocally antisocialist and anticommunist — an antipathy it articulated in the 1864 Syllabus of Errors and later in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labour), which asserted the sacrosanctity of private property rights; emphasized the role of the family, individuals, and charity over the state; and declared that Catholicism and socialism were mutually exclusive.
Meanwhile, the Irish left was weak both politically and numerically, and unwilling to move beyond liberal reformism. When the Labour Party was formed in 1912, the party’s founders didn’t describe the formation as socialist. In response to a charge that Labour was a Marxist party, one leader recited a long list of the party’s original sources of inspiration that included medieval denunciations of usury, James Connolly, George Bernard Shaw, Pope Leo XIII, the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, and the Epistle of St James. These, rather than Marx, were the keystones of Irish Labour.
But despite Labour’s weakness and vocal disassociation from socialism, the arrival in Dublin of James Larkin — a syndicalist trade unionist — and the increased militancy that followed, led the Dublin clergy to become preoccupied with the “socialist menace.”
Fear of a Red Planet
The 1913 lockout — in which twenty thousand were prevented from working because they had demanded union rights — marked the height of the church’s anti-left enmity. When the lockout ended in January 1914, the movement was bruised and depleted and Larkin left for the United States soon after.
While the church remained concerned about the labor movement’s threat to the nation’s faith and morals, it was soon preoccupied with other matters. With the outbreak of the civil war in the 1920s, the clergy focused its rhetorical fire on anti-treaty republicans rather than the labor movement.
Labour contested its first general election in 1922, having stood aside in the two previous contests. As the third largest party, it became the official opposition after anti-treaty republicans refused to take their seats.
Labour’s leader was Thomas Johnson, an Englishman who had been brought up in the Unitarian church; his right-hand man was R. J. P Mortished, also from a Protestant background. That both men were English-born and weren’t Catholic left the party open to attack; in addition, some of their colleagues, including trade union leaders William O’Brien and Cathal O’Shannon were secretly atheists, while others weren’t particularly observant Catholics.
In the fledgling Labour party, the relatively high proportion of non-Catholics and a general lack of religiosity were held up as proof of the alien nature of the Irish left. Some clergy members even tried to intimidate the local electorate against voting Labour. But in at least one case of attempted intimidation, it had the effect of mobilizing previously lukewarm supporters to Labour’s cause, and in those days, clerical attacks on the party were not taken lying down.
O’Shannon used the trade union newspaper Voice of Labour to take on their religious critics. As he wrote in 1927, “the general feeling is certainly that the less the Church has to do with party politics the better both for the Church and for politics.”
Activists also resisted efforts to paint the trade union movement or the party with a denominational or religious brush. The discussion surrounding Labour’s new constitution at the end of the 1920s was a case in point: early drafts included references to the responsibilities of the “Christian state,” but by the time the constitution was finalized, this language had been removed.
The Catholic Drift
In spite of these attempts to keep the Catholic Church out of the party, Labour’s religious character began to change during the second half of the 1920s. This was partly due to a shift in personnel — Tom Johnson lost his seat in the 1927 general election and was succeeded by T. J. O’Connell, a practicing Catholic and general secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO).
INTO’s membership was, for the most part, directly employed by the parish priests who managed Irish elementary schools. When O’Connell lost his seat in the 1932 general election, he was replaced by William Norton (a member of the Knights of Columbanus, the secretive Catholic lay organization) who led the party until 1960.
But the atmosphere in Ireland was also quite different. By the 1930s, Ireland had gone from a self-conscious Catholicism to a full-scale devotional revival, with the 1932 Eucharistic Congress representing a celebration of nationhood as well as faith.
It was also the time of what was known as “Catholic action,” which encouraged the laity to see themselves as soldiers in a “fight between Christianity and Paganism.” They were to oppose secularism, liberalism, and socialism by getting active in politics, their workplaces and communities, and in lay organizations that campaigned against everything from “evil literature” to socialized medicine.
With the emphasis on Catholicism and orthodoxy, the climate became, as communist trade unionist John Swift argued, one of “intellectual terrorism,” where religious or political dissent was proscribed by both state and society. This terrorism was evidenced most vividly in March 1933, when a group incited by a sermon at the Pro-Cathedral torched the headquarters of the Revolutionary Workers Group, while singing “Faith of Our Fathers.”
The February 1932 general election saw the outgoing conservative Cumann na nGaedheal government — assisted by the Catholic church — conduct a red scare against the Fianna Fáil party, which was poised to win the election. Labour, very much the minor party, was roundly ignored and returned to the Dáil with only seven seats, its worst-ever showing. Fianna Fáil formed a minority government with the support of Labour, now helmed by William Norton.
In his maiden speech as Labour leader, Norton described the government’s task: to work toward “that life of frugal comfort which Pope Leo XIII laid down as the God-given right of every man and woman.”
Notwithstanding such pronouncements, Norton was not regarded as particularly devout, not least among the Catholic hierarchy, and his language might have owed more to political expediency than faith. In the view of Archbishop of Dublin (1940–1972) John Charles McQuaid, Norton’s sole concern was “votes from anywhere and how to get them.”
Labour and Communism
The relationship between Labour and the Fianna Fáil government — which was enacting much of Labour’s social policy in areas such as housing — soon grew tense. As Labour lost votes to the ruling party, it began shifting to the left to differentiate itself from Fianna Fáil.
This leftward tilt culminated with a new constitution in 1936. The document called for the nationalization of basic industries, economic planning, better social services, a review of banking in the state, the breaking up of large farms, and the promotion of cooperative farming.
Most significantly, however, the party stated as its goal the formation of a “Workers’ Republic” that would be “founded on the principles of social justice, sustained by democratic institutions and guaranteeing civil and religious liberty and equal opportunities to achieve happiness to all citizens.”
Those on the Labour left criticized the constitution, describing it as a “pale pink,” reformist document. But even if it amounted to little more than window dressing “in order to be in advance of any other political party,” it succeeded in raising alarm bells among Catholic actionists and the clergy.
Labour’s timing was also unfortunate. The outbreak of war in Spain in the summer of 1936 turned the mood in Ireland even more strongly against the Left. Egged on by sensationalist headlines about republican church burnings and the mass murder of priests and nuns, the public viewed the war in Spain as a battle between Christianity and “atheistic communism.”
To identify with the Spanish republicans was to provoke a level of opprobrium no organization could sustain; even Jim Larkin — who identified with communism considerably more than Labour — prohibited officials from his Workers’ Union of Ireland from appearing on platforms in support of the Spanish republic. And for Labour, as historian Fearghal McGarry notes, it was very much a case of “don’t mention the war.”
And that meant everywhere — parliament, meetings, and in the party’s weekly newspaper, Labour News. During the 1938 party conference, the mere mention of Spain during a motion on the invasion of Abyssinia led to a trenchant objection by one of the Labour MPs, who complained that
the motion had been proposed in a manner calculated to harm the party . . . and he would be lacking in his duty as a citizen and as a Catholic if he did not enter a protest. With respect to everybody’s religious beliefs, they were Catholics first and politicians afterwards.
Labour’s caution paid few dividends. The Catholic hierarchy grew increasingly fixated on the dangers of communism in Ireland — notably in Lenten pastorals (letters to the laity read out at mass during Lent) — and various newspapers began to express concern that Labour, with its new “Workers’ Republic” constitution, was on a slippery slope toward communism.
The Irish clergy’s opinions even found their way into the Vatican newspaper, Osservatoro Romano. For Norton, the idea that the Holy Father could have read about Labour’s descent into communism over breakfast was too awful. He wrote a letter of protest to the secretary of state, Cardinal Pacelli, assuring assure him his party “strongly opposed any attempt to introduce anti-Christian doctrines into the movement.”
While the paper issued a retraction, Norton didn’t enjoy unanimous support from his own camp. Norton’s predecessor, Tom Johnson, regarded the letter to Pacelli as a dangerous blurring of the boundary between politics and personal morality. He was especially alarmed that Norton had advised Pacelli to consult with a “recognised Catholic authority” for assurance that Labour’s policies were acceptable. The idea of securing the church’s imprimatur was anathema to Johnson, who warned he would have to reconsider his membership if Labour began to practice such deference.
In fact, this is precisely what happened over the party’s constitution. Members of Labour’s second largest affiliated union, the INTO — led by its assistant general secretary, a Catholic actionist — were worried about the “Workers’ Republic” constitution and sought the advice of the Catholic hierarchy. In early 1938, the Labour executive was informed that an ad hoc committee of the hierarchy had pronounced some aspects of the constitution contrary to Catholic social teaching, and, after behind-the-scenes lobbying, the offending clauses were removed at the 1939 Labour conference.
A few angry voices complained of church interference, but crucially, this interference had come at the instigation of the laity; for the most part, party members accepted that holding onto the “Workers’ Republic” (a phrase that, notably, had not been used by Labour at the 1937 or 1938 elections) was more trouble than it was worth.
In 1944, Labour’s largest affiliate, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), disaffiliated from the party and set up the National Labour Party, claiming that Labour had been “infested by communists.” Some communists had in fact joined around this time. But the split was really driven by a personality dispute — Jim Larkin had been readmitted into Labour’s ranks against the wishes of ITGWU leader William O’Brien — and inter-union rivalry.
The actual cause of the schism mattered little, however. Labour quickly became the subject of lurid exposés in Catholic newspapers. In some of the most cynical posturing in Irish politics, vocal anticlericalists and atheists like Cathal O’Shannon, Frank Robbins, and William O’Brien painted National Labour as a Catholic nationalist party, pitting itself against the atheistic communists pulling Labour’s strings. Political opponents like Fianna Fáil’s Sean MacEntee also joined in. Determined to avoid supplying any further ammunition, Norton and his colleagues began peppering Labour speeches with papal encyclical references.
The Labour press also bent to the church’s will. As journalist Brian Inglis recalls, contributors and editors were under strict instructions to “avoid writing about any subject in which criticism, even if justified, could be construed as criticism of the church.”
But if the Irish-based contributors were used to self-censorship and stoically accepted the paper’s strictures, outsiders were not always as understanding. Editor Sheila Greene found herself having to ask the playwright Seán O’Casey (a Dubliner, but longtime resident of England) to resubmit an article that criticized the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, removing references to the archbishop. She explained, “it would be harmful to the Labour Party . . . I think if you lived here you would understand what I mean.” O’Casey was unsympathetic: “Goethe’s last words were ‘More light. More light.’ Mine will probably be ‘More courage. More Courage.’ ”
Some years later, he reflected glumly on the Irish Left’s desire to remain in the good graces of the Church.
I should be surprised if there were not competitions soon of endurance and speed in the recital of rosary and litany. Catholic Stakhanovites. The Campaign of Emulation. 150 per cent over quota in prayer and penance.
Labour in Government
In 1948, Labour and National Labour joined a multiparty coalition government that held office until 1951, and after a few years working together, the two parties put their differences aside and amalgamated in 1950. But with the emergence of the Cold War and the growth of the British welfare state, Labour continued to be viewed as the thin end of a red wedge.
Norton’s effort to enact a social welfare bill was emblematic. Serving as tánaiste, or deputy prime minister, and minister for social welfare, Norton’s priority in office was to get welfare legislation passed. But it was a sensitive issue.
The Catholic Church opposed increasing the state’s role in welfare provision, as did some of the more right-wing members of the government. Norton worked steadily behind the scenes to allay the hierarchy’s concerns and bring them onboard while making sure socialists in his own party did not raise any hackles.
Inglis remembers being told by senior Labour activists, “if you go rocking the boat and get people scared that we’re all fellow travellers, we’ll get nowhere. People have got to realise we’re an Irish party, not taking our orders from Moscow. ” The association of social security provisions with communism was no accident — Irish conservatives were deliberately blurring the line between welfarism and communism. As one Catholic newspaper put it in 1952, “the welfare state is diluted socialism and socialism is disguised communism.”
In the end, Norton managed to avoid the hierarchy’s opposition, but the government collapsed before he could see the legislation through.
His cabinet colleague, Noël Browne, was no more successful. In the early 1950s, Browne tried to enact free health care for children, known as the Mother and Child scheme.
The Irish medical establishment, worried that the scheme would depress their incomes and render them civil servants, encouraged the Catholic hierarchy to mobilize against the plan. Their argument that the plan was a step toward socialized medicine struck a chord with the church. Since the church controlled most hospitals in Ireland, a socialized system would threaten one of its main spheres of influence.
In the end — despite significant public support — doctors, the Catholic Church, and right-wing members of the government joined together to stop the scheme. The outcome showed the Catholic Church was at its strongest when it ran in the same direction as other vested interests in Irish life. And for many decades, that wasn’t a tall task — the Catholic Church and the Irish professional and political classes were rarely at odds.
But the Mother and Child scheme crisis of 1951 — perhaps the greatest church-state row in modern Irish politics — also represented the peak of church power in Ireland. If the bishops had won the battle, fighting against health care for children won them much popular criticism. They backed out of the public spotlight for much of the next decade. With the Cold War mood slowly beginning to thaw, Labour also felt less pressure to distance itself from the word “socialism.”
At long last, Labour had some room to move outside of the clergy-imposed straitjacket.
To be sure, Labour’s “opportunistic conservatism” wasn’t entirely the result of the Catholic Church’s dictates, but it was hugely important. Acting in conjunction with the right-wing press and conservative politicians, the church pummeled Labour at the first sign of radicalism or secularism. Without any way of counteracting the accusations of paganism or communism that were thrown at it in the daily popular press, Labour tried to avoid giving hostages to fortune.
At that point, the damage had already been done. Labour had rendered itself an insipid, unattractive party — not merely to radicals but to anyone with an ounce of enthusiasm.