KILLALOE woman Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh is one of the editors of a new book His Grace is Displeased – Selected Correspondence of John Charles McQuaid.
Ms Ó hÓgartaigh and fellow editor, Ciara Cullen, have chosen letters to and from the archbishop, which reveal much about his interests, network of contacts and how many people came first to him to report what they felt was unsavoury or ‘un-Catholic’ or even ‘un-Irish’.
Ms Ó hÓgartaigh is now based at Harvard and is author of several books, including Quiet Revolutionaries: Irish Women in Education; Medicine and Sport 1861-1964 and Kathleen Lynn, Irishwoman, Patriot, Doctor.
Often when historians do work on a major figure, it is someone they admire but in this instance, Ms Ó hÓgartaigh says she started because she was concerned that McQuaid was being demonised.
She is very critical of John Cooney’s biography of McQuaid and says she wanted to produce a dispassionate work. “McQuaid needs somebody honest, objective and impartial. I said, ‘let the documents speak, let’s see what’s in the archives’. That’s why myself and Ciara Cullen, who’s an excellent co-editor, said ‘let’s see what’s there and what the evidence suggests’.”
She says there is no evidence that McQuaid was involved in paedophilia, although he was involved in covering it up.
An effort to understand the man was required, she feels, even if she wasn’t particularly sympathetic towards him. “The word I use is empathy, empathy implies understanding, trying to understand the person and try and get into their head a little bit. He was born in 1895 and his mother died a few days after giving birth to him. His father remarried within a year and he wasn’t told that the mother he knew was not his biological mother. He was told that at 16, so it’s difficult to estimate the effect it might have had on him.
“He had a severe upbringing, in the sense, he was in boarding school and a seminary so he didn’t have any real experience of family life. He wasn’t a particularly warm person. He was very austere.”
McQuaid would have been better off keeping out of public life, she believes. “He would have been better off staying in Blackrock College, where he was genuinely popular. When he became archbishop, the power really affected him. He basically misused his power because he tampered with so many things. As well as that, there were lots of people helping him, lots of lieutenants, people informing him of various things. The ordinary people of Ireland feature strongly in the book, writing in to complain about all kinds of things.”
McQuaid was one of the most influential figures in 20th century Ireland and his deeply conservative views were a major influence of De Valera’s 1937 Constitution.
He was far from shy about intervening in politics when he felt they crossed into what he considered to be his domain. Most spectacularly, between 1948 and 1951, when there were attempts by then Health Minister Noel Browne to introduce free healthcare for all mothers and children under 16, known as the Mother and Child scheme.
In a letter written to the Bishop of Galway in 1950, which is included in the book, he mentioned the doomed proposal. “My Lord Bishop, I have also seen the Tánaiste on two occasions, the Minister for Justice on one occasion and the attorney general on one occasion. The possibility of the Mother and Child proposals being accepted by the Cabinet and implemented, as they exist in the draft, is not even to be considered.”
McQuaid held a deep-seated suspicion and antipathy towards Trinity College, as a memo to the Nuncio in November of 1952 showed. “But the presence of a Protestant minority with its focus on operations in Trinity College, powerful in finance and the professions and very firmly organised on a Masonic basis with strong affiliations in London and Belfast, will always demand an unrelaxed vigilance on the part of the Church, particularly in education.”
He had a stern view of mixed athletics and The Irish Times reported on correspondence of McQuaid’s, which he wrote in his capacity as president of Blackrock College.
“Sir – I have noted in yesterday’s press a majority decision of the annual Congress of the NACAI in favour of women competing in the same athletic meetings as men. I protest against this un-Catholic and un-Irish decision. I hereby assure you that no boy from my college will take part in any athletic meeting controlled by your organisation at which women will compete, no matter what attire they may adopt.”
Mixing Catholic and Protestant students was something the archbishop did not approve of at all and correspondence regarding the German school, St Killian’s in Dublin, made this clear. McQuaid’s secretary wrote in April 1961, “His Grace the Archbishop is surprised to learn that 18 non-Catholics are in attendance. His Grace tolerated the attendance of a few non-Catholics on the strict understanding that the school in management, teachers and curriculum, be completely Catholic and, in particular, that no distinction be made in favour of any interdenominational approach.”