John Charles McQuaid – Review


John Cooney  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

The O’Brien Press (1999), 576 pages

Phibsborough Library

Irish History & Politics 300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

John Charles McQuaid, Ruler of Catholic Ireland is an in-depth look at the life of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and the enormous power he wielded over Irish society.  McQuaid was an expert administrator and was generous in developing charitable outlets for the Catholic Church in Dublin.  However he was also a bureaucrat in the worst sense of the word.  He would find or create rules to silence his opponents and he was convinced of his righteousness.   Power increased his arrogance, the kind of superiority that sometimes infects school teachers who are used to being listened to and obeyed without question (he had been the headmaster of the elite Blackrock College).  Perhaps, most damningly, McQuaid failed to treat non-Catholics with any form of Christian spirit, instead they offered a chance to highlight his insecurities.  He saw Jews and especially Protestants as a threat to the homogenous Catholic state he wished to be a part of.  As Seán Ó Faoláin noted, “We cannot, to give a homely example, tell our children not to mix with our neighbours’ children on religious grounds, and at the same time expect our neighbours to believe that we have no personal objection to them.” (p.168)

Although McQuaid saw few faults in himself there were those who were suspicious of him.  Some priests were shocked when he was made Archbishop f  Dublin and he was never made a cardinal.  When people stood up to him they found that his control wasn’t as overarching as he thought it was.  The FAI managed to hold an international match against Yugoslavia despite his fierce opposition.  De Valera, although broadly sympathetic to McQuaid, managed to refuse his requests for more Catholic legislation on a number of occasions.  It was only with the election of Seán Lemass as Taoiseach in 1959 that the influence of the Catholic Church began to wane.  A more outward looking Ireland, the slow decline of censorship, and the arrival of television all began to loosen the Church’s grip in society.

Martin Tierney 8

As I was reading John Charles McQuaid I was reminded of a biography of J. Edgar Hoover (J.Edgar Hoover, The Man and the Secrets by Curt Gentry).  Like Hoover, McQuaid had an almost voyeuristic desire to find out the intimate details of Irish people’s lives.  He encouraged sympathetic priests and citizens to report any perceived immorality to him.  Like Hoover, McQuaid was fiercely anti-communist to the point of seeing communism (or anything vaguely left wing such as the Mother and Child Scheme) as a threat to Irish society.  Interestingly Hoover sent McQuaid a copy of his book, Masters of Deceit, upon hearing of the Archbishops admiration of the FBI’s anti-communist investigations.  McQuaid also saw sexuality as a threat that needed to be controlled, even in the case of married couples.  Married couples were extolled to have as many children as possible but if they couldn’t (for health reasons) they could not use birth control instead, “…the married pair must use their will-power and prudence and live as brother and sister.” (p.279)  The Church’s bizarrely skewed notion of human sexuality was unfortunately not publicly challenged until the 1970s (although in private many Catholic couples made their own arrangements).  McQuaid, not surprisingly, was on the right wing of the Church during the Second Vatican Council but in the Vatican he was a much smaller fish than he was in Ireland.  He was extremely disappointed not to be made a cardinal and was shocked when the Pope accepted his resignation as Archbishop of Dublin (bishops were supposed to resign at 75) in 1972.  McQuaid never really recovered from his loss of power and status and died in 1973.

Although I would be sympathetic to Cooney’s thesis that McQuaid and the Catholic Church had too much power in 20th century Ireland I would have a number of criticisms of his book.  The most obvious criticism, and this has been mentioned by most reviewers, is Cooney’s claim that McQuaid sexually abused the child of a pub owner in a room above Dublin pub.  The story of the child’s abuse was told by a retired school inspector to Noël Browne in 1988.  The retired school inspector is telling his story second hand, there is no mention of how he knows the pub owner.  Noël Browne, as an enemy of McQuaid’s (he was the Minister for Health during the Mother and Child controversy) could be seen as a suitable source for such a story but likewise Browne would be more willing to suspend his critical faculties when accepting the story.  There are excessive details about McQuaid’s dress (“a black polo pullover, black cap and black clerical coat”) and his drink (“a glass of Jameson’s Red Breast whiskey”) but no details that make the story credible; the abuse victim being identified as the young son of a Dublin pub owner creates any number of possible victims.  It is easy to dislike McQuaid and sometimes our critical faculties can become dulled by dislike.  A third hand tale of one alleged incident of sexual abuse is not enough to warrant its inclusion in this book.  Undoubtedly the publishers saw the publicity benefits from including the story but its inclusion can’t be justified as, for such a well researched book, this incredibly serious allegation lacks any proper evidence.  Obviously sexual abuse allegations are very hard to prove, especially decades after they occurred, and I’m not for a moment suggesting that an author has to prove every fact beyond a reasonable doubt.  But for such an allegation to stick it would be necessary to talk directly to a victim (even if the victim’s anonymity was protected) or at least to build up a pattern of a number of allegations from different reliable sources.



Cooney also suggests that the 1951 invoking of Our Lady as patroness of the Defence Forces, “was a moment in the history of religious fundamentalism that ranks alongside the Ayatollah Khomeini’s crusade to transform Iran into a Muslim state.” (p.288)  This kind of hyperbole might work in a newspaper article but feels out of place in a scholarly biography.  Ireland in the 1950s was far from perfect but opponents of the political or religious ethos of the country were not hanged.  The censorship in Ireland of the period was reprehensible but was nothing on the scale of Iran.  There is no such thing as a perfect democracy but Ireland’s democratic credentials were superior to those of Iran.  Also it is somewhat unfair to compare 1950s Ireland to 1970s Iran, it is unreasonable to expect that all the rights and freedoms we enjoy today should have been automatically available to those living fifty or a hundred years ago.  For many people 1950s Ireland was a horrific place to grow up in but for many (possibly the majority) life in Ireland was as good or as bad as life is now.

Despite my criticisms John Charles McQuaid, Ruler of Catholic Ireland is an important book on twentieth century Ireland and it highlights the disturbing power of the Catholic Church in Ireland.  The book shows that leading figures in Irish political and social life (with some notable exceptions) chose to collude with the Church in enforcing its social policy on all of Ireland’s citizens, Catholic or not.  Cooney’s book raises complex questions about the nature of religion, nationalism, and class in Ireland.  These are issues which, although arguably less relevant today, are, nonetheless, important lenses through which to view Irish society.


Related Links

John Cooney Biography – with extensive links to reviews of this book

Ireland vs. Yugoslavia, 1955 – Excellent page with photographs by website


2 thoughts on “John Charles McQuaid – Review

    • Thanks for your kind comment Beatrix. Apologies for the delay in replying, I’ve been busy the last while and haven’t checked on my blog. My name is Brian Purcell so feel free to use that. No worries if it’s too late at this stage to reference me! Good luck with the book. Your own blog looks great, hopefully I’ll get some time at the weekend to read some more your posts.

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