Between faith and a hard place

The Irish Times, Saturday 21 December, 2019

Margaret M. Scull, The Catholic Church and the Northern Irish Troubles, 1968-1998

A viciously brilliant lampoon by the infamous Cummings from The Sunday Express of 31 May, 1981, which adorns the cover of this riveting and seminal book by a new young academic talent, says more about the Anglo-Saxon contempt for the Celts than the billions of words written about “The Troubles” over the past 50 years.

Indeed, so devastating is this Cummings caricature of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, the prelate from Cullyhanna in South Armagh, who was demonised in the British media as the recruiting officer of the Provisional IRA, that there is a danger of national stereotypes being perpetuated for a new Brexit generation.

Ian and Eileen Paisley at Cairnryan
                                    Picture by Bill Heaney

That the author, Maggie Scull, a Bostonian now at the University of Galway, sides sympathetically with the beleaguered Christian Soldiers on both sides of the Irish Sea against the crude sectarianism fomented so unscrupulously for decades of death and destruction by the Rev Ian Paisley, pictured left with his wife, Lady Bannside, should immunise readers from returning to traditional trenches.

However, there is no escaping the reality that while the conflict was not about credal definitions of religious belief, its origins remain inextricably linked to the 16th century Reformation and the subsequent Plantation by English and Scottish Protestant settlers on the land of dispossessed native Irish who remained loyal to the Faith of their Fathers through dungeon, fire and sword. As the BBC Northern Ireland television series on The Troubles at 50 so graphically showed, thousands of innocent individuals were killed or maimed because they were identified as belonging either to the Prod or Papist “tribe”.

Structured by thematic chronology, the book ranges widely from the civil rights marches in 1968 that were waylaid by the eruption of IRA violence and the arrival of the British Army, causing tensions between clergy and bishops. I975 saw the canonisation of Oliver Plunkett by Pope Paul VI, the consolidation of the influence within the hierarchy of Cardinal William Conway, departure to Kenya of Father James Good and the dispute in Ballymurphy between Bishop William Philbin and Father Desmond Wilson. This was followed by the H-Block hunger strikes of 1980-81 and the rise of Sinn Fein. In 1977 Tomas Ó Fiaich succeeded to Armagh as an unrepentant nationalist sympathetic to the plight of Sinn Fein supporters but resolute in his condemnations of the Provos. The last hurrah of papal authority in Ireland came with the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II. Ó Fiaich’s untimely death in 1990 eased Cahal Daly into Armagh as John Hume and Gerry Adams inched peace forward with direction from Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and Bill Clinton.

Scull’s accounts of the Ballymascanlon Inter-church talks and of the self-inflicted disaster for the Provos at Enniskillen in 1987 are too sketchy as, too, is the horrific killing of two British soldiers in Belfast in 1988: these lack what Pope Francis calls “the smell of the sheep”. While she highlights the different personalities and outlook of the three principal cardinals of The Troubles – the strategic control-freak Conway, the straight-talking Ó Fiaich and the loquacious philosopher-theologian, Daly – she tends to underestimate their commonality as Maynooth Men enjoying the golden corridors of clericalism. Her admiration for the late Bishop of Derry, Eddie Daly, is undisguisable. Insufficient attention is devoted to the influence of the Roman Curia and papal nuncios, the Sicilian Gaetano Alibrandi and the Maltese Emmanuel Gerada: without Alibrandi there would have been no Cardinal Ó Fiaich; without Gerada, Cahal Daly would not have made it to Ara Coeli in Armagh. Mercifully, Rome cut loose Bishop John Magee.

Martin archbishop 6

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin photographed in Ballina, Co Mayo, lamented the alienation of young people. Picture by Bill Heaney

A final chapter outlines the awesome decline of the Catholic Church, not least because of the clerical abuse scandals and episcopal cover-ups but also owing to the rapid secularisation of society and alienation of young people as lamented by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. This book should be read alongside Seamus Mallon’s invaluable recent memoir, A Shared Home Place (written in conjunction with Andy Pollak).

Dr Scull might consider writing the overdue biography of Cardinal Conway. She has the proven capacity to become an insightful leader of a new mini-industry in Irish religious historical studies. An important next step in an exciting inter-change between academia and the Fourth Estate might be the organising of a colloquy involving surviving golden oldies of academia and journalism.  After all, the first draft of history is written by journalists. Dr Scull has injected fresh impetus into chronicling the often secretive roles played by the Catholic and Protestant Churches in the Irish Troubles.

  • Cooney John in Dumbarton
  • John Cooney, former Religious Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times, is author of John Charles McQuaid, Ruler of Catholic Ireland. He is preparing biographies of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, Ireland’s Lost Peacemaker and Rome’s Shadow Boxer: Cardinal Desmond Connell and the Eclipse of Catholic Ireland. 



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