Ireland and the Vatican: the politics and diplomacy of church-state relations 1922-1960, Dermot Keogh (Cork University Press, £37.50 hb, £17.50 pb)

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (Autumn 1995), Reviews, Reviews, Volume 3

Keogh’s study of the relationship between the independent Irish state and the Vatican fills one lacuna in our understanding of the politics and diplomacy of Irish church-state relations and, to a lesser extent, international relations. Drawing on his earlier published work in this field and adding a substantial amount of new evidence collected from a wide variety of sources in Ireland, Britain and the United States, he renders a detailed and nuanced account of the intricacies of relations between Irish governments of different political hues, and the Vatican from 1922 to 1960, or more accurately 1954.
Keogh sheds new light on a number of particularly interesting topics such as the appointment of Pascal Robinson as apostolic nuncio in 1929 and the unsuccessful diplomatic manoeuvrings in 1948-49 to ensure that his successor was not an Italian prelate. Throughout the study one derives the distinct impression that Irish politicians seemed unable to distinguish between the religious and political authority of the Vatican. The general impression of relations between independent Ireland and the Holy See is one of Irish politicians and senior diplomats protesting their ‘filial’ devotion to the successive pontiffs: in practice however, it appears that the impact of the Vatican on Irish domestic affairs was very limited in spite of these frequent protestations of devotion.
One limitation of Keogh’s study is that crucial archival material, e.g. episcopal papers such as those of John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin (1940-71), central to any assessment of the triangular relationship involving the Irish State, the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Vatican, is not available. In its absence the narrative is based mainly on the records of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and the consequent picture is somewhat skewed.
The chief protagonist in this study is the redoubtable Joseph Walshe, secretary of the Department of External Affairs (1922-46) and later Irish ambassador to the Holy See (1946-54). Judging from his reports back to Dublin, Walshe clearly had a tendency to exaggerate, a point that should have been made more explicit, especially when quoting his statements regarding the Irish role in the international campaign sponsored by the papacy against communism in the early 1950s, e.g. ‘the immense strength of Irish Catholicism as a factor in the fight against communism’. The author’s admiration for Walshe on one or two occasions verges on hagiography.
Keogh’s style is readable and straightforward, though the tedious accounts of diplomatic manoeuvrings can become hard going even for the most enthusiastic reader. The epilogue to this study serves only to provide a collection of musings on Irish church-state relations in more recent times without any sustained analysis. Overall, within the limitations of the sources currently available, Keogh has constructed a valuable and well-informed account of relations between independent Ireland and the Vatican. However, the fact that there is a dearth of archival material pertaining to the Roman Catholic hierarchy inevitably means that only an interim assessment of the relationship between church and state is provided.

Enda Delaney

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