From the files of the DIB…‘A Catholic heart, a rationalist head, and a Protestant stomach’

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2008), News, Volume 16

McNABB, Vincent (1868–1943), Catholic controversialist, was born Joseph McNabb on 8 July 1868 in Portaferry, Co. Down, tenth child of James McNabb, master mariner, and his wife Ann (née Shields) of Rathmullan, Co. Donegal.
Joseph was educated at St Malachy’s College, Belfast, where he won several scholarships, and St Cuthbert’s Grammar School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In November 1885 he joined the Dominican Order, taking ‘Vincent’ as his name in religion. He underwent his novitiate at Woodchester, Gloucestershire, and was ordained on 19 September 1891. He studied at the University of Louvain 1891–4, receiving the degree of lector in sacred theology in 1894.
He taught at Dominican houses in Woodchester (1894–7, 1900–6) and Hawkesyard, Staffordshire (1897–1900), performing parochial duties locally, and served as parish priest at St Dominic’s Priory, Hampstead (1906–8), and Leicester (1908–14). His experiences of urban poverty made him fiercely critical of the existing social order; he invoked Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum as justifying a significant degree of state socialism. McNabb supported the strikers during the 1913 Dublin lockout. After arguing that the evils predicted from socialism were already occurring under capitalism, he was accused of heresy.
Student memories of Belgium inspired his passionate support for the allies during the First World War; he received the Order of the Crown of Belgium in 1919. While engaged in fieldwork as part of the wartime food-raising effort, he decided that urban industrial society was radically evil; the only hope lay in abandoning machines, exodus from the cities, and self-sufficient small farms and craftsmen based on the family unit exemplified by his own parents and the Holy Family. For the rest of his life he avoided the use of machinery as far as possible (he used trains on long journeys). His social criticism influenced some radical Catholics (notably Dorothy Day), but even his friends in the Distributist League (notably G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Eric Gill) shrank from his wholesale rejection of technology. Oblivious to Gill’s sexual exploitation of female relatives and disciples, McNabb praised his life as approximating to the Catholic ideal; with equal naivety he expressed bewilderment that Irish emigrants should leave the countryside for English slums. In the 1930s he supported the Catholic Land Association, which tried to settle unemployed workers on the land; he attributed its inevitable failure to insufficient backing from the Catholic authorities.
From 1920 McNabb lived at the Dominican priory in Hampstead, and from 1925 wore his Dominican habit on all occasions, even when in physical danger (visiting Belfast and Edinburgh during anti-Catholic riots). He taught courses on Scripture and Thomism at London University, and popularised the French Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain. Every Sunday afternoon he walked five miles to Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park, spoke for 20 minutes and took questions for 40 minutes. He stated his views in simple but uncompromising language (he imagined himself addressing ‘Biddy in the basement’, a hard-pressed slum mother), displaying a narrow moralism (he condemned cinema, cosmetics, bathing-beauty contests, and young couples who ‘preferred a Baby Austin [car] to a baby’), a ready wit and a delight in argument that allowed considerable mutual respect for straightforward hecklers. His mind was powerful though narrow: ‘I have a Catholic heart, a rationalist head, and a Protestant stomach’ (chronic indigestion).
Early in 1943 throat cancer was diagnosed, but he continued to give classes and talks until a week before his death on 17 June. His audiences and journalists who interviewed him were amazed at his serenity. Many called him a saint; others thought him an arrogant poseur.
McNabb was proud to be Irish and often spoke in Ireland. He denounced Terence MacSwiney’s hunger strike as suicide, contrasted the ‘bloodthirsty’ Soldier’s Song with God Save the King (‘a prayer’), and condemned Irish neutrality in World War II. His career exemplifies the mutually reinforcing role of a nostalgic vision of rural Ireland and an idealisation of pre-Reformation ‘Merrie England’ within the pre-Vatican II Catholic sensibility of Britain and Ireland: ‘If I loved Ireland as a man loved his mother, I loved England as a man loved his wife’.

Patrick Maume is an editorial assistant with the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.

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