Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2023), Platform, Volume 31

By Mary Kenny

Above: Lest We Forget by Robert Ballagh. (Courtesy of the artist)

Robert Ballagh’s vivid portrait of John Charles McQuaid, archbishop of Dublin from 1940 to 1972, contains both irony and allusive narrative. The subject appears in the full regalia of a cardinal, but the great disappointment of Dr McQuaid’s life was that he never got the red hat, probably stymied by negative lobbying by the Irish government. By the end of his life (he died a year after his resignation, in April 1973) John Charles was on the losing side of the culture wars.

At his feet we see books that he sought to prohibit, including sex education manuals, and in the background are two edifices—the grey prisons of a Magdalen laundry, with its Auschwitz-like chimney-stack, and a mother-and-baby home. Around his neck hangs the two-barrelled Cross of Lorraine, an emblem of French origin associated with orthodoxy, popular in Poland, Lithuania and Belarus (although also the symbol embraced by the French Resistance and by de Gaulle). John Charles was a man of European culture and a Francophile.

There is also another characteristic evident in this intriguing painting: his self-presentation as a ‘prince of the church’, a role he could play with panache. Fintan O’Toole, whose prose generally excoriates McQuaid, recalls the archbishop’s ‘regal bearing’ and ‘monarchical presence’ as he displayed the amethyst in the ‘Borgia ring presented to him on his elevation to the episcopate … said to have been worn by mediaeval popes’. As a boy, Fintan felt akin to being ‘a page at the palace’ in McQuaid’s presence. The aura is unmistakable in Ballagh’s composition.

It seems to me that there were three key influences in John Charles McQuaid’s life. His mother died within a month of his birth, which may have contributed to an idealised view of motherhood itself. It might also have led him to oppose adoption as erasing the birth mother’s rights.

He came from a family of doctors. He would be embroiled in medical controversy during his episcopacy—most notably the Mother and Child health scheme in 1950—but he would also be involved in launching organisations for medical care, such as clinics treating TB and sexually transmitted disease, the latter a pioneering initiative in its time.

Thirdly, he was from Cavan. The imposition of the border disfavoured the border counties, and the political divide between Unionists/Protestants and Nationalists/Catholics was always more sharply felt in the Ulster counties. John Charles McQuaid’s dislike of the Anglican foundation of Trinity College, Dublin—which he forbade Catholics to attend, reinforcing the ‘ban’ in place since 1871—may have sprung from his belief that Martin Luther was ‘in error’, but perhaps there was also an understandable hostility to Trinity’s unionist traditions; up to the late 1930s, Trinity students still stood to sing ‘God Save the King’.

For most people in my Dublin childhood, the ban on Trinity didn’t loom large in their lives; only a minority of youngsters would attend university at all. But John Charles’s presence was perceived in other ways. Anecdotally, it was known that his informants reported on priests who were seen in the company of a woman (excluding family relations). Stories were told that journalists would be summoned to ‘Drumcondra’ (the archbishop’s hideous residence) to be instructed on what ‘line’ to take in news reports.

In Thomas Myler’s entertaining history of Dublin’s Theatre Royal he recounts how even Jewish theatre managers were careful not to offend ‘Drumcondra’; Frank Sinatra was cancelled from a Dublin appearance because he was divorcing his wife Nancy for the beautiful Ava Gardner.

The Irish state had no official theatre censorship, but John Charles forced the closure of plays, and managements simply complied. In 1959 McQuaid sent a priestly emissary to the Gaiety Theatre to convey the archbishop’s disapproval of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Genevieve Lyons, cast in the drama opposite Richard Harris, told me that the management just closed the show. He had similarly succeeded in bringing the curtain down on The Rose Tattoo in 1957 at the Pike Theatre. Piquantly, Tennessee Williams’s play is about a woman who refuses to use a condom; today, it might be interpreted as pro-natalist.  

John Cooney’s impressive biography details the many ways in which McQuaid’s rule seems malign to contemporary eyes. He surely was what we would now call a ‘control freak’, persistently seeking to monitor the manners, morals and practices of Irish life. And people conceded to him. He held eccentric views hostile to females participating in athletics. Predictably, the sports organisations submitted to his prohibitions—as did trade unionists, in other contexts.

Deplorably, he forced the closures of the Mercier and Pillar of Fire societies initiated by Frank Duff and León Ó Broin in the 1940s. These informal organisations were ecumenical meetings in which Catholics, Protestants and Jews discussed ideas touching on values and spirituality. They involved intelligent people such as Frank O’Connor, the Spiritan priest Dr Michael O’Carroll and the noted obstetrician Bethel Solomons. At a time of Nazi genocide of the Jewish people, Irish Jews needed solidarity with other Irish citizens to assure them that their presence was protected, but John Charles insisted on the groups’ dissolution, prompted both by his sectarianism and his compulsion to control.

Yet there were positives. Brendan O’Regan, pioneer of Shannon Airport, told Ivor Kenny that John Charles was an inspiring dean and president of Blackrock College—strict but fair, and always interested in drama, literature, the arts, film and the classics. Elizabeth Bowen, in her (sometimes critical) reports from neutral Ireland, described McQuaid as a ‘man of intellect’, ‘courteous and diplomatic’, who ‘made allowance’ for her viewpoint. McQuaid’s genuine compassion for the poor was widely noted, as was his idiosyncratic friendship with the Monaghan poet Patrick Kavanagh, who was certainly a drunk and surely a fornicator. He also had a tender spot for Travellers.

And tribute should be paid to McQuaid’s care for the welfare of Irish emigrants at a time when the Irish state wholly neglected their needs, as Brian Harvey’s superb recent essay in History Ireland illuminates (HI 30.6, Nov./Dec. 2022, pp 40–3). In the 1950s, some 40,000 people were leaving the state yearly—80% going to Britain. Many were poor, marginalised, had few resources, may have had mental health problems or might be single mothers. (Gertrude Gaffney, an Irish Independent reporter, detailed the vulnerability of young women emigrants even in the 1930s, when over 30,000 rural girls were arriving in England annually, many astonishingly naïve.)

John Charles was onto this from the 1940s and pleaded—in vain—with successive taoisigh to support emigrants. (It was not until 1980 that Dublin governments began to extend grants for the welfare of the Irish diaspora.) Meanwhile, McQuaid set up an emigrants’ bureau and, as Harvey writes, ‘by 1946 it had assisted 16,000 by meeting them from the country trains, arranging overnight hostel accommodation in Dublin, directing them to Catholic associations abroad and having them met there on arrival’. He was then instrumental in supporting the Irish Centre in London’s Camden, which became, for the rest of the century, a haven for Irish emigrants and a lighthouse of Irish culture.

John Charles’s motivation was partly to save migrants from lapsing from their faith, getting into trouble with drink or sexual irregularities, and falling prey to ‘communism’ through left-wing organisations like the Connolly Association. But social reformers have often been driven by religious zeal—the Quaker Elizabeth Fry entered slum jails with Bible in hand. Whatever his motives, wrote Brian Harvey, John Charles’s ‘energy, speed, innovation and ambition for a practical response to social problems were evident’. He was recognised as a superb administrator and a considerable empire-builder; the diocese of Dublin swelled in numbers and churches under his stewardship. He was also a peerless archivist, making notes about everything.

Ballagh’s portrait visually presents McQuaid the way he is seen now—as an overbearing authoritarian whose reputation is stained by the church’s cruel institutions and child sexual abuse. Fintan O’Toole notes that the archbishop took no (or inadequate) action over the offending priests Ivan Payne and Paul McGennis (although no evidence has emerged that McQuaid himself reportedly molested a young male, and even McQuaid’s critics think it unlikely).

Dubliners often told jokey and mocking stories about John Charles. One concerned a confirmation day, when McQuaid would proceed through the church, asking children a catechism question. Once, the child he selected had a speech impediment. When the child gave her catechism answer, the archbishop said, ‘I don’t understand you’ and repeated the question, concerning the Holy Trinity. The child replied impatiently—‘You’re not SUPPOSED to understand! It’s a MYSTERY!’ McQuaid was dumbfounded, and apparently that child was plied with treats by every priest and nun in Dublin, in joyful celebration of the ten-year-old who had ‘bested’ John Charles McQuaid.

Mary Kenny is the author of The way we were: Catholic Ireland since 1922 (Columba Books, 2022).


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