McQuaid’s ‘Old Granny’

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, Featured-Archive-Post, Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2015), Volume 23

Housewife Annual Úna Byrne’s Mission to Clean Up the Irish Housewives Association

In 1961, the Irish Housewives Association (IHA) hosted the Congress of the International Alliance of Women at the Dublin Institute of Catholic Sociology – an institute founded by Archbishop McQuaid to promote Catholic social teaching. Mary Cullen’s article “Women, Emancipation and Politics from 1800-1984” posited that the very fact Archbishop Charles McQuaid provide this venue was a sign of the ‘changed times.’ However, Archbishop McQuaid was not an ally of gender equality, nor did he embrace the changing times. His offer of the Institute of Catholic Sociology to the IHA was, in reality, a very calculated and politically charged move.

Communism in the IHA

The Irish Housewives Association had dealt with some serious political accusations in the early fifties. Though founded as a political pressure group to represent the needs of married Irish women, on 12 April 1952 the Roscommon Herald suggested that the IHA had ‘always been used as a medium of expression’ by Marxists and Communists. Though the Roscommon Herald printed an apology in its 15 August 1953 issue, many suspected that the IHA was a front for red political agitation.

In her book A Link in the Chain, Hilda Tweedy – the eventual chairwoman of the IHA – wrote that these allegations were extremely disruptive, and had brought a noticeably combative group of new women to IHA meetings. As a result, the central committee voted to close the group to new members in January of 1953, which did not allay distrust.

Úna Byrne

Úna Byrne, an ardent Catholic, viewed the IHA, a group composed mainly of Protestant women, with some suspicion. After the Roscommon Herald accused the group of being a front for Communist activity, Byrne was one of those who attended meetings to see what was happening. However, unlike them, her work with the Crumlin Catholic Action Group (CCAG) had landed her a contact at the Bishop’s Palace. Father Liam Martin, one of the Archbishop’s secretaries, became her ‘handler’ and worked closely with her as she attempted to root out seditious activity.

Giving the IHA a Good Spring-Cleaning

In the early years of her infiltration, Byrne regularly reported to Martin. However, her active approach towards removing the perceived Communist scourge from the IHA got her into trouble. In early 1953, Andrée Sheehy Skeffington, Mary Andrews, and Kathleen McLarnon Wells, all members of the IHA central committee, appeared ‘uninvited’ at Byrne’s door. They confronted her, demanding to know why Byrne had accused the IHA of being a communist organization at a meeting of the CCAG.

The only report of this confrontation is what Byrne filed with the church. She wrote to Martin that she neither confirmed nor denied these accusations because she had no witnesses with her, and she was ‘out-numbered three-to-one.’ The IHA continued to pressure Byrne to redact her statement and, repeatedly, she refused. Byrne did admit to speaking about the IHA to the CCAG, though she did not reveal the nature of that conversation. In their letters to Byrne, the IHA maintained that any ‘discussion of the IHA and its membership by members with any group, either in private or in public, is a matter which the IHA committee must be informed of…’ She felt forced into a defensive position – a position she did not appreciate.

The wording behind IHA’s demands for a true account of Byrne’s speech to the CCGA is what she ultimately used to fight back. In March of 1953, she asked if the IHA ‘was ordinarily afraid of free speech,’ and whether waiving one’s right to free speech was requisite with being a member of the IHA.

She continued to fight the IHA’s central committee on this platform of free speech. On 18 March, the IHA called a meeting to discuss closing the books to new members, and Byrne took the opportunity to build on her campaign and give evidence why she suspected communists had infiltrated the IHA. She points to two women in particular, Mrs. Pile and Mrs. Kingston, who were both members of the IHA international sub-committee and had attended a ‘Communist-sponsored Peace Meeting’ on Abbey street. Now, the connection to Communism is strenuous, but from their applause and contribution to the collection, Byrne figured they were Communist sympathizers.

She concludes by assuring the IHA members in attendance that it was never her intention to break up the association, ‘but – to use a housewife’s expression – just to give it a good Spring Cleaning.’ It is also at this crucial moment that a noticeable shift in Byrne’s infiltration of the IHA occurs. Her outright political agitation had been met with swift counter-action, and she knew her approach had to be more nuanced.


Byrne Sits and Plots

President Eamon de Valera welcoming congress delegates of the International Alliance of Women to Áras an Uachtaráin in 1961. Hilda Tweedy is standing to the right of de Valera; Úna Byrne is just behind her, to the right. (NAI)

President Eamon de Valera welcoming congress delegates of the International Alliance of Women to Áras an Uachtaráin in 1961. Hilda Tweedy is standing to the right of de Valera; Úna Byrne is just behind her, to the right. (NAI)

Byrne sent her next report to Fr. Martin in 1954, a full year after her infamous brush with the central committee. During that year she had unsuccessfully attempted to join various IHA subcommittees. She confided in Martin that she worried the IHA was attempting to trap her, as the IHA constitution allows for the expulsion of anyone believed to be damaging the group. According to this letter, her new plan was to stuff the IHA with fellow Catholics and eventually scare away ‘the Trinity crowd.’ Until that time, though, she would ‘sit tight…and plot,’ and promised to keep ‘the I.H.A alive’ in her March 1954 report.

The ‘V for Vigilance’ Committee

In May of 1954, Archbishop McQuaid, by then a dominating figure of the Dublin ecclesiastical and political scene, met with three priests – V. Rev M. O’Halloran, Rev. C.P. Crean, and Father Jim Kavanagh – and proposed forming a new committee to ‘keep an eye’ on anti-Catholic and Communist activity in Ireland. That committee, later dubbed ‘V for Vigilance,’ made infiltrating suspect radical groups one of their main goals. And, due to previous accusations and the information Byrne collected, the IHA was included as an organization possibly used by Communists ‘for their own ends.’ Byrne, already a useful informant, is now asked to supply reports to the Committee –she begins signing her letters with ‘Your Old Granny’ and other pseudonyms to help avoid detection.

However, the next two years were rocky for the IHA. At the behest of the V for Vigilance Committee, Byrne remained active in the IHA, but her reports between 1954 and 1956 were few and far between. By 1956, she was comfortable enough to tell the Committee that the association would soon crumble due to a lack of interest.

Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid—his offer of the Institute of Catholic Sociology to the Irish Housewives Association as a venue for the 1961 congress of the International Alliance of Women was a calculated move and not a sign of ‘changed times’. (UCD Digital Library)

Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid—his offer of the Institute of Catholic Sociology to the Irish Housewives Association as a venue for the 1961 congress of the International Alliance of Women was a calculated move and not a sign of ‘changed times’. (UCD Digital Library)

Unfortunately for Byrne, the IHA did not disassemble, mainly due to the discovery of around £700 from latent wills and legacies. By 1957 the IHA was stronger than it had been in years. In her April 1957 report, Byrne laments that ‘The chances of it [the Irish Housewives Association] going out of existence are gone, but we must try to keep it harmless.’ Luckily for the Committee, by then Byrne had been a fixture in the IHA since 1953, and during its rockier years had become chair of the IHA’s international committee.

Úna and the International Alliance of Women

By this point Byrne recognized that the IHA was not going away, and chose to use her newfound position of power to remold it into an organization more suitable to the Catholic Church. The International Alliance of Women was planning to host their 1958 congress in Athens, and Úna ‘allowed herself to be put forward’ to represent the IHA. Unfortunately, she lacked the money to pay for the trip. She worried that, if she did not go, Ireland would be ‘…represented spiritually and politically by someone with different views than that of Catholic Ireland.’ The committee agreed, and Archbishop McQuaid sponsored Byrne, sending her £75.

Though no reports of her trip to Athens have been found, her family states Byrne certainly made herself known during the congress and gave a rousing speech against contraception; successfully representing and defending the Catholic ethos McQuaid wanted Ireland to embody.

The IAW Comes to Dublin

Byrne did not only represent the Irish Catholic voice in Athens – she also successfully petitioned for the 1961 IAW congress to be held in Dublin. McQuaid and the Committee seemed to view this as both a golden opportunity and a cause for concern. They had, after all, spent the last seven years defending Ireland from radicalism. However, if Archbishop McQuaid and the Committee maintained some control over the event, he would have a national stage on which to propagate their image of a conservative, Catholic republic.

There was, however, a problem that threatened to take the congress out of Dublin. Neither University College Dublin nor Alexandra College, where then-IHA chairwoman Hilda Tweedy taught, agreed to host it. Father Kavanagh, one of Byrne’s contacts on the Committee, recommended she write to McQuaid and ask to use the Institute of Catholic Sociology – a venue controlled by the church. The Archbishop agreed, and the V for Vigilance Committee authorized the infiltration of the IHA by more Catholic women so that ‘…a strong Catholic element should be in position by the time the Congress is held in 1961.’

The Congress, according to Byrne, went off without a hitch. Fr. Kavanagh attended the conference, spoke with attendees, and even said grace over dinner, despite the fact that only around twenty of the two hundred delegates were Catholic. More importantly, a sizeable foreign delegation saw a strong Catholic Ireland, just as the Committee and the Archbishop wanted.

Obviously, Archbishop McQuaid did not simply change with the times. He was, as always, very concerned with Ireland’s image abroad. Byrne played an active role in maintaining that image, and her work with the IHA perfectly illustrates how Archbishop McQuaid and the V for Vigilance Committee kept watch for, and dealt with, possible seditious activity. However, though she was a spy for the Committee, Byrne also helped prove that the IHA was not hiding Communists. Were it not for Byrne, the IHA may have had to deal with a lot more political backlash from the Church, and the IAW congress may have never come to Dublin.

James de Haan is a PhD Student at Trinity College, Dublin. He specializes in Ecclesiastical History.

Further Reading:

A Link in the Chain, The Story of The Irish Housewives Association, 1942-1992 Hilda Tweedy
Women, Emancipation and Politics from 1800-1984 Miss Mary Cullen

1 Mary Cullen, ‘Women, Emancipation and Politics from 1800-1984’ in J.R. Hill (ed), A New History of Ireland Volume VII: Ireland, 1921-84 (Oxford, 2003), p. 880.
2 Roscommon Herald, 12 April 1952.
3 Hilda Tweedy, A Link in the Chain (Dublin, 1992), pp 68-69.
4 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/904/1/(I))
5 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/902/1)
6 Ibid.
7 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/903/1)
8 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/904/1/(I))
9 Ibid.
10 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/401/1)
11 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/402/1)
12 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/1)
13 Ibid.
14 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/406/1)
15 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/418/1)
16 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/918)
17 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/919/1/(II))
18 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/918)
19 Tweedy, p. 26
20 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/447(a)/1/(I))
21 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/84)
22 Dublin Diocesan Archives (IE/DDA/AB8/XXIII/946/1/(III))

This article a fully footnoted version of the article that appeared inVolume 23 No.1 (Jan/Feb 2015). The article as originally published can be viewed on the digital version of the magazine at:


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568