Archbishop McQuaid is very much a man with a mixed reputation. Some saw him as an autocrat. Others thought differently. One hears of the personal acts of kindness and charity, some of them very surprising. But they were private, that is the point.
In public he presided over an era which saw the huge expansion of Greater Dublin. As the suburbs spread new parishes had to be created by the sub-division of old ones. These new parishes had at their heart – for example in Churchtown – a large church and a set of schools. This was an era when faith seemed to be expanding. He did great works too in the matter of social welfare and the care of venereal disease, and many other things. But as these pages reveal he lived to see it all begin to unravel. Present at the Creation, he witnessed the start of the Apocalypse.
In January 1968 he wrote privately to Bishop Lucey in Cork. “A very significant fact – that I may not publish [added emphasis] – is that in 1967 we had only 61 converts, whereas hitherto we had up to 120 a year.” This was in a letter lamenting the confusion among “upper-middle class Catholics” – for whom he had all the contempt of a country doctor’s son.
Many students too had been infected by dangerous ecumenical ideas and new thoughts emanating from the Council in Rome. Alas today his successors are now concerned less about Protestant converts, than Catholic perverts – in all senses of the word.
This book is only a selection from a vast archive. It is edited by two engaged historians and inevitably reflects their interests, largely social and political. There is no section that deals specifically with his theological ideas, some of which as expressed in these letters seem, even for their time, to be mistaken. One wonders about his insight: in Graham Greene’s masterpiece The Power and the Glory he saw only sexual immorality, not the via dolorosa of a martyred saint of modern times. There is clearly a need for a study of this aspect of McQuaid’s life and thought.
One hesitates to say ‘life’, for areas of that are still obscure. His Grace wrote in January 1970 to the respected journalist Louis McRedmond, who had proposed a series of articles on him for publication in the Irish Times, that “unless you had access to my private archives you could not describe my episcopate. They will remain closed for a long time after my death. And they will contain many surprises for those who have already attempted to assess my years as Archbishop of Dublin.”
There are indeed surprises in these pages, but one suspects that His Grace expected that the archive would have stayed closed for a century.
I had thought that the section that would interest me most would have been on censorship. This has proved not to be the case. Certainly those pages are interesting, but as with the section on the Mother and Child scheme, the letters seem like ghostly echoes on an historic battle field.
The most absorbing section, perhaps because it is still the most relevant, is that entitled, “That would is an ecumenical matter”. In January 1968 McQuaid issued a Letter for Church Unity Octave in which he expressed in formal and forceful language that unity, as he understood it, meant other Christians submitting to Rome.
There was a stunned reaction, followed by an avalanche of critical letters to the press – a form of public communication which displeased His Grace.
Here too are letters relating to the famous meeting at the Mansion House in January 1966 organised by the Jesuit Fr Roland Burke-Savage in which it was expected that the two Archbishops of Dublin would pray together for the first time. The event was an embarrassing disaster for all involved. So much so that it has entered the folklore of Dublin.
But if His Grace was not very adroit in handing public communications, he was not alone in that then or now. However, the prevailing impression of these letters is a sadly chilling one. Sad for the principal involved, sad too for us who live with the consequences. Chilling because for all his concern about republican and communist subversives and other modern evils, he created in Dublin a mirror image of the police states he loathed.
It was a system of informers that rivalled that once run from Dublin Castle, though those who wrote so often to his Grace did not see themselves in that light, but as acting for the common good. Worse were those who thought they knew his Grace’s mind and acted on it, when they did not.
God had granted Archbishop McQuaid, both as a teacher and an administrator, many great gifts, but withheld the saving grace of a sense of humour.
At the time of his Jubilee in 1965 he wrote to Fr Roland Burke-Savage, who had published a long article about his episcopate in Studies that he would “endure” the public attention, much of it critical, like the patient man he was.
“You would be mistaken if you thought I am suffering much by reason of what people say. In fact scarcely anything is now a surprise to me. If one has been a whipping-post for years, another few strokes do not hurt too much. Besides if God did not did not permit all these comments, interpretations and calumnies, they would not be uttered. Some good is meant by Him. And in the end He gets His way.”
The notion that what has evolved since 1965 in the Irish Catholic Church might be the will of God and the working of the Holy Spirit is certainly an interesting view. Today, we are divided and distraught, fearing an apocalyptic end for the Church.
This would have appalled His Grace. Yet by his own statement of faith we are where God wants us to be. “In the end He gets his way”: what that is we have yet to learn.
- Peter Costello, Irish Catholic 29 November 2012