Be­tween faith and a hard place

Mar­garet Scull’s riv­et­ing and sem­i­nal book looks at the church’s role dur­ing 30 years of the Trou­bles

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS - John Cooney

The Catholic Church and the North­ern Ir­ish Trou­bles, 1968-1998

By Mar­garet M Scull

AOx­ford Univer­sity Press, 236pp, £65

vi­ciously bril­liant lam­poon by the in­fa­mous Cum­mings from The Sun­day Ex­press of May 31st, 1981, which adorns the cover of this riv­et­ing and sem­i­nal book by a new young aca­demic tal­ent, says more about the An­glo-Saxon con­tempt for the Celts than the bil­lions of words writ­ten about “The Trou­bles” over the past 50 years. In­deed, so dev­as­tat­ing is this Cum­mings caricature of Car­di­nal Tomás Ó Fi­aich, the prelate from south Ar­magh’s Cul­ly­hanna who was de­monised in the British me­dia as the re­cruit­ing of­fi­cer of the Pro­vi­sional IRA, that there is a dan­ger of na­tional stereo­types be­ing per­pet­u­ated for a new Brexit gen­er­a­tion.

That the au­thor, Mar­garet Scull, a Bos­to­nian now at NUI Gal­way, sides sym­pa­thet­i­cally with the be­lea­guered Chris­tian Sol­diers on both sides of the Ir­ish Sea against the crude sec­tar­i­an­ism, fo­mented so un­scrupu­lously for decades of death and de­struc­tion by the Rev Ian Pais­ley, should im­mu­nise read­ers from re­turn­ing to tra­di­tional trenches.

How­ever, there is no es­cap­ing the re­al­ity that while the con­flict was not about credal def­i­ni­tions of re­li­gious be­lief, its ori­gins re­main in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to the 16th-cen­tury Ref­or­ma­tion and the sub­se­quent Plan­ta­tion by English and Scot­tish Protes­tant set­tlers on the land of dis­pos­sessed na­tive Ir­ish who re­mained loyal to the Faith of their Fa­thers through dun­geon, fire and sword. As the BBC North­ern Ire­land tele­vi­sion se­ries on The Trou­bles at 50 so graph­i­cally showed, thou­sands of in­no­cent in­di­vid­u­als were killed or maimed be­cause they were iden­ti­fied as be­long­ing ei­ther to the Prod or Papist “tribe”.

Struc­tured by the­matic chronol­ogy, the book ranges widely. It looks at the civil rights marches in 1968 that were way­laid by the erup­tion of IRA vi­o­lence and the ar­rival of the British army, caus­ing ten­sions be­tween clergy and bish­ops; the 1975 canon­i­sa­tion of Oliver Plun­kett by Pope Paul VI; the con­sol­i­da­tion of the in­flu­ence within the hi­er­ar­chy of Car­di­nal Wil­liam Con­way; de­par­ture to Kenya of Fr James Good; and the dis­pute in Bal­ly­mur­phy be­tween Bishop Wil­liam Philbin and Fr Des­mond Wil­son.

This was fol­lowed by the H-Block hunger strikes of 1980-1981 and the rise of Sinn Féin. In 1977 Ó Fi­aich suc­ceeded to Ar­magh as an un­re­pen­tant na­tion­al­ist sym­pa­thetic to the plight of Sinn Féin sup­port­ers but res­o­lute in his con­dem­na­tions of the Provos. The last hur­rah of pa­pal au­thor­ity in Ire­land came with the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II. Ó Fi­aich’s un­timely death in 1990 eased Ca­hal Daly into Ar­magh as John Hume and Gerry Adams inched peace for­ward with di­rec­tion from Tony Blair, Ber­tie Ahern and Bill Clin­ton.

Maynooth Men

Scull’s ac­counts of the Bal­ly­mas­can­lon in­ter-church talks and of the self-in­flicted dis­as­ter for the Provos at En­niskillen in 1987 are too sketchy as, too, is the hor­rific killing of two British sol­diers in Belfast in 1988: these lack what Pope Fran­cis calls “the smell of the sheep”. While she highlights the dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties and out­look of the three prin­ci­pal car­di­nals of The Trou­bles – the strate­gic con­trol-freak Con­way, the straight-talk­ing Ó Fi­aich and the lo­qua­cious philoso­pher-the­olo­gian, Daly – she tends to un­der­es­ti­mate their com­mon­al­ity as Maynooth men en­joy­ing the golden cor­ri­dors of cler­i­cal­ism. Her ad­mi­ra­tion for the late Bishop of Derry, Ed­die Daly, is undis­guis­able. In­suf­fi­cient at­ten­tion is de­voted to the in­flu­ence of the Ro­man Curia and pa­pal nun­cios, the Si­cil­ian Gae­tano Ali­brandi and the Mal­tese Em­manuel Ger­ada: with­out Ali­brandi there would have been no Car­di­nal Ó Fi­aich; with­out Ger­ada, Daly would not have made it to Ara Coeli in Ar­magh. Mercifully, Rome cut loose Bishop John Magee.

A fi­nal chap­ter out­lines the awe­some de­cline of the Catholic Church, not least be­cause of the cler­i­cal abuse scan­dals and epis­co­pal cover-ups, but also ow­ing to the rapid sec­u­lar­i­sa­tion of so­ci­ety and alien­ation of young peo­ple as lamented by Arch­bishop Diar­muid Martin. This book should be read along­side Sea­mus Mal­lon’s in­valu­able re­cent mem­oir, A Shared Home Place (writ­ten in con­junc­tion with Andy Pol­lak).

Dr Scull might con­sider writ­ing the over­due bi­og­ra­phy of Car­di­nal Con­way. She has the proven ca­pac­ity to be­come an in­sight­ful leader of a new mini-in­dus­try in Ir­ish re­li­gious his­tor­i­cal stud­ies. An im­por­tant next step in an ex­cit­ing in­ter­change be­tween academia and the fourth es­tate might be the or­gan­is­ing of a col­lo­quy in­volv­ing sur­viv­ing golden oldies of academia and jour­nal­ism. Af­ter all, the first draft of his­tory is writ­ten by jour­nal­ists. Dr Scull has in­jected fresh im­pe­tus into chron­i­cling the of­ten se­cre­tive roles played by the Catholic and Protes­tant churches in the Ir­ish Trou­bles.


Dr Scull might con­sider writ­ing the over­due bi­og­ra­phy of Car­di­nal Con­way. She has the proven ca­pac­ity to be­come an in­sight­ful leader of a new mini-in­dus­try in Ir­ish re­li­gious his­tor­i­cal stud­ies

John Cooney, for­mer Re­li­gious Af­fairs Cor­re­spon­dent of The Ir­ish Times, is au­thor of John Charles McQuaid, Ruler of Catholic Ire­land. He is pre­par­ing bi­ogra­phies of Car­di­nal Tomás Ó Fi­aich, Ire­land’s Lost Peace­maker and Rome’s Shadow Boxer: Car­di­nal Des­mond Con­nell and the Eclipse of Catholic Ire­land


Car­di­nal Tomás Ó Fi­aich, who was de­monised in the British me­dia as a re­cruit­ing of­fi­cer of the Pro­vi­sional IRA.

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