Catholic priests and political violence in Ireland, 1919-21
Author: Brian Heffernan

The guerrilla war waged between the IRA and the crown forces from 1919 to 1921 was a pivotal episode in the modern history of Ireland. This book addresses the War of Independence from a new perspective by focusing on the attitude of a powerful social elite: the Catholic clergy. The close relationship between Irish nationalism and Catholicism was put to the test when a pugnacious new republicanism emerged after the 1916 Easter rising. When the IRA and the crown forces became involved in a guerrilla war from 1919 onwards, priests had to define their position anew. Using a wealth of source material, much of it new, this book assesses the clergy’s response to political violence. It describes how the image of shared victimhood at the hands of the British helped to contain tensions between the clergy and the republican movement, and shows how the links between Catholicism and Irish nationalism were sustained.

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Brian Heffernan
in Freedom and the Fifth Commandment
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Traditional political alignments
Brian Heffernan

By the beginning of 1919, the Irish Parliamentary Party had all but vanished from the political stage and Sinn Féin had taken over as the main political force in Ireland. The swing from home rule politics to republicanism also occurred among the clergy, although a substantial and influential section remained critical of the republican party. Conservative priests continued to press for solutions that fell short of an independent republic, and emphasised the importance of striving for ‘attainable goals’. The chapter examines this group of priests and analyses how their attitudes developed under the pressure of political reality. It also assesses the impact that these priests had on general clerical opinion.

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Condemnation from the pulpit
Brian Heffernan

Many clerics who sympathised with Sinn Féin and who wished to see Ireland become an independent republic were nonetheless vociferous in condemning IRA violence. The discouragement of violence was thus an important aspect of the clergy’s traditional political alignment. This goal was pursued principally by exerting moral pressure on Irish Catholics through denunciation. This chapter examines public clerical condemnation of the IRA campaign. It looks first at its incidence, showing that priests condemned IRA violence more often as it became more frequent up to the last quarter of 1920, when denunciations dropped as British violence became harsher. The chapter also analyses the means by which clerics communicated their message and examines its contents. It shows that specific tropes of condemnation were established in the aftermath of the Soloheadbeg ambush.

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Interaction with republicans
Brian Heffernan

Pulpit condemnations were part of a conversation with the flock rather than simply authoritative monologues. Priests did not operate in isolation from lay Catholics and weighed their words carefully depending on their audience. This chapter examines clerical interaction with republicans. Often the republican response to condemnation took the form of verbal criticism. The interaction included theological arguments about the legitimacy or otherwise of IRA killings. Some priests intervened actively to prevent the carrying out of IRA operations. By way of response, Volunteers sometimes resorted to intimidation of clerics. This chapter looks at instances of clerical obstruction of the IRA and its consequences, and at republican criticism of clerical condemnation. It also analyses the different theological arguments about the moral status of the guerrilla war. Finally, it looks at another important question concerning the clergy’s response: it asks whether clergy furthered or countered the allegedly sectarian nature of the guerrilla campaign.

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Support for Sinn Féin, the Dáil and local IRA units
Brian Heffernan

Republican priests came in many guises, and the most common type was the ‘Sinn Féin priest’, not the ‘IRA priest’. For most the transformation did not entail a shift to a revolutionary outlook. Instead, it meant changing their political point of view from the demand for home rule to the philosophy of Sinn Féin. This philosophy was the most acceptable aspect of republicanism for the clergy, and many priests moved quickly to gain a stake in it. For many of them, investing in the building up of the republican political movement became a way of exercising control over young men who otherwise might espouse ‘wild’ notions of fighting the British forces. Many clerics contrasted the work of Sinn Féin favourably with the activities of the IRA. But many local IRA units remained inactive and the patterns of clerical involvement with these that had been established in 1919 continued. This chapter looks at the support for the political aspect of the republican movement and for those sections of the IRA that did not become active in the guerrilla struggle.

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Priests involved in the IRA campaign
Brian Heffernan

As Volunteers on the run began to form flying columns from the spring of 1920 onwards and as the British government started to deploy Black and Tans and Auxiliaries to aid the hard-pressed RIC, violence escalated in certain parts of the country. For priests in areas where local Volunteers remained impervious to this process of radicalisation, things remained much the same. But in regions where Volunteers became guerrilla fighters, priests were faced with a dilemma. Most distanced themselves from the fighting men and condemned violence: until the end of 1920 condemnations rose as the levels of violence increased. This chapter examines priests who threw their lot in with the radicals and gave support to the IRA campaign. Some of these provided material aid by giving shelter, concealing arms or by informing on the enemy. Others gave spiritual aid by ministering to men on the run. The chapter offers an assessment of the political significance of these acts of spiritual assistance.

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Responses to clerical support for republicanism
Brian Heffernan

Support for the IRA took place as far away from the limelight as possible. Nevertheless republican priests had to account for themselves often enough, to their bishop or religious superior for example, or, if they were curates, to their parish priest. This was also true for priests who publicly supported Sinn Féin. The current chapter examines the interaction between these priests and their social surroundings, ecclesiastical and lay. Bishops, religious superiors and parish priests had agendas of their own that determined their responses. It was important to the bishops not to alienate the republican camp, but they also had to respond to the criticisms of scandalised conservatives, while ensuring that lines of communication with the government in Dublin Castle remained open. Moreover, they were concerned for the Irish church’s reputation abroad, especially in the Vatican. Religious superiors wanted to avoid internal conflict within their communities, and parish priests often simply wished to keep trouble away from their church doors. How did these ecclesiastical authorities respond to the activities of republican priests? Which forms of support were acceptable to them and which were not? And how did the priests in question defend their actions to their superiors?

in Freedom and the Fifth Commandment
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British measures against the clergy
Brian Heffernan

The old RIC’s traditional rapport with the parish clergy became increasingly strained in 1920 as normal relations between the constabulary and society broke down. Moreover, the newly-arrived Black and Tans and Auxiliaries widely believed that Irish priests were agitating against them. As a result, the crown forces increasingly turned their attention to ecclesiastical persons and buildings. From the spring of 1920 onwards, there were reports of priests being harassed, intimidated and even tortured. This was eventually followed in November by the killing of a priest in Galway. Many clerics regarded this as the crossing of a line which the crown forces had hitherto respected. Clerical attention turned decisively to criticism of the crown forces. British measures against the clergy were quickly portrayed in sermons and newspapers as a persecution campaign, and this chapter examines whether this image was justified. It also emphasises the crucial role of publicity as a factor in its own right.

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Clerical responses to the British campaign
Brian Heffernan

As the conflict progressed, clerical criticism of the British campaign became ever more vociferous. The bishops gave a clear lead in their October pastoral of 1920. The sentiments expressed there were broadly shared by the Irish clergy, and animosity towards the crown forces only increased when it became apparent that ‘neither sacred places nor sacred persons were spared’, as Pope Benedict XV put it in April 1921. This new focus on British atrocities enabled the clergy to shift their attention away from the moral dilemmas that republican violence presented. However, it also created fresh problems. Clerical condemnations of IRA violence had often included protestations of the innocence of Catholic RIC members. Now that denunciations began to focus on the wrongdoings of the crown forces, the question of the moral status of Catholic constables needed resolving. This chapter examines the development of clerical responses to the British campaign, charting the emergence of the discourse of persecution described in the previous chapter. It also looks at the small number of priests who continued to support the crown forces and analyses their motives.

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