Catholicism and Republicanism in Ireland

By Boyd, Andrew | Contemporary Review, February 1995 | Go to article overview

Catholicism and Republicanism in Ireland


Boyd, Andrew, Contemporary Review


That republicanism has 'no traditional roots whatever in Ireland and is a purely exotic growth dating from the end of the eighteenth century' was the view once expressed by John J. Horgan, an Irish Nationalist politician. Horgan added, significantly, that 'the spiritual fathers of republicanism were those eminently secular philosophers, Rousseau and Tom Paine'.

Now Ireland is a mainly Roman Catholic country, Southern Ireland almost entirely so. Indeed Pope Paul VI once told Garrett Fitzgerald, Foreign Minister in the Republic of Ireland, and later Prime Minister, that Ireland was perhaps the only Catholic country left. So what is the relationship, political, historical and philosophical, between republican, a secular philosophy, and the Roman Catholic Church, the world's oldest ecclesiastical monarchy?

That the membership of what is called 'the Republican Movement' in Ireland consists today entirely of Catholics, many of whom are probably exemplary in their religious duties and observances, is a fact, but it does not prove that republicanism and Roman Catholicism are concordant doctrines. In 1867 David Moriarty, Catholic Bishop of Kerry, said in a pastoral that 'hell was not hot enough nor eternity long enough for the punishment of the Fenians. The Fenians were, in Bishop Moriarty's time, what the Provisional IRA is today. When, therefore, the English Tory politician John Biggs-Davison maintained that to identify 'Catholic' with 'Republican' was bad theology and bad history he would have had little difficulty in defending his thesis.

In 1733, a long time before J. J. Horgan, Bishop Moriarty or John Biggs-Davison, Jonathan Swift observed that the Catholics of Ireland 'were always defenders of Monarchy as constituted in these Kingdoms' and that the Presbyterians, or Dissenters, were the true republicans' both in principle and in practice'. Swift was both knowledgeable and prophetic. The first Irish republican movement, the Society of United Irishmen, was initiated in 1791 by William Drennan, a Belfast Presbyterian, and in the North of Ireland was led mainly by Presbyterians many of whom, laymen and clergy, were imprisoned, banished from Ireland, or executed after the Rebellion of 1798. The sources of their republicanism, correctly identified by Horgan, were Tom Paine and Jean Jacques Rousseau, the American Declaration of Independence, and the French Revolution. In 1793 the anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille was celebrated in Belfast by Presbyterian radicals who had already read The Rights of Man. Their banners proclaimed Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

For more than fifty years after the suppression of the United Irishmen republicanism seems to have vanished from Ireland. It was revived in 1857-8 in the form of the Fenian Brotherhood. The exact origins of Fenianism are debatable though some of the leaders were suspected of having had early association with 1848 revolutionary leaders in Paris. Fenianism attracted rural and urban working class Catholics and small tenant farmers oppressed by an unreformed Irish landlordism. And not all the Catholic clergy were as hostile as Bishop Moriarty. Furthermore even within the Fenian Movement and in every Irish republican organisation until the partition of Ireland in 1921-2 there remained a small but active and influential minority of Protestants. Bulmer Hobson, a Quaker, was an oath-bound member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a revolutionary elite that had evolved from Fenianism. He was Secretary of the Irish Volunteers, the Nationalist para-military organisation, until the eve of the 1916 Rebellion in Dublin.

Among the Protestant contemporaries of Hobson in republican organisations in the early years of this century were: Constance Gore-Booth, better known as the Countess Markievcz; Jack White, son of Field Marshal Sir George White, VC; Robert Lynd, essayist and later Literary Editor of the News Chronicle; Erskine Childers, author of The Riddle of the Sands; Robert Barton, landowner, Ernest Blythe, and many others less eminent. …

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