The Ruler of Catholic Ireland and the Gentle Poet: John Charles McQuaid and John McGahern

As children and adolescents in Ireland during the 1950s and 60s we were used to the Catholic Church invading every sphere of our lives. They even ordered us little girls not to wear shorts during the summer heatwave of 1957 and prevented us from wearing trousers during the freezing winter months which explains why our knees were always blue! The nuns and brothers in the state-run religious schools we attended even told us what to advise our parents to do, like not going to see a film starring Elvis Presley. My parents went just the same.

The member of the Irish clergy that wielded the greatest degree of power in Ireland back then was the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. At university we used to joke about his initials, J.C., saying that he probably believed they actually meant “Jesus Christ”. 

Since his death in 1973 no Irish churchman has wielded the same degree of enormous spiritual and unbounded temporal power he did for several decades. He was a very well-educated man with a BA and Ma in classics as well as a doctorate from Rome’s Gregorian University. Even before being appointed Archbishop, he was powerful as the president of the prestigious Blackrock College, as a personal friend of the De Valera family. He was nicknamed the “Blackrock Borgia” meaning that he was practically the pope of Ireland, even before he became archbishop. He was an ultra-conservative and an anti-Semite.

In 1932, when he was still president of Blackrock College, he gave a sermon in his native Cavan on Passion Sunday denouncing Jews on the grounds that “From the first persecutions till the present moment, you will find Jews engaged in practically every movement against Our Divine Lord and His Church. A Jew as a Jew is utterly opposed to Jesus Christ and all the Church means […] by Satan we mean not only Lucifer and the fallen Angels, but also those men, Jews and others, who […] have chosen Satan for their head” 1. He then went on to assert that the international press and Hollywood were controlled by the “Jew-enemy of our Saviour,” that the Great Depression was “the deliberate work of a few Jew financiers,” and that this and other schemes were all part of a larger plot to bring the world under the control of the “Jew-controlled League of Nations” 2.

This is the Goliath with which that Irish David and gentle poet, John McGahern, had to contend. Such was the power of this “eminence”, anything but “grise”, that he took a hand in defining some of the articles of the 1937 Irish constitution, influenced the Irish Censorship of Publications Board and even trade unions like the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO).

In June 1965, McGahern’s second published novel, The Dark, was banned by the State’s Censorship Board as obscene because it describes a young boy masturbating – a sinful act in the Catholic moral theology of the day. McGahern, then nearly 30 and a graduate of the prestigious St Patrick’s Primary Teachers’ Training College, Drumcondra, received his notice from the authorities of the primary school in Clontarf where he was teaching on “the direct orders” of McQuaid.

It was the archbishop’s narrow, puritanical and autocratic power that caused the termination of his contract as a result of the “pornographic depravity” of the contents of his novel, The Dark. Were this to happen today the INTO would certainly protest, even go on strike. McGahern was let down by the INTO leadership, because in this case too, McQuaid had moved behind the scenes and in private to sway the teachers’ union’s leaders.

The gentle poet knew he would never be employed again in a Catholic-run school. So, he decided to make light of his dismissal, survive and earn his living by writing some of Ireland’s most beautifully crafted prose poetry.

In 1968, I bought a copy of The Dark in London and took it with me to read during my overland journey to Italy. That September I stayed in Perugia where I bought many of the books I needed for the following year at UCG. Because the books were too heavy to bring as luggage, I posted them home and added McGahern’s book as well as one by Edna O’Brien, to the parcel. When it was delivered it had been tampered with, opened for inspection and the two “offensive” books removed. In their place a note from Customs and Excise informing me that the two “obscene books” had been confiscated.

1 Cooney, John E. (1999). John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland. O’Brien Press.
2 Beatty Aidan, O’Brien Dan (2018). Irish questions and Jewish questions: crossovers in culture. Syracuse, NY.

– Kay McCarthy
musician and teller of the story of Ireland

📚 IRISH FILM FESTA 2024 – Special Programme: John McGahern

Friday, April 5th – Casa del Cinema, Sala Cinecittà

18:30 – JOHN McGAHERN: A PRIVATE WORLD (2005, P. Collins) – documentary, 54’
Prof. John McCourt, Rector of The University Macerata, will introduce the film.
Director Pat Collins will attend.

Saturday, April 6th – Casa del Cinema, Sala Cinecittà

18:00 – THAT THEY MAY FACE THE RISING SUN (2023, P. Collins) – 107’ 
following: Conversation with director Pat Collins