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

Three questions to… Vincent Gallagher, director of Second to None

Second to None - Vincent Gallagher - Irish Film Festa

A dark comedy about the world’s second oldest man: Second to None is a funny and highly original animated short film in competition at the 10th Irish Film Festa (March 30th – April 2nd, Rome). We spoke to the director Vincent Gallagher, who was in competition also last year with Love is a Sting. . . .

Three questions to… Toto Ellis, director of Two Angry Men

Interview with Toto Ellis - Two Angry Men - Irish Film Festa

The battle of James Ellis (played by Michael Shea) and Sam Thompson (Adrian Dunbar) to stage the play Over the Bridge in face of censorship in 1950s Belfast: Two Angry Men is one of the short films in competition at the 10th Irish Film Festa (March 30th – April 2nd, Rome).

We spoke to the director Toto Ellis, James’ son. . . .

Three questions to… Jack O’Shea, director of A Coat Made Dark

Interview with Jack O'Shea - A Coat Made Dark

A man follows the orders of a dog to wear a mysterious coat with impossible pockets: it’s the mysterious plot of A Coat Made Dark, one of the animated short films in competition at the 10th Irish Film Festa (March 30th – April 2nd, Rome).

We spoke to the young director Jack O’Shea, whose works have appeared at film festivals worldwide, including the Annecy International Animated Film Festival.


What kind of drawing and animation techniques were used for the film?

The film was animated digitally, using a hand-drawn frame by frame technique. I previously explored a similar painterly/inky aesthetic using a traditional approach with organic materials. However I found I could more closely capture the desired aesthetic using a digital process.


How did you set the strong and minimal colour palette?

The story relies a lot on what isn’t said directly, or is kept from the audience. To capture this idea visually, it was important to hide much that appears on screen in vast black spaces. The details that are left become more striking, and imply at what might be disguised in darkness.


What about the voices of your characters – Hugh O’Connor, Declan Conlon and Antonia Campbell Hughes?

The characters in the film are afraid to give anything away, speaking only as a last resort. Each of these voice performances captured this idea, and explored other ways to emphasise this underlying tension, given the dialogue was so limited. It was the subtle details they offered to the performances that served to capture this idea most effectively.