The Catholic Church and the early Home Rule movement in a Four Nations context

The Catholic Church and the early Home Rule movement in a Four Nations context

Piotr Potocki (University of St Andrews) considers the role played by the Catholic Church in shaping Scottish and English responses to the early Irish Home Rule movement.

The Home Rule movement of Isaac Butt, founded as the result of a private meeting at the Bilton Hotel in Dublin in May 1870, could not hope to attract much sympathy from the Catholic leadership. In Ireland, the Catholic hierarchy was slow to declare their support for a movement launched by Protestant conservatives, and sought to counter Home Rule with the formation in November 1872 of the Catholic Union under the auspices of the Archbishop of Dublin. In Britain, the growth in popularity of the Home Rule movement in the 1870s among the Irish Catholic community coincided in time with the extension of the parliamentary franchise, and the need for registration by Catholics for elections to the school boards created under the new Education Act of 1870 (extended to Scotland in 1872). John McCaffrey has shown that as the nineteenth century drew to a close, the parochial organisation and the local branch of the Irish nationalist movement in Scotland were often indistinguishable in their activities. It was normal to find at the elections in this period that the parish and the local political organisation co-operated in compiling registers of voters, in urging registration, deciding on candidates and canvassing.[1] However, in pursuing their goal of wide community participation in the new movement, many of the early organisers faced opposition from sections of the Catholic clergy, determined to retain their hegemony among the Irish parishioners. Thus, the road to political cooperation between Catholicism and constitutional Irish nationalism was far from smooth and immediate, and as Cardinal Paul Cullen tried to counteract Home Rule with a specifically Catholic organisation, so too did the Catholic hierarchy and many of the clergy in Britain.

By the summer of 1872, branches of the Home Rule movement in Britain had already been in the process of formation in towns and cities with substantial numbers of Irish residents. Alarmed by news of the expansion of Irish activism and the radical and secular ethos of Home Rule leaders,[2] Archbishop Manning of Westminster announced in August 1872 the formation of a Catholic Association to advance the interests of Catholics in London. The main object of the Catholic Association, Manning declared at its inaugural meeting, was to provide access to education to destitute Catholic children in the metropolis and ‘to defend their faith by electing Catholics as members of Parliament, Poor Law Guardians, and to every position of public trust and responsibility upon which organised pressure, fairly brought to bear, would have a beneficial influence.’ To this end, each London parish was to form a branch of the Association, with the parish priest as its president, and choose eleven representative members, thereby forming ‘a sort of free Parliament to legislate for the body politic generally.’ The first meeting of the Catholic Association also laid stress on the need to promote temperance and total abstinence among parishioners, as well as to organise lectures and other events to further the social functions of the Catholic parish.[3]

It is clear that, aside from detaching middle-class support from the Home Rule movement, the Catholic Association was designed to enhance the role of the Church in promoting community cohesion. It also served to improve the way the Church was run, allowing the ecclesiastical superior to preside over the network of tight-knit communities centred on the parish priest. In the west of Scotland, where the Catholic Church had long been plagued by ethnic conflicts between native Scottish and immigrant Irish Catholics, local clergymen did not need to be convinced of the vital necessity and usefulness of parochial voluntary organisations. Indeed, in October 1872 the Glasgow Catholic leadership followed suit by establishing the Catholic Association of the Western District of Scotland, modelled on the organisation created two month earlier by Archbishop Manning.

The proliferation of parish-based organisations in Scotland, and the movement towards greater clerical activism, began to attract sharp criticism. Commenting on the formation of a local parish organisation in Dundee, one native inhabitant, in a letter to the Dundee Courier and Argus, wrote: ‘If the Home Rule Association could have been made thoroughly subservient to the Romish priesthood, an association such as the Catholic Union would never have been set on foot.’ The local Home Rule branch, he continued, was ‘not exclusive enough for Catholic purposes,’ and given clerical fears of Fenianism was ‘no wonder although in despair the priestly minions of Rome have been driven to form another and somewhat different set of political machinery.’[4]

There can be little doubt the Catholic priests worried less about the community’s growing enthusiasm for constitutional Irish nationalism than about latent Fenian sympathies. The leading clergymen such as Archbishop Manning soon realised that Home Rule offered a preferable alternative to physical force nationalism, and so began to moderate their position on Catholic participation in the movement. A turning point would appear to have come in the spring of 1873, shortly after the formation of an umbrella organisation, the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain, for all mainland Home Rule branches. In his letter to Bishop Ullathorne of Birmingham, Manning argued that Home Rule had ‘reclaimed many Fenians’ and was ‘like vaccination to smallpox,’ and whilst he had not committed himself, he was now ‘very tolerant about it.’[5]

Comparing the responses of the Irish Catholic episcopate and their counterparts in England and Scotland to the rise of the Home Rule movement confirms, at one level, the already accepted view that Irish nationalism was a phenomenon that transcended geographical boundaries. At the same time, a Four Nations approach adds an interesting new dimension to the discussion of the interplay between Catholicism and Irish politics in the British archipelago. Although the Catholic Association in Glasgow or the Catholic Union in Dublin were never imposed upon the Catholic community in any way, the failure of these organisations to counter the appeal of Home Rule was indicative of a wider tendency among Irish Catholics to retain their individual identities, and their ability to reconcile multiple conflicting allegiances.

[1]John F. McCaffrey, ‘Politics and the Catholic community since 1878,’ in the Innes Review, Vol. 29, No. 2 (1978), p. 146

[2] Alan O’Day, ‘The political organisation of the Irish in Britain, 1867-90’ in Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley (eds.), The Irish in Britain, 1815-1939 (London, 1989), pp. 192-3

[3] The Nation, 10 August 1872

[4] The Dundee Courier and Argus, 7 July 1874

[5] Letter of 2 March 1873, quoted in E. R. Norman, The Catholic Church and Ireland in the Age of Rebellion, p. 419

Piotr Potocki is a third year PhD student in Scottish History at the University of St Andrews. His research focuses on Catholicism and its relationships with politics in Scotland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


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