Catholic anti-communism from a Four Nations history perspective

Catholic anti-communism from a Four Nations history perspective

This week, Gerard Madden (NUI Galway) discusses the impact of the Irish Catholic diaspora on communism in Wales, Scotland and England. 

For almost a century – from the mid 1800s through to the Cold War— opposition to communism was a leading concern of the Holy See and the Catholic Church internationally, particularly from the late 1920s as Catholicism faced increased repression in the Soviet Union after Stalin secured power there. Catholic clergy in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland regularly denounced the threat of communism during the era, and the subject merits analysis from a four nations history perspective, due to the large Irish Catholic community in England, Scotland and Wales and their strong impact on the local Catholic Churches.

Many leading Catholic clerics in Britain felt that immigrant communities were a prime target for recruitment by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in the early Cold War; as one historian of modern English Catholicism has noted: ‘the concern that “coloured workers” might drift from the Church into the arms of the communists or a life of immorality was voiced in pastoral letters of the period.’ This concern also extended to the rapidly growing Irish Catholic community in Britain, with over 50,000 from the Republic of Ireland migrating to Britain every year in the 1950s.[i]

The writings of Douglas Hyde, a former journalist at the CPGB’s Daily Worker whose conversion to Catholicism in 1948 made him an internationally known anti-communist propagandist, are indicative of the fears that the communist movement posed a threat to the Irish Catholic community in Britain. Hyde’s columns in the Catholic Herald regularly dealt with the issue of the Irish in Britain and communism.[ii] Writing in The Furrow, an Irish Catholic religious periodical, in 1959, he claimed that in Britain the question of Catholics joining the CPGB ‘inevitably takes on an Irish character.’ Bristol-born Hyde – who was no relation of his better known Irish namesake Douglas Hyde, the leading Gaelic Revivalist and first President of the Irish Free State – further asserted that a quarter of the CPGB’s Executive Committee ‘are either lapsed Catholics or are people who, with Irish names, may be assumed to have Irish antecedents of some sort.’[iii] Hyde’s rhetoric was echoed in Scotland by Hamish Fraser, a former CPGB member and International Brigadier in Spain who became a conservative Catholic and outspoken opponent of communism.[iv]

Of particular concern to Catholic anti-communists in both Britain and Ireland was the Connolly Association and its newspaper, the Irish Democrat. The Connolly Association persistently distanced itself from the CPGB, arguing in 1953 that while it had ‘never concealed the fact that it had communist members’, it had ‘allegiance to no political party either in Britain or Ireland or anywhere else.’[v] However, a report by the CPGB’s International Department submitted to its Political Committee the same year, while noting that the majority of the CPGB’s membership was non-communist, described the Connolly Association and the Irish Democrat as the party’s means of conducting ‘broad work’ amongst the Irish community in Britain.[vi]

In Ireland, it was feared that Irish people returning from Britain, via the Connolly Association, could bring the virus of communism home with them. Speaking to George A. Garrett, the United States Ambassador to Ireland, in January 1949, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin, while dismissive of the strength of communism in Ireland, felt that the Connolly Association could prompt the growth of communism domestically through migrants returning from Britain.[vii] The fear that the return of ‘a crowd of communised emigrants’ from Britain could greatly strengthen Irish communism, as the prominent lay Catholic Alfred O’Rahilly put it in 1944, was a common one amongst Irish Catholic anti-communists of the era.[viii]

Warnings against the Connolly Association and the CPGB by Irish Catholic clergy portrayed communism as one of many moral dangers which unsuspecting Irish Catholics in Britain may face. A Handbook for the Catholic Emigrant to England compiled by the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland in the 1950s urged emigrants to avoid being ensnared by the unholy trinity of ‘Communism, Protestantism and Freemasonry’ while living there, stating that ‘a good Catholic knows that it is sinful to become a member of any of these three movements – even if, like the Connolly Club, they use patriotic names in disguise.’[ix] Such opposition succeeded in marginalising the paper’s appeal amongst the broader Irish community in Britain. Galway native and fluent Irish speaker Dónall Mac Amhlaigh related in his memoirs an occasion when a fellow Connolly Association activist attempted to sell the Irish Democrat to an elderly Irishman who responded by snapping, ‘clear off with your oul’ paper, the Church doesn’t approve of it.’ The Irishman had a copy of the News of the World, whose perceived immorality also promoted disapproval amongst the Irish Catholic clergy, causing Mac Amhlaigh’s friend to turn to him after the encounter and ask, ‘just how mixed-up can Irishmen get?’[x]

Enda Delaney, author of The Irish in Post-War Britain, has observed that ‘McQuaid’s modus operandi in all aspects of his authoritarian episcopacy was to draw on an extensive network of loyal and trusted individuals, both clerical and lay, to gather detailed information before embarking on a new initiative, or making a significant decision.’[xi] McQuaid’s response to the Connolly Association and broader concerns about the moral condition of the Irish in Britain reflected this, and the network of Catholic informants, both laity and clergy, he cultivated in Britain regularly sent him information on the Connolly Association alongside other issues. The Dublin-based Vigilance Committee, a body of priests McQuaid set up in 1954 to investigate Irish communism, regularly dealt with the Association also.[xii] The Archbishop’s concerns were shared by other figures in the Irish Catholic hierarchy, notably by Bishop Michael Browne of Galway, a figure amongst the Irish hierarchy noted for his outspokenness against communism, who even had a letter published in the Irish Democrat accusing the Connolly Association of being linked to the CPGB.[xiii]

While events elsewhere in the world helped prompt anti-communist reactions in Britain and Ireland – notably the repression of the Church in Eastern Europe, the attitude of the Holy See, and McCarthy-era campaigns in the United States – it is clear that a four nations history perspective has much to offer in examining the subject. On reflection, this is unsurprising – given the large Irish Catholic community in Britain and their impact on Catholicism in England, Scotland and Wales, the major focus on anti-communism by Catholics internationally meant that the issue would impact on broader concerns about the spiritual welfare of Irish Catholics in Britain. Studying Catholic anti-communism across Britain and Ireland helps us increase our understanding of Catholics throughout the four nations during the Cold War, and the societies in which they operated.

[i] Kester Aspden, Fortress Church: The English Roman Catholic Bishops and Politics, 1903-1963, (Hertfordshire: Gracewing, 2002), p. 273.

[ii] For examples, see Catholic Herald, 29 July, 1955, 5 February, 1960.

[iii] Douglas Hyde, ‘Why Irishmen Become Communists’, The Furrow, Vol. 10, No. 6 (Jun., 1959), pp. 367-370.

[iv] Tom Gallagher, Glasgow, An Uneasy Peace: Religious Sectarianism in Modern Scotland, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987), p. 230.

[v]Irish Democrat, May 1953.

[vi]People’s History Museum, Manchester, Archive of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Political Committee, ‘The Situation in Ireland, 30/4/’53’, CP/CENT/PC/02/File 14.

[vii]Seán Cronin, Washington’s Irish Policy, 1916-1986: Independence, Partition, Neutrality, (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1987), pp. 229-30.

[viii] J. Anthony Gaughan, Alfred O’Rahilly: Part III: Controversialist, Part 1: Social Reformer, (Dublin: Kingdom Books, 1992), p. 133.

[ix] Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Memorial Library and Archive, D’Alton Papers, Box 24, ‘General Correspondence: Catholic Truth Society of Ireland’, Handbook for the Catholic Emigrant to England.

[x] Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland, 1900-2000, (London: Profile Books, 2004), pp. 10-11.

[xi] Enda Delaney, The Irish in Post-War Britain, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 137-41.

[xii] See examples in Dublin Diocesan Archives, McQuaid papers, DDA/AB8/B/XXI/79/32/, and the communism section of the McQuaid papers, DDA/AB8/B/XXIII.

[xiii]Irish Democrat, March 1949.

Gerard Madden is an Irish Research Council-funded PhD student in the National University of Ireland, Galway, currently completing a PhD entitled ‘Irish Catholic anti-communism in the era of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, 1940-1971.’ A founding member of the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class, he is broadly interested in the social, cultural and political history of twentieth century Ireland, North and South.

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