Michael Davitt

The Priest in Politics

(January 1893)

From Nineteenth Century, January 1893, p.139-155.
Tramscribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The comments of the anti-Home-Rule press upon the result of the Meath petitions are eminently characteristic of the incurable prejudice and inexcusable ignorance of British Unionists upon Irish matters. The ‘oppressive despotism of the priests’ is the keynote of these exultant attacks. It is sought to be shown that it was to clerical agency and corrupt spiritual influence, such as was put in evidence against Mr. Fullam and myself in South and North Meath, was due the majority which Ireland gave to the Irish Parliamentary party at the General Election in July. And this purely gratuitous assumption is used as a further text upon which to assail the Government, and to allege that it is in power by the favour of ‘the instruments of Archbishops Walsh and Croke.’ If there is anything which can equal, in utter disregard of facts and political fair-play, such arbitrary conclusions as these, it is the hypocritical tone of those organs which lecture Irishmen upon the evil of corrupt practices, in the very face of the evidence which has been offered in the election petitions that have been just decided in England. The giving of drink, of free lunches, of suppers, and of kindred corrupt acts in support of Unionist candidates – with wine and tea treats to voters’ wives, sisters, cousins and aunts – only show things as they are ‘harmlessly’ found to exist in English contests. Money, beer, ‘free taps,’ and Primrose Dame meat-and-drink picnics are pardonable ‘mistakes’ when employed to win contests against Liberals and Home Rulers. There is no likeness in this to the abominable ‘spiritual intimidation’ practised in Meath. To seek to secure votes by bribes or solid, if sordid, considerations is a trifling matter compared with the deadly doings of an Irish priest, who preaches a hot hereafter for those who don’t vote straight in the present. The fact being that, possibly, not a single writer of the anti-Home-Rule press of Great Britain who has assailed Dr. Nulty for his pastoral or the priests of Meath for their intemperate zeal believes a word about this particular hereafter, or considers the spiritual functions of Catholic clergy as being anything better than the practices of a ‘popish superstition.’ The argument that, because it is alleged the priests of Meath won the election there in July, therefore all the Nationalist members were returned by similar influences, must be allowed to apply both ways. Am I to say, way of similar reasoning, that the corrupt agencies which voided the elections at Hexham and Walsall and Rochester were but a repetition of those doings and practices to which the anti-Home Rule party in Parliament owe the strength of Her Majesty’s Opposition?

In one day’s report of the trial of the Rochester election petition the following items of political persuasion were mentioned in evidence: ‘Scottish whiskies, lemonade, cake, bread and butter and sandwiches for 1,000 people; cigars, beer, and whisky consumed; a salmon promised; beef and bread supplied in forms of sandwiches; 2,000 sandwiches consumed at a conversazione, with eight dozen bottles of beer; smoking concert with beer; threepenny tickets exchanged for eatables; £45 expended on a fete, the provisions at which were demolished by the first contingent; £100 expended for another fete; refreshments, cakes, hampers, and teas; expenses on the conversaziones, £100. Mr. Conney (for the Public Prosecutor) in proposing to ask witness a question, observed that, if he converted the whole constituency into registration canvassers and entertained them on the eve of the General Election, he brought himself very nearly within the law.

All this, along with the equally corrupt methods of a grossly demoralising system of Unionist canvassing, exposed at the hearing of all the other English election petitions, is passed over with jocular comment only by the same Unionist press which shouts itself into frenzied indignation at the priests of Meath for having resorted to undue spiritual influence in what they believed to be a fight for moral and religious principles. Irish voters who can allow themselves to be guided by religious exhortation are ‘the slaves of a despotic priesthood,’ English electors who are influenced by means of money, beer, cigars, meat, and drink, conversaziones, cakes, hampers, and teas, are free from the moral depravity of the victims of Dr. Nulty’s pastoral! I do not attempt to excuse the issuing of this pastoral, nor to palliate the words or acts of those priests who were proved to have misused their sacerdotal positions for political ends. I think the learned judges who tried the Meath petitions had no alternative but to void the elections on the evidence, though I am firmly convinced that neither pastoral nor spiritual pressure induced one single ballot to be cast for Mr. Fullam and myself, or prevented one vote from being given to Messrs. Dalton and Mahoney. Still, I agree that, whether politically effectual or otherwise, threats of spiritual punishment or hopes of future rewards should not be introduced into an election, and I most sincerely hope, alike in the interests of religion and the Irish National cause, such practices will never be resorted to again. But, considered from any point of view, apart from party or political feeling – public decency, moral conduct, dignity of the franchise, or welfare of the State – which form of corrupt practice reflects most discredit on the causes in which they were respectively employed? On the one hand, a zealous and injudicious use of religious pressure in what was honestly believed to be a against licence and turbulence dangerous to morality as well as injurious to Home Rule. On the other hand, a systematic agency for appealing to the baser appetites of electors, including treats to voters’ wives, children, and friends. I think Ireland can well afford to challenge her critics and say, Take the beam out of your own eye before drawing attention to the mote in that of your neighbour.

Those who most loudly condemn the action of the priests of Meath will be careful to shut out from view kindred conduct on the part of other ministers of religion who employed themselves in behalf of the Tory and Unionist cause. It is well known that Presbyterian divines in Ulster have always been among the most active political agents in the North of Ireland. In the contest for South Tyrone, a reverend Unionist declared to his congregation that the choice in the (then) coming election was one between Christ and the Devil; Mr. T.W. Russell being, presumably, the God-like antithesis of Mr. Thomas A. Dickson, the Home Ruler. Presbyterian ministers act in booths as personation agents in almost every election in Ulster. They stand near the ballot-box, and closely scrutinise the voters as they deposit their votes. Inside and outside the polling booths, they are the most watchful and most resourceful of Unionist workers, and yet we never hear a word of protest urged against the exercise of clerical influence of this political complexion by the British anti-Home-Rule press.

In the Meath as in many other election contests, priests were appointed personation agents on account of their intimate knowledge of the district and of their superior intelligence. There were, however, more laymen than clergymen engaged in that capacity in every election fought by Nationalist candidates. I appointed eighty-eight laymen and twelve priests as my personation agents in the North Meath contest. Where laymen of requisite qualification and necessary local knowledge were found, they alone looked after interests in the booths. There was another reason in Meath for having a number of priests included among the personation agents on the Nationalist side. Experienced – I might say professional – agents were working in the Parnellite interest. These gentlemen came expressly from Belfast. They were notorious electioneering experts. Before appearing in the booths at the Meath elections, they had performed similar functions in Cork, Limerick, Clare, and other places in behalf of Parnellite candidates. These experts had to be closely watched by competent persons; and it goes without saying that ‘a young man from the country,’ unaccustomed to the practices of old electioneering hands, would be no check upon the doings of these professionals, who, with the aid of local persons possessing the necessary information about the district, would be free to exploit the register, make wholesale objections, and otherwise promote their employers’ interests, if not closely watched by men with some knowledge of how an election should be conducted.

The blindness of political bigotry among Unionists shuts out from view the fact that even a priest is a citizen, and has legal rights equal to, say, an English brewer or a male ruler of a Primrose Dame habitation. He is a taxpayer, and a voter. He must obey like any other citizen the laws that are made in Parliament. As he is legally liable to all the obligations of subject, how can he, in justice or reason, be denied the exercise of the most important right that is conferred by law upon every duly qualified citizen? To canvass for a candidate; to work in an election; to uphold a party principle; to persuade, exhort voters to support the cause, are common rights belonging to all citizens. To deny any of these to any qualified citizen is to deprive him of what is justly his. Lord Fitzgerald (then Mr. Justice Fitzgerald) laid it clown in the celebrated Longford judgment that:

The Catholic priest has, and he ought to have, great influence. His position, his sacred character, his superior education, and the identity of his interests with those of his flock, insure it to him; and that influence receives tenfold force from the conviction of his people that it is generally exercised for their benefit. In the proper exercise of that influence on electors, the priest may counsel, advise, recommend, entreat, and point out the true line of moral duty, and explain why one candidate should be preferred to another, and may, if he thinks fit, throw the whole weight of his character into the scale, but he may not appeal to the fears, or terrors, or superstitions of those he addresses.

It was contended for the priests of Meath by their counsel, and in their own evidence, that their words and acts in the elections now voided were in conformity with the law as here laid down. The learned judges held otherwise, and the general drift of opinion appears to coincide with the judgment thus given. For my part, I believe now, as I have always believed, that the well-deserved political influence of the Irish priest is best preserved and most wisely exercised when it is most free from the suspicion of spiritual pressure. To enforce a political doctrine by means of a spiritual threat, or the argument of a future reward, is an act morally as indefensible as for a landlord to demand a vote by the terrorism of an eviction. The true conception of religion is as much outraged in the one case as the most elementary idea of justice is violated in the other. Every Catholic knows that the priest is as likely to be influenced by political prejudice and to err in judgment as a layman, and the attempt to enforce a political opinion clothed in a religious garb serves to weaken religious convictions in minds that are liable to be religiously disturbed by a wrong or mistaken judgment from the same source upon secular subjects.

The priest who has not identified himself with the Irish people’s cause, social or national, wields little, if any, political influence over the Irish peasant. Some of the most exemplary Catholic clergymen in Ireland take no part in politics. It is in proportion to the active labours of the priesthood in the work of winning a National Parliament, or in obtaining a beneficial change in the land laws, or otherwise endeavouring to improve the material condition of the people, or in defending them from the injustice or oppression of the landlords – it is in the performance of these extra-sacerdotal labours for the social welfare of their flocks where lies the secret of the great and well-merited influence of the Irish priest.

It cannot in common fairness be denied that prelate and have the same right to defend the interests of morality or religion when attacked as the brewer and landlord exercise every day against what they consider to be inimical doctrines of reform. The Parnellites, not only of Meath, but of Ireland, contend in their speeches and organs that those priests who are opposed to them should be confined to the political obscurity of the sanctuary. It is urged by many of these opponents that it would be better for religion if such priests took no part whatever in politics. This view is, doubtless, honestly held by many Parnellites. But the opinion of the priest is also entitled to some consideration in this matter. He may with truth and reason say that where, as in France and Italy, the clergy are politically dumb, the interests and influence of religion do not count for much. Anyhow, the priest, as a citizen, may reasonably object to being deprived of his political rights because avowed enemies declare it would be better for the Church if he were a non-combatant in the political arena.

Religion may or may not be concerned in an election. Where it is not, it would be a grave mistake and a scandal to intrude it offensively, But the connection between moral principles and religious teaching is so intimate that an attack upon one is hard to distinguish from an assault upon the other. In the Meath elections the priests honestly believed, rightly or wrongly, that the followers of Mr. Parnell, by their public conduct, their speeches and associations, were imperilling a great moral principle. The mistake made by Dr. Nulty in his pastoral, and by the priests in their interpretation of its contents, was in treating men who said they held by Mr. Parnell’s political principles as if they had committed Mr. Parnell’s sin against one of the Commandments. Messrs. Dalton and Mahoney did not go before the electors of Meath as advocates of immorality. They appealed for an endorsement of Mr. Parnell’s political programme, and not of his sin against the moral law. But, unfortunately, a number of disreputable persons in some of the towns of Meath, bad characters of both sexes, did identify themselves with the contest in the interests of the Parnellite candidates, and by rowdy conduct, by coarse attacks upon the priests, and by open insults to them as ministers of religion, gave the Pamellite cause the semblance of an association with an open insurrection against both moral and religious teaching. The political antagonism between the advocates of Parnell’s politics and the priests who supported the Irish party gave to those who cared nothing for religion or morals an opportunity for such a display of hostility to the priests as, when tolerated by the Parnellite candidates and their friends, gave to the contest and the candidates alike the appearance of an attack upon religion.

On the question as to the legality of a priest declaring it to be a sin to vote for or against any particular candidate, I am not competent to offer an opinion; but I will quote the words of the last of Ireland’s great lawyers, Mr. Isaac Butt, Q.C., M.P., who defended the Bishop of Clonfert, Dr. Duggan, in the prosecution which arose out of the notorious judgment of Mr. Justice Keogh, in the election petition of 1872. The trial took place before Chief Justice Whiteside and a jury, in Dublin, in February 1873, when the de.fendant was acquitted. Mr. Butt said:–

When it was said a Roman Catholic clergyman couldn’t tell one of his flock not to vote in a particular way, as it would be a sin, that was undue influence. When that was laid down, and he did not believe that the words of any judge would be taken, except with reference to the facts of the case before him, he did not think the judge ever intended to lay it down as a general proposition of law. He took leave to say he would never submit to it, as law, until it was laid down by the highest tribunal in the land. A crime to say it was a sin! Why, if he knew a friend – throw the character of a clergyman overboard altogether – and he really believed that in a vote he was about to give he would commit a sin, and if he honestly and fairly said to him ‘This vote imperils religion’ – and there were cases in which votes for a member of Parliament might imperil religion – and appeal to him by the sanctions which the law recognised, and which ought to be remembered by every man, would they tell him that was undue influence, for which he was to be sent to prison? If so, intimidation had been practised on himself, not as an elector, but as a legislator. He heard a sermon in Westminster Abbey by a distinguished divine of the English Church, when a Bill was pending in which he thought religion was involved – a Bill relating to the marriage of a deceased wife’s sister. He earnestly and solemnly warned – and many members of Parliament were present – that to vote for that Bill would be a sin, and that for that vote they would have to answer on the day of judgment. Was he to be intimidated by these words? Certainly not, He listened with the greatest respect to the words of the clergyman. He weighed them in his mind, and reasoned with himself as to their truth, and if they had been in accordance with his own view, he would have acted upon them, and thanked him for the warning.

There is not in the whole of Ireland a voter, literate or illiterate, so obtuse as to believe he places his soul in any, the least possible, peril by voting contrary to the advice of bishop, pastoral, or priest. The thing is too absurd. Fifty thousand Catholics voted in opposition to the side taken by most of their clergy in the forty-two contests waged by Parnellite candidates in Nationalist constituencies last July. These voters represented every class of electors in the country. They were as amenable to the spiritual influence of their religious teachers as the majority of the community to which they belong. They not only voted fearlessly: they acted in many instances most aggressively against whoever opposed their candidates, clerics or laymen. Parnellites won some of their few victories where the Catholic element in the electorate was simply overwhelming. In West Clare a Protestant Parnellite was returned by a large majority over the Catholic Nationalist who had the active support of the priests of the constituency. South Roscommon, where the Catholics are probably 98 per cent. of the voters, was carried against the candidate of the Irish party, though supported by the local priesthood. In Dublin city and county, within the very heart of the diocese of Walsh, not a single Nationalist candidate was elected, though many of them were men of reputation and experience in the popular cause, and had the active sympathetic support of the distinguished prelate whom it pleases Lord Salisbury to describe as the virtual governor of Ireland and main support of Mr. Gladstone’s administration. If there is one thing more certain than another in the history of this unhappy struggle which has been going on in the Irish National movement since December 1890, it is this; that large numbers of Catholic Nationalists who blamed Mr. Parnell in their hearts for the dissensions which he created in the Home Rule movement adhered to his cause, nevertheless, in protest against the attacks which had been made upon a patriotic Protestant leader by large bodies of their clergy.

The most odious feature of this Unionist outcry against the Irish priest is its patent hypocrisy. That there is a good deal of sectarian hatred in it is, of course, obvious. But the chief sin of the clergy of Meath was not their religion, but their politics. Here is where the head and front of their offending is to be found. It is this which has earned for them the fierce diatribes of the anti-Home-Rule press. Who ever knew or heard of an attack upon a Catholic bishop or priest from a Tory or Unionist writer or speaker for, say, an altar denunciation of Fenianism, or for the support of a landlord candidate at an Irish election? There has been an Irish Catholic bishop in this generation who declared that ‘hell was not hot enough nor eternity long enough’ for the punishment of men joining the Fenian brotherhood, while numerous instances could be given in which priests have called upon voters from the altar to go to the poll for candidates who were landlords and Tories. But this ‘clerical intimidation,’ instead of exciting the political wrath of the Times, drew forth its warm commendation of such acts and language. Does any sane person in Great Britain or Ireland believe for a single moment that the language, threats, or ‘intimidations’ proved against the priests of Meath would have been morally or politically objectionable to Unionists, if used against the Home Rule cause, or in favour of the Union, or landlordism, or Pamellite factionism. The Irish priest is denounced because he is a Nationalist and an active foe to the landlord system. Lord Salisbury’s favourite ‘argument’ in recent speeches has been that of declaring Home Rule would hand over Ireland to Archbishop Walsh. The Tory leader’s antipathy towards or fears of Dr. Walsh are not on account of his being a Roman Catholic dignitary. The present Archbishop of Westminster is credited, rightly or wrongly, with being an Ultramontane. The Archbishop of Dublin is not. He is as progressive as was Cardinal Manning. But Lord Salisbury has gone out of his way to pay public compliments to Dr. Vaughan, while he loses no opportunity of sneering at or offering insults to the Irish Archbishop. And? Because Dr. Walsh is opposed politically to the Tory and is an able and formidable antagonist of the landlord system. He is not objectionable as a member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but as a Home Ruler and Radical land reformer. The statesman who tries to inflame the prejudices of Protestant voters against the Irish cause by accusing the Liberal party of furthering a policy which will hand over the government of Ireland to the ‘nominees of Archbishops Walsh and Croke’ is he who employed two Tory Catholics in an effort to commit the Vatican to an intrigue the Irish movement a few years ago. The Pope himself is in no way objectionable to the Tory party, provided he will not take sides with the Irish people.

The attempt to fasten upon prelates like Dr. Croke and Dr. Walsh a design to make the political rights of the Irish Catholics subserve some sinister policy of the Vatican is a grotesque and palpable calumny. Every chapter of modern Irish history is a refutation of the notion that Rome can dominate in Irish National or secular matters. And English statesmen of both parties know this right well. England has more than once tried to exercise some political control over Irish prelates and priests, by means of those very Vatican interests which Unionists now allege to be the end and aim of the Catholic hierarchy in their support of Home Rule. The endowment of Maynooth was a bid for the. political allegiance of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. The famous Quarantotti intrigue, in which it was sought to give to the English Government a right of veto upon the appointment of Irish bishops, not only failed ignominiously; it drew from O’Connell the historic declaration, in which he spoke for all Catholic Ireland, that ‘he would rather take his politics from Stamboul than from Rome.’ This unexpected anti-climax to the subserviency of Irish prelates to the needs of English rule in Ireland taught the Sovereign Pontiff the danger which was involved in any attempt upon the political independence of the Irish Catholic Episcopacy, and no further effort of the kind was made until our own day. The instances of the sensational letter from the Prefect of the Propaganda in 1883, with reference to the ‘Parnell Tribute,’ and of the Papal Rescript against the Plan of Campaign, in 1888, are later illustrations of the hopelessness of English endeavour to make use of the Vatican against Nationalist Ireland and the impotency of such interference when obtained. Here we have both Liberals and Tories trying their hands at exploiting the Pope in the interests of Dublin Castle and Irish landlordism.

The recollection of the letter Qualecumque de Parnellio, and the reception which was given to it in Ireland, ought to silence every Parnellite and every Unionist who accuses the Irish bishops and priests of having gone against Mr. Parnell in 1890, for insufficient or unworthy reasons. Archbishop Croke had begun the testimonial. Nine bishops and two hundred priests followed with their subscriptions, when, as alleged, Sir George Errington, at the instance of Lord Granville, obtained by means of inaccurate representations as to the nature of the National tribute to Mr. Parnell a condemnation of its object. The result is too well known to need more than mere mention, The subscriptions to Mr. Parnell’s testimonial doubled. A fund which was not expected to reach £20,000 when started mounted rapidly to close upon £40,000, as a protest by a Catholic people against an unwarrautable interference on the part of Rome in the secular affairs of Ireland. This was the outcome of the Liberal intrigue against Ireland at the Vatican. The later Tory attempt fared no better, though the trick was more unscrupulously played in 1888 than in 1883. The facts are instructive, as they prove conclusively alike the fearless independence of the Irish Nationalist bishops and in the matter of Roman influence outside of religion, and the mean and shabby nature of Lord Salisbury’s present conduct when considered in the light and purpose of his mission to the pope four years ago. The object of this mission is well worth recalling, as it was viewed at the time. A writer in one of the monthly reviews of the period said:–

The Persico mission originated in the attempt made by the British Government to enlist the authority of the Holy See on the side of ‘law and order’ in Ireland ... Lord Salisbury had now fairly entered upon his policy of Coercion, and the opposition of the Irish priests and bishops was the chief obstacle which baffled his efforts to reach his goa1. It was hinted, not obscurely, that, as Job did not serve God for nought, so the English Government would handsomely requite the Holy See for any services it might render in muzzling the Irish priests ... While Monsignor Persico was preparing the ground in Ireland, his allies had not been idle. The Jubilee of Her Majesty had afforded an opportunity for an interchange of courtesies between the Vatican and St. James’s, which it was determined to exploit to the uttermost. The Pope sent a special envoy to congratulate the Queen. What more natural and fitting than that Her Majesty’s Ministers should send a special envoy to the Pope to return his compliments, and see whether, at the same time, anything could be done to bring about those closer and more intimate relations upon which the Pope had set his heart? The motive of Persico’s mission was pretty well understood at the Foreign Office, and it was deemed advisable that a serious effort should be made to bring matters to a head, and commit the pope to a policy of repression in Ireland. It was under these circumstances and with such hopes that the mission of the Duke of Norfolk was decided on ... His task was comparatively simple. In more or less guarded phrases he had to intimate that Her Majesty’s Ministers were not indisposed to do a little business with the Holy See on the principle Do ut des. If the Pope could see his way to use his moral influence to restrain the Irish bishops and clergy within the limits marked out by the English Government, then, perhaps, the English Government might see their way to meet the cherished aspirations of the Holy See for the re-establishment of direct diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the Court of St. James’s ... The Duke, it is believed, was further in a position to intimate that, besides the the re-establishment of diplomatic relations something might be done in the shape of a substantial subsidy and Government patronage for Catholic education in Ireland.

It is a matter of history now that Cardinal Monaco’s famous Rescript followed the Salisbury mission to the Vatican, and that Mr. Balfour (either immediately before or following the Duke of Norfolk’s journey to Rome) spoke in the House of Commons in favour of the endowment of a Roman Catholic University in Ireland. It is, however equally a matter of historic fact that the Rescript was practically ignored by 999 out of every 1,000 Irish Catholics, while Mr. Balfour’s bait was not nibbled by the Irish hierarchy. The Tories and their Unionist allies lauded the Pope upon every platform for his opposition to the Plan of Campaign. The Irish people simply lamented the fact that His Holiness had allowed himself to be misled and used by the Tories, appealed in the Nationalist press and by public meetings against a wrongly formed judgment, and continued to support the principles and practices which had been hastily condemned in the light of a misrepresentation of the Irish movement. It is the statesman and who attempted this diplomatic dirty trick, who tried their best to muzzle the Irish and to drive him out of the popular agitation by means of the spiritual influence of the Vatican, who now try to poison the minds of the Protestant voters of Great Britain with insinuations and broad assertions that the cause of Home Rule is to be made subservient to the intrigues and purposes of this same Vatican by means of its ‘slavish instruments,’ the prelates and priests of Ireland.

Those Unionist critics who now assail the priests of Meath for having exercised spiritual influence in support of a principle of morality were among the first to attack Mr. Parnell after the Divorce Court proceedings, and to reproach the Irish nation for the stained character of its leader. Had Mr. Parnell been allowed by the Irish people to remain in his old position, it would have been, according to these critics, a stigma upon the Irish cause which should damn it in the eyes of Englishmen. When he was superseded, they declared his deposition to be an act of base ingratitude which proved the Irish to be unworthy of liberty. Had the priests condoned his fault, they would have been charged in Unionist organs with having put a premium upon immorality. Having joined the vast majority of their fellow-countrymen in the painful task of deposing him, they were declared to be actuated by political ambition, narrowness of spirit, intolerance, priestly despotism! Such is the code of Unionist political morality. The only possible perfect priest in the Unionist dispensation is he who can buttress landlordism with the spiritual influences of his calling, or who helps by the same means to divide and weaken the National movement for Home Rule. Such a priest, when found, is the beau-ideal of a Christian (though Popish) minister. His opposite is the simple embodiment of all the political vices in jesuitical application.

The allegation that Bishop Nulty and the priests of Meath were actuated by unworthy motives in their opposition to Mr. Parnell from the split to his death, and subsequently to his followers, is altogether opposed to facts. It was this very clerical influence which first gave him a seat in Parliament. Up to the date of the unhappy Divorce Court proceedings he had no more faithful followers in Ireland than among the priesthood of the diocese of Meath. This diocese contributed £2,282 to the Parnell tribute which was condemned by the Pope in 1883, the largest donation from any diocese in Ireland, with the exception of that of Dublin, and every penny of this sum was collected by the priests who were in opposition to the Parnellite candidates in the elections of last July. In fact, so devoted were the clergy of Meath to the Parnell leadership, that they were among the last of their calling in Ireland to declare in a body against him. This tardiness of repudiation has had a deal to do with the unusual bitterness displayed between Parnellites and priests in the two elections now voided. The latter were accused of having declared in favour of Mr. Parnell even after the Divorce Court verdict. The plea of moral delinquency lost its force in face of the resolution passed at a Convention in support of ‘the chief’ and supported by a large body of Meath priests, subsequent to the decree nisi. On the face of it this appeared a strong argument against the contention of the clergy that they went against the popular leader on grounds of morality alone; and the strength of the position which this circumstance gave to the followers of Messrs. Dalton and Mahoney was such that it could only be assailed, from the point or view of the priests, by that zeal which invariably covers a recantation of opinions, or a desire to undo the consequences of a mistake. In justice to the priests of Meath it must be said Mr. Parnell and his followers had loudly declared that his side of the divorce case was yet to be put before the Irish people. Popular opinion in Ireland was appealed to in this sense, and asked to suspend judgment. It was early in this stage of public feeling when some Meath priests gave their assent to a resolution pledging their adherence to the leader whom Meath first elected to Parliament. No such promised exculpation occurred, however, and the Catholic clergy of Meath, with a few exceptions, joined in the agitation against Parnellite factionism.

Anti-Home-Rule politicians may squirm at the fact as much as they please, but the power and prestige of the Irish priest are the creation of those very systems which Unionists are resolved if possible to perpetuate, in the face of their utter and abysmal failure to serve the purposes for which they were established, or to benefit the people subjected to them. While the law of eviction remains the law of the land, and Dublin Castle supplies the instruments of its execution, the political bond which unites the Irish priest to the Irish peasant will never be broken. As the priest has not been afraid even to go against Rome when Rome went wrong on Irish questions, he is not likely to err on the side of weakness towards Castle rule and landlordism while they are the embodiment of injustice to the people. And the people would be fools to listen to the voices of those who ask them to discard such allies. The Church, in a political sense, is a tower of strength to a popular cause when its ministers are heart and soul with the people’s aspirations. Churches may be dangerous to liberty when they are rich and are trammelled by State obligations or by class influences. If the Catholic Church had been endowed by the English Government in Ireland, it would have lost every vestige of political power with our people. As it is, it has preserved an influence commensurate with the fidelity of its priests to the people’s cause. It is only in their absolute devotion to the people’s interests wherein resides their political strength. Whenever and wherever they have taken sides against the popular movement in this generation they have been beaten. Twenty years ago a Liberal and Catholic candidate who had the support of the priests of Meath was defeated by Mr John Martin, a Protestant ’48 man, who stood as the National representative. The organ of Irish landlordism of that day said of this Home Rule victory, ‘The defeat of Mr. Plunkett in Meath indicates the growth of Federalism in Ireland. We believe the secret of Mr. Martin’s return is that the people of Ireland are tired of priestly dictation.’

Few of the people of Great Britain, even among Home Rulers, except those who are fairly familiar with Ireland, form, or care to form, a true estimate of the real character of the Irish priesthood. The word ‘priest’ is enough to create a prejudice in the minds of millions of the British people whose religious beliefs or irreligious dispositions predispose their minds to an antipathy. This antipathy may be more anti-clerical than anti-Catholic with the mass of people who are themselves nothing more than passive Christians. But with those who influence what I will term militant Protestant religious opinion, the Catholic priest is the embodiment of error, and the cunning instrument, in everything, of a foreign spiritual power. In politics he is represented as a man who makes unscrupulous use of his sacerdotal influence over an ignorant and superstitious peasantry, with the sole object of upholding his own and the Church’s domination and sway. This is the picture which Lord Salisbury now tries to hold up to the British electorate; insinuating that Archbishops Croke and Walsh have simply to put these all-powerful puppets in motion in order to secure the blind political obedience of the Catholic voters in the interests of some Vatican or Ultramontane purpose. I have shown elsewhere how Lord Salisbury tried to have these same ‘puppets’ moved and controlled from Rome for the ends of his own party. No more untruthful picture of the Irish priest in politics could be drawn, In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred he is but the intelligent expression of popular feeling. He is a peasant’s or a trader’s son to begin with. His sympathies, prejudices, and aspirations in secular matters are those of the class from which he has sprung. There is no country in the world in which there is so close an identity of feeling, of social relationship, of absolute solidarity of patriotic motives and of political purpose between people and pastors as exists in Ireland. The cause of a common country appeals to ideas and convictions of a common national sentiment. A heritage of mutual wrong and suffering welds this sentiment into concrete public action. ‘Dublin Castle government’ has tried to extirpate the priest in the past, as it sought to enslave and degrade the peasant. ‘Landlordism’ has been the enemy of both. Evictors thin the congregations when they destroy the homes of the people. The poverty born of an impoverished country and unjust rents affects the scanty income of the parish priest and curate. But, over and above all, the priest has been identified with every phase of the people’s battle for their homesteads and their rights. He was above the suspicion of making the popular cause a stepping-stone to office. He had nothing to gain for his services or sacrifices but the gratitude of those for whom he laboured and the hatred of those whose power for injustice or evil he sought to curb. The priests supplied the place in Irish popular movements which members of an intermediate class occupy in other countries where social and political antagonism separate the mass of a population from an aristocracy. Their leadership and political influence were determined by the character and consequences of English misgovernment and by the brutality and injustice of the Irish landlord system.

If the Irish priest is a potent factor in Irish politics to-day, who or what made him so? If his active influence is exercised in support of movements or agitations abhorred by Toryism, who is to blame? There is not in the whole political world to-day a class of persons who have a better traditional right to participate in political warfare than the Irish priesthood. Nor has any section of any people in any country under the sun a more consistent record as constitutional reformers than the men who are now hounded down by the party successors of the makers and administrators of the penal laws. For, what are the facts of history? It is not two hundred years ago since the same price was placed, by English laws, upon the head of a priest and the head of a wolf in Ireland. He had no sooner emerged from the bondage of the penal laws than he was forced to engage in the movement for Catholic emancipation. Thirty years’ agitation were required before the most elementary civil rights were allowed by England to his co-religionists in a country overwhelmingly Catholic. Next he was compelled to wage a war against the imposition of tithes. Thousands of lives were lost in this horrible struggle for an obviously rational relief from an equally notorious and monstrous injustice. These were fights for the very elementary principles of civil and religious liberty. They were won through the loyalty of the Irish people to a just and righteous cause, under the leadership of men whose very education had been made a crime by the infamy of English bigotry and intolerance. In everyone of these movements, and in every subsequent popular agitation down to the present hour, the Irish priest has been on the side of constitutional right, and an advocate of progressive reform. It was said of him, so far back as sixty years ago, that he had imbibed the doctrines of Locke and Paley more deeply than those of Bellarmine and Bossuet. The political education of the last half century has developed these ideas until, nourished as they have been by the social democratic movement of the past twenty years in a wider political atmosphere, the Irish priesthood of to-day are men of broad and tolerant views on all public questions, and are modified believers and followers of Cardinal Manning’s Christian Socialism rather than of the political Ultramontanism with which their enemies attempt to identify them.

The venerable Bishop who has been held up to public scorn and condenmation in the anti-Home-Rule press for a pastoral issued, injudiciously, in the interests of religion and morality, during a Parliamentary election, is the same Dr. Nulty who, twelve years ago – long before any but a very few English Progressivists demanded the taxation of ground rents for public purposes – wrote and declared:–

The essential and immutable principles of justice used certainly to be that everyone had a right of property in the hard-earned fruits of his labour; that he, and he alone, had a right to all the benefits, advantages, and enjoyments which the property yielded; and that if anyone else meddled with that property against his will, he was thereby guilty of the crime of robbery, which the eternal law of God, as well as the laws of all nations, reprobated and punished. But the principles which underlie the existing system of land tenure, and which impart to it its specific and distinctive character, are exactly the reverse of these. The principles on which that system are based are: that one privileged class do not require to labour for their livelihood at all; that they have an exclusive right to all the advantages, the comforts and enjoyments that can be derived from a splendid property, which exacted no patient, painful, or self-denying efforts of labour to create it or acquire it. That, being a singularly favoured race, and being all God’s eldest sons, the rest of the world must humbly acknowledge themselves to be their inferiors in rank, lineage, condition and dignity. That this superiority of rank gives them a right to sell out God’s gifts as if they were purely the products of their own labour and industry ... I have already shown that the land of every country is the public property of the people of that country, and, consequently, that its exclusive appropriation by a class is a substantial injustice and wrong done to every man in that country whom it robs of his fair share of the common inheritance. Then the injustice of this appropriation is enormously enhanced by the fact that it further enables the landlords to appropriate a vast share of the earnings of the nation besides. They plundered the people first of God’s gifts in the land, and that act of spoliation puts them under a sort of necessity of plundering them again of an enormous amount of their direct earnings and wages ... It would seem as if Providence had destined the land to serve as a large economical reservoir, to catch, to collect, and to preserve the overflowing streams of wealth that are constantly escaping from the great public industrial works that are always going on in communities that are progressive and prosperous ... But the great national property which Providence had destined for the support of the public burdens of Society has been diverted from its original purpose to minister to the wants and extravagances of a class. The explanation of this extraordinary act of national spoliation will be found in the fact that hitherto this class could just do as it pleased: the government of the country lay for centuries exclusively in its hands, and despite the combined influence of English Radicalism and Irish Obstructionism, it is practically in its hands still ... Even while they slept their rent rolls went on increasing ... The value continually imparted to the land by the industrial exertions of the community in the construction of houses, harbours, bridges, streets, roads, and railways; in the erection of factories, mills and warehouses, &c., has all been confiscated and appropriated by the owners of the soil ... If the English operatives could only retain for their own use and benefit the vast, sums which, under the existing system of land tenure, go, all the one hand, to the owners of the soil, and the sums that an economical system of ground-rent taxation would save for them on the other, their material comforts and enjoyments would be a hundredfold .... The great problem that the nations, or the government of nations rather, have to solve is – what is the most profitable and remunerative investment they can make of this common property (the land) in the interest and for the benefit: of the people to whom it belongs? In other words, how can they bring the largest, and, as far as possible, the most skilled amount of effective labour to bear on the proper cultivation of an improvement of the land? How can they make it yield the largest amount of human food, human comforts and home enjoyments and how can its aggregate produce be divided so as to give everyone the fairest and largest share he is entitled to without passing over or excluding anyone? [1]

The attitude of all the Churches to-day towards the great social question of the hour is a justification of the past and present action of the Irish priests in Irish politics. Theirs has been the Church of the poor. They have always stood forth to vindicate the cause of the people. Their heartiest sympathy and assistance have been given whenever the downtrodden and oppressed have risen the injustice and insolence of those who neither toil nor spin, but who have ground the faces of the labouring poor between the upper and nether millstones of landlordism and Castle rule. They have worked to secure protection for the fruits of the farmer’s toil, to improve the conditions of social existence for the labouring and small tenant class, who comprise the greater part of the peasantry of Ireland. Whenever periods of distress have arrived, the first voice to be heard demanding State intervention by way of public works, the first subscription towards immediate means of relief, has always come from the Irish priest. These are well-known facts. They explain at one and the same time why he has an influence over a great proportion of the Irish people, and why Lord Salisbury, as leader of the Landlord Tory party, fears and hates him as a potent factor in the social democratic movement against landlordism and the class exploitation of parliaments and governments by which industry is unjustly taxed in the interests of monopoly. Every church or congregation, or great or small religious community, in Great Britain (under whatsoever name it goes) is trying, by some minister or member of its to reconcile the preaching of the Gospel with the social betterment of the working population. They recognise that political power is rapidly going from the classes to the masses; that the toilers are becoming conscious of this change, and are resolved to use their growing influence in the State for the amelioration of their lot, the brightening and sweetening of their homes, the general uplifting of their condition in the organism of society, and for the making of provision for the requirements of old age. To use a common expression, all these religious communities ‘want to be in it’ in the carrying out of these social democratic reforms. It is rightly recognised now that to sympathise with a change to rational and humane conditions of industrial society, which will not conflict with the teaching of the Gospel of the Sermon on the Mount, and which is proposed to be effected by peaceful and constitutional means, will be a wiser and better Christian duty than an indifference or an hostility that would help to precipitate a revolution which would win such changes even against the opposition of Churches and classes combined. In a word, as political power is to be with the people, the Churches are, prudently, wending their way in that direction also. In this they are only following in the wake of Archbishops Croke and Walsh and of the vast majority of the priesthood of Ireland.

What will be the position of the priest in Irish politics under Home Rule? I believe it will be largely modified under the circumstances of totally different political, and some change of social, conditions. There will be no Dublin Castle government inviting a common Nationalist hostility. Landlordism may share a similar fate of legal abolition after a time, when another challenge to combined opposition will cease to afford a bond of united action. The Education question may probably still further segregate former allies. Labour versus Capital, public as against private property in land, with other social contentions, will inevitably break up the unity of purpose and co-operation of political effort which have kept the priests and people in one camp in the dual fight for National self-government and land reform. New party combinations will be formed. A conservatism, new to Ireland, will come into the field of domestic politics when a Home Rule Constitution takes the place of Castle rule, and former lay and clerical antagonists of an alien administration must become the guardians and upholders of native law and order. The position of the Catholic clergy of Ireland under these altered conditions of government, of social change, and of party strife, will, I hope and believe, correspond with the attitude which Archbishop Hughes of New York defined on one occasion when he was asked to use his influence with American Catholics in favour of a certain candidate in a Presidential election. He said:–

The entire American, people appear to be nearly equally divided in opinion as to which of these two will make the best chief magistrate. This fact seems to indicate a general opinion that the country will be safe under the four years’ Presidency of either. As to the Catholics, they have never been consulted as to the unlimited choice between these two. The probability is that, like their fellow-citizens of other denominations, they will be divided – some voting for one candidate, some for another. Like others, they are liable to err in their choice; but, under all circumstances, I should prefer that, voting honestly, each according to his own judgment, they should err with the minority, or what is equally possible with the majority of their fellow-citizens of all denominations, rather see them guarded against such danger of erring in their choice of President by any ecclesiastical influence.



1. Essay on the Land Question, dedicated to the Clergy and Laity of the Diocese of Meath, April 1880, by the Most Rev. Dr. Nulty.

Last updated on 28 May 2009