by LEON O'BROIN
EVERYBODY knows, I
think, that the relationship of Irish Catholics and Protestants for centuries was a thoroughly unhappy one.
To the political subjugation of a small country by its big neighbour, laws designed to deprive the natives of the smaller country of their material and cultural heritage, was added, after the Reformation, a particularly obnoxious religious ascendancy. Lord Brookeborough, when Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, spoke of Stormont as being a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People, implying thereby that his government existed to perpetuate Protestantism in the Six-county area; in so speaking he was giving voice to a principle that had once been of application in every part of the country.
We have just passed, without much notice being taken of it, the first centenary of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. The year 1869 in which this happened is now seen as one in which an important step was taken to establish a rational relationship between the majority and minority churches. It indicated that a change was coming, but the pace of the change was desperately slow. Forty years had elapsed since what was called Catholic Emancipation had been put on the Statute
Book. Another half-century was to pass before major social and political events produced a situation of normality.
The entrenched minority that was so seriously aggrieved by Gladstone's act of disestablishment continued nevertheless to be the prop of the political union with Great Britain and thought the end of the world had arrived when Lloyd George and his Coalition colleagues came to terms with the nasty Sinn Feiners in 1921. They felt "let down," and many of them showed their feelings and their apprehension of what lay in store for them by clearing out of Ireland, bag and baggage.
There was a further exodus ten years later when de Valera came to power. This really was the end. The Catholics — the Fenians as they are still called in the North -could never be trusted.
The Catholics, traditionally, were likewise distrustful of the Protestants, and let it be said. had more reason to be so, for they had not merely been dispossessed and degraded but had been the object of organised efforts to take their religion away from them by rather despicable methods. In my childhood I heard many a story — doubtless exaggerated to some degree — of "soupers," of the snatching of children from their families, of birds' nests, of proselytisers who induced poverty-stricken Catholics "to sell their souls for penny rolls and flitches of hairy bacon" This bogeyman atmosphere kept Catholics away from Protestants, while Protestants, because they were so much better off, generally speaking, kept to themselves. They were dominant in industry and commerce; they still are.
The separation w a s particularly acute in the field of education. The so-called national schools, though not so designed originally, operated on a denominational basis, and there were other schools, such as the one I went to first, which accepted no grants from the British government in order to be free of any restriction whatever on the teaching of An outsider would,
therefore, conclude that Ireland was not a fruitful soil for ecumenical effort; that there was too much to forgive and forget. And yet, long before Vatican II, important steps were being taken in that very direction.
I am thinking especially of the Mercier Society which came into existence in 1941 and which held monthly meetings, chaired by Mr. James Cummins, of Catholics and Protestants. I was fortunate enough to be a close observer of this remarkable development. I served on the joint Catholic-Protestant committee of direction, served tea at the intervals, and wrote one of the papers which Catholics and Protestants alternately presented for general discussion.
I did this as one of the regular members but, as often as not, we invited an outsider to address us, a recognised authority on some issue or other that divided us or on a subject about which we felt he had something of value to say to us. The very first paper, on some aspect of education, was given by an outsider, John Marcus O'Sullivan, who was a professional historian and a former Minister for Education.
Among outsiders from England I remember Father Hugh Pope, the biblical scholar, Christopher Hollis, Dr. Matthews the Dean of Westminster and Dr. Cody White, the Dean of Gloucester.
I have good reason to remember Father Pope. He struck me as one of the keenest minds I ever encountered and an extremely lively speaker. He enlivened a lunch we gave him with an account of a recent visit he had paid to the Air Force Control centre with his cousin, Sir Hugh Dowding of Battle of Britain fame. came to speak to the society were Dr. E. J. Kissane, the distinguished President of Maynooth, Father James, the Capuchin author then widely appreciated, and Father Arthur Ryan who was a lecturer in
scholastic philosophy at Queen's University, Belfast.
Dr, George Simms, now the Church of Ireland Primate, was often there with his friend Michael Lloyd Ferrer, the warden of the Dublin divinity school. and in a group of Catholic priests regularly in attendance were Father Edward I.een, who was recognised as a master of the spiritual life, Father John IIeuston, a theologian long associated with the Roman Angellicum, and Fr. Donal Ilerlihy who later became the Rector of the Irish College in Rome and later stilt the occupant of the See of Ferns.
Among the audience on any night, in addition to clerics of such 'distinction, you would rind 50 or more laymen and women, drawn from practically every Christian denomination. There was even a sprinkling of Oxford, Groupers who were then more active than they appear to be now. Frank Duff, the genius behind the Legion of Mary, never missed a meeting and kilways spoke to the papers. Desmond Fitzgerald, who had held a couple of portfolios in the Cosgrave government, likewise attended as often. as his Senate duties permitted. He and I were good friends, and he constantly ;inland me, as he did the Mercier Society, by his knowledge of the Sumnia.
Another man who was active in the Society, both on the committee of direction and in the debates was the poet John Betjeman. lie was on the wartime staff of the British Embassy and an excellent job he appears to have dune there. He knew everybody worth knowing in Ireland, especially Dubli n's literary celebrities, and he brought to the Mercier Society something like a connoisseur's knowledge of non Catholic Christian communities.
Any form of Christian activity interested him and I recall how much he, and his wife, Penelope, enjoyed their skit with me to Blackrock College where talks were being given on Catholic beliefs for interested enquirers. Our eon orsation was not confined to strictly religious subjects; I heard a good deal from John that day about The Quest for Cony, a book I had loaned him, and about his exciting an
tiquarian researches in Dublin.
These Blackrock College sessions were a useful complement to the work of the Mercier Society, although they were not conceived as such. They attracted a wide, and varied audience. One day the playwright and Abbey director Lennox Robinson came with me; on another the writer Geoffrey Taylor who was then collaborating with Sean 0 Faolain on The Bell monthly. Both of these men were Protestants, Lennox a clergyman's son who had a real feeling for the sorrows of the poor. He was by no means well-off himself.
It was a magnificent day of sunshine the day he and I were at Blackrock. We sat out for Icing spells on the slope overlooking the sports field and the sea and talked a great deal about a subject we had in common, which was far away from what we were hearing in the College hall. We talked about Parnell's tragedy and its effect on subsequent events in Ireland. Lennox had written a play about Parnell; I had done a biography.
We must have gone on to talk about the poor of Dublin and the good work that was being done in the Catholic hostels for down and out men and women, because he sent me a little money a few days afterwards to be given to the most deserving case I knew. He thought that a better object for what he could afford, than to give a subscription towards putting a stone on Parnell's grave, as he had been asked to do.
Geoffrey Taylor was in Blackrock on a day when Father Pope was lecturing. He wrote to me afterwards a letter I have preserved which gives some idea of the value of these meetings.
He said : ". . I was privileged to hear and meet Father Pope. Certainly if these courses do no more than educate Protestants as to the essential reasonableness — granted the incarnation—of the Catholic position, they are doing a most important job. I wish someone had asked a question as to the
validity of Anglican Orders, which seem to me one of the most interesting purely
theological matt ers of dispute—the. only one, I think, that lay between Lord Halifax and Cardinal Mercier; but, of course, academic so far as the bulk of Protestantism is concerned. Anyhow, thank you very much for a most interesting day which I only hope didn't weigh too heavily on you."
Archbishop Simms, in his edition of Michael Ferrar's addresses and papers, gives pride of place to a paper on Liturgical Prayer read to the Mercier Society in 1941. Dr Sinuns enlarges in an introductory note on the lasting impression Ferrer made on the
Society "where the reflective quality of his well-read mind and the fairness of his thoughtful criticisms" were appreciated.
I believe the same could be said of all the Mercier speakers. They were at liberty to be frank and they were, but the atmosphere of the meetings remained beyond criticism, When, once, a visitor from the other side of the Irish sea, said something which appeared to be derogatory of the Pope, an apology was tendered immediately on behalf of the Protestant members.
In brief, it may be said that during those years when large areas of the world and their populations were being torn asunder, a work of peaceful reconstruction was proceeding in neutral Ireland. Lasting friendships were being formed between Catholics and Pro:testants who previously had no contact whatever. Misunderstandings were being removed, and steps taken towards the restoration of that unity of Christians which is the aim and object of post-Conciliar ecumenism.