great fear in the thirties was that atheistic communism would sweep the
world and that the very existence of Christianity was under threat. Pope
Pius XI had laid down the defeat of international communism as one of
the primary objectives of his pontificate and he had galvanised Catholic
opinion to that end. Catholic Ireland, of course, was in the vanguard of
such action. Publications appeared such as Father Edward Cahill's book Ireland's
Peril and Professor James Hogan's pamphlet Could Ireland become
Communist? Professor Dermot Keogh has written that 'One might be
forgiven for reflecting that in the 1930s some of the more obsessional
local writers on that theme [the red scare] must have believed that when
Joseph Stalin woke up each morning his first thoughts turned inexorably
towards the subversion of Catholic Ireland.'
The Cosgrave government was not backward in using the
anti-communist line and it introduced coercive legislation, the
Constitution Amendment (No. 17) Act that became law on 16 October 1931.
This legislation established a military tribunal for political offences,
massively extended police powers and gave government the power to ban
organisations. It was aimed at all dissident forces in the country such
as the IRA, Saor Eire, the Communist Party etc., and was intended to
stifle opposition from the left. On Sunday 18 October 1931, the Irish
Catholic bishops issued a joint pastoral letter that was read out in all
the country's churches describing Saor Éire as 'frankly communistic'.
The pastoral declared Saor Eire and the IRA 'sinful and irreligious' and
pronounced that no Catholic could lawfully be a member of them.
On 20 October 1931 the military tribunal was established, twelve
organisations were banned, and arrests, raids and searches were the
order of the day. Newspapers such as An Phoblacht and Workers
Voice were raided, repeatedly, until they were forced out of
business. IRA men and those on the left of politics went into hiding or
on the run.
In the general election campaign of 1932, the government, in an attempt
to counter the Fianna Fail challenge, played the 'red' card on a
platform based on law and order and the communist/subversive threat.
During the Civil War all the leaders of the IRA had been excommunicated
from the Catholic Church. Most of the bishops who had agreed with that
ban were still in office in 1932 and were enthusiastic supporters of the
Cosgrave government. Among the higher echelons of government and society
the leaders of Fianna Fáil were regarded with extreme suspicion, but Mr
De Valera and his party had been working assiduously since 1927 to allay
those fears and to re-assure the elites that the party could be relied
upon, if and when it took power. Mr De Valera had convinced Cardinal
MacRory, at a private meeting, that the Fianna Fáil party was
committed, totally, to the bishop's pastoral call for solutions to the
country's social and economic problems that were in accordance with the
traditions of Catholic Ireland.
1891, Pope Leo XIII in the encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things),
which dealt with the condition of the working classes, was the first
pope to speak against the abuses of capitalism. Social teaching was
further elaborated by Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (In
the Fortieth Year).
In this encyclical, issued on 15 May 1931 the Pope recommended the
setting up of social study groups. The clergy were urged to promote such
groups among workers, youth and the employers, the better to study
social issues in a Catholic context and therefore to bring decision
making down to the local level. In a direct response, Rev. Canon John
Kelleher delivered a lecture entitled Reconstruction of the Social Order
on the principles laid down in the Papal Encyclical.
to social injustices the very existence of the Christian
religion was widely menaced. Capitalism was approaching a
deadlock brought about by its own selfish abuses ... A vigorous
practical Christianity could survive even under the most corrupt
Capitalist system, but not under the Communism which threatened
to supersede it ... The great aim of social legislation should
be to re-establish vocational groups through which employers and
workers would be united in one union with common aims and common
Catholic Action was a major recommendation of the 1931 encyclical. By
Catholic Action, the Pope hoped that the laity might become lay
Apostles, soldiers of Christ, standing side-by-side with the clergy,
although always subject to the authority of the Hierarchy. In January
1933, Mr. Dan Foley, as President of the Waterford and District Worker's
Council, delivered a major speech at its annual meeting
time is propitious. A young Government, with sympathies towards
the welfare of the masses, is considering plans to combat
unemployment, and one to improve the prosperity of our people
... There is a possibility of a re-modelling of the present
financial system in the interest of the many instead of the few.
The great question of ownership may be examined in the light of
the Pope's Encyclical, and equality of opportunity may then be
nearer the reach of all ... This, fellow delegates, means a
social revolution of the better kind, and one in which we should
all play our part ... In keeping with the dignity of the Council
our share in that revolution should be to act as guide for the
workers in this district in such a manner as to broaden their
outlook. We must get them to take a general survey of the whole
economic structure, and not confine their thoughts to mere
questions of wages and working conditions. As President of the
Council, I would strongly recommend the Catholic workers to
interest themselves in the Catholic Action movement and join the
On the conclusion of the President's address there was just one
dissenting voice— Edwards stood up and disagreed with some aspects of
it, 'especially where the speaker had said that the Government
sympathised with the masses.'
It was clear that if a social revolution were to happen it would be a
conservative one, controlled by the Catholic Church.
Turbulence was widespread among the working classes in the city.
There were strikes, marches and meetings, although the workers were
careful to assure the employers and the Church that whilst they were
striving for workers' rights the struggle was not tainted by
communism—and that the workers remained good Catholics. There was a
large meeting of the unemployed workers in the People's Park at which a
committee was appointed to press for the right to work. The chairman of
the new association declared that there was no communistic element
attached to the association and Mr. D. Nash explained that they were
non-political and non- sectarian.
In February 1933, a Catholic study movement, known as the St.
Thomas Aquinas Study Circle, had been initiated in the city, presided
over by Archdeacon Byrne. In an address to the Circle the Provincial of
the Dominican Order, Fr. Finbarr Ryan, explaining the need for Catholic
study, told the packed audience that it was
lay action to be carried on by lay people, by persons in every
state and rank of society. It was work to be carried out, not by
separate individuals but by organised bodies, and such organised
bodies could lay claim to the title of representing Catholic
Action only when they were in immediate connection with the
Church and under the direction of the Hierarchy.
hearty vote of thanks to the speaker was proposed by Mr. Liam Raftis who
said 'as far as the menace of Communism was concerned, they would uphold
the motto of the city, Urbs Intacta Manet.' Mr. Raftis was supported by
Mr. Dan Foley President Waterford Worker's Council and by Rev. Brother
Flannery, Superior Mount Sion and the proposal was adopted by
OF THE WATERFORD LEFT
other side of the political spectrum, Peter O'Connor had formed a
Workers Study Club where the members, including Edwards, studied the
writings of leading socialist figures such as Marx and, especially,
James Connolly. Edwards recalled
had got the writings of Marx and Lenin by this time ... When I
went to Dublin for the Saor Éire meeting, I called down to
Connolly House, in Great Strand Street, the Communist Party
headquarters, where I met Johnny Nolan. I bought a lot of books
from him. At that time we held packed discussion groups every
Sunday night to which the public were invited.
of the members were also members of the Irish Revolutionary Workers
Group. In 1933, this group disbanded and out of its ashes came the
(re-formed) Communist Party of Ireland. A group of young men in the
city, including Edwards and Peter O'Connor, had been dissatisfied for
some time with the leadership of the IRA, particularly with that
organisation's emphasis on military rather than political action.
O'Connor was a reader of the Irish Workers Voice, the paper of
the Irish Revolutionary Workers Group, and he asked that an organiser be
sent from the Dublin headquarters to organise the unemployed workers in
Waterford. The organiser who arrived was Seán Murray, later to become
the first secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland. His arrival in
Waterford moved public agitation onto an altogether higher level and
confrontation between the employers and the workers (employed and
unemployed) was common. Strikes were common in the city at that time.
The Waterford News reported, on 4 November 1932, that the
teachers had met to voice their opposition to a threatened pay cut and
in December 1932, the road-workers in the Asphalt Company went on
strike. In January 1933 all the men of the Plasterer's Society struck.
The plasterers involved were all employees of John Hearne, and this was
when Edwards first came into conflict with the local Catholic Hierarchy.
John Hearne, a close personal friend of Archdeacon Byrne, asked Byrne to
mediate in the strike. Edwards said of Hearne that he was 'constantly in
and out of the presbytery.'