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Frank Edwards part 3



The 'red' scare - Catholic Action - The response of the Waterford 'Left.'

The 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.'[1]

  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.[2] 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.[3] 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.

In 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).[4] 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.

Owing 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 interests.[5]

  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 

The 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 study groups.[6]

  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.'[7] 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.[8]

  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

A 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.[9]

  A 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 acclamation.[10]  

On the 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

I 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.[11]

  Some 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.'[12]

[1] Dermot Keogh (1983) "De Valera, the Catholic Church and the 'Red Scare' 1931-32" in De Valera and his Times, ed J. P. O'Carroll and John A. Murphy, (Cork, Cork University Press), p. 134.
[2] Dónal ÓDrisceoil (2001) Peadar O'Donnell, (Cork, Cork University Press), p. 68. 25 Ibid, p. 70.
[3] Ibid, P. 70
[4] The present writer attended Mount Sion in the 1940's and 1950's and an abiding memory is the daily half hour of Christian Doctrine. The Christian Brothers followed the guidelines drawn up by the Irish Hierarchy in 1919 with its emphasis, in years one to three, on the study of the Gospels, Church history, grace and the sacraments. This was followed in years four to six by a detailed course in Economics (from a Christian standpoint), Christian apologetics and Catholic doctrine and, most memorably, the teachings of the two great social encyclicals. Whilst researching this article, and as an experiment, I questioned several secondary school pupils if they knew the meaning of the word Encyclical. None of them had even heard the word.
[5] Waterford News, 7 April 1933.
[6] Ibid, 16 January 1933.
[7] Ibid, 16 January 1933.
[8] Ibid, 21 October 1932.
[9] Ibid, 24 February 1933.
[10] Ibid
[11] MacEoin, Survivors, p. 7. 34
[12] Ibid, Survivors, p. 8


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