Authoritarianism and the early Irish State


Fin Dwyer looks at the latter years of Ireland’s first post independence government, which having successfully suppressed political opposition and the workers’ movement, went on to “attack women and enforce their moral and ethical values on wider society”. From the clearing of prostitutes from the Monto and the filling of the Magdalene laundries to the institutionalisation of child abuse, he describes how the state’s close association with the Catholic Church played a decisive role in forming attitudes to women and sex that have had a devastating effect on Irish society that can still be felt today.

In the first part of this article, carried in the the previous edition of IAR, Fin Dwyer looked at the foundation of the Free State, the suppression of political opposition and the workers movement. In this article, he looks at the period of Ireland's first post-independence government, Cumann na nGaedhael, as state and church moved on to attack and discipline women and any other groups seen to deviate from their vision of Catholic-Irish morality.

In the mid 1920’s, the Minister for External Affairs, Kevin O’Higgins, had become the Cumann na nGaedhael government’s key political influence. At the time, the Catholic Church effectively formed the social policy of the Free State.

This had little to do specifically with Cumann na nGaedhael and more to do with the fact that the Catholic Church was arguably the most powerful institution in Ireland in 1923, even more powerful than the state itself. Cumann na nGaedhael were in no position to stand up to the church, but had little inclination to do so either. Indeed, the Catholic Church had been the key influence on Irish society since before the famine and the entire nationalist movement of all sides had been inculcated with its moral and cultural attitudes, as were large sections of the population.

In this context, the social values of the church were effectively the values of Cumann na nGaedhael, highlighted best by W.T. Cosgrave, the president, who suggested that the upper house in the Free State could be a “theological board which would decide whether any enactments of the Dáil were contrary to [Roman Catholic] faith and morals or not” Indeed, Kevin O’Higgins him- self had failed in an attempt to become a priest. Rather than one influencing the other, both church and state became almost inseparable and at times indistinguishable on social policy.

Once in power, Cumann na nGaedhael soon set about trying to implement as policy what were Catholic social values. There was no debate on these issues, they were enforced regardless of their impact. This was to have disastrous consequences particularly for women as, when fused with Cumann na nGaedhael’s authoritarianism, Catholic views of women would see them slowly but surely excluded and denuded of power. Usually this was due to legislative change, but also on some occasions more forceful methods were used when they deemed it neccessary.

Attitudes towards Women
The Catholic Church had a deeply sexist view of women in society. As the sociologist Tom Inglis (1998) points out, they portrayed women as “fragile, weak beings” and “for women to attain and maintain moral power it was necessary that they retain their virtue and chastity.” In order to enforce these attitudes, the church portrayed sex as unclean and immoral and ultimately, women’s bodies were something to be ashamed of.

This helped generate a deep embarrassment and guilt over sex. Where the church had substantial influence they could effectively control women’s knowledge of sex, as the only place they could talk about it was in confession, where they were berated over the topic by their priest. Outside of this, the Catholic point of view on women’s role in society was that they were to rear children, take care of the family and do little else.

The Nationalist movement in Ireland had been heavily influenced by these ideas and attitudes, and its formula of an ideal Irish woman was almost identical. Arthur Griffith, who had died in 1922, had stated that in any Irish house, “you will meet the ideal mother, modest, hospitable, religious, absorbed in her children and motherly duties,” clearly reflecting the ethos of the church.

The reality of 1920′s Ireland
In spite of the significant influence of the church, the reality of life in Ireland in 1922 was quite different. Prior to independence, the church had used its not inconsiderable social and cultural weight to enforce these ideas. However, Ireland like many countries across Europe in the period between 1914-23, witnessed great social change, which undermined the church’s control and authority. While women were by no means equal citizens, significant progress had been made.

However, after independence, the church did not only have to rely on its moral, social and cultural influence. Now, in unison with the authoritarian Cumann na nGaedhael government, it could use the apparatus of state to enforce its authority over women, particularly when it came to sex.

It was around the issue of sex that the church were most vocal and outraged. They viewed sex as a dirty subject and a sphere where women were largely a corrupting influence. However, in relation to sex, by 1923, Irish women may not have been as ashamed and prudish as the church believed they should have been (or as many today assume them to have been).
In 1924, an Inter-Departmental Committee of Inquiry regarding Venereal Disease was tasked to ‘make inquiries as to the steps necessary, if any, which are desirable to secure that the extent of venereal disease may be diminished’. In its unpublished report, they concluded that ‘venereal disease was widespread throughout the country, and that it was disseminated largely by a class of girl who could not be regarded as a prostitute.” The report also illustrated that the spread of disease was relatively evenly distributed across the country, and not limited, as anticipated, to former garrison towns and cities.

Aside from the blatant sexism of the report, which attributed the spread of venereal disease to women, it clearly indicated a higher level of sexual activity at the time than is often imagined. For the state and its moral watchdog, the Catholic Church, this was seen as a great danger to the church’s authority and control, and to the nationalist vision of what womanhood was, i.e., a home-maker.

To combat this, the authoritarianism of the state went into overdrive to suppress sexual activity. In 1923, strict censorship in film was introduced and films which were deemed ‘indecent, obscene or blasphemous or contrary to ... or subversive of public morality’ were banned. 1924 saw the restrictions placed on the sale of alcohol, not least as it was seen as one of the causes of slipping morality.

By 1929, censorship bills enabled the government to ban even the dissemination of material on birth control. Aside from their moral view on birth control, it was clearly something that allowed women to gain greater control over sex, while society in general would have a greater understanding of the sexual process. This was anathema to the Catholic Church’s teaching and practice. The attitude toward contraception articulated just how domineering the Free State was – even discussion on the topic was not going to be tolerated. The Minister for Justice, James FitzGerald-Kenney (Kevin O’Higgins was assassinated in 1927), stated in 1928, when the censorship bill was debated in the Dáil:
“In our [the government’s] views on [contraception] we are perfectly clear and perfectly definite. We will not allow ... the free discussion of this question ... We have made up our minds that it is wrong. That conclusion is for us unalterable ... We consider it to be a matter of grave importance. We have decided, call it dogmatically if you like - and I believe almost all persons in this country are in agreement with us - that that question shall not be freely and openly discussed. That question shall not be advocated in any book or in any periodical which circulates in this country.”

This attitude towards sex and the setting of unattainable standards for women was also to lead to horrific abuse of women on a level that is only becoming really understood in the last decade. This culture allowed women who had children outside of marriage, who were raped and spoke of their experience, or even just assertive women, to be committed into what were effectively prisons run by Catholic nuns. These were the brutal Magdalene Laundries. The state’s attitude to this was more than supportive. In 1927, The State Commission on the Destitute Poor referred to women who had children outside of marriage as either “first time offenders” or those “who had fallen more than once.” For single mothers who managed to hold on to their children (often they were forced to give them up for adoption), they mostly did so under conditions of exclusion and impoverishment. This lead to a shameful infant mortality rate of 33% for children of single mothers.

Perhaps the most direct attack on women over the issue of sex came in 1925, when the state cracked down on prostitution. The prostitute embodied the polar opposite to both the Catholic Church’s and the nationalist view of women. Before independence, Dublin had had a world famous red light district in the North Inner city, known as the “Monto”, based around Montgomery street. Although it went into decline after the withdrawal of the British Army, hundreds of women still worked as prostitutes. Everything about the Monto horrified the church, not only was it “immoral” but they had little or no control over the sex lives of the women working there.

Prostitutes in the Monto
The Monto was also to a certain extent outside the patriarchal structure of Irish society, given many of the brothels were run by women. Nonetheless, for the women working there, it was a very tough life, where they were controlled by madams or pimps. Unfortunately, when the church and state attacked the area in the 1920′s, they did not have these women’s interests at heart. They were concerned with ridding Dublin of a moral scourge as they saw it, rather than helping people who were being exploited.

Campaigning against the Monto had begun in the early 1920′s, firstly by church organisations. Lead by a group who would form the Legion of Mary in 1925, Catholic activists targeted the area, attempting to literally force the prostitutes to convert from prostitution to home-makers. They operated hostels where former prostitutes could stay, although they were operated under strict moral guidelines, including the issue that “every entrant is made the object of a special and individual attention, directed in the first place to the creation of moral fibre.” Once a brothel was closed, they moved a family into the building, effectively ensuring that the prostitutes would be made homeless unless they stayed with the church-run hostels.
It was clear that the interests of these women were not being taken into account, but rather more abstract notions of Catholic moral fibre. Frank Duff, who was most synonymous with this campaign against prostitution, and is often lauded as a great social reformer, illustrated the thinking behind this deeply sexist “moral fibre”. For Duff, “the only cause of Syphilis ... is the prostitute lying in wait in cities to tempt men.” In light of the findings of the 1926 Committee of Inquiry regarding Venereal Disease Ireland, such statements were completely unfounded, but were indicative of Duff’s prejudices and disregard for these women.

To “save” these women, they were inculcated with the state and church’s idea of what they should be – essentially wives and mothers. The move from prostitution gave these women no more power, as it was a simple process of replacing the brothel madam with a husband; through the hostels, the Catholic activists married off the women off as quickly as possible. Between 1922-23, sixty-one women were married off.

This campaign, where these supposedly “saved” women were bystanders in their “liberation“ from prostitution, was heavily supported by the state. The first hostel was opened at 76 Harcourt Street, a building given to them in 1922 by future president and then Minister for Local Government, W.T. Cosgrave.

After campaigning for a few years in 1925, the campaign against the prostitutes in the Monto was stepped up a notch. Several arms of the church, including the Jesuits and the Legion of Mary, worked with the police in driving prostitutes out of the Monto. After the church organisations’ moderate success early in the year, the police launched a series of raids on the Monto. In March, over one hundred people were arrested and one woman was imprisoned for 6 weeks for allowing a house to be used as a brothel. Needless to say, while the church and state succeeded in closing the Monto, they did not end prostitution. This was a secondary concern; the campaign was mainly about moral aesthetics, no doubt prompted by the fact that as the Catholics left the Pro-Cathedral on Marlborough Street in Dublin, they were on the fringe of a red light district.

Child Abuse and The Carrigan Report
The long-term ramifications of authoritarian attitudes fused with the church’s morality, which created an environment where sex was something unspeakable, had horrendous consequences. When a report was carried out into sexual crimes in Ireland - The Carrigan Report (1930) - it uncovered widespread sexual abuse of children.

In the report, Eoin O’Duffy, the chief of police, stated there had been thousands of cases of abuse of people under 18 (some under 11) between 1927 and 1929, for which only 15% of the cases had been prosecuted. Immediately one is reminded of the 1916 proclamation’s most modest of demands of “cherishing all children of the nation equally”. These notions were long dead by 1930 – the report was never published or acted upon. When it was circulated to politicians on December 2nd 1931, the Department of Justice attached a cover note arguing against publication because  “it might not be wise to give currency to the damaging allegations made in Carrigan regarding the standard of morality in the country.”

This policy was continued when Fianna Fail came to power the following year, and the report was buried. The long-term implications of this are really only being understood today, as the true extent of child sex abuse emerges. As Fiona Kennedy (2000) pointed out, had this report been published it may not have stopped all sex abuse, but certainly the culture of silence that allowed perpetrators abuse children for decades would have been lessened.

Women and Wider Society
Accompanying the campaigning around the issue of sex, the church and state through the 1920′s brought in several pieces of legislation designed to force women from the workplace into the home and keep them there.

In 1925, divorce - something that was already something very difficult to attain - was banned for women. Technically, it was possible for men if they moved to a country where divorce was legal, but this provision was not open to women. The only option available was legal separation, but no remarriage. When debated in the Senate, the Countess of Desart noted the implications of this bill for women, who could be legally separated but not able to remarry:
“You condemn her to a life of misery or isolation, for a woman in so false a position must be ten times more circumspect than any other, if she would safeguard her good name. If guilty, she must spend the rest of her days as an example of the wicked, flourishing like a bay tree or as an eyesore in a land hitherto famed for its high ideals of purity.”

Countess Desart was right, but unfortunately this was one of the intentions of the bill; in order to preserve the family, women would be pre- vented from taking independent action in terms of divorce or separation. This legislation, reflect- ing the desire to control women as home makers, was reinforced in the provision in the bill which legally made a woman’s legal residence that of her husband, even if he lived in a different continent.

Another crucial aspect of controlling women and enforcing the catholic view of the family was the exclusion of women from public life. In 1924, Kevin O’Higgins first attempted to exclude women totally from jury duty. This was clearly unconstitutional, as the 1922 constitution enshrined the idea that all citizens were equal. When it was finally brought in 1927, O’Higgins, a few months from his assassination, had found a way around equality: women would have to register for jury duty.

In the course of the debate in the Seanad, O’Higgins outlined how he saw women: “I think we take the line that it was proper to confer on women citizens all the privileges of citizenship and such of the duties of citizenship as we thought it reasonable to impose upon them.” This idea, that women had limited capabilities and were unable to bear the weight of citizenship, was very much to the fore of their thinking and directed policy. This shaped the overriding aim: the removal of women from the public sphere.

Women working outside the home was something the Catholic Church loathed. In 1925, the government attempted to limit posts in the Senior Civil Service to men, but this was rejected in the Senate. A few years later, the bill was forced through, as the Senate could only reject legislation for a certain time period. Women were thus banned from progressing past a certain grade, thereby making a successful career in the civil service impossible. In time, a marraige bar would be introduced, forcing women to retire from the civil service when they married.

General Society
By the late twenties, the Catholic Church and the Free State alliance had almost total control over the social life of the vast majority of people. Any threat to this, no matter how inconsequential, was treated in the harshest of terms. The level of authoritarianism ruling Irish society was illustrated in Leitrim in the early 1930′s.

Leitrim in the early 1920′s had been like a lot of the country. It was the site of much republican activity and class struggle. In 1921, an Irish emigrant, Jimmy Gralton, returned from New York and got involved in local organising of tenants taking over landlords’ farms. In the 1920′s, he was very much seen to the left of the political spectrum, making enemies amongst the establishment in the area. In 1922, Gralton lead the building of a local community Hall – the Pearse- Connolly Hall - where educational classes and dances were held. This immediately irked the local Catholic Church as Gralton was challenging their control over social activities normally held in a church-run parish hall.

Through the 1920′s, the Catholic Church vented much of its moral indignation at such dance halls and accused them of being sites of debauchery which caused alcoholism and sex outside marriage. In 1930, the local priest began a sustained campaign against Gralton’s Pearse-Connolly Hall. This lead to physical attacks on the hall which was eventually burned down in December 1932 most likely by the local IRA.

Not happy with this, the church, just like in the attack on the Monto in 1925, was able to rely on the state for support, but their reaction was almost incredulous. For what was comparatively low-level activity, Jimmy Gralton, a man born in rural Leitrim, was deported to America and exiled from Ireland. There’s little doubt that Gralton could have been dispensed in more brutal ways - for example in 1931 the republican James Vaugh died in very mysterious circumstances in a police cell in Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim - but there can be little doubt that the deportation of Gralton was to serve as a lesson to others.
Indeed, Gralton’s case highlighted just how much control the church-state alliance had over all aspects of society, including the media. The Irish Times reporting on Gralton’s extradition emphasised the fact that Gralton was an “Irish American”, which he was not – he had spent some time in America as an emigrant, where he also became a US citizen. This masked the fact that the Irish State was deporting someone who was born in the state.

This lie was repeated in the several articles in the Irish Times during March, when Gralton’s deportation order was delivered. Finally, in August 1933, when Gralton was deported to the USA, he was called “a returned American”, and the only crime cited was that he supposedly held “extreme communistic views”. No article in the Irish Times raises any issue about the right to deport him, indeed it clearly shirked from challenging the state by frequently and erroneously saying that Gralton was an Irish-American.

It reflects the authoritarian nature of the Free State which was increasingly identifying what it was to be Irish with the moral, ethical and social values of its political and religious elite. As Gralton’s case illustrated, they would ruthlessly persecute anyone who questioned this.

The authoritarianism that shaped the first ten years deeply shaped Ireland far into the future. In 1932, a faction of the Republican movement defeated in the Civil War, Fianna Fail, won the election and replaced Cumann na nGaedheal as government. (5 years earlier, lead by Eamon de Valera, they had broken with the IRA and had formed a new party). The transition was largely seamless, with Fianna Fail largely continuing in a similar vein to Cumann na nGaedhael.
It is hard to tell how much they naturally shared the authoritarian views of Cumann na nGaedhael, or whether they replicated what they saw as a successful model of taking and keeping power, but they proved more than able to build on Cumann na nGaedhael’s authoritarian foundation.

Indeed, it was Fianna Fail who ensured the Carrigan report detailing child abuse was not published or acted upon. It was they who would deported Jimmy Gralton at the behest of the Catholic Church, and most all, it was they who delivered a coup de grace of 15 years of conservative laws, formally incorporating the attacks on women in a deeply chauvinistic document that was supposed to outline what it meant to be Irish – the 1937 constitution.

The culture created by the all-encompassing authoritarianism became endemic in Irish politics for decades, leading many Irish people into self-imposed exile. Publishing anything that disagreed with the Catholic Nationalist ethos was next to impossible. This produced what can only be described as a stifling monolithic culture, where nothing in any way challenging was tolerated. By 1923, after W.B. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the award received the following stinging criticism from “The Catholic Bulletin” as “...a substantial sum provided by a deceased anti-christian manufacturer of dynamite.”

It is little surprise then that the more creative- minded followed the urban and rural poor into what was often miserable emigration. This would prompt Samuel Beckett in his 1956 play, “All that Fall”, to reflect: “It is suicide to be abroad but what is it to be at home? [...] A lingering dissolution”

Over 40 years later, in his emigration song, “Thousands are Sailing”, Philip Chevron could still write:
“Where e’er we go, we celebrate,
The land that makes us refugees,
From fear of priests with empty plates,
From guilt and weeping effigies”

When looking at The Free State there is little to take from its first ten years, or indeed, subsequent governments. Most praise comes when historians use “the litmus test” of “the survival of the state”, as Thomas Bartlett did, as recently as 2010. While they were successful ensuring the state survived (whatever that actually means, given they simply replicated the administrative practices of the British Empire), for the vast majority – women, the rural and urban poor, and political opponents - this meant effective removal from an active role in society, a role that they had fought hard to achieve between 1913-22.

From legislation making public life for women impossible, to the deportation of Jimmy Gralton, the achievements of “The Free State” were limited to the restoration of the pre-World War I social and economic order. They succeeded in preserving a state for the rich and powerful, in a symbiotic relationship with the Catholic Church. In this context, those who laud the “achievements” of the founders of the Irish State as great men, for no obvious reason other than the preservation of this state, should reflect on the words of Mikhail Bakunin, the 19th century Russian anarchist.

“Thus, to offend, to oppress, to despoil, to plunder, to assassinate or enslave one’s fellow man is ordinarily regarded as a crime. In public life, on the other hand, from the standpoint of patriotism, when these things are done for the greater glory of the State, for the preservation or the extension of its power, it is all transformed into duty and virtue. [...] There is no horror, no cruelty, sacrilege, or perjury, no imposture, no infamous transaction, no cynical robbery, no bold plunder or shabby betrayal that has not been or is not daily being perpetrated by the representatives of the states, under no other pretext than those elastic words, so convenient and yet so terrible: “for reasons of state.””

This article appeared in the  
Irish Anarchist Review No 6 October 2012