Feature Articles

Dramatic intervention by bishops in Irish Civil War politics

24 May 2023
St Mary's Church, Pope's Quay, Cork, 1915

The Irish hierarchy’s pastoral letter of 1922 forbidding republicans from receiving the sacraments showed a partisanship not appreciated by Rome, writes Gabriel Doherty

THE pastoral letter issued by the Irish hierarchy in October 1922, which forbade access to sacraments to those republicans who were active in the Civil War, was the most dramatic of a series of interventions into the political realm that the bishops had made, either collectively or individually, ever since the issue of the government of the country became a live one within the introduction of the third home rule bill in 1912.

In many respects, it represented a reversal from what was, by the standards of the Church, the radicalisation in its position that had been occurring during that intervening time (and especially since 1915). In turn, however, this reversion to an older, more conservative position was itself halted by interventions from a higher authority within the Church than even the bishops possessed.

In order to fully comprehend the scope, purpose, and significance of the decree, this backdrop needs to be briefly considered before attention is turned to the circumstances in which the letter was drafted and issued.

The vacillation of the British government on the issue of Irish home rule had alienated important members of the hierarchy even before the First World War broke out (most notably the two primates, Walsh of Dublin and Logue of Armagh). While some bishops came out forcefully in support of the war effort in its early months, most (including, again, Walsh and Logue) were moe reticent, and by 1915 it was becoming increasingly difficult for those members of the hierarchy and clergy who were sympathetic to John Redmond’s pro-war stance to articulate their views.

The 1916 Rising was publicly condemned by a small number of bishops but most remained silent on the matter in the immediate aftermath of its suppression. The vigorous condemnation of that suppression by Bishop O’Dwyer of Limerick was instrumental in opening up the floodgates of public criticism, and certainly helped to make the Rising, its participants, and the republican cause respectable in the eyes of many believers. The proposal, in the spring of 1918, to apply conscription to Ireland in response to the German breakthrough on the Western Front resulted in a rupture between the hierarchy and the London government the like of which had not been seen in decades.


This rift widened and deepened over the following two and a half years as a result of the partition of the island provided for under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, the events of the War of Independence, and the coercive policies utilised by the British government in response to same. The verbal nadir was reached in October 1920 when, in a statement issued followed a meeting of the hierarchy, the carrying out of reprisals by crown forces in response to IRA actions was condemned as “the indiscriminate vengeance of savages” — language that more than matched in its force of expression anything that emanated from within republican ranks at this time.

There was, of course, also condemnation of republican violence, albeit even those bishops, such as Logue, who were most hostile to the IRA, expressed the view that such actions were to be understood, though not thereby rendered valid, with reference to British provocations. 

The most extreme of these denunciations, and the one that is most relevant to the decree of October 1922, was a localised edict denying admission to the sacraments issued by the Bishop of Cork, Daniel Cohalan, following the Burning of Cork in December 1920. 

This was generally ignored by the Volunteers, not least because many local clergy tacitly (and in some cases explicitly) encouraged such disregard by virtue of their continuing to minister to republicans.

The period from the truce to the Treaty saw a retreat from this high-point of engagement, with the commencement of formal talks in London welcomed in a statement by the bishops as affording an opportunity for Anglo-Irish reconciliation “by a great act of national freedom untrammelled by limitations, and free from the hateful spite of partition, which could never be anything but a perennial source of discord and fratricidal strife”. Prior to the Dáil debate on the resulting Treaty an anodyne expression of goodwill to all involved was issued, though it is clear from individual statements, made both before and during the parliamentary exchanges, that most bishops supported the text signed in London.

Once the Dáil vote in favour of the Treaty took place in January, the overwhelming majority of the hierarchy came out publicly, and enthusiastically, in support of the agreement, though Byrne, the new Archbishop of Dublin, did help to convene a conference of pro- and anti-Treaty elements in April with a view to effecting a reconciliation between them. Likewise, several bishops in the newly created jurisdiction of Northern Ireland sought a rapprochement between the factions in the months prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.


'Military despotism'

There was specific criticism of the repudiation of Dáil authority by the anti-Treaty section of the IRA in a statement in April, a move condemned as “a claim to military despotism, and subversive of all civil liberty… [and] an immoral usurpation and confiscation of the people’s rights”. With the attack on the Four Courts on June 28, and the deaths of Collins and Griffith in August, all pretence at balance was abandoned and almost the full power of the Church’s temporal and spiritual arsenal was turned on the republicans (although — and this was reflected in the text of the excommunication decree — there remained substantial opposition to the Treaty in the ranks of the ordained in the Church, and the hierarchy was arguably more perturbed by this internal opposition to its authority than by the challenge to the legitimacy of the state posed by the republicans).

The institutional church’s backing of the provisional government at this time took a myriad of forms, some mundane in nature, such as organising workers to assist in clearing local roads where they had been blocked by anti-Treaty forces, but most importantly in the use of the pulpit to preach a doctrine of submission to the civil authority.

The continuation of the war into the autumn made it apparent in the eyes of the bishops that more forceful action was called for. The decree itself was issued on October 10, following the offer of amnesty to its republican adversaries by the provisional government a week earlier and in response to an appeal to the hierarchy by the civil authorities the following day. It was a long document (over 2,000 words in length) and bore clear signs of having been composed at speed as key passages had to be revised prior to being issued in pamphlet form.

It described the ongoing conflict as “a sorrow and a humiliation” to the country, with the opposition to the provisional government being “criminal and suicidal” in nature. Some attempt was made to explain the anarchy with reference to “false notions on social morality” based on the “long struggle of centuries against foreign rule and misrule”, which, the letter stated, had “weakened respect for civil authority in the national conscience”. Vanity, self-conceit, and greed were, however, also deemed to be motivating factors in the republican campaign.

'Guilty of the gravest sins'

At the heart of the controversy surrounding the edict was its invoking of the Divine Law in support of the proposition that none could justifiably claim “that the legitimate authority in Ireland just now is not the Dáil or Provisional Government”, thereby investing the existing (temporary, unsatisfactory, and rather confused) political arrangements with a power almost supernatural in nature. On this basis, it decreed that those who opposed the existing dispensation by illicit means were “guilty of the gravest sins” and were not to “be absolved in Confession, nor admitted to Holy Communion” if they purposed “to persevere in such evil courses”.

Notwithstanding such forceful language, it is doubtful whether the letter had a meaningful effect on the subsequent course of the war, albeit it did alienate a tiny minority of republicans from the church altogether, and induced a larger number to simply ignore such direction where it was deemed to be infringing on the political realm.]

Most republicans were able to access the sacraments via the network of sympathetic clerics, whom the bishops were unable to restrain.

One reason for this lies in one of the most overlooked and misunderstood incidents of the war, one that arguably had more far-reaching consequences than the pastoral letter. In March-April 1923, a legate from Pope Pius XI arrived in Ireland with a brief to gather information. Mistrusted by republicans, but more spectacularly cold-shouldered by a Free State government now on the verge of winning the war, he was especially, and bitterly, disappointed by the refusal of the bishops to assist his mission. He returned to Rome with a message that the hierarchy had, in effect, lost the run of themselves and was comprised of “26 popes”.

The sequel was instructive. One of the first vacancies to appear in the ranks of the hierarchy after the establishment of the Free State occurred in the diocese of Clonfert, and to it was appointed one of the most vocal clerical critics of the Treaty, John Dignan. It was an unmistakable signal from Rome that the partisanship shown by the bishops in the pastoral letter had been a serious mistake, one that “Head Office” would not allow to be repeated. While the bishops remained politically engaged for decades, this sharp rap on the knuckles from on high reminded even these princes of the church that they, too, were not beyond judgement.

Pastoral letter

Any original text that was subsequently amended/deleted is in square brackets.

‘A section of the community, refusing to acknowledge the Government set up by the nation have chosen to attack their own country as if she were a foreign Power They carry on what they call a war, but which, in the absence of any legitimate authority to justify it, is morally only a system of murder and assassination of National forces — for it must not be forgotten that killing in an unjust war is as much murder before God as if there were no war.

The claim is now made that a minority are entitled, when they think it right, to take arms and destroy the National Government. Last April, foreseeing the danger, we raised Our voices in the most solemn manner against this disruptive and immoral principle. … We now again authoritatively renew that teaching and warn our Catholic people that they are conscientiously bound to abide by it, subject of course to an appeal to the Holy See.

No one is justified in rebelling against the legitimate Government, whatever it is, set up by the nation and acting within its rights. No Republican [one] can evade this teaching [in our present case] by asserting that the legitimate authority in Ireland [just now] is not the present Dáil or Provisional Government. [That Government has been elected by the Nation, and is supported by the vast majority of public opinion.] There is no other [Government], and cannot be, outside the body of the people. A Republic without popular recognition behind it is a contradiction in terms.

Such being [the] Divine Law, the guerrilla warfare now being carried on by the Irregulars is without moral sanction, and therefore the killing of National soldiers in the course of its murder before God. … All those who in contravention of this teaching participate in such crimes, are guilty of grievous [the gravest] sins, and may not be absolved in Confession, nor admitted to Holy Communion, if they persist [purpose to persevere] in such evil courses.

It is said that there are [some] priests who approve of this Irregular insurrection. If there be any such, they are false to their sacred office and are guilty of grievous [the gravest] scandal, and will not be allowed to retain the faculties they hold from us. Let it not be said that this our teaching is due to political bias and a desire to help one party. If it [that] were true, we were unworthy of our sacred office. With all earnestness we appeal to the leaders in [of] this saddest revolt Let them not think we are insensible to their feelings — we think of them with compassion We read with horror of the many [unauthorised] murders in the Press.


Gabriel Doherty is a lecturer in Irish history at UCC. 


  – This article was first published in the special Irish Examiner on 9 January 2023 – 

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