Put on the khaki

Shayla Walmsley reviews The Catholic Church in Ireland, 1914—1918: War and politics, by Jérôme aan de Wiel, Irish Academic Press, £35 hbk

FINDING DOCUMENTS no-one has unearthed before is as good as it gets for a PhD student. If you get to restore lost protagonists to history into the bargain, so much the better. Lucky Jérôme aan de Wiel.

His argument is this: that the Church, by turning away from war after its initial jingoism, determined the future of Irish history. Subsequent Church backing for Sinn Fein’s position saw the Nationalists’ star fade fast and De Valera’s rise. “The alliance of the Catholic Church with the people,” writes Wiel, “had produced a new nationalism, no longer constitutional, but popular, religious, and almost revolutionary.”

But Wiel also makes some rather more tenuous claims for Church influence. Where were the priests in 1916? Giving Last Rites. But what Wiel sees as an act of heroism some would see as just part of the job description.

On republican politics – and Sinn Fein politicking -- he’s considerably better. His material on the conscription crisis of 1918, and on de Valera’s taking credit for dissuading the Brits from enforcing conscription in Ireland, is compelling. Just as the Church would never have accepted enforced conscription for fear of isolating itself, de Valera saw his chance “to play the Catholic card.”

Given how well he deals with politicians, Wiel is strangely stingy with motivation. A detailed chapter on the Irish College in Rome, for example, leaves you wondering why any of these men acted as they did. The ecclesiastical intrigue is less than, well, intriguing.

Wiel is sensitive to the nuance and symbolism inherent in the language of his sources. And compared with the current trend for histories to be long on exposé and short on evidence, you have to be grateful for his more-than-passing familiarity with primary sources. With 28 pages of notes and 11 of bibliography, he’s nothing if not thorough, but you’d be surprised to find even a fellow scholar queuing for a glimpse at the Latin Diocesan records.

That, in the end, is the problem with The Catholic Church in Ireland: the (lack of) editing. The editor has been insufficiently brutal. A more confident one might have done away with shopping-list detail and almost comically poetic phrases: ‘on the morrow’, ‘for’ instead of ‘because’. One less concerned with the sell would have dispensed with a largely superfluous chapter on Easter 1916. One more concerned with the sell would have excised masses of irrelevant detail (irrelevant here, at least) on, for example, Irish-Argentines.

That said, this is a scholarly work -- and one, perhaps, primarily for scholars -- but a contribution nonetheless. Future doctoral researchers might well pick up on a claim Wiel has not the space to develop: that the First World War made the gap between Catholics and Protestants, as he describes it, “unbridgeable”.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2003-12-23 19:58:42.
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