Review of Margaret M. Scull’s The Catholic Church and The Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968-1998 by Victoria Anne Pearson

The Catholic Church and The Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968-1998

Margaret M. Scull, Oxford University Press, 2019


There is a certain shorthand that we have come to expect when discussing the Troubles. It is a parlance dependent on abbreviations: IRA, UVF, NICRA, RUC, SDLP, UUP. The enormity and gravitas of the conflict can demand that we simplify the main actors into comprehensive and manageable categories. Under these defined, condensed titles, all those affiliated to an organisation are seen as a homogenous group, adhering consistently to the fundamental principles of a movement, blocks of resistance or defence, who, inevitably, are fated to rise and fall together. The confines of this approach often appear to define the Catholic Church during the recent conflict; its institutionalism seems to epitomise this standardisation. Current scholarship has begun to dispel many these accepted definitions regarding some of the conflicts’ main protagonists. In this effort to widen the scope of the Troubles narrative, Margaret Scull’s research analysis considers the structure, complexities and personalities that defined the Catholic Church throughout the years of conflict and sweeping social change from its outbreak in 1968 to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In doing so, Scull tests the norms associated with the historiography of the Troubles revealing that the influence, impact and direction of religious institutions warrants close reassessment and evaluation in any meaningful discussion of the past and indeed future of a post conflict society.

The importance of the Catholic Church as an institution cannot be underestimated as even nominal membership of the Church was the defining religious but also social, cultural and indeed political identity of one side of the conflict. “Catholic” in the same way as “Protestant” was used as a catch-all term to demarcate two, diametrically opposed, socio-economic communities. Yet, throughout the Troubles, membership of the Catholic Church crossed class and social divides as Catholics joined both political focused constitutional nationalised groups and physical force republican organisations. Concurrently, Catholics were also members of the defence forces and the apparatus of the state. The institutional Church, at this time, was also struggling to modernise and was affected by changes to doctrine with the introduction of Humanae Vitae in 1968 and the growing popularity of Liberation Theory. Therefore, the Church’s response to the violence and devastation at both grassroots level and from the institutional hierarchy was always going to be problematic. As Scull argues, the Church appeared to develop a “carrot and stick” or a public and private strategy; unequivocally condemning violence yet struggling not to isolate Catholics who actively or even casually supported Republicanism or who had family members that did. It is in this battle for the hearts and minds of the Catholic community that Scull explores and the experiences of the clergy who were at the coalface of the conflict. Priests such as Bishop Edward Daly and Mgr. Denis Faul witnessed deadly street violence. Fr. Brian McCeesh and Fr. Oliver Crilly provided pastoral care and also familial support to their own relatives on hunger strike.  Certainly, the clergy often mediated both locally and nationally providing formal and, at times, informal channels for negotiation. It is in this reflective understanding of a subtle and ambiguous power play that Scull’s thorough research comes into its own. Scull argues, to great effect, the pervasiveness of the clergy in Catholic communities especially in the early years of the conflict and acutely during the Hunger Strikes exposed them to and impressed upon them the urgency for committing to a resolution to the conflict.

This exploration of the Church’s agency, privately and publicly, defines Scull’s study. Throughout the book, there is a detailed investigation into the relationship between the mainstream media and its popular portrayal of the Catholic Church. Scull focuses on Church involvement in significant civil disobedience such as the anti-internment protest and subsequent census boycotts, the overall Civil Rights Movement and its response to the break in the 1972 IRA ceasefire. These are presented as flashpoints that demonstrate a divergence in the motivating factors between the local and national press both in Ireland and the UK. In this discussion, Scull teases out how media coverage influenced and affected the relationship between the Church in Northern Ireland and the English Catholic clergy and added to mounting tensions regarding the national boundaries of sections of the clergy. The stresses on this relationship were magnified during the 1981 Hunger Strikes where issues surrounding the Church’s stance on suicide, medical intervention, Republican funerals and even proposed excommunication led to a contentious dialogue both inside and outside the Church. Scull shows that the magnitude of Republican Hunger strikes reveals the relationship between the Church and the British Government and highlights that a muted formal response from the Church was not always the full story. Scull considers Vatican policy, the Thatcher government and the Church’s popular image in an exploration of the clerical personalities that emerged at this time. The divergence in private opinion is exemplified in the disparate yet complimentary dispositions of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich and his successor Bishop Cahal Daly. Their relationship, in many ways, defined the Catholic community during the Troubles. Ó Fiaich’s characterised in his strong outspoken and, at times, defiant nature as opposed to Daly’s quiet resilience and cautious, conservative tones.  In some ways, these men balanced the leadership of the Church and Scull shows effectively how their governance characterised the evolution of Church thinking, leadership and debate throughout the years of violence and later, tentative peace.

In this study, Scull has, tantalisingly, only scratched the surface of the Catholic Church’s influence and impact in this era. Closed archives, GDPR and the legacy of the Boston College tape scandal has meant that vital material necessary to illuminate the full extent of the narrative is still not available. This lack of access to source material, frustratingly hinders, Scull turning her skill and attention to a discussion of the internal mechanisms of the Catholic Church as an All-Ireland entity and its relationship with the Irish state in the late 20th century.  Shrewdly, however, Scull makes use of, for the most part, untouched material, primarily in the UK National Archives particularly , Thatcher’s Papers, governmental and religious sources and the UK newspaper archives contributing a rare insight into such controversial episodes as:  Thatcher’s meeting with Pope John Ireland II, the Catholic Church’s contribution to the New Ireland Forum and media condemnation of the Enniskillen Bombing. Scull is acutely aware of the difficult subject matter that she is accessing and her considerate treatment of first-hand testimony and memoir embody her work. Indeed, her own archive of interviews and meetings are themselves now a valued resource as Scull recorded several conversations with important Church figures principally Bishop Daly before his passing in 2016. Also, in terms of her contribution to the historical source material, Scull’s appendix of “Important Figures” provides a crucial groundwork structure which enriches, streamlines and gives ease of access to fellow Troubles scholars. Her detailed and comprehensive bibliography provides the same. In all, the merits of Scull’s work speak for themselves. This book is a must for all those who wish to explore a wider, comprehensive and diversified history of the conflict. Certainly, if this book is an indicator of future work, with Scull mentioning forth coming projects on grief, Republican Funerals and the Catholic Church in a post-GFA society, she will, no doubt, continue to contribute significantly to the overall reassessment of the Catholic Church in modern Ireland.

Victoria Anne Pearson is a PhD candidate in University College Cork. Her research focuses on the life and work of the Catholic Bishop of Cork, Dr Francis Moylan, 1735-1815 with a particular focus on the creation and popularity of Popular Devotions and Social Movements such as: Catholic Poor School Education and Catholic Emancipation. Her research interests include: the evolution of identity in a divided society, alternative voices and their response to the State and subcultures and their impact on defining Modern Ireland. Her work has been published by the History Studies Journal, Women’s History Association of Ireland, Writing the Troubles Blog and RTÉ Brainstorm.