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Review by Fr Patrick McCafferty of John Cooney's Biography of Archbishop McQuaid

[ This review is interesting in that Fr. McCafferty does not linger on Cooney's sex allegations but states that the book is of no enduring value in the study of a complex and fascinating period in Irish history. ALL reviewers have dismissed the paedophilia claims as nonsence but most seem to believe that if you ignore those nasty bits, it's a good biography. (This is the attitude that says; "But apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play"!)

Rory Connor
30 June 2008 ]

Ambition to build a truly Catholic state - reviewed by Fr Patrick McCafferty

Irish News, 13 December 1999

For almost 40 years Ireland was dominated by two great figures, John Charles McQuaid and Eamon de Valera. Between them they held authority over people’s lives, even at the most intimate levels...

John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland by John Cooney published by O’Brien Press price: £25.00

HAVING finished reading John Cooney’s biography of Archbishop McQuaid, I am reminded of a very salient point made recently by Dr Martin Mansergh, special adviser to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, in an article featured in the December edition of the Ferns Diocesan Bulletin The Forum. Dr Mansergh wrote: “The new commandment seems to be: ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour, living or dead, unless of course it would help to sell books or newspapers’.”

Unfortunately some journalists turned historians, and I am speaking of a minority, have not a notion of the first principles of historical evidence, for example, that you do not treat hearsay material collected by a sworn enemy as gospel or indeed any other sort of truth, indeed you treat it with the greatest reserve.

John Cooney’s book tells an interesting story, rich in anecdotes, about the life and times of Dr McQuaid. It is by no means, however, an objective appraisal of Archbishop McQuaid’s extensive influence and his enormous contribution to the Irish Catholic Church. Such a definitive book remains to be written and a man of Archbishop McQuaid’s calibre deserves such a treatment.

John Charles McQuaid was Archbishop of Dublin from 1940-1972. It has to be said in favour of Mr Cooney’s book that we do get, from time to time, a fairly good picture of the man of flesh and blood.

According to his confrere, the eminent theologian Michael O’Carroll, Dr McQuaid was “gifted but flawed”. He was clearly a man of tremendous talent and vast ability. As president of Blackrock College, he showed himself to be dynamic, successful and an excellent administrator. He was viewed with a certain awe and held in great respect by the students. He could be the very essence of charm and politeness.

On the first day of the Eucharistic Congress on June 21 1932, as 23,000 people gathered in the grounds of Blackrock College for a garden party, a young Jesuit novice Roland Burke Savage, recalls being received by Dr McQuaid with the same exquisite courtesy with which he had received cardinals, archbishops and ministers of state.

Bob Geldof’s father remembers him as “a likeable man with a tough face and a quiet manner”. A former pupil, Ciaran Nuallin, found him to be a “friendly, sociable, learned man with a good sense of humour”.

 It should, of course, come as no surprise to anyone that the weaknesses and limitations of fallen human nature can also be found in Dr McQuaid. He could be morose, arrogant, bad-tempered and incommunicable with his colleagues and others. He wrote in his private notebook near his 27th birthday: “Lord Jesus, save me from a bitter tongue. Often and often, I sin by sarcasm and irony”. He accuses himself of wounding fraternal charity and making life hard for those around him. He is described as a “control freak”.  Few would dispute that he was autocratic and authoritarian.

Much of John Cooney’s biography of Dr McQuaid is taken up with relaying all the jiggery-pokery that went on behind the scenes of ecclesiastical and political life. Some of what he recounts smacks too much of tittle tattle.

This biography of Archbishop McQuaid is too much laden with Mr Cooney’s own agenda to be of any enduring value in the study of a complex and fascinating period in Irish history, both ecclesiastical and political. The science of history demands objectivity and balance, otherwise it becomes mere propaganda.

The singular downfall of John Cooney’s biography of Dr McQuaid is the failure to be impartial. When historians fail to treat their study in a fair and balanced manner, they quite simply cease to be engaged in what can honestly be termed the discipline of history.

Undoubtedly, in view of the scandals in recent years and particularly the evil abuse and mistreatment of children and vulnerable persons, the institution of the Church must be open to an honest critique and there is need for self-evaluation. We must be prepared to listen to just reproach and learn from the past. John Cooney’s book, however, is not a constructive contribution to that process. Therefore, we should treat what Mr Cooney has written about Archbishop McQuaid “with the greatest reserve”.