The Church of Ireland Gazette’s Perspective on Life in 1950s Ireland
by Dr Marie Coleman
Life in the Ireland of the 1950s was characterised by poor economic performance, high emigration, political instability and social conservatism, and in the north there was a sense calm before the political storm that would emerge in the latter half of the 1960s. All of these developments are chronicled and analysed from the perspective of the Church of Ireland in the pages of its weekly Gazette.
For the Church of Ireland the decade was one of transition. A younger generation of lay people and clergy members came to the fore who had either been born in or spent most of their formative years in the newly independent 26-county Irish state. This new generation of church leaders was epitomised by the swift rise of George Otto Simms, whose appointments first as Dean (1951) and subsequently Bishop of Cork (1952), before his enthronement as Archbishop of Dublin (January 1957), are chronicled throughout the pages of the Gazette during the ’50s.
Simms’s ascendancy coincided with the retirement of one of his equally prominent predecessors, Archbishop John A.F. Gregg. Gregg, described by the Gazette on his retirement from the archbishopric of Armagh in 1959 as ‘as great and good a man as the Church has ever known’ (27 Feb. 1959), had established a pattern, followed by Simms, of encouraging full participation by Protestants in all aspects of life in the new state.
The trappings of links to Britain, which increasingly had less relevance to these younger Protestants, clearly remained of sufficient importance to the Gazette’s older readership, and its northern congregation, that events like the death of King George VI and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II merited prominent coverage with headlines such as ‘God Save the Queen’ (15 February 1952).
Emigration was the most pressing social concern for the Republic throughout the 1950s, and the impact was particularly keenly felt among Protestants whose falling numbers had been of concern for decades. The 15 years between 1946 and 1961 witnessed the largest proportional decline in the Church of Ireland population in independent Ireland, with a reduction of 17% (from 124,829 in 1946 to 104,016 in 1961). While depopulation was a trend that predated independence but escalated during the revolution and immediately afterwards, the decline during the 1950s was not unique to the Church of Ireland – though greater than the national or Catholic equivalents. Emigration, its detrimental impact on the Church and its local communities, and potential solutions to stem it were the subject of a full front-page discussion in the issue of 12 June 1959. The Church’s Sparsely Populated Areas Commission had published a book entitled Careers in Ireland in an effort ‘to do something practical towards keeping young Irish churchpeople at home’, especially in more remote and less-populated rural areas. While lauding the overall effort, the editorial highlighted a central contradiction in that the majority of the publication focused on professional careers that would likely attract young people towards larger urban centres; while they might remain in Ireland, the depopulation of rural parishes would not be reversed: ‘There is no solution to be found in shifting our population, skilled or unskilled, from Roscommon to Rathgar.’
Recognising that the solution to the problem was not an easy one, the Gazette offered some suggestions including ‘Vocational education, the enterprising and courageous investment of capital, [and] the development of rural industries’ as potential avenues for the Church to explore as a ‘means of stopping the rot’. These suggestions echoed some of the proposals of T.K. Whitaker’s Economic Development (published the previous year) and foreshadowed significant reforms to post-primary education provision, capital investment, and the reversal of protectionist economic policies which saw the introduction of many new factories to rural communities during the 1960s.
The 1950s also saw a number of Church-State related controversies that caused grave concern among the dwindling non-Catholic population. At the outset of the decade a community still adapting to life in independent Ireland faced a number of setbacks, beginning with the Tilson child custody case in mid-1950. In the High Court, the conservative Catholic Judge George Gavan Duffy, alluding to the constitutional special position of the Catholic Church, had awarded custody of three children to Mary Tilson, a Catholic and estranged wife of a Church of Ireland member, Ernest Tilson. W.L.M. Giff of the Irish Church Missions voiced concerns, undoubtedly shared by many within the church, when he feared that should the Supreme Court uphold Duffy’s ruling: ‘it will give to one Church privileges which will make the observance of Church of Ireland faith and practice extremely difficult’ (4 Aug. 1950). His concerns were partly realised when the ruling was upheld, though on different grounds.
The opening pages of the Gazette for 11 August 1950, the issue following the Supreme Court decision, was dedicated to a critique of the case by Giff, whose organisation had supported Ernest Tilson’s legal challenge. Giff raised concerns about the implications for Protestants of the constitutional special position of Catholic Church (referenced by Duffy in the High Court but not the basis for the Supreme Court’s decision), but focused mostly on the problems inherent in the prenuptial agreements entered into under Ne Temere. Upholding this agreement, entered into by Ernest Tilson before his marriage to Mary Barnes, was the basis of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
This led Giff to caution young church members about entering into a contract the import of which they could not fully realise until they became parents – ‘Don’t give the promise’. Rather, would-be Church of Ireland grooms were advised to marry within their own denomination, as ‘There are plenty of attractive girls in our Church’. Similarly young single women were encouraged not to allow snobbery and class distinctions to stand in the way of marrying one of their own faith. Parents were likewise charged with the task of inculcating in their children such ‘a deep love for our church [that] … we shall then have no fear of the consequences of mixed marriage’.
These concerns emerged in even sharper focus later in the decade during another infamous child-custody case revolving around Ne Temere, the 1957 Fethard-on-Sea boycott. The boycott of Church-of-Ireland businesses in the south Wexford town, which began after Sheila Cloney’s departure from her family home in April 1957, in an effort to enable her children to be educated in the local Church of Ireland primary school, was first commented upon in the Gazette on 14 June 1957. The lead commentary regretted that while ‘decent and intelligent Roman Catholics feel nothing but shame for what is being done in the name of their Church’, they refused to speak out against it. The affair was to the Gazette yet another example of the problems created by Ne Temere, the only answer to which was ‘the avoidance by our people of social relationships which might lead to mixed marriages’ (12 July 1957).
As the boycott petered out through the autumn of 1957, the Bishop of Ossory, the Rt Revd John Percy Phair, used the letters page to thank all of those, including northern Presbyterians and Methodists, who had contributed to relief funds for the beleaguered Protestant businesses of Fethard (15 Nov. 1957). In a reflection of the Gazette’s all-island remit, its commentary provides a valuable northern perspective on the incident. The ‘Northern Notebook’ correspondent lamented the detrimental impact of the controversy in lending ‘strength to the voices of extremism on this side of the Border’ (21 June 1957).
The exploitation of Fethard for political purposes during the annual twelfth of July ceremonies was also commented upon (19 July 1957). This reflected wider concerns expressed elsewhere in the Gazette about the politicisation of religion in Northern Ireland and the growing volubility of ‘the Ultra Protestant element, the “Union Jack everywhere and no matter crowd”’. It identified the growing influence of ‘a certain Rev. Ian Paisley’ at the forefront of this movement. In a commentary piece entitled ‘A disturbing development’ (24 July 1959) it expressed concern that ‘recent developments in the Northern scene that must cause thinking people to feel a considerable degree of alarm’.
Central to these developments was the growing ‘Paisley movement’, which had ‘tapped and found a response in all the worst elements in negative Protestantism, trading in bigotry, hatred and fear, and attacking everything and everybody in sight’. While it would be another seven years before Paisley’s rising influence would gain considerably from his opposition to nationalist commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966, the Gazette identified his potential at this earlier stage.
Cautioning that his movement could not ‘be written off as easily as Christian charity would like’, it recognised the popularity among working-class unionism of his call for ‘Protestant action’ and opposition to Catholicism: ‘the “anti-Rome” line, run to the extremities of the extreme, certainly rings the bell with a mob section for whom the word “protestantism” is a magic sign that releases a kind of sub-conscious race hatred.’
Church-State controversies in the 1950s are often seen as being epitomised by the Catholic church’s opposition to Dr Noël Browne’s Mother-and-Child Scheme in 1951. The Gazette’s coverage offers a valuable contemporaneous analysis which illustrates the more nuanced nature of this episode. While praising Browne for his dignity, and for ‘doing more to arouse the conscience of the nation than any of his predecessors’, it noted that many Protestant doctors also opposed his scheme and that non-Catholics shared concerns about the growing influence of the State over the individual: ‘We all fear the Leviathan’ (20 April 1951).
Another topical issue, which illustrates that social conservatism was not the preserve of the Catholic church, was censorship. The strictness of literary and film censorship introduced in the Irish Free State in the 1920s is often examined solely from the perspective of how it reflected Catholic attitudes to morality. The Censorship of Publications Board became more active than ever during the 1950s, as it fell increasingly under the influence of members of the lay Catholic organisation, the Knights of St Columbanus; in 1954 alone it banned 1,034 books. The Gazette’s coverage of the issue indicates that support for censorship was not a uniquely Catholic position: ‘We do not quarrel with the Censorship of Publications Act … some form of control of reading matter is necessary’ (2 Mar. 1956). However, it did take issue with the operation of censorship from a characteristically Catholic perspective, influenced by the exclusively Catholic composition of the board between 1949 and 1956.
If coverage of the Tilson and Fethard controversies reflect the church’s awareness of its minority status, coverage of international events reveals its strong sense of belonging to a wider international Anglican community. Of particular interest in this regard is its reporting of the growing opposition within sections of Anglicanism to apartheid policies in South Africa. The growing unease of the central committee of the World Council of Churches with apartheid and the relationship between the apartheid state and the South African Reformed Churches was first reported in the issue of 22 September 1950. The use of religion to justify the racial segregation was particularly galling: ‘South Africa has been coming into the open with its crazy and evil policy, based on a travesty of religion’ (10 December 1954).
The work of prominent lay and clerical opponents of the regime were reported upon, including a lecture by Alan Paton (23 November 1951) which warned about the potential longer-term damage to churches of supporting apartheid. The emergence of Trevor Huddleston as one of the leading clerical critics of the apartheid regime is highlighted through reports of his desire to see South Africa ‘thrown or shown’ out of the Commonwealth and his recall to England in 1956; Huddleston was praised for having a voice ‘courageous enough to speak out boldly against evil.’
Huddleston featured again in the context of other religious leaders campaigning against racial inequality, when his account of a meeting with the Revd Martin Luther King at the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was syndicated from the Observer (12 April 1957). Towards the end of the decade there was a noticeable increase in reports of assaults on black religious leaders and church property as the civil rights movement in the USA gained momentum.
In spite of fears for the future due to declining numbers and the spectre of increasing Catholic influence in political and constitutional circles, a sense of optimism for the future of the church runs through the Gazette during these years. The Revd C. B. Phipps’s reminiscences of the Dublin parish of ‘Crumlin Fifty Years Ago’ (22 September 1950) pointed to the recent construction of a new Church (in 1942) as ‘silencing the pessimistic cry’ that ‘“The Church of Ireland is dying out”’. This article gives a fascinating insight into the history of the church in the working-class parishes of Dublin – many of the congregation were employed in the local brick works (from which the new Church was constructed) and tobacco factories (the land for the new church being donated by the Imperial Tobacco Company). It also illustrates the urbanisation and growing spread of Dublin outwards to encompass what were formerly the rural edges of the city.
From the spring of 1957 the Gazette became enhanced by its inclusion of photographs, making it more visually appealing, and bringing to life the people behind the stories. The last time photographs had been included in its pages was during the First World War when images of clergy who had fallen in the conflict were included in a Roll of Honour, previously highlighted here.
Below is a selection of the images aimed at engaging the reader, as follows: The annual public meeting of the Dublin YMCA, published on 18 April 1957; the aging primate and Archbishop of Armagh, John Gregg, alongside the youthful Archbishop of Dublin, George Otto Simms, at the General Synod in May 1957, and finally the installation of the Governor’s Seat in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, as featured in the edition for 19 July 1957.
The Church of Ireland Gazette offers a valuable contemporary perspective on how Irish Protestants experienced the 1950s. In a decade that saw the zenith of Catholic church influence on Irish politics, fears for the rights of non-Catholics emerge clearly from coverage of controversies such as Tilson and Fethard-on-Sea. Yet, commentary of aspects of social policy such as health care provision and literary censorship indicate that conservative social attitudes were not the exclusive preserve of the Catholic majority.
General economic concerns, especially emigration, were shared as much by Protestants as by the wider population. Although primarily southern-focused, concerns at developments in Northern Ireland would prove to be prescient. Finally, far from having an introverted focus on its own activities, the Gazette’s coverage of international developments, from an Anglican perspective, offers a valuable insight into how a small congregation looked outwards.
Dr Marie Coleman is a Reader in modern Irish history at Queen’s University Belfast (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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Reproduced with permission of the RCB Library, Church of Ireland.