Dr Thomas Morrissey, himself a Jesuit priest, has chosen for his latest work of historical biography one of the foremost Jesuit proponents of the Catholic Action Movement in Ireland between the War of Independence and the Second World War.
His choice is justified.
Cahill’s role in that era is well known as a founder of An Ríoghacht (The League of the Kingship of Christ)
and as a member of the Jesuit committee established to have an input
into the drafting of the 1937 constitution, Bunreacht na h-Éireann.
But much less is known of Cahill the man and Cahill the thinker.
Morrissey’s title is indicative of the books perspective – an
examination of the Irish society in which Cahill found himself and which
he sought to Christianise rather than an intimate portrait of Cahill
His life’s aim was to create in Ireland a fully Christian state –
which for Cahill meant a fully Catholic state. Protestantism was part of
Ireland’s problem and not part of the solution in any sense.
a pure Christian Ireland under siege from all sides – from atheistic
bolshevism, from liberal capitalism, from ideological socialism, and
from a Judaeo- Masonic world conspiracy against Christianity.
Cahill himself believed in an atavistic, agricultural Ireland where
materialism and immorality would be kept in check by a Catholic Church
in close alliance with a Catholic corporatist state of the type
envisaged in Quadragessimo Anno.
In this view-point, Cahill was by no
means alone. Perhaps he was highly unusual in the intensity of his
commitment to Catholic social doctrine and in his intellectual
belligerence towards those who opposed the implementation of the
Church’s social thinking.
The claims made by Cahill for pre-eminence of Catholic social
teachings and their right to be implemented in societies in which the
Catholic Church was influential were, of course, standard orthodoxy of
Thus, Cahill urged De Valera to make a “definite break with the
Liberal and non-Christian type of state” that had been “forced on us by a
foreign, non-Catholic power”.
His target in that request was the Constitution of the Irish Free
State, a document drafted by a team which included Michael Collins.
commentators, then or since, have acknowledged the radical republicanism
(even allowing for the trappings of dominion status) of the 1922
Constitution which scrupulously avoided any hint of Catholic
confessionalism, prohibited state endowment of any religion, and
asserted that all powers of government and all authority, legislative,
executive and judicial, in the state were derived from the people of
Ireland to whom all lawful authority comes from God.
No attempt, such as that clumsily made in Article 44 of the 1937
Constitution, was made in 1922 to acknowledge any special position for
the Catholic Church.
Alfred O’Rahilly, another noted Catholic thinker, had unsuccessfully
attempted persuade his fellow members of the drafting committee in 1922
to “catholicise” the Free State’s Constitution.
Cahill, for instance, was deeply disappointed by the failure of the
1937 Constitution to acknowledge the Catholic Church as the “One, True
Church”, and even went so far as to describe the use of the term ‘Church
of Ireland’ in Article 44 in reference to the Anglican Christian church
as “authoritative approval of a piece of lying propaganda”.
disappointment was not unique; it was shared in the Vatican and by
But De Valera’s Catholicism was tempered by his republicanism. He
inscribed his gift to Cahill of the text of the 1937 Constitution with a
note which very politically referred to the same tensions as follows:
“To Father Cahill, with regards and thanks for his kind help and
inspiration and regrets that the Draft could not be nearer to the
Framework of a Christian State. Eamon de Valera, 1.V.37”.
The words ‘Framework of a Christian State’ were intended to refer
back to Cahill’s magnum opus published under that title in 1932, a tome
of more than 600 pages, setting out the historical and doctrinal basis
of the Catholic Church’s social doctrines. It was very much a work of
its time. I printed down the text of The Framework and found it a
fascinating companion while reading Dr Morrissey’s biography of Cahill.
In The Framework’s pages, Cahill expounded the dangers of Modernism,
Liberalism, Protestantism, Capitalism, Bolshevism Socialism, Judaism and
Freemasonry both internationally and to the Irish state. These threats
to Catholic Christianity underlined the need for Ireland to adopt a new
social system based largely on peasant proprietor agriculture in a
vocationalist social order.
Interestingly, The Framework attacks contraception as “race suicide”
and asserts a model of the family as that propounded in the encyclical
Casti Conubii, an institution in which the husband was by nature the
The Framework also asserts the educational rights of the Church
(itself a “perfect society”) within civil society, condemning
non-Catholic education for Catholics and supporting the hierarchy’s ban
on Catholics attending Trinity College.
The colleges of the NUI were
only just about acceptable for Catholics notwithstanding their
non-denominational character, and only because of special arrangements
to safeguard the faith and morals of Catholics attending them.
Dr Morrissey follows the Jesuit career of Cahill, in all its trials
and tribulations and brushes with ecclesial authority, from his days in
Mungret, his chronic ill-health, his sympathy for the Volunteers, his
regard for De Valera’s side in the Civil War, his founding of An
Ríoghacht, and his political campaigning for Catholic Action.
Although Cahill was perhaps slightly less extreme in his very real
obsession with Judaism and Masonry than his Holy Ghost counterpart, the
infamous Fr Denis Fahey, it is clear that he, like so many Catholics of
his day, identified Jews, Masons and Communists as allies in an
onslaught on Christianity.
In the post-1929 crash world of the 1930s,
anti-semitism was rife.
Franco was not the only Catholic in Europe to identify Liberalism
with the Judaeo-Masonic-Communist conspiracy against European
Dr Morrissey touches on the slightly intellectually snobbish and
condescending attitude adopted by the Jesuit establishment to Cahill’s
sometimes simplistic enthusiasms; they saw perhaps that he was a man
whose education was limited in scope and, in their view, that he was
lacking in savoir faire.
Dr Morrissey acknowledges that, from a 21st-Century perspective,
Cahill may have achieved little. But he also points out that Cahill was a
remarkable man for his time and of his time.
This biography is a good and rewarding read. It reminds us of the
dramatic changes that have swept away so much of Cahill’s world which
was at its hey-day just a life ago.