Sunday, May 12, 2024

Cross Michael: the bishop who took on the Mother & Child Scheme (Opinion)

Opinion: The Bishop of Galway Michael Browne's clerical career reveals much about the Catholic Church's changing influence in 20th century Ireland.

When considering the skyline of modern Galway, the impressive vista of Galway Cathedral looms large. Completed between 1958 and 1965, the cathedral is the most visible legacy of Michael Browne, the Bishop of Galway from 1937 to 1976.

Born in 1895 into a middle-class family in Westport, Co. Mayo, Browne served as Professor of Moral Theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary, Maynooth, before being appointed bishop of the western diocese. 

He was an important figure in the Irish Catholic hierarchy at a time when the influence of the Catholic Church over state and society in independent Ireland was at its height. 

His period as bishop witnessed the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) in which he participated, as well as many changes in Irish society.

Yet Browne’s significance in the Catholic Church’s role in 20th century Irish society is obscured by the popular focus on John Charles McQuaid, the Archbishop of Dublin from 1940 to 1971.

While McQuaid’s biographer, John Cooney, described the Archbishop as the "ruler of Catholic Ireland", this ignores the importance of other members of the Irish hierarchy in the period, such as Cardinal D’Alton of Armagh, who was McQuaid’s ecclesiastical senior. 

Browne’s importance is also shrouded by McQuaid’s long shadow.

The downfall of the Mother and Child Scheme in 1951 has often been identified as a clash between the Minister for Health, Dr Noël Browne (no relation of Bishop Browne) and McQuaid. 

A free health care measure for mothers and children proposed by the Minister for Health, it attracted strong opposition from the Catholic hierarchy, who viewed it as "socialised medicine" and argued that attempts to expand the state’s role in the area of healthcare had the potential to erode clerical control of Catholic hospitals. 

It eventually led to Noël Browne’s resignation as minister.

But the former government minister suggested in his autobiography Against the Tide that his episcopal namesake, Michael Browne, was more important in the Scheme’s eventual failure than McQuaid, implying that Michael Browne had "manipulated" McQuaid "with much skill" into opposing the proposal. 

Browne was certainly a caustic opponent of the Scheme in his public pronouncements, declaring that it "reminds one of the claims put forward by Hitler and Stalin. These enemies of Christ claimed power over the bodies of their subjects and they exercised that power in their clinics and concentration camps".

The bishop was memorably described by Noël Browne in Against the Tide as "a big man, well over six foot tall, his height enhancing the long black soutane with its thousand and one pea-size scarlet buttons". 

His outspokenness, illustrated by statements such as the one above, was noted as one of his defining characteristics. He earned the popular nickname "Cross Michael", a play on both his outspoken reputation and the traditional practice of bishops to draw a cross before their signatures.

He had a deep interest in social issues. Close to Fianna Fáil, he was appointed by Éamon de Valera to chair the Commission of Vocational Organisation, set up by De Valera in 1939 to consider proposals to restructure Irish society by introducing corporatist organisations based on Catholic social principles. 

Under Browne, the Commission produced several reports in the early 1940s which were ultimately never implemented.

In Galway itself, Browne was deeply concerned about public morality, and historian James S. Donnelly has highlighted his frequent condemnations of public drunkenness at the Galway Races and his opposition to members of both sexes bathing together in Salthill as prominent examples in this regard. 

He oversaw the construction of many new churches in the diocese, Galway Cathedral being the most striking example. 

In contrast to many of his flock, he was supportive of efforts to provide housing to members of Galway’s travelling community, strongly condemning vigilante attacks on travellers in the Rahoon and Shantalla areas of Galway City in 1969 and 1970.

Browne also had a keen interest in international affairs, particularly the global expansion of communism after the second World War. 

During the early days of the Cold War, he joined Catholics across the world in condemning the house imprisonments of Cardinal József Mindszenty of Hungary and Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac of Yugoslavia by their countries’ respective communist governments. 

He defended anti-communist crusader Senator Joseph McCarthy and warned Irish Catholics in Britain to avoid the Connolly Association, a left-wing Irish organisation in Britain with communist links.

The final years of Browne’s time as bishop were marked by the growth of secular and modernising forces within Irish society. 

Like his colleague McQuaid, he was unused to the increased questioning the Irish Catholic Church encountered from the 1960s onwards. 

A few months before his death, Browne, joined by dignitaries including his successor, Bishop Eamon Casey, dined privately with Pope John Paul II on the occasion of the Pope’s 1979 visit to Galway.

While his period as bishop is extensively chronicled in his papers held at the Galway Diocesan Archives, Browne is an understudied figure whose clerical career reveals much about the Church’s changing influence over state and society in 20th century Ireland.