The Catholic Church and the Irish Civil War


While the Catholic Church became one of the most prominent pro-treaty organizations in the country, some religious people offered support to the anti-treaty side during the Civil War, as Brian Heffernan explains.

Despite the omnipresence of the Catholic Church in Irish society, our picture of its role during the revolutionary era is still incomplete. The perspectives and involvement of nuns in particular have only recently begun to attract the attention of historians.

Irish Catholic bishops and their approximately 3,800 priests shared many of the political views of their lay compatriots during the revolution, but constitutional issues were never more important to them than social and cultural issues. Their main concern was that whatever the constitutional outcome of the conflict, the social policies of the new state should be based on Catholic teaching and the catechetical and pastoral mission of the Church should be safeguarded.

Pope Benedict XV circa 1920. The pope sent congratulatory telegrams when the treaty was ratified. Photo: The Print Collector/The Print Collector/Getty Images

For the hierarchy and many members of the clergy, the Anglo-Irish treaty signed on December 6, 1921 seemed quite satisfactory. Eamon de Valera’s lobbying persuaded the episcopate not to explicitly endorse the treaty in its statement of December 13, 1922, but individual bishops and numerous priests subsequently preached sermons, wrote letters, made visitations and chaired local meetings to urge TDs to vote for him. After the treaty was ratified on January 7, 1922, Pope Benedict XV sent congratulatory telegrams to Cardinal Michael Logue of Armagh, as well as to the Dáil and King George V.

Support for the Provisional Government

In the months that followed, the clerics took various initiatives to avert a civil war between the pro- and anti-treaty parties. Archbishop Edward Byrne of Dublin, together with the Lord Mayor of Dublin, organized a conference attended by Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, Éamon de Valera and Cathal Brugha at Mansion House in April 1922, but to no avail.

Edward Byrne, Archbishop of Dublin (c. 1930)
Edward Byrne, Archbishop of Dublin, circa 1930. He tried to avoid civil war. Photo © RTÉ Photographic Archives

In the meantime, the leadership of the anti-treaty camp was shifting from politicians to military. The bishops issued a declaration on April 26, 1922 affirming that the legitimacy lay in the Dáil and the provisional government acting together and rejecting the right of the army to operate independently of the civil power. The strategy of supporting the caretaker government paid off immediately, as the cabinet sought comments from the hierarchy on sections of the draft constitution of the Irish Free State.

The Catholic Church has become one of the largest pro-treaty organizations in the country. Some clerics criticized the Collins–de Valera Pact of May 1922 because it would lead to an overrepresentation of the anti-treaty vote in the June 1922 general election. Others aided the Provisional Government and its army at the local level. Bishop Bernard Coyne of Elphin, for example, spent a night at Sligo Courthouse in July 1922 as a human shield to prevent Republican forces from bombing the building, which was occupied by the National Army.

Anti-treaty clerics

But the anti-treaty side has never been without clerical support. Historian Patrick Murray found 582 recorded clergymen to be involved in pro-treaty politics and 176 in anti-treaty politics. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, some priests appeared on Republican platforms or nominated anti-Treaty candidates for election.

Father Albert Bibby (left) and Father Dominic O'Connor both wear priests' robes, circa 1920. In the background is a church, most likely the Capuchin Friary and Church Street Church in Dublin .
Father Albert Bibby (left) and Father Dominic O’Connor circa 1920. In the background is a church, most likely the Capuchin Friary and Church Street Church in Dublin. Photo © RTÉ Photographic Archives

Clerics also ministered to the IRA, and they continued to do so after the outbreak of the Civil War on June 28, 1922. Among the priests with a strong public profile as Republicans were the Capuchin friars Dominic O ‘Connor and Albert Bibby and Professor Maynooth Pádraig de Brun.

Public Safety Act

The most significant intervention of the bishops during the civil war took place in October 1922. The conflict had turned into guerrilla warfare by August 1922, and the public security law of September 1922 heralded the introduction of a counter-strategy harsh by the government, for which he was seeking moral sanction from the Church in a statement. The bishops complied on October 10, 1922 with a surprisingly bellicose pastoral letter.

They declared the Dáil and Provisional Government the legitimate authority, barred anyone engaged in guerrilla warfare from receiving the sacraments, threatened priests who endorsed the “irregular insurrection” with suspension, and lamented the “unauthorized killings that is, murders by Republicans.

Pastoral Letter from the Irish Bishops in 1922
The cover page of the “surprisingly bellicose” October 1922 pastoral letter. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

A later official version of the text dropped the word “unauthorized”, as it implied that certain killings were permissible, but also emphasized more clearly that penitents should repudiate, not just abstain, from guerrilla warfare. This meant that chaplains were required to refuse absolution to Republican prisoners who defended their views on the morality of the IRA campaign.

The letter completely demolished the legitimacy of the anti-treaty position from an official Catholic point of view, and it provided moral justification for the government to enforce the penalties provided for in the Public Safety Act.


Although some bishops seemed unfazed by the policy of executions, others were taken aback by its ferocity and privately appealed for clemency. An intervention by Archbishop Byrne was credited with ending the extrajudicial retaliatory shooting of prisoners after the murders of Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joe McKelvey on December 8, 1922. But overall , the episcopal protests remained a dead letter. WT Cosgrave told Byrne in November 1922 that the government’s harsh actions were “in the spirit of the solemn teaching” of the bishops.

Cosgrove and a group of bishops
WT Cosgrave insisted that the 1922 executions “were” in the spirit of the solemn teaching “of the bishops”. This photo shows Archbishop Dr John Harty (left) Archbishop Edward Byrne (centre), Louise Cosgrave and WT Cosgrave attending a garden party to celebrate the centenary of Catholic Emancipation at Blackrock College, Dublin on Wednesday June 19, 1929. Photo © RTÉ Photographic Archive

The October Pastoral enraged Republican Catholics, who felt that bishops had no right to obedience in political matters and criticized their public silence on executions and atrocities committed by the national army. These grievances did not lead to widespread Republican alienation from Catholicism, and this was due in part to the continued ministry of anti-treaty priests. In addition to individual priests who offered clandestine support, groups of sympathetic priests existed in some dioceses and religious orders.

Moreover, Catholic Republicans not only asserted their right to hold political opinions without episcopal direction, but these opinions were frequently fused with religious beliefs about the importance of sacrifice and moral regeneration. Far from rejecting Catholicism, they criticized the bishops on their religious terms.

Papal intervention

Republicans also took comfort in the Holy See’s apparent reluctance to endorse episcopal restrictions. Irish College Republican rector John Hagan facilitated the presentation of an anti-treaty petition to Pope Pius XI in December 1922.

Pope Pius XI
Pope Pius XI, who became pope in 1922. Photo: Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images

The Vatican was reinventing itself as a champion of world peace through diplomacy, and Pius saw Ireland as a fitting stage for papal good offices. In March 1923 he sent Curial official and former Maynooth teacher Salvatore Luzio to Ireland as an apostolic visitor on a conciliatory mission. The bishops and the government also resented Luzio’s presence, and anyway he had little to do, as the anti-treaty campaign was then on the verge of collapse. He left at the request of the government in May 1923, a few days before the end of the war, but his contacts with the Republicans reinforced their confidence in their own legitimacy.

The appointment of anti-Treaty priest Jean Dignan as Bishop of Clonfert in 1924 was an early harbinger of the Church’s withdrawal from its exclusive alliance with the pro-Treaty party. De Valera’s pragmatic turn in the late 1920s then paved the way for a rapprochement with Fianna Fáil.

This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its content does not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.


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