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The State in Transition

Essays in Honour of John Horgan
Kevin Rafter & Mark O’Brien
New Island


From 'Facile ignorance' and 'wild wild women': Religion, Journalism and Social Change in Ireland 1961-1979 by Mark O'Brien

... by the mid-1960s the newsman had become a new kind of expert, a critic of society as he saw it, imbued with an intellectual and political ambition. Although to a great extent this has gone almost unnoticed, the truth is that it involved a radical and qualitative change whereby the newspaper became more like the magazine and the journalist was transformed into a commentator.

Bishop Jeremiah Newman, 1977

It is no exaggeration to say that, over the course of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church was the predominant institution in the Irish state. Taoisigh, governments, political parties, and media organisations came and went, but the Catholic Church was eternal. Indeed, it pre-dated the state and, in the immediate aftermath of independence and civil war, it became the institution that politicians and the public looked to for guidance, continuity and normality. In a state that was, in faith terms, overwhelmingly Catholic, the Church was omnipresent and omniscient. It effectively ran the healthcare, education and social welfare sectors, and many issues - among them divorce, contraception, and adoption

-    were legislated for through the prism of Catholic teaching. Where, one may reasonably ask, did journalism sit amid this relationship between Church and state? And how did this relationship alter over time? Not neglecting the fact that the Church itself was active in the media world, this chapter presents an overview of the changing dynamics of the relationship between the Church and journalism between 1961 and 1979 and argues that in any analysis of this relationship, three phenomena loom large — the advent of a national broadcaster obliged by law to be fair and impartial in its coverage of news and current affairs, the SecondVatican Council, and the emergence of a more strident form of female journalism.

Setting the tone

In one of the few self-critical reflections on journalism in early to mid-twentieth century Ireland, journalist Michael O'Toole observed that up to the 1960s journalists were generally 'a docile lot, anxious to please the proprietor, the advertiser, the prelate, the statesman'. The era was, he argued, characterised by 'an unhealthy willingness to


accept the prepared statement, the prepared speech, and the handout without demanding the opportunity of asking any searching questions by way of follow-up'. The fundamental defect of Irish journalism during this time was, he concluded, 'its failure to apply critical analysis to practically any aspect of Irish life'. In his analysis, O'Toole put forward several reasons for this journalistic stagnation. These included what he described as 'the general paralysis that afflicted Irish society during those years', the lack of commitment and resources on the part of newspaper proprietors, the effects of wartime censorship, and the fact that the majority of Irish journalists were poorly educated, poorly motivated and poorly paid.

The 'general paralysis' mentioned by O'Toole was caused by the mostly unchallenged power wielded by some political parties and the Catholic Church. In 1929 the Church had ensured the passing of the Censorship of Publications Act that sanitised literature and certain aspects of journalism and in 1951 the Church paralysed the political establishment with its opposition to the Mother and Child healthcare scheme.

This power was underlined by the ownership structure of the newspaper industry, the proprietors of which, as O'Toole noted, did not overly resource their newspapers. During this period most mainstream newspapers were effectively the organs or semi-organs of political parties or interest groups. While Fianna Fail had the uncritical support of the Irish Press, Fine Gael was supported by the business-oriented Irish Independent, and both these newspapers were wholly uncritical of the Catholic Church. As one Irish Independent journalist put it:


You wrote 'nice' copy and nice copy meant the sub-editors did not have to entertain qualms about letting it through. It was eminently suitable to the era when the Catholic Church exerted an influence in Irish life that was awesome and it extended into what went into the papers and what stayed out ... Those who made it to the top had an uncanny perception of what did not ruffle the feathers of the Hierarchy or bring blushes to the faces of the 'good nuns' as we invariably seemed to describe them.



Things were little better at the Irish Press, where, as one journalist recalled, any mention of breast-feeding was bound to be edited beyond recognition:

An epidemic of gastro-enteritis was killing babies by the hundred in Dublin. I interviewed a woman doctor who told me that the death rate could be slashed, the epidemic halted, perhaps, if only mothers would breast-feed their children. The assistant editor of the newspaper changed the phrase 'breast-feeding' to 'feeding the children themselves'. When I protested, he said: 'That other phrase is indelicate'. When I said his alternative was confusing, and reminded him that lives were at stake, he walked away.'Feeding

the children themselves' it was. The blinds were as thick as that.'

It is important to note that the Church's position was also buttressed by lay-owned weekly newspapers such as the Irish Catholic and The Standard. In a review of these publications in 1945, one critic (Conor Cruise O'Brien) expressed the view that, since Ireland was an important provider of missionaries, both publications were 'weapons in a world battle' rather than reflections of Irish Catholic opinion. The Catholicism of the average Irishman was neither as 'demonstrative nor aggressive' as that reflected in the two papers and the 'long tirades against Communism' were, he asserted, 'about as real as an outburst of anti-Semitism on the Blasket Islands'. Established in 1888, the Irish Catholic was 'a conservative-national organ, supporting the Irish Hierarchy in their corporate decisions on all religious and political matters'.The Standard, which first appeared in 1928, was equally devoted to the Church line, and never missed an opportunity to warn its readers about the dangers of communism. In one edition, the paper, described by one writer as 'a rabidly right-wing and quite influential lay Catholic paper', condemned the library of the Irish Bakers' Union because it contained books written by Karl Marx and James Connolly. Was the cost of buying such books, it enquired,'included in the price of bread?’