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Champion of the Gaeilgeoirí: John Charles McQuaid and the Irish-language mass

  • James P. Bruce (a1)


In 1963 the Second Vatican Council voted overwhelmingly to introduce the vernacular into Roman Catholic worship. The Irish hierarchy decided that both Irish and English speakers should be catered for in the reformed liturgy. Within a few years John Charles McQuaid, archbishop of Dublin, had gained a widespread reputation as having gone further than his fellow bishops in the provision of masses in Irish. At the same time he was criticised for his lack of enthusiasm towards other areas of liturgical reform. This dichotomy stemmed from McQuaid’s deep dismay at the church’s new ecumenical direction and the possibility that it would lead to shared worship between Catholics and Protestants. Yet, as a senior prelate in the Catholic Church, he was obliged to implement each of the Council’s decrees, including those concerning the liturgy. McQuaid’s response was to introduce Vatican-approved changes to the mass, while simultaneously protecting the traditional liturgy he cherished. So he tried to re-establish the Latin rite on the same terms as those he had arranged for the Irish mass. Had he succeeded, the result would have been a reduction in the use of an English vernacular which he found offensive to his Catholic sensibilities.


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*Wadham College, University of Oxford,


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1 Hastings, Adrian, A concise guide to the documents of the Second Vatican Council (London, 1968), p. 106.

2 Paul VI, ‘Sacrosanctum Concilium’ (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), 4 Dec. 1963, The Holy See [], (12 Jun. 2013).

3 Wiltgen, Ralph M., The Rhine flows into the Tiber: a history of Vatican II (Chulmleigh, 1978), p. 138.

4 Rynne, Xavier, The second session: the debates and decrees of Vatican Council 2, September 29 to December 4, 1963 (New York, 1964), p. 369.

5 Idem, Letters from Vatican City: Vatican Council II (First Session): background and debates (New York, 1963), pp 95–139.

6 Hull, Geoffrey, The banished heart: origins of heteropraxis in the Catholic Church (London, 2010), p. 272.

7 Bugnini, Annibale, The reform of the liturgy, 1948–1975 (Collegeville, Minnesota, 1990), pp 106107.

8 Irish Press, 10 Dec. 1965.

9 Press statement from the archbishops and bishops of Ireland, 8 Dec. 1965, The Furrow, xvii, no. 1 (Jan. 1966), pp 53–5.

10 See for instance, Cooney, John, John Charles McQuaid: ruler of Catholic Ireland (Dublin, 1999), pp 401402; Fuller, Louise, Irish Catholicism since 1950: the undoing of a culture (Dublin, 2002), p. 112.

11 McMahon, Deirdre, ‘John Charles McQuaid, archbishop of Dublin, 1940–72’ in James Kelly and Daire Keogh (eds), History of the Catholic diocese of Dublin (Dublin, 2000), pp 349380. ‘… McQuaid failed to gauge the true extent of the seismic shifts taking place in the structures of the Church [as a consequence of the Second Vatican Council]…’, ibid., p. 371.

13 Tuathaigh, Gearóid Ó, ‘The state and the Irish language: an historical perspective’ in Caoilfhionn Nic Pháidín and Seán Ó Cearnaigh (eds), A new view of the Irish language (Dublin, 2008), pp 2654.

14 Riagáin, Pádraig Ó, ‘Irish language policy 1922–2007: balancing maintenance and revival’, in ibid., pp 5565.

15 Kelly, Adrian, Compulsory Irish: language and education in Ireland, 1870s–1970s (Dublin, 2002), pp 133141.

16 Breatnach, R. A., ‘Revival or survival? An examination of the Irish language policy of the state’ in Studies, xlv, no. 178 (summer, 1956), pp 129145.

17 Blythe, Ernest, ‘Significance of the Irish Language for the future of the nation’, University Review, ii, no. 2 (summer, 1960), pp 321.

18 Census of population of Ireland 1961, ix: Irish language (Dublin, 1966), [], (9 Nov. 2013). The 1961 census included a question on ‘Ability to speak the Irish language’. Among the options to be selected was ‘“Irish only” for those persons who can speak only Irish’. However, when the results were published in 1966, data on ‘Irish only’ speakers were combined with the returns of those professing an ability to speak both Irish and English. This decision continued a practice begun following the 1936 census and reflected a belief by the Central Statistics Office that a sharp rise in the number of ‘Irish only’ speakers between 1926 and 1936 ‘could only have been due to a considerable degree of misinterpretation of the question’. In other words, some respondents who conversed only in Irish may have chosen this option, even if they could also speak English. According to the 1926 census report, the last to record ‘Irish only’ speakers, the number of people in this category was 12,460 or 0.4% of the population of the Free State. The vast majority of these, 11,300 (91%), lived in one of three counties, Donegal, Galway and Kerry (see

19 hÉallaithe, Donncha Ó, ‘From language revival to language survival’, in Ciarán Mac Murchaidh (ed.), Who needs Irish? (Dublin, 2004), pp 159192.

20 Census of population of Ireland 2002, xi: Irish language (Dublin, 2004), [] (11 Nov. 2013).

21 The question covering ability to speak Irish was revised significantly for the 1996 census. As a result a true comparison with data from previous censuses is not possible. One commentator has concluded that the marked increase in the ability to speak Irish between 1991 (32.5%) and 1996 (41.1%) can be attributed in large measure to the altered question: Punch, Aidan, ‘Census data on the Irish language’, in Nic Pháidín and Ó Cearnaigh (eds), New view of the Irish language, pp 4354. Nevertheless, given that successive census data between 1961 and 1991 – before the question was altered – showed that ability to speak Irish was on the rise, it is reasonable to assume that the rate of daily usage of Irish also rose.

22 An Coimisiún um Athbheochan na Gaeilge (Commission on the Restoration of the Irish Language), Summary, in English, of Final Report, 13 July 1963, Section VII (30) ‘The Church’.

23 Irish Times, 28 Nov. 1964.

24 Census of population of Ireland 1961, vii: Religion and birthplaces (Dublin, 1965), [–religionandbirthplaces/] (8 July 2013).

25 Smyth, Kevin, ‘Priests and people in Ireland’, in The Furrow, ix, no. 3 (Mar. 1958), pp 135152.

26 ‘Time of decision’, in Fennell, Desmond (ed.), The changing face of Catholic Ireland (Washington, 1968), pp 2547 (published originally in Herder Correspondence, Nov. 1964).

27 Ward, Conor K., ‘Socio-religious research in Ireland’ in Social Compass, xi, no. 3, (Mar. 1964), p. 26; Blanchard, Jean, The church in contemporary Ireland (Dublin, 1963), p. 29.

28 Whyte, J. H., Church and state in modern Ireland, 1923–1979 (Dublin, 1984), p. 7.

29 Fennell, ‘Time of decision’.

30 Census of population of Ireland 1961, vii: Religion and birthplaces (Dublin, 1965), [] (8 Jul. 2013); Blanchard, The Church in contemporary Ireland, p. 27.

31 Savage, Roland Burke, ‘The church in Dublin: 1940–1965’ in Studies, liv, no. 216 (winter, 1965), 296346.

32 Although few in number, supporters of a Gaelic Mass generated a huge amount of archival material, more than the combined correspondence from clergy and laity on every other aspect of the liturgical reforms.

33 United Irishman, Mar. 1965.

34 Deasún Breathnach to Fr Leon Ó Cuinnleáin, 15 Mar. 1965 (Dublin Diocesan Archive [hereafter D.D.A.], AB8/B/XXVII/8).

35 Sighle bean Uí Donnchada to McQuaid, 7 Dec. 1964 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/7).

36 Donncha Ó Laoire to McQuaid, 25 Jan. 1965 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/8).

37 Seán Franclín to McQuaid, 10 Oct. 1963 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/7).

38 Munster Express, 4 Aug. 1961.

39 Lesa Ní Mhunghaile, ‘Ó hUid, Tarlach’, in D.I.B.

40 Fr Leon Ó Cuinnleáin to McQuaid, 20 Jan. 1965 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/8).

41 McQuaid, ‘Irish vernacular’, 21 Jan. 1965 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/8).

42 Ó Cuinnleáin to McQuaid, 22 Jan. 1965 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/8).

43 McQuaid to Ó Cuinnleáin, 29 Jan. 1965 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/8).

44 Irish Times, 2 Feb. 1965.

45 Ó Cuinnleáin to McQuaid, 13 Feb. 1965 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/8).

46 McQuaid to Ó hUid, 25 Feb. 1965 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/8).

47 Father MacMahon, J. A., ‘The Irish vernacular and Cumann na Teaghlaigh Ghaelacha’, 11 Feb. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/10); McQuaid to Diocesan clergy, 11 Feb. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/21). This notice was to be read at all masses on Sunday, 13 Feb. 1966.

48 Leon Ó Cuinnleáin, ‘Inniu and the Mass in Irish’, 26 Feb. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/10).

49 Osmond Dowling to McQuaid, 2 Mar. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/10); Irish Independent, 2 Mar. 1966.

50 Fr William Ferris to McQuaid, 2 Feb. 1965 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/8).

51 Seanad Éireann deb., lx, 410–11 ( (20 Nov. 2013).

52 Donnchadh Ó hAodha, rúnaí to McQuaid, 30 June 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/10).

53 McQuaid to Liturgy Commission, 28 Feb. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/2).

54 Ó Cuinnleáin to McQuaid, 31 May 1965 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/9).

55 Irish Times, 31 Mar. 1966.

56 Irish Times, 2 Apr. 1966.

57 Dublin Liturgical Commission, minutes, 21 Dec. 1964 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/1).

58 Roibeard Ó Neachtáin to McQuaid, 11 May 1965 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/9).

59 Ó Cuinnleáin to McQuaid 11 Mar. 1965 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/8).

60 Proinsias Ó Mianáin to McQuaid, 7 Sept. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/10).

61 Irish Independent, 8 Mar. 1965.

62 Irish Press, 8 Mar. 1965.

63 Irish Times, 8 Mar. 1965.

64 Catholic Herald, 30 Apr. 1965; Arnold Lunn to Cardinal John Heenan, 11 Sept. 1965, (Westminster Diocesan Archive [hereafter W.D.A.], HE1/L6 a).

65 Liturgy files (W.D.A., HE1/L6 a).

66 Liturgy files (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII).

67 Spencer, Anthony E. C. W., Digest of statistics of the Catholic community of England and Wales, 1958–2005 (Taunton, 2007), p. 19.

68 John P. Keenan to Diocesan Office, 7 Apr. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/13).

69 Patrick J. McCann to McQuaid, 9 May 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/10).

70 S. Duffy to McQuaid, 4 May 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/10).

71 McQuaid’s friendship with Éamon de Valera began in the late-1920s when the latter’s son, Vivion, was a student at Blackrock College where McQuaid taught. The relationship deepened during the following decade as de Valera rose to political power and McQuaid became a close adviser, notably in the drafting of the 1937 Constitution. Following McQuaid’s elevation to archbishop differences arose from time to time between the two men on matters of public policy, such as health and education. Despite such disputes, their relationship remained generally cordial up to McQuaid’s death in April 1973: Cooney, John Charles McQuaid, p. 336.

72 John Jordon to McQuaid, 15 Apr. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/10).

73 Patrick Browne to McQuaid, 18 Feb. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/10).

74 Veronica Cahill to McQuaid, 8 May 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/10).

75 J. Brennan to McQuaid, 23 Oct. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/10).

76 Inniu, 9 Sept. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/10).

77 Irish Times, 17 Apr. 1969.

78 An article by Louis McRedmond in the Irish Independent (2 Apr. 1969) reported that some (unnamed) Dublin clergy were dissatisfied with McQuaid’s prohibition of certain liturgical innovations, such as the use of any musical instrument other than the organ. The article claimed that dissatisfaction was ‘most evident in the religious orders’. Father Walsh was a member of the Dominican order, based in Tallaght, Co. Dublin (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/3).

79 MacMahon to Walsh, 12 Apr. 1969. In a handwritten draft of this letter dismissing Walsh, which was subsequently sent by his secretary in typed form, McQuaid wrote: ‘[His Grace] expects that, in loyalty, you will respect the directions of the Diocesan authority in [Sacred] Liturgy, both in public and in private’. This sentence was omitted from the final letter, suggesting that McQuaid had second thoughts about Walsh having spoken to the press. McQuaid later recorded in a handwritten note (17 Feb. 1970) that Fr Hynes, a member of the Dominican community, told him that Fr Walsh ‘had not given anything to the newspapers’ (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/3). According to Cooney, Walsh went abroad to teach following the controversy: Cooney, John Charles McQuaid, p. 402.

80 See Cooney, John Charles McQuaid, pp 155–73.

81 Canon John Kelly to McQuaid, 31 Jan. 1965 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/21).

82 McQuaid to Kelly, 1 Feb. 1965 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/21).

83 Fr Maurice R. O’Neill to MacMahon, 27 Sept. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/10).

84 Although the D.D.A. does not hold a copy of the parish bulletin, several of McQuaid’s correspondents quoted from the offending article in their letters to him, e.g. Ó Mianáin to McQuaid, 22 May 1967 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/11).

85 Liam Ó Lonargáin, rúnaí to Diocesan office, 23 May 1967 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/11).

86 Ó Cuinnleáin to McQuaid, 25 May 1967 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/11).

87 MacMahon to Fr. Maurice O’Neill, 26 Sept. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/10). MacMahon to Canon Frederick Hooke, 2 Feb. 1967 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/11).

88 Opposition to compulsory Irish in schools was evident from the 1920s onwards: Kelly, Compulsory Irish, pp 14–21.

89 Ibid., p. 38.

90 Irish Times, 21 Feb. 1964.

91 Ibid., 14 Sept. 1965.

92 Irish Press, 30 June 1966.

93 Irish Times, 7 July 1966.

94 Daly, Mary E., ‘Less a commemoration of the actual achievements and more a commemoration of the hopes of the men of 1916’, in Mary E. Daly and Margaret O’Callaghan (eds), 1916 in 1966: commemorating the Easter Rising (Dublin, 2007), pp 5455.

95 Moynihan, Maurice (ed.), Speeches and statements by Eamon de Valera, 1917–73 (Dublin, 1980), p. 606.

96 Daly, ‘Less a commemoration’.

97 Irish Times, 23 Oct. 1968. Comharchumann Cualann was a small Dublin-based body which promoted the use of Irish through educational and cultural activities.

98 ‘Liturgy renewal in Ireland: a report’, The Furrow, xvii, no. 5 (May, 1966), pp 297–312.

99 Census of population of Ireland 1961, ix: Irish language (Dublin, 1966).

100 McQuaid address to Secondary Education Congress held in The Hague, 1 Aug. 1933, ‘Some aspects of the present condition of Catholic Secondary Education in Ireland’ (D.D.A. AB8/A/VII.70).

101 Sir John Maffey to Sir Eric Machtig, 4 July 1945 (T.N.A, P.R.O., D.O. 35/2087).

102 Cooney, John Charles McQuaid, p. 354. While the archbishop of Dublin is designated primate of Ireland, the archbishop of Armagh is primate of All Ireland, thereby regarded as the more senior of the two.

103 Breslin to McQuaid, 8 Feb. 1970 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/14); Leigh Doyle to McQuaid, 11 Apr. 1970 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/6); O’Donnell to McQuaid, 24 Feb. 1968 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/14).

104 Irish Independent, 2 Apr. 1969.

105 McMahon, ‘John Charles McQuaid’.

106 In 1965, John Robinson, Anglican bishop of Woolwich, reported a conversation he had with Cardinal Augustin Bea, head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. According to Robinson, Bea declared simply that ‘the Counter-Reformation is over’. Robinson took this to mean ‘that the whole period during which the life of the Roman Catholic Church had been conditioned by reaction to Protestantism is now at an end’: Robinson, John A. T., The new Reformation? (London, 1965), p. 9.

107 ‘Unitatis Redintegratio’ (Decree on Ecumenism), 21 Nov. 1964, The Holy See [], retrieved 8 July 2013.

108 McQuaid to Archbishop Dino Staffa, 6 Oct. 1964 (D.D.A., AB8/VC/XLV/9b).

109 Irish Press, ‘Lenten Pastoral: Spiritual renewal only by one true faith’, 12 Mar. 1968.

110 For example, in his letter of 9 Jan. 1969 to mark the Church Unity Octave, McQuaid wrote: ‘It is the tragedy of our human history that men have disrupted by their errors and sins the very unity that Jesus Christ had prayed for and established. They who have entered into such a heritage may not justly be blamed for adhering to tenets that, in error, they sincerely believe to be true. Only the light of God the Holy Ghost and the courage of His grace can bring our separated brethren to understand and to accept the claims of the one true Church founded by Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church’ (D.D.A., AB8/B/XLVI/219).

111 Canon Charles Gray-Stack comments as reported in the Irish Times, 14 Jan. 1965.

112 Rev. Massey H. Shepherd, Episcopalian observer at the Vatican Council, commented on Sacrosanctum Concilium: ‘What is so exciting now is that this community of worship can be more easily grasped by any worshipper in the two respective Communions – not only because of the increasing use of the vernacular in the Roman liturgy, but also by reason of current changes in structure of the rites that are taking place in both traditions’: Shepherd, Massey H. Jr., ‘The Liturgy’, in Bernard C. Pawley (ed.), The Second Vatican Council: studies by eight Anglican observers (London, 1967), pp 149174.

113 McQuaid to Bishop Donald J. Herlihy, 26 Apr. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XV/26/69).

114 I.C.E.L. Constitution, 20 Oct. 1965 (W.D.A., HE1/L5 – 1).

115 Members of I.C.E.L. were Australia, Canada, England and Wales, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, Southern Africa, and the United States of America.

116 I.C.E.L. report to the Episcopal Conferences, 28 Oct. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/17).

117 Ibid. ‘Ecumenical consultation and collaboration’ was effected through a separate committee known as the International Consultation on English Texts (I.C.E.T.) comprising representatives of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist and Congregationalist churches. This group was set up and managed by I.C.E.L.: Jasper, Ronald, The development of the Anglican liturgy 1662–1980 (London, 1989), pp 288295.

118 McQuaid to Conway, 28 Dec. 1963, (D.D.A., AB8/VC/XLV/16).

119 McQuaid to Conway, 20 Sept. 1967 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XV/C/92).

120 McQuaid, Liturgy texts, 2 Aug. 1969 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/24).

121 Paul VI, ‘Missale Romanum’, 3 Apr. 1969, The Holy See [] (25 May 2013).

122 McQuaid, The Sacred Liturgy, 20 Feb. 1964 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/21).

123 McQuaid, letter to diocesan clergy, 9 Nov. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/22).

124 McQuaid to Conway, 20 Sept. 1967 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XV/C/92).

125 O’Carroll, Michael, ‘Inspired educator and ecumenist of sorts’, in Studies, lxxxvii, no. 348 (winter, 1998), pp 365371.

126 Rynne, First Session, p. 108.

127 Carty, Francis X., ‘How John Charles McQuaid, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin (1940–72) managed the issue of the Second Vatican Council from 1959 to 1972’ (Ph.D. thesis, Dublin Institute of Technology, 2006), p. 179; Lehane, Aidan, ‘The visitor’, in Studies, lxxxvii, no. 348 (winter, 1998), pp 392395.

128 McQuaid to Boylan, 27 Apr. 1967 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/2).

129 Kevin J. Cathcart, ‘Boylan, Patrick Joseph’, in D.I.B.; Boylan to McQuaid, 3 Dec. 1968 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/3).

130 Boylan to McQuaid, 28 Apr. 1967 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/2).

131 Sacrosanctum Concilium. (The Ordinary of the mass refers to those parts of the liturgy that are invariable, e.g. the creed.).

132 McQuaid annotation, 1 May 1967 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/2). Emphasis in original.

133 McQuaid, undated note, (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/22). Although undated, McQuaid’s reference to the ‘new Ordo Missae’ and its position in the file suggests that he wrote the note no earlier than February 1970.

134 McQuaid, 11 Feb. 1966 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/21).

135 McQuaid, 29 Jun. 1971 (D.D.A., AB8/B/XXVII/3).

136 Irish Press, 17 Jan. 1972.

137 The author is grateful to Dr Tadhg Ó hAnnracháin, School of History & Archives, U.C.D., for his invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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Champion of the Gaeilgeoirí: John Charles McQuaid and the Irish-language mass

  • James P. Bruce (a1)


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