From Irish Political Review—March 2005

A Free Mind In A Free State?

by Seán McGouran

Book Review: THE CATHOLIC BULLETIN On Peace, War and Neutrality, 1937-1939, Introduced by Pat Walsh. A Belfast Magazine £4, €5

This edition of A Belfast Magazine (No. 24) also has a further set of sub-titles, The Politics Of Pre-War Europe, An Irish View, and has an Introduction by Pat Walsh. In it he writes that any socialist would find an awful lot to disagree with in the Catholic Bulletin, but it is politically incisive and interesting, (and it might be said, usually correct, and sometimes spookily prescient—on the actual effects of aerial warfare for example. The writer, Fear Faire, [Sean Toibin, a schoolmaster] felt that it would be a matter of "prolonged aerial struggle, involving terrible misery… but not yielding a decision", rather than the "swift, terrific holocaust" which had been prognosticated by the 'experts'. This was the appliance of common sense to the increasing equality of forces as between Germany and the rest, it is from a long article dated October 1939, page 73 of this magazine / pamphlet.)

The Catholic Bulletin is frequently accused of anti-Semitism by academics who have not bothered to read it. Some of the language used would raise eyebrows today—but that is about the height of it. "Black troops policed the Ruhr. Jews walked the German cities laden with riches, while ill-clothed, hungry German scholars, wives and children, shivered in fireless rooms,—a state of affairs which explains, if it does not excuse, the violent revenge against Jews which has been taken in recent years" (my emphasis SMG). In January 1939, in a subsection of his monthly From The Hill Tops column, The Fall of Austria, he mentions that most Austrians welcomed being incorporated into the Reich, "despite the hardships that it was to entail to the faithful Catholic population and to the Jews…". The mention of the Jews in that sentence is an example of human decency, it adds nothing to what the writer has to say, and is more than possibly there to underline the dangers of racist Nazism, Fear Faire can only have regarded the Jews as a religious body, and not an ethnos. Academics never mention the slighting attitude to the French African troops, though they may well have been used to rub their defeat in to the Germans. But the Germans had used African troops, especially in German East Africa (Tanganyika) where largely 'native' troops had kept a large number of (white) troops from the British Empire busy from the beginning of the Great War to the very end.

Some of the writing in these selections reads almost quaint today, like the veneration for the Pope and the assertion that Ireland, under English domination lost contact with a Europe-wide (Catholic) Christian Commonwealth. (The assertion that there was such a Commonwealth has a certain amount of veracity—the EU may owe its origins to such an idea—but Ireland was dragged into that Commonwealth by England, until England decided to leave it. Then persecuted the Irish for not deserting it, even though the Irish, when left to their own devices tended not to feel the need to persecute people who did not worship as the majority of them did; which was also true of 'Éire'. Despite the tidal wave of abuse poured out over the reputation of "De Valera's Ireland", a few distasteful incidents, the Clare County Librarian and Fethard on Sea incidents, do not constitute a State policy. Nor did they constitute a fixed opinion among the Catholic people of Ireland (compare and contrast, as they put it in examination papers, the treatment Ruth Kelly is getting today from the intellectual classes in Great Britain, because she is a Roman Catholic in charge of the Education Ministry). Fear Faire takes every opportunity that arises to point up official England's hypocrisy not only in reference to the Partition of Ireland (the Partition of India was only a gleam in the eyes of a few members of the 'Indian Civil Service' at these dates), but also of other matters. These included the aerial bombing of Indian villages and the starvation of the civilian population of Germany in 1918–19 by refusing to lift the Royal Navy's blockade of the country's ports, for nearly a year after the signing of the Armistice.

It is this sort of thing (apart from the writer's vigorous style with its great clarity and concreteness, so unlike the boneless drivel which is characteristic of modern Irish journalism) which makes these selections such an invigorating read. No item of London-originated nonsense is left unexamined, and while as a good Catholic Fear Faire is not in the least supportive of, or convinced by, Nazi ideology, or propaganda, he is clear-headed enough to see what is under his nose. Nazi Germany was vigorous, vital, united and "Germany is proportionately more mighty in 1938 than she was in 1914". This was after the Anschluss and the absorption of the Sudetenland, with the independence of Slovakia and the (later) setting up of a Protectorate over the actual Czech lands, Bohemia and Moravia.

He was alarmed by the effects of the German invasion of Poland, while pointing out that the Poles ought to have made some sort of arrangement with the Germans rather than relying on the empty promises of London. He also writes that Poland, under Pilsudski (of whom he disapproves, probably because he was a sort of socialist) was imperialist, and that the Soviet Union in moving into the east of 'Versailles Poland' was only absorbing areas that should have been parts of White Russia (today's Belarus) and 'Ukrainia'. Though he is somewhat alarmed at the enthusiasm for 'sovietising' in the western part of Ukraine. The latter is the sort of thing a British publicist would not have put before the public to be thought about, and discussed—meaning the Catholic Bulletin, and Fear Faire, could be described as naïve—as opposed to honest. And they will be when this chunky, (92 page) pamphlet, (and the soon to be published Brian Murphy book mentioned in the Introduction) act as burrs under the collective West British / historical 'revisionist' blanket. But the point of the Catholic Bulletin, and Fear Faire's specific contribution to it was to stimulate thought and not kill it off in the manner of the British tabloid (and even 'compact') press.

There is much else in this selection than I have not mentioned; the end of the 'Economic War' by England on Ireland and the subsequent handing over of the Treaty Ports is discussed. The discussion of the lead up to the War and the disposition of the various forces, especially, but not entirely in Europe is gone into thoroughly, and intelligently (a further spooky piece of prescience is his aside on what America was doing in late 1939). Japan and its adventures in China and other parts of Asia is also mentioned, not quite in passing, but not as thoroughly as other matters.

If you were the sort of person inclined to chauvinism you might be inclined to express pride in such an independent and tough-minded person having written journalism of this quality in Ireland (of any time, really). Toibin / Fear Faire sets out the reasons why Ireland should remain neutral in the great (he frequently uses the word 'titanic') struggle that Europe is embarking on in the period covered in this selection. You ought to read this publication if only for the pleasure to be gained from good writing and untrammelled judgment by a person who, clearly, could not be bought, even if the attempt had been made.

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