The Catholic Church and the Irish Civil War – A Reflection by Archbishop Eamon Martin

23 Sep 2023

[Photo by the Catholic Communications Office, Maynooth]

Epilogue remarks at the Catholic Historical Society of Ireland Annual Conference – Seamus Heaney Lecture Theatre of Dublin City University


  • I wish to acknowledge, today, that the pastoral letter of Irish Bishops’ Conference of October 1922, and the way it was interpreted, clearly provoked much hurt and anguish among families which has permeated down the generations.
  • There is no doubt in my mind that the Bishops’ letter was exploited and distorted to excuse and provide moral justification for un-Christian, sinful and criminal behaviour.  And the bishops failed to publicly respond to that.
  • The bishops’ failure to name and shame the atrocities being committed by the pro-Treaty side fed the narrative that they spoke with two voices: that the Free State government could act with impunity, whilst those continuing the armed struggle for an all-Ireland solution could do no good.
  • Experience tells us that those who understand the past more deeply and honestly will be more likely to be open to engage in the work of reconciliation.

Thank you for what has been a fascinating conference and for offering me this opportunity, in my role as President of the Bishops’ Conference, to provide comment, as a kind of reflection or epilogue on what we have heard.

Recent controversy in the North surrounding the Legacy Bill remind us that the wounds of an unresolved past – particularly a past which involves trauma and loss – almost always fester; they hamper the achievement of common purpose and shared endeavour in the present and for the future.  Addressing the legacy of the past is therefore critical to understanding the present and to building a reconciled future.

Today’s conference has shone a light into Ireland’s attic of memories.  Our contributors have sensitively explored what John helpfully described as both the ‘interior and exterior world’; they have lifted the ‘code of silence’ surrounding the issue of the Church and the Civil War, and exposed some of the Civil War’s so- called ‘unspeakable legacy’.  Dr Aiken’s reflection on spiritual wounds and trauma surrounding the civil war has a shown us that memories have already found a way of coming to the surface.  Various commemorations and graveside orations have also consolidated and sometimes revised different versions of our civil war story for successive generations.

However even the ‘Decade of Centenaries’ programme has shown us that it is difficult to bring events of a century ago to the surface and we have had to learn to tread softly on Ireland’s past.  The shelving of the controversial event in 2020 to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), and the controversy that erupted over the Church leaders’ ‘Service of Reflection and Hope’ in Armagh, in October 2021, to mark the centenary of partition and the creation of Northern Ireland, confirmed that when it comes to opening up our shared history, we walk on eggshells.  Perhaps that is why the National state commemoration of the Civil War, just a few months ago, happened somewhat ‘off stage’ – a simple ceremony – no speeches; just music, poetry, a short prayer and the laying of wreaths.

We are very grateful to the Catholic Historical Society of Ireland, and to today’s speakers, for helping us to bring to the light the interaction between the Catholic Church and the civil war.  The Church has not been immune from the tendency to try to ‘move on’ from our Civil War past.  Like most others, we have often preferred to ‘leave well enough alone’.

It is clear from today’s papers and subsequent discussions that the pastoral letter of the Irish bishops in October 1922 represented the Church’s most controversial intervention during the Civil War period.

Dr Daithí Ó Corráin’s paper described the bishops’ pastoral as ‘an amalgam of earlier warnings’ and situated it firmly within their dread and ‘painful anxiety’ that the country was rapidly descending into disunity, anarchy and ruin.  Their pastoral letter, approved unanimously, and following what they saw as the overwhelming will of the people in favour of the Treaty, began with these words: “The present state of Ireland, is a sorrow and humiliation to its friends all over the world.”  As we have heard, the bishops criticised those who were refusing to acknowledge the legitimate government as wrecking Ireland ‘from end to end’.  They had no doubt that the anti-Treaty struggle was leading to what Daithí called ‘social disintegration’, was morally unjust and, as the bishops said, was poisoning the minds of the young with ‘false principles’.  They unanimously pronounced that the ‘guerilla war is without moral sanction’; ‘it is murder before God’; ‘it is un-Catholic and immoral’.

Horrified that the struggle had now evolved to violence of Irish against Irish, Catholics against Catholics, the bishops were also sending a message to priests who approved of what the bishops described as the ‘Irregular insurrection’.  They cautioned such priests that they were guilty of causing ‘grievous scandal’ and would be subject to suspension and denial of priestly faculties.

The bishops saw themselves as authentic teachers in faith and morals and rejected outright the charge that they were guilty of political partisanship.

Bishops called on opponents of the national government to advance their cause through elections and by constitutional means: ‘Let it not be said that our teaching is due to political bias and a desire to help one political party.  If it were true, we would be unworthy of our sacred office.  We issue this pastoral letter under the gravest sense of our responsibility, our sense of duty.’

Most controversially, the bishops proposed the denial of absolution or admission to Holy Communion to those who would persevere in violent resistance, urging them to repent of their ‘grave sins’ and to cease what the bishops called this ‘lamentable upheaval’.  The pastoral therefore included a call to prayer, to October devotions, and for a novena for peace to the Irish saints.

The papers at today’s conference have helped to contextualise the bishops’ pastoral letter, including Dr Brian Heffernan’s interesting survey of the contemporary European media coverage, situating the bishops’ position within the much wider development of Catholicism as a political force on the European stage.  The contributions by Mr Michael Loughman and Dr Brian Kirby give us a very clear sense of how the bishops’ position was disparately received at home, eg within pious families like the Ryan’s of Tomcoole.  Michael Loughman’s highly interesting paper reminds us that, as in the Civil War more generally, people were split: neighbour against neighbour, brother against brother, in families, communities, farms and workplaces.

Like the majority of Irish citizens in 1922, the bishops of Ireland were weary of war, destruction and death.  Dr O’Corrain mentioned some of their parallel peacemaking efforts.  No doubt, the Northern bishops (like +McRory and +Mulhern) would also have been communicating graphically at bishops’ meetings the impact that Partition was already having on their flock, with persecution, discrimination and displacement.  Although not abandoning the republican ideal, and remaining vehemently against Partition, the bishops chose to support a stable Free State government as a bulwark against discrimination in the North.  They were also optimistic at this point that a successful and peaceful Free State would pave the way to unity on the island – if only the violence, spilts and divisions would end.

It must be acknowledged, however, that, in contrast to their explicit condemnation of crown forces and the British regime only a few years previously, the bishops’ failure to name and shame the atrocities being committed by the pro-Treaty side fed the narrative that they spoke with two voices: that the Free State government could act with impunity, whilst those continuing the armed struggle for an all-Ireland solution could do no good.

Similarly, as we have heard, bishops’ acceptance of the morality of previous republican struggle during the War of Independence, and even of previous hunger strikes, led to accusations against them of political expediency and manoeuvring for political power and influence.  This was clearly behind what has been described today as the widespread ‘dismay and disgust’ of republicans at the bishops’ position, seeing it as hypocritical.

The silence of the bishops in failing to publicly repudiate or condemn multiple executions of anti-Treaty republicans or the sometimes brutal actions of the National army, most definitely undermined the words of their own pastoral letter.  There is no doubt, as Professor Rafferty’s paper illustrates, that senior prelates like Archbishop Byrne of Dublin proclaimed the executions as ‘morally unjustifiable’ and prevailed upon the government to end the executions, to show clemency, to release prisoners and hunger strikers – but the fact that bishops preferred to do so behind the scenes rather than via public statements, has left a long lasting bad taste that they were not impartial towards violence and destruction.

Not surprisingly, priests and religious, as Irish people themselves, with their own particular backgrounds, family traditions and political perspectives, had diverging reactions to the bishops’ pastoral.  Some pro-Treaty clerics took the bishops’ sanctions to the extreme, choosing to exclude from the sacraments not just combatants, but also those sympathetic to the Republican cause.  On the other hand, we have heard today that a sizeable minority of clerics – including, as Dr Kirby explained, many from the Capuchins and other religious orders – simply ignored the pastoral’s threats of suspension, and continued to offer the solace of the sacraments to members of anti-Treaty forces.

Dr Kirby’s paper, outlining the steadfast moral and pastoral courage of Fr Albert Bibby and Fr Dominic O’Connor, alongside their stalwart loyalty to the Republican cause, leading to their subsequent bitter banishment, raises troubling questions for Church leaders even today about the extent to which our pastoral and Gospel instincts for care and compassion can be compromised or even suspended during troubled times like the Civil War.

Clearly not all Catholic thinkers, theologians, canonists, or pastors were convinced that the bishops had got it right.  We are told that the apostolic delegate sent from Rome, Monsignor Salavatore Luzio, concluded the bishops’ actions were “less than prudent” (MMcC p104).

Michael Loughman and Dr Leeann Lane’s reflections brought out for us, in a very moving way, the passion, religious fervour, and deep spiritual conviction of many on the anti-Treaty side: for people like the Ryan family, whose sincere religious convictions were the source of much heartfelt inner trauma, family tension and struggle; or, for Mary MacSwiney, for whom to be denied the sacraments was as painful and unjust as being denied the goal of Irish unity and freedom.  Dr Lane’s very effective outlining of Mary McSwiney’s correspondence with Archbishop Byrne shows her McSwiney’s conviction that, in conscience, she was entitled to hold her republican opinions and to receive the sacraments.

Last Christmas, following correspondence to me from the National Graves Association, the current Irish Bishops’ Conference suggested today’s event as one way of exploring the heartfelt sense of grievance which still lingers in some Irish families, a century on.

Having listened to these informative papers and todays questions and discussion, I wish to acknowledge, today, that the Bishops’ Letter of October 1922, and the way it was interpreted, clearly provoked much hurt and anguish among families which has permeated down the generations.

Similarly, the Bishops’ failure to publicly speak out against extreme, and sometimes merciless behaviour by the National government and its forces, has left a residual hurt which remains deeply felt by some people who are now in the late 80s and 90s.  It is a significant factor in their perception of the Civil War, and in the legacy of the conflict on their lives.

Although canonists will dispute that the penalties proposed by the bishops represented ‘excommunication’ in the technical sense, that’s what it felt like.  I understand that many men and women who fought in the conflict, and who remained practising Catholics, retained a lingering doubt as to whether they would die within, or without, the Church.  Although we heard today of some episcopal statements expressing a desire for forgiveness and reconciliation, I believe the bishops might have taken more concrete pastoral steps towards that goal.

It is true that anniversary Masses and reburial ceremonies were held for republican combatants around the country, but it seems that the bishops, like many others connected with the Civil War, preferred in the main to let things evolve, rather than grasping the nettle of hurt, trauma and unresolved sense of grievance that were the legacy of that sorry conflict.  In many ways it took decades for the healing process to properly begin.

It is difficult for anyone, at this remove, to adjudicate on these matters in an entirely objective manner.  There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the Bishops’ pastoral letter of 1922 was exploited and distorted to excuse and provide moral justification for un-Christian, sinful and criminal behaviour. And the bishops failed to publicly respond to that.

To conclude I return to my opening remarks about the legacy of the past. Earlier this year, in the context of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I said,

“It is obvious that we are simply not managing on our own to overcome the centuries of sectarian hatred and distrust which has sparked into violence on so many occasions … Experience tells us that those who understand the past more deeply and honestly will be more likely to be open to engage in the work of reconciliation.”

I therefore thank all of today’s speakers and facilitators and the Catholic Historical Society, Brona and Alison, for its work in organising this day and to DCU for hosting us. I hope and trust that the conference has been both illuminating and challenging and has reminded us all of the importance of confronting the scars of the past in the interests of restoring wounded relationships and repairing divisions in the present.


  • Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland

‘The Catholic Church & the Irish Civil War’

Catholic Historical Society of Ireland Annual Conference

23 September 2023 – St Patrick’s Campus, DCU – Seamus Heaney Theatre, G114

09.30 – Registration

9.50 – Welcome (Prof Daire Keogh, President, Dublin City University)

Session 1

10.00 – 12.00

Dr Daithí Ó Corráin (Dublin City University)

‘Praying for deliverance from disunion, anarchy and ruin: The Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Irish Civil War’

Mr Michael Loughman (Dublin City University)

‘The Ryans of Tomcoole and the Irish Civil War: A Catholic family at war’

Dr Brian Kirby (Irish Capuchin Archives)

‘Rebels’ priests: The Capuchin friars and the Civil War’

12.00 – 12.35: Lunch

Session 2

12.35 – 14.05

Prof Oliver P Rafferty SJ (Boston College)

‘Archbishop Edward Byrne of Dublin and the Civil War’

Dr Leeann Lane (Dublin City University)

‘‘I am Your Grace, a devoted child of our Holy Church’: The Civil War hunger strikes of Mary MacSwiney’

14.05 – 14.30: Coffee Break

Session 3

14.30 – 16.00

Dr Brian Heffernan (KU Leuven)

‘Redefining the political role of Catholicism after the Great War: The Irish Civil War in the European Catholic press’

Dr Síobhra Aiken (Queen’s University Belfast)

‘‘Spiritual wounds’: Trauma and faith in early Civil War testimonies’

16.00 – 17.00

Roundtable: The Catholic Church and the Irish Civil War

Contributors: Dr Mary Harris (University of Galway), Prof Margaret O’Callaghan (Queen’s University Belfast) and Prof Oliver P Rafferty SJ (Boston College)

Closing remarks by Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh.