Monday, February 23, 2015

Hell & High Water

John Horgan
Click on any image for a larger version

John Horgan treated us to another talk in the Patrick Flynn Lecture Series on last Thursday evening (19/2/2015). His theme was the church and the media with particular reference to the Furrow magazine under the editorship of its founder Canon J G McGarry. His chosen title was "Between Hell and High Water" which well reflects that turbulent period and the delicate path navigated by a progressive priest operating in the hinterland of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

The sub-title for the talk was "the Furrow and its context 1950-1977". This period began with Canon McGarry's founding of The Furrow and ended with his death in a motor accident. Horgan's description of the Canon:
McGarry himself could have passed, at first glance, for a run-of-the-mill rural parish priest. But behind a craggy exterior, which could well have fitted into a vacant slot on Mount Rushmore, there lurked a keen intelligence, a highly developed sense of strategy, a gift for language, and an utterly authentic humility which operated, at times, to surprise and even disarm his critics.
I am only too aware of the oppressiveness of this period, and particularly the earlier part of it. In his book "The Irish and Catholic Power", Paul Blanshard documents the extent to which the Roman Catholic Church dictated to the State, and, of course, within the church itself that dictatorship was absolute. In that regard, I was interested to hear Horgan mention the three bêtes noirs bishops of my day. John Charles McQuaid, the conservative control freak who used his excellent organisational skills to capture for the church the civil organisation of his diocese, and to some extent that of the whole country. Then there was Connie Lucey, the gatekeeper, who ensured the highest level of theological orthodoxy imaginable. And finally Michael Browne, former Professor of Moral Theology in Maynooth and subsequently Bishop of Galway, from where he succeeded in annoying the nation. He wasn't known as Cross Michael for nothing.

I was also interested to hear Horgan mention, among others, the progressive theologian Gregory Baum, who had to skirt the Dublin diocese on his visit to this country in the sixties. I mentioned most of these people myself when I was guest speaker at UCD's L&H at a time when there was still some hope that the Vatican Council was opening up the Roman Catholic Church and allowing it to catch up on some four hundred years of missed opportunities.

In those days material published under church auspices or by clerics had to be vetted by church censors. The Nihil Obstat was the first step and the process culminated with an Imprimatur. The Furrow carried such stamps of ecclesiastical vetting and permissions up to 1976 when, having consulted the editors of other similar publications, McGarry just dropped the practice, thus declaring, albeit sotto voce, The Furrow's independence. Mind you, I was never impressed with those labels after I saw them on a ridiculous novena to St. Joseph.

McGarry effectively got away with murder in the context of his time. When Horgan asked him how he managed to do this, his answer was: "the thing is you can say almost anything you want as long as you say it with style".

Canon J G McGarry presents the President's Birthday gift
of £100 to Mrs. Bridget Maughan, Lisbane,
on the occasion of her 100th birthday.
(Photo: by courtesy of the McGuire family
Source: Annagh Magazine, Christmas 1978)

McGarry left Maynooth in 1969 to become parish priest of Ballyhaunis (my own father's birthplace) where he was held in high regard for his pastoral care of, and his respect for his parishioners. An appreciation, written by Aine McEvoy in 1978, on the first anniversary of his death, is replete with tributes from sorrowing and grateful parishioners, particularly the old and the infirm. And the thing that comes across most in them is McGarry's caring and his genuine humility.

These tributes reminded me of those that poured in for Fr. Tony Flannery when the Vatican's Inquisition (CDF to you) silenced him. I wondered if the two men might have a lot in common.

Felix Larkin

John Horgan was introduced by Felix Larkin. Felix is co-editor of a recently published book "Periodicals and Journalism in Twentieth Century Ireland - Writing Against the Grain" to which Horgan has contributed a well crafted essay on "The Furrow: navigating the rapids, 1950-77". The essay details a number of McGarry's run ins with the hierarchy, but interestingly enough, a lot of the efforts at censoring The Furrow's clerical contributors came from those contributors' own superiors. Horgan touched on a number of these in his talk.

Both the essay and the talk are a massive tribute to McGarry, a giant of his times, but a man who doesn't even have a Wikipedia page.

Souvenir poster

An appreciation by Louis McRedmond August 1977 2nd item on page.


  1. No Wikipedia page, but he is included in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

    1. I am very glad to hear that.

      It's not that Wiki is the be all and end all but it is often a very useful source for checking things providing that their information can be corroborated.

      However, when you see some of the idiots who have long entries while worthies are ignored, it rankles.

    2. Cousin Michael (Ballyhaunis & Maynooth) contributes the following:

      Gratias ago tibi propter blogum hoc.

      McGarry applied for the Presidency of Maynooth in 1968, but was unsuccessful.

      He was very much in touch with the thinking on Continental Europe at the time.

      I did the index for The Furrow when I was a student in Maynooth. It was done every 6 months and I got the then handsome sum of 25 pounds each time.

      Matt and I helped him to unpack and clear his room when he was moving to Ballyhaunis. We also helped him to 's'installer' in Ballyhaunis.

      The poor man had difficulty coping with the time keeping skills of the people in the West of Ireland. I remember his surprise when a decorator who said he would come 'Thursday,first thing in the morning' failed to turn up.

      He was not, however, a charismatic communicator with the people of Ballyhaunis. I remember our Aunt Molly quoting a friend of hers who said, 'a more ignorant Parish Priest would have suited us better.'

  2. Cousin Michael has also drawn my attention to McGarry's winning a Jacob's Television Award in 1971 for his contributions to RTÉ's Outlook, a series of five minute religious slots, usually contributed by clerics, which went out just before the station closed down for the night.

    As for our Aunt Molly's friend's comment above, it is likely that her friend (i) was one of those Catholics the tranquility of whose faith was assured by John Charles McQuaid on his return from the Vatican Council, and (ii) had not needed the Canon's ministrations to the extent of those who were so fulsome in his praise in Aine McEvoy's appreciation referenced in the post.