“I will not have priests involved in the enterprise”

As I mentioned yesterday, in relation to this post, sometimes stories just collide, and on the redesigned Belfast Telegraph website Eamonn McCann has some fun with one such collision. Taking the transitional assembly debate on Monday as a starting point, he takes issue with the revisionism, by both Adams and Paisley, of the views of those involved in the United Irishmen and, in advance of any proposed visit by Benedict XVI, quotes Theobald Wolfe Tone’s view of “Papal tyranny”.

The notion that the United Irishmen were Protestant ecumenists of a sort, arguing for respect for Catholicism and the creation of a tolerant society in which “both communities” would live in genial amity is attractive, particularly to nationalists, including modern republicans, anxious to suggest a non-sectarian heritage. But it’s far from the facts.

From the Belfast Telegraph article

Indeed, one of the chief reasons Tone and the United Irishmen wanted to end the oppression of Catholics was that they believed that, freed, the Catholics would slough off their religion. In his splendid Argument On Behalf Of The Catholics Of Ireland, written for the Dublin-based Catholic Committee in 1791, Tone put it plain: “Persecution will keep alive the foolish bigotry and superstition of any sect…Persecution bound the Irish Catholic to his priest and the priest to the Pope; the bond of union is drawn tighter by oppression; relaxation will undo it.”

What would the response be today were an MLA publicly to describe Catholic teaching and ritual as “foolish bigotry and superstition?”

Or to characterise the Mass, as Tone did, as “abominable nonsense”?

Tone angrily rejected suggestions from the French Directory that he take two priests with him when he sailed to Ireland to foment revolution. “I will not have priests involved in the enterprise,” he responded.

Compare and contrast the first Sinn Fein ard fheis after 1916, when 10% of the delegates were priests, one of whom was elected by acclamation as vice-president.

Tone and the United Irish leaders believed they were living in the last days of Catholic power in the world. They referred frequently and excitedly to the fact that it had been Catholics, or ex-Catholics, who had accomplished the French Revolution. Why should Irish Catholics, roused to liberate themselves, be any different?

When French forces drove the Pope from Rome in February 1798, Tone exultantly welcomed what he saw as the beginning of the end of Catholic influence in Europe. He regretted that Bonaparte had let the Pope live: ” It was unwise to let slip so favourable an opportunity to destroy forever the Papal tyranny.”

However, he consoled himself, at least the Pope had been deposed, and the Roman people had “declared themselves free and independent…Thus terminated the temporal reign of the Popes after an existence of above 1,000 years.” A bit premature, as things turned out. But there’s no mistaking his attitude, which in all essentials was the attitude of the Templepatrick Six.

Wolfe Tone’s attitude to the Pope was closer to that of Ian Paisley circa 1969 than to the mellow musings of the Rev Ian on Monday.

It bears no resemblance of any kind to the attitude of Mr Adams.

Anybody for a Wolfe Tone Commemoration Committee to give Benedict a proper republican welcome at Aldergrove?

I think Fred Halliday might be interested..