Book Review: The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968-1999, by Margaret M. Scull

A rich and carefully-researched new book, The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968-1999 (Oxford University Press, 2019), offers fresh insights on the changing role of the Catholic Church and the personalities that drove its interventions during that fraught period. The author, Margaret M. Scull, a post-doctoral research fellow at NUI Galway, writes in a clear, accessible style, ensuring the text will be of interest not only to scholars, but a general readership.

There will be a Belfast launch of The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles on 5 December at 4.15 pm, hosted by Irish Studies at Queen’s University, in 27 University Square. Prof John Brewer will respond to the book, which will be available for the discounted price of £35, a considerable discount from the publisher’s price of £65.

You also can watch Scull discuss her book with Barry Sheppard on NVTV:


Scull traces a complex history, setting her study in the wider context of the Church’s massive decline in social and political influence on the island since the 1960s. Rapid secularization, driven by general processes of modernization as well as a loss of legitimacy due to clerical abuse scandals, is considered alongside nuanced analysis of the tensions between archbishops/bishops and priests at the grassroots, as well as the antagonistic relationship between the institutional Church and violent republicanism.

It has been some time since Catholicism has been the subject of such a focused academic study. Marianne Elliott’s 2000 The Catholics of Ulster, a social history of Catholicism, is perhaps the last book to show similar ambition in analysing the Catholic tradition. While Elliott was more concerned with the relationship between religion and identity, Scull concentrates on Church institutions and key figures within it.

Scull brings those personalities to life through her analysis of diocesan archives, press reports, and interviews. She also pays due attention to the contributions of female Religious; and sets the perspectives and actions of the Irish Catholic Church in a wider context by including Vatican, and English and Welsh Catholic Church, reactions at critical junctures.

An appendix of short biographies of 29 ‘Important Figures’ is valuable in and of itself, providing a quick shorthand of key personalities, including four figures from the English and Welsh Church (such as Cardinal Basil Hume and Archbishop of Liverpool Derek Worlock); and three women whose contributions are often overlooked: Sr Sarah Clarke, who worked with Irish prisoners in England; Sr (Mary) Genevieve O’Farrell, a former principal at St Louise’s in West Belfast; and Dr Geraldine Smyth OP, a coordinator of the Opsahl Commission who lectured for many years at the Irish School of Ecumenics. Scull also makes good use of material from the BBC radio documentary ‘Sisters of the Troubles’ throughout.

One of Scull’s more important contributions is her analysis of the varied contributions of the four men who served as Archbishops of Armagh: William Conway, Tomás Ó Fiaich, Cahal Daly and Sean Brady. She pays close attention to their ‘upbringings, family backgrounds, political viewpoints, and personalities’ and reflects on how these impacted on their relationships with republicans, Protestant Church leaders and government officials (p. 202).

Given that one of these Archbishops, Ó Fiaich, was well-known for ‘staunch nationalist sympathies’ (p. 202), contrasting his actions with the others may have seemed obvious. But it is not always fashionable for academic historians to highlight the importance of the individual. Scull demonstrates the value in this, while at the same time helping us see how the office of Archbishop could both constrain and enable the men who held it.

A fascinating chapter headlined with Daly’s admonition, ‘To remind Catholics that support for the IRA and SF was not compatible with membership of the Catholic Church’, homes in on tensions between Ó Fiaich’s and Daly’s approaches. Ó Fiaich was a Cardinal and Archbishop of Armagh when Daly was Bishop of Down and Connor.

Scull characterizes their differences during this period as a ‘struggle’ and observes that ‘Whether on issues of extradition or perceived British government injustices, the bishops’ responses often differed. In effect, they represented both sides of the spectrum and balanced the hierarchy in the North’ (p. 118).

Scull also notes that Daly made himself available to conduct the funeral for every Catholic victim of the Troubles in his diocese: during his eight years as Bishop, he spoke at more than 40 funerals. She argues that Daly ‘used his homilies as a weapon against violence, especially republican violence’ (p. 152). Indeed, even if the victim had died at the hands of loyalists, Daly still took the opportunity to condemn republicans. Further he only mentioned ‘… the environment created by the security forces, and their role in the conflict, in less than half his homilies’ (p. 153). Scull reminds us that in some cases, parishioners walked out of Daly’s homilies, upset by his condemnations. In these cases his words ‘inflamed … anger and alienation’ (p. 154).

When Ó Fiaich died suddenly in 1990, Daly became Archbishop of Armagh. Scull argues that this meant there was now ‘no overtly pro-nationalist hierarchy member’ and ‘the entire focus of the Irish hierarchy in Northern Ireland [shifted] in favour of Bishop Cahal Daly’s position’ (p. 158). The result was that ‘by the mid-1990s, the institutional Church rarely participated in communications between republicans and the British government for peace’ (p. 158).

A chapter focused on the years 1990-1998 includes analysis of how Redemptorist priests Frs Alec Reid and Gerry Reynolds at Belfast’s Clonard Monastery assumed mediation duties during this crucial period. This chapter emphasizes the differences between the institutional Church and grassroots priests, a theme that was explored in earlier chapters through analysis of the work and writings of priests such as Frs Oliver Crilly, Joe McVeigh, Raymond Murray, and Des Wilson, among others.

While Scull rightly highlights the importance of how Reid connected Sinn Féin with the SDLP and the two governments, less is made of talks between Sinn Féin and Protestant clergy. Having written a recent biography of Reynolds myself, I thought these dialogues were of great significance in helping Sinn Féin understand unionist perspectives and could have come in for more sustained analysis. (My biography of Reynolds had not yet been published when Scull’s book went to press, although these talks are profiled in other sources, such as Brewer et al’s Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, and Presbyterian Rev Ken Newell’s memoir, Captured by a Vision.)

Scull’s concluding chapter bears the headline of a quote from Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, ‘The Church needs to do a reality check’, spoken in the context of the same sex marriage referendum in the Republic. In it, she looks towards the future and asks what sort of contribution the Church might make to reconciliation going forward. The ‘reality check’ comes in light of the history she has just outlined, especially the fact that churches can no longer expect to have the trust and legitimacy they enjoyed in years gone by.

Scull emphasizes that many Christian peacebuilding initiatives of recent years have been lay-led, although some involve clergy. She reiterates Maria Power’s claim that the peacebuilding focus has shifted ‘from ecumenism to community relations’. She asserts that ‘Many people across this island feel emboldened to engage in reconciliation without Church leaders’, both in religious and secular initiatives (p. 206).

Scull seems to see the Churches’ immediate contributions through the work of committed individuals rather than the institutions; a point also emphasized by Brewer et al in the book mentioned above. She closes by citing the boundary-crossing work of Fr Martin Magill and Presbyterian Rev Steve Stockman with the 4 Corners Festival, in the context of the uncertain future created by Brexit. With ‘no apparent resolution of tension in sight’, such work faces significant challenges as those motivated by their faith seek to engage with ever-diverse constituencies (p. 207).

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