John Charles McQuaid, C.S.Sp., the Catholic Primate of Ireland and Archbishop of Dublin between December 1940 and January 1972, is born on July 28, 1895, in Cootehill, County Cavan. He is known for the unusual amount of influence he has over successive governments.
McQuaid is the eldest son of Eugene McQuaid and Jennie Corry McQuaid. He comes from a medical family, with his father, paternal uncle, sister and half-brother all being doctors. He is educated at St. Patrick’s College, Cavan, followed by Blackrock College in Blackrock, Dublin, which is run by the Holy Ghost Fathers, and the Jesuit Clongowes Wood College. He enters the Holy Ghost novitiate at Kimmage, Dublin, in 1913 and is professed in 1914. He graduates from the University College Dublin (UCD) in 1917 with first-class honors in classics. He continues his postgraduate studies at UCD with a master’s degree and a teaching diploma, and subsequently earns a doctorate in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
Ordained in 1924, the theology in which McQuaid is trained is conservative — strongly neo-scholastic and hostile to modernism and liberalism. His hatred of the French Revolution is expressed in several pastorals and speeches throughout his career. He also regards Protestantism as a fundamental error from which Irish Catholics should be quarantined as much as possible.
Appointed Dean of Studies at Blackrock College, McQuaid becomes a prominent figure in Catholic education and chairs the Catholic Headmasters’ Association for several years. In 1931 he is appointed president of Blackrock College, in which capacity he becomes acquainted with Éamon de Valera, the future Irish Taoiseach whose sons attend the school. In 1936 while drafting a new Irish constitution, de Valera consults McQuaid, although he rejects McQuaid’s draft “One, True Church” clause which states, among other things, that the Catholic Church is the one true church in Ireland.
When McQuaid is appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1940, the appointment of a priest from the regular clergy causes considerable surprise. Irish government archives reveal that de Valera, as is suspected at the time, presses McQuaid’s claims at the Vatican. However, it is doubtful whether the Vatican needs much persuasion. There is a dearth of potential episcopal talent and McQuaid has an outstanding reputation as a Catholic educationalist.
Once appointed, McQuaid proves to be one of the ablest administrators in the history of the Irish Church. In the first two years of his episcopate, he sets up the Catholic Social Service Conference to alleviate the poverty and distress in Dublin which is aggravated by the war, and the Catholic Social Welfare Bureau to help the thousands of Irish emigrants going to Britain for war work. These two organizations fill a much-needed gap and continue to exist after the war. The expansion of Dublin city and its suburbs during his episcopate requires the building of new churches, schools, and hospitals. Meeting these demands also necessitates a considerable increase in the number of clergy, secular and regular, whose numbers more than double in the period from 1941 to 1972.
Given his previous career, the importance McQuaid assigns to education is not surprising. He is critical of the low priority accorded to education by successive governments and is particularly critical of the poor and pay conditions of teachers. His intervention in the primary teachers’ strike in 1946 is poorly received by the government and marks the souring of his relationship with de Valera. During his episcopate the number of primary schools increases by a third while the number of secondary schools more than double but, as with social welfare, the government increasingly assumes a dominant role in education from the 1960s onwards. Almost immediately after his appointment in 1940, he takes a hardline stand against the attendance of Catholic students at Trinity College Dublin. The ban lasts until 1970, when the increase in student numbers renders it untenable and he accedes reluctantly.
McQuaid has a formidable list of achievements in health care, especially maternity and pediatric services, physical and mental handicap services, and the treatment of alcoholism. It is ironic, therefore, that the most controversial episode of his career occurs in this area — the Irish hierarchy’s rejection in 1951 of a free mother-and-child health service. This leads to the resignation of the Minister for Health, Dr. Noël Browne, and is a watershed in Church-State relations in Ireland. With Irish tuberculosis and infant mortality statistics ranking among the highest in the world, the hierarchy, and particularly McQuaid, lose considerable support by lining up with the conservative medical establishment to resist efforts at socialized medicine.
From various pastorals that McQuaid issues at the time, it is clear that he does not see the need for the Second Vatican Council. As its deliberations proceed, his unease grows, and he becomes increasingly preoccupied with the issue of episcopal power and independence that he believes are being threatened by the Council. In the areas of liturgical reform, greater lay participation, and ecumenism, he is slow in implementing the Vatican II reforms. His views on ecumenism had always been lukewarm and had led to allegations that he was anti-Protestant. His personality and policies are criticized by a more assertive Dublin laity, but being a shy, reserved man who increasingly feels the isolation of office, he never responds to such comments. In 1968 the reaction to Humanae vitae causes open rebellion in the Dublin diocese, the force of which catches him unaware. His last pastoral as archbishop in 1971 betrays his anger and bemusement at the response to Humanae vitae in Dublin.
At the age of 75, McQuaid submits his resignation to the Vatican and it is accepted. His resignation is announced in January 1972, when he is replaced by Dermot Ryan. McQuaid dies in Loughlinstown, County Dublin, the following year on April 7, 1973. He is buried in St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin.
McQuaid’s substantial archives are released by the Dublin Diocesan Archives in the late 1990s. In 1999 journalist John Cooney publishes a hostile biography of McQuaid, which makes controversial allegations of sexual abuse against McQuaid. The allegations are based on tenuous evidence gathered by McQuaid’s nemesis from the 1951 Mother and Child controversy, Dr. Noël Browne, who had died in 1997. No corroborating evidence is produced or has since emerged.