More Than Once, A Pope Sold Out The Irish

By Joe McGowan (First published in 2005.)

With the eyes of the faithful and the news media craned on the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, Joe McGowan looks behind, at what he calls an infamous alliance forged between the Papacy and the Crown. Does the Vatican owe yet another people a grievous apology? Clearly, says McGowan. 

Mullaghmore, County Sligo – "On my knees, I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace." These oft-quoted words of Pope John Paul II (right) are, more often than not, used, out of context, to discredit the centuries-old struggle for Irish independence.

What we are not told is that in the same speech he quoted Pope Paul VI who said: "True peace must be founded upon justice, upon a sense of the untouchable dignity of man, upon the recognition of an indelible and happy equality between men, upon the basic principle of human brotherhood, that is, of the respect and love due to each man, because he is man. … Obstacles which stand in the way of justice must be removed: obstacles such as civil inequity, social and political discrimination, and misunderstanding between individuals and groups …"

Why did these criticisms of internment and the suspension of the rule of law by the British Government, delivered Sept. 29, 1979, near Drogheda, go unnoticed?

Reaffirming Paul VI's message, John Paul proclaimed that, "Every human being ... each human community … has inalienable rights that must be respected. ... The moral law, guardian of human rights, protector of the dignity of man, cannot be set aside by any person or group, or by the State itself, for any cause, not even for security or in the interests of law and order."

Recalling Christianity's origins in Ireland and St. Patrick's conversion of the Irish people, Pope John Paul said that he too felt the "cry of the centuries" that brought him here. Walking in St. Patrick's footsteps he felt the hand of history as "successor of Peter."

Perhaps he had never heard of Pope Adrian IV, in whose footsteps he also walked. It was Adrian who granted Henry II of England full permission to "enter the island of Ireland" in order to subject its people to English authority. John Paul certainly didn't mention this forebear, the only Englishman ever to be made Pope.

... rooting out "barbarous rites, to plant the rites of the Church."

Why would the Papacy of Rome, with whom Ireland had such common cause and distinguished service in the promotion of the Christian message, invite such a disaster on the heads of the Irish nation? The question has engendered much debate.

Could it be, as some say, that the Irish church prior to the invasion of Henry II kept its structures too much within the old Gaelic order and too independent of Rome rule? That Adrian saw Henry II as the instrument by which Ireland could be brought to heel?

Advocates of this theory claim that in 1155, when the Papal Bull was issued, the Church in Ireland, much influenced by Brehon Law, had been in conflict with Rome for many centuries. The Church in Ireland disagreed on many fundamental matters, such as the way to determine the dates of feasts, the Irish Church's dissolution of marriages and marriage of near-relations, and its irregular consecration of bishops and the consecration of bishops without fixed sees.

The Irish church built up its own ecclesiastical laws which, though inspired by Roman rule, was constrained by the Irish native or Brehon Law. Rome's preference for a centralized Irish political state ruled by a strong autocrat is put forward as the reason for the Bull and Papal approval.In "Short History of the Irish People," Mary Hayden explains: "Each clan had its own bishops and its own priests. ... The clan allotted to its clergy, for their support, certain lands looked after by an officer (known as a comharb) who was generally a layman. The clergy of a clan mostly lived in communities under their bishop, so that the church was both tribal and monastic." In other words, not dominated by Rome.

This theory is rejected by most scholars on the grounds that the Irish church had begun to reform half a century before Adrian's dictat. In 1111 a national synod at Raith Bresail divided Ireland into 24 sees, thus replacing the old independent monastic structures. St. Malachy (left) had made at least two visits to Rome in the early 12th century.

Malachy was ordained by Cellach of Armagh in 1119 AD after which he reformed the Diocese of Armagh, rooting out "barbarous rites, to plant the rites of the Church." After his successes there he went south to Lismore, converting the soon-to-be King of Munster to the ideals of reform in the Irish Church. His greatest success was achieved after his death in 1152 when at a synod at Kells, Ireland was dividedinto 36 sees, with the Pope's Legate distributed 'pallia' to the Archbishops of Armagh, Cashel, Tuam and Dublin.

On his journeys to Rome he stayed with St. Bernard at Clairvaux. So impressed was he with what he saw there that he introduced the Cistercian order to Ireland, who commenced the building of Mellifont Abbey in 1142.

In 1152 the Papal Legate reported to Rome that the church in Ireland had now the organization necessary to look to the pastoral care of its flock.

Adrian's interference is not unique in the annals of the Papacy. The Irish Ecclesiastical Record July 1960, in an article titled "'Medieval Dominicans And the Irish Language," records that Pope John XXII, a Frenchman, wrote, in 1317: "to the archbishops of Dublin and Cashel, and the Dean of Dublin. Mandate to warn Friars Preachers and other mendicant religious, and rectors, vicars and chaplains of parish churches in Ireland to desist from stirring up the people of that country to resist the king's authority: those who disobey this monition are to be excommunicated. Full powers are given to the said Archbishops and dean to do whatever they shall see fit in pursuance of this mandate."

Was the Papal Bull then an act of treachery? Did Pope Adrian, alias Nicholas Breakspear, an Englishman, give Ireland to an English king with territorial ambitions with whom he saw common cause? So it seems to me.

In light of such apparent betrayals, the words of one of the last of the chieftains of the old Gaelic order, The McCarthy Mór, have particular resonance. In recent years, he has called for "the See of Rome, having apologized to the members of the Jewish religion for its inactivity during the holocaust, and in Europe for the horrors of the Inquisition, to yet ask the pardon of the Irish people for its role in the eight centuries of tyranny and genocide Ireland endured through its actions."

As the Church instructs the faithful, it is never too late to repent.

Mullaghmore native Joe McGowan, left, is the author of five books about Irish history and folklore, including "Inishmurray: Island Voices." He is the creator of the new online resource, and serves as's Connacht correspondent.

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Comment by That's Just How It Was on April 9, 2016 at 11:39am

Now then Joe McGowen, what a very interesting article. The Catholic Church  has in my opinion , had too much sway in the Irish people lives.... I was born and raised as a Catholic and will die, belonging to the same faith... That however does not stop me from having an opinion on all that the Catholic  Church has done over the centuries, and to the present day.  

 Pope John XXII, a Frenchman , has no hesitation in colluding  with the British too bring the Irish people to heel... Did Pope Adrian, alias Nicholas Breakspear, an Englishman give Ireland to an English king with territorial ambitions with whom he saw common cause???

So aside the fact that these men were supposedly anointed and ordained into the Catholic Church ... they took vows to treat all peoples with dignity , respect, thought and care for all human kind.. Are these Popes,, Bishop's any different in their actions in modern day life.  Bishops,  all clergy , have a duty of care  and compassion to their followers .......

What they have done  however is hide behind the cloth that they wear ,  inflict whatever harm that they have done, from centuries ago to the present day. Much media attention has been brought on the Catholic Church over the past 20 years in Ireland , for the failure of the Priest's and Bishops to punish those Priests who have wronged children and young children...... Those Priest are individuals who hid beside a cloth of respectability, The Bishops were wrong to cover it up................ all individuals... The God I truly believe in, did not hide beside a cloth of respectability, the god I believe in is kind , caring, forgiving ...

I suppose what I am trying to say is..... all these Popes , Bishops, Priests , were not acting in Gods or Jesus name .... they hid behind his cloth of forgiveness, kindness, thought and care, to carry out atrocities of one kind or another...    

Thank you I really enjoyed your article   

Comment by michael dunne on October 2, 2016 at 7:16pm

To compare Adrian with Pope John Paul 2nd is off the wall. John Paul was a courageous and religious man who believed in the Christian message. I was working the days of his visit to Ireland which was a different place then than it is today. And I would not be blaming him for the disintegration of the Catholic Church here. He was a special kind of man that history throws up very rarely, so it is unfair to throw him into the mix of decadence and corruptive influences through the centuries.


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