Key to an assessment of the importance of Muintir na Tíre to Ireland was its relationship with the Catholic Church and the Irish state. The changing nature of that relationship is indicative of the transformation that took place in Ireland during the twentieth century. Government, the Church and society were inward-looking and distrustful of novelty in for example the immediate post WWII period but gradually they each opened up to new ideas about politics, the economy and religion. In that context, Muintir na Tíre, a civil society organisation active at the parochial level and with the protection and preservation of rural Ireland at its centre, increasingly sought to engage with national and local authorities. The tensions between tradition and modernisation inherent in initiatives such as the Parish Plan of the 1950s and contributions towards, for example, rural electrification thus lay at the heart of the movement.
Particularly crucial to Muintir’s success or otherwise was the Catholic Church’s attitude which ranged from leadership and praise to indifference and opposition, even hostility. Consequently, Muintir’s attempts to build a nationwide structure and profile were only partially successful, and often resisted. The organisations expansion from its Munster heartland into other parts of Ireland was simultaneously supported and opposed by different priests and members of the hierarchy. Amongst its foremost advocates were, of course, Canon John Hayes, Archbishop Thomas Morris of Cashel and Emly and Jeremiah Newman, the future Bishop of Limerick. More surprising is the active support of Bishops Cornelius Lucey of Cork and Ross and Michael Browne of Galway especially when contrasted with the attitude of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin. For the latter, Muintir was not Catholic and therefore could not be trusted to represent farmers or rural people. Preventing the organisations growth in the capital, McQuaid could not have been further from other bishops but most dramatically Pope Pius XII who in 1954 had commended Hayes and the choice of the parish as Muintir’s central unit. Such praise for Muintir along with his reference to Christian rather than Catholic is notable. As an organisation, Muintir sought to embrace all classes and creeds and at least under Hayes advocate a vocationalist Ireland, with a strong emphasis on the papal encyclicals.
What was key then to the success or otherwise of Muintir was the attitude of the local bishop and priest. At the same time, Munitir itself, following the death of Canon Hayes in 1958, underwent a significant transition. Initially inspired by Catholic social teaching, community development became its raison d’être from the late 1950s with the greater part of its work falling into the educational field. What followed was a greater engagement with local, national and supranational authorities. This was highlighted by the practical and financial support the organisation received from James Dillon and especially Seán Lemass. The contrast in Lemass’ and Eamon de Valera’s positions is notable. Committed to a self-sufficient Ireland, de Valera remained unwilling to fund Muintir or intervene in the economy and society while Lemass was somewhat impatient with the lack of support his Ministers gave to Munitir’s proposals which were designed to develop rural Ireland.
The change in Munitir’s modus vivendi reflected concerns as to the effectiveness of the organisation. These centered on the range of issues it examined along with its need to address local and national audiences. Replacing vocationalism as its core ideology, Community development thus resolved some of the tensions between traditionalism and modernism. Muintir’s importance thus lay in its role in questioning the type of Ireland that was emerging. As a conduit for understanding rural Ireland and explaining the nature of state policy and what this meant to a local and national as well as an international audience, Muintir remained during much of the twentieth century a significant example of civil activism. More than that, a brief consideration of the organisation highlights the diversity of views found within the Catholic Church and serves as a warning not to treat it as a monolith. As to the continued relevance of Muintir na Tíre and civil society organisations in contemporary Ireland, de Valera’s warnings as to the dangers of state interference remain prescient as the appropriate balance between government and voluntary organisations continues to present a significant challenge in the twenty-first century.
Dr Tomás Finn is a lecturer in History at NUI, Galway. His research interests include modern Irish and British history and politics, the role of intellectuals, public policy, Church-State relations and Northern Ireland.
To see what is help in the Muintir na Tire Collection at NUI Galway visit http://archivesearch.library.nuigalway.ie/nuig/calmview/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=P134