Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

“John Charles McQuaid Made Me a Socialist” – Mary Muldowney

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I first met Mary Muldowney in the early 1990’s in pro-choice radical left circles, discovering both of us attended Sandymount High School around the same time – we did not personally meet then – we moved in different circles and (school) classes! We attended the same Dublin marches against the Vietnam War and the Apartheid South Africa Rugby Tour of 1970.

Mary, a Dublin City Council Historian, vividly describes the late 1960’s and 1970’s – events which also made me a socialist, feminist, and pro-choice activist.

Muldowney’s talk offers the unlikely suggestion that arch-bigot John Charles McQuaid, then boss of the Dublin Archdiocese and the Catholic Church in Ireland, turned a teenage Sandymount High School pupil into a socialist. Recommended listening

Dublin Archbishop, Catholic Primate of Ireland, 1940-1972 John Charles McQuaid

Dublin City Historian Mary Muldowney – Socialist and Feminist

Mary Muldowney’s talk is part of the Sarah Lundberg Summer School 2020, an online event.

Here’s a good description of Sandymount High School, which

“was founded in 1947 and was initially controversial because, as a non-denominational school, it wasn’t owned by a church but by the Cannon family[1], who also provided the two headmasters the school had: father and son Patrick and Conall Cannon. Patrick’s wife Eileen Cannon also served as headmistress.

The school’s student body was arguably drawn from several distinct groups: those from a local council estate called Beech Hill, the offspring of parents disenchanted with denominational/same sex schools, students on the Malahide/Howth to Bray rail corridor and the 3 & 18 bus routes, and foreign nationals who paid tuition fees.”

My parents – Denis and Sylvia, took me out of Oatlands, a Christian Brothers’ school in Stillorgan. I did well at a secondary school exam in Sandymount High School, which I attended between 1967 and 1972.

This rare institution – a lay school, no religious teachers, in the public system, no fees, co-educational – offered an added bonus : corporal punishment was banned.

Things seemed to be looking up – but, one day, disaster struck.

Denis, a radio broadcaster, drove me into town to select a book that would be an exam prize at the school. We would go for a meal, pal around.

Denis suddenly changed tack; plans changed.  He had to get his car near the Radio Éireann office in Henry Street – part of the GPO complex. He carefully told his 13 year old son, sitting beside him in a rickety Hillman Imp that was always breaking down, what needed to be done if he lost consciousness at the wheel of the car. He parked the car, John was told what to do if his father collapsed in the street.  We made it to Denis’s office, walking the long corridor of the radio building.  Adults streamed in, coming and going, some in tears. He gave me a hug and I waited in the reception area to be collected by Sylvia. Denis had suffered a second, fatal, cancer attack.

I did not want to believe the awful news and went into denial.  This was a valuable lesson for later in lifedenial is a bad place to visit.

The summer of 1968 was very jolly, Denis at home living life to the full, in bed entertaining his lover, kids, friends and family.

Denis Meehan in 1968 with his youngest children Rosa and Richard

I was taking an obsessive interest in history, current affairs and TV sport, mostly gaelic games and soccer.  

Revolution, hope, was spreading across the world – America was losing a war in Vietnam, France erupted in May 1968, the Prague Spring offered hope in Eastern Europe.  I distinctly remember Denis reacting to news of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and media speculation that the Western powers would come to the aid of the Czech people.  I was stunned to hear my da saying these governments, including the Irish one, did not care about the fate of the Czech people – and were, in fact, secretly pleased to see an experiment of “Socialism with a Human Face” crushed.  How could that be, I wondered?

Could this ferment arrive in Ireland? On October 5 the police attacked a civil rights march on the streets of Derry, and the story quickly spread worldwide.

A dark shadow descended as Denis died on January 19 1969.

Some months later, angry about the likes of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid banning Catholics from using contraceptives, I became an atheist.

John Meehan

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