Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Insidious Librarian

By Luis Granados

The world of 80 years ago this month: Adolf Hitler remained in a deep depression over the recent death of his niece and alleged lover, Geli Raubal, who was officially ruled to have committed suicide inside Hitler’s Munich apartment. In Albany, New York, legendary gangster Legs Diamond was gunned down after crossing one rival too many. In Washington, Congress approved a moratorium on the payment of European debts to help address a credit crunch threatening the stability of the entire continent. (Sound familiar?) And in Ireland, a librarian was transferred from her post in County Mayo to a position in Dublin.

That last item doesn’t sound so exciting, does it? Well, it was, especially for those of us interested in the power that God experts have wielded over the centuries (and still do today). For the librarian in question was a Protestant, County Mayo was mostly Catholic, and the war of wills between politicians who thought that librarians ought to be hired on their library skills versus those who thought they ought to be hired based on which band of God experts they followed was fought all the way to the national parliament.

Ireland had only been independent for a decade in December, 1931; the Anglo-Irish Treaty that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State was signed 90 years ago this Tuesday. The southern portion of the island was overwhelmingly Catholic, and one of the great obstacles to Irish independence from Great Britain ever since the Wolfe Tone uprising of 1798 had been a fear for what would happen to Ireland’s Protestant minority if the Catholics ever took the upper hand.

Post-independence events proved that this concern was not just British propaganda. Witness the case of Miss Letitia Dunbar-Harrison, a Protestant from Dublin, and an honors graduate of Trinity College. In July, 1930, she was assigned by the central government to the post of chief librarian of the Carnegie Library in Castlebar, with advisory functions covering the whole of County Mayo.

Being Protestant was bad enough; attending Trinity College, the bastion of Irish Protestantism, was even worse. Ireland’s bishops had pronounced doing so to be a mortal sin, growling that “The prohibition is not a mere arbitrary one. It is based on the natural divine law itself. … Subjects should not oppose their bishops’ teaching by word, by act, or in any other way.”

The local branch of Catholic Action, the political arm of the Catholic Church, sprang into action to protest the outrage. Rev. Denis O’Connor, chairman of the library committee, took the lead:
A Protestant young lady … has been appointed as our library adviser. Her culture and philosophy are, on many vital questions, diametrically opposed to Catholic principles and Catholic ideas, and therefore we, as Catholics, cannot be guided by her in selecting the literature that we need.
The tactic used was a tax strike: Catholics were commanded to stop paying local rates until the outrage was resolved. Archbishop Gilmartin encouraged the boycott:
It is gratifying to see how the representatives of our Catholic people are unwilling to subsidize libraries not under Catholic control. Not to speak of those who are alien to our faith, it is not every Catholic who is fit to be in charge of a public library for Catholic readers. Such an onerous position should be assigned to an educated Catholic who would be as remarkable for his loyalty to his religion as for his literary and intellectual attainments.
Public libraries were a particular sore spot for the Church, because they were the principal source of ideas in competition with God’s truth. There was no internet, no television, and no radio; there was the pulpit and little else. In Catholic-controlled Quebec, there was no library donated by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie corresponding to the one in County Mayo, because the local government was successful in keeping it out. As a Catholic pamphleteer in Quebec put it in 1890, a public library is “a pestilential spot … where the public goes to poison itself.” It wasn’t until 1959, when Catholic strongman Maurice Duplessis finally died, that Quebec enacted a law establishing public libraries.

Catholic Ireland rivaled the Soviet Union as the censorship capital of the world. The Irish Constitution itself proclaimed that “The State recognizes the special position of the Holy Catholic and Roman Church as the guardian of the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens … The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

Paul Blanshard’s book The Irish and Catholic Power devotes several pages to listing books and movies banned in Ireland, including works as innocuous as Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. The Irish Times characterized the official censorship list as “a concise index to modern literature.” At one Catholic college, even books by priests condemning contraception were kept under lock and key, lest the arguments they were refuting somehow pollute innocent minds. But censors couldn’t screen every single publication; imagine the damage a wrong-thinking librarian might do to the souls of County Mayo’s young readers.

The County Mayo authorities defied the central government by refusing to pay the new librarian’s salary. The “local rights” issue was used in exactly the same way that “states’ rights” was used in America to deny justice to black people for decades. Soon the Irish parliament got involved, with a bitter debate that nearly brought down the government. The battle lines were the same as on so many issues in so many places: religious vs. secular, rural vs. urban, local nabobs vs. federal authorities. Eamon de Valera, the fiercely Catholic independence fighter who was then part of the not-so-loyal opposition, played it for all it was worth:
If there were two qualified people who had to deal with a Catholic community, and if one was a Catholic and the other a Protestant, I would unhesitatingly vote for the Catholic. Let us be clear and let us know where we are. … Do not try to force upon a Catholic community a librarian in the quality, so to speak, of a teacher to whom they object. You have the result that the whole library system has been nullified and rendered naught as far as Mayo is concerned. … It is a fundamental teaching, a fundamental matter for Catholics. Every Catholic Deputy in the House knows I am speaking the truth.
After a lot more histrionics, the Catholics prevailed. Eighty years ago this month, the government offered Miss Dunbar-Harrison a transfer to the Military Library in Dublin, which she accepted. She changed her first name as well as her last when she married a Protestant minister, and later gave up on fighting the bigotry of the Republic of Ireland altogether by moving to Ulster. She was far from alone in this decision: approximately half of Ireland’s Protestants fled the country, mostly to the north, by 1950.

As for librarians, when Blanshard wrote in 1953, the Irish Republic did not have a single Protestant county librarian. Today, of course, God expert pressure on librarians is a thing of the past. Or is it? Just what books was Mayor Sarah Palin concerned about when she tried to fire the librarian back in Wasilla?


Don Wharton said...

Luis, thanks for another most excellent post. At the WASH MDC chapter meeting Saturday I noted that Irish Catholics were a major source of the increase in those reporting no religion. When a religious group puts special emphasis on absurd bigotry and stupidity it become more vulerable to being seen as absurdly stupid and bigoted.

Edd.Doerr said...

Excellent article. And interesting now that both Ireland and Quebec have outgrown clerical domination.I am reminded of the great work for reproductive choice by Humanist Dr Henry Morgentaler in Quebec and that the two leaders of Catholics for Choice in Washington are from Ireland, Jon O'Brien and David Nolan.

Re Paul Blanshard and James Michener, I was pleased to have worked with both in defending church-state separation.