Sensational tales of the `archbigot' of Dublin

City Life DUBLIN

HE WAS the stern guardian of Ireland's soul with such power over the nation's conscience that he had only to lift the episcopal phone for books to be banned or seized, films withdrawn, shows cancelled and political careers torpedoed.

But John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin from 1940 to 1973, has become the object of a much fiercer controversy in death than he created in life. A book on sale in Dublin tomorrow depicts the puritanical prince of the church, the man who almost collapsed at the sight of a naked mannequin in the window of a Dublin department store, as a homosexual voyeur with strong paedophilic tendencies.

The raunchier extracts of John Charles McQuaid, Ruler of Catholic Ireland have hit the Irish newspapers, drawing predictable letters from outraged lay Catholics and church leaders. Many see the book as another poisoned dart from the chattering classes of Dublin 4 - the south city postcode which conjures up much the same image in Ireland as Hampstead Socialist in Britain - who will not rest until they have dynamited every pillar propping up the traditional Catholic state.

The church is already nettled over John Cornwell's new book Hitler's Pope, which portrays the Second World War pontiff Pius XII as an anti- Semite with Nazi sympathies. But Cornwell is English, a point much belaboured by the Catholic press here, as if to suggest nothing better could be expected from that den of iniquity.

What hurts is that the man who would bury McQuaid's reputation, John Cooney, is one of their own, a good Catholic from Glasgow who has lived in Ireland for years. Much of the book's content, though not the murky account of the archbishop's alleged fumbling with a schoolboy in the upper room of a Dublin pub, may seem more tragi-comic than terrifying. The archbishop in his eyrie on the cliffs, with his eye trained through a telescope on the couples frolicking on Killiney beach, seems more of a sad case than a monster.

Even the story of the archbishop telephoning the head of programmes on Radio Eireann to complain about the words of a Cole Porter song, which appeared to condone "conditional love", has a quaint, otherworldly air about it (even if the presenter was hauled over the coals for allowing it to go on the air and offending such an important listener).

There is more than a whiff of Father Ted about the archbishop - or the archbigot of Dublin, as one wit dubbed him - who was so obsessed with underwear and genitalia that his trainee priests came to dread the inevitable one-to-one discussion on masturbation and what soap they used to clean their private parts.

But Dubliners do not seem to find it funny. When the book came up for discussion on television's Questions and Answers, Ireland's answer to Question Time, the entire panel, including the newly elected Dublin Labour MP Mary Upton, was reduced to embarrassed silence.

No one wanted to comment, and that discussion stopped stone dead in the water. Partly that is because the Irish genuinely despise the "what the butler saw" mentality of the British media and its seeming obsession with bedroom farce.

"There is no real public demand here for intrusive reporting on the private lives of public figures," said a journalist. "There is a demand for outing and punishing those involved in financial scandals."

But the reticence about Archbishop McQuaid touches a deeper chord in the national psyche, and not just because the urban sophisticates of Dublin think the correct way to respond to reports of their leaders' sexual peccadillos is with a Gallic shrug.

McQuaid is the pre-eminent symbol of an old Ireland which a newer generation, especially in Dublin, wants to forget. To them, he was the eminence grise of a darker land, fearful and sordid as well as holy, which flocked to mass on Sundays and sent its teenage daughters to Britain for abortions.

The new Dubliners are self-consciously "modern" and European in a way their British counterparts are not, or do not feel the need to be. To the Dubliners the memory of how their parents' lives were tied to the girdles of the clergy is, at the least, uncomfortable.

The added and entirely unwelcome revelation that the man over whom Irish presidents and prime ministers fawned was the prisoner of such unsavoury fantasies is a source of shame. The youngsters can afford the Gallic shrug. To many over 40, the world of John Charles McQuaid is too recent to evoke laughter.

A retired school teacher in Dublin had an unmarried nanny for her children in the early Sixties who became pregnant. The parish priest told her she would have to send the nanny away to avoid scandal.

With much regret, she did. "To this day, my children say it was monstrous. `How could you have done such an awful thing?' they say. They don't realise it was really another time, another world."

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