Archive of the Month
“Good Wishes for the Great Adventure”: The Church of Ireland & the Irish Convention, 1917
By Dr Susan Hood
One hundred years ago, on 25 July 1917, 98 delegates representing a broad cross–section of Irish political, religious and civil society arrived at Regent House in Trinity College Dublin to begin talks in the Irish Convention to make a new Irish constitution acceptable to the majority of Irish people. This government–appointed assembly would meet to listen and deliberate in secret during the course of next eight months, producing a final report by March 1918, but ultimately failing in its efforts to reach a settlement.
The Irish Convention is significant because it would be the last time all–Ireland participated in political negotiations before Partition in 1921. By initiating a gathering of Irishmen to decide their own political destiny, the British government’s ostensible objective was to keep Nationalist and Unionist Ireland together as a single political entity (albeit at this point within the British Empire). A subsidiary, but no less important reason, was to neutralise Irish–American opinion until the USA had been safely brought into the war against Germany and her allies.
The main Churches were well represented at the Convention. The government invited the two Church of Ireland Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin – John Baptist Crozier and John Henry Bernard – to attend. Representing the Roman Catholic hierarchy were the archbishop of Cashel and three other bishops – of Down, Raphoe and Ross, while the Presbyterian Church in Ireland was represented by its Moderator. Once in session, the proceedings of the Convention were strictly secular – there were no prayers or religious formalities as part of the proceedings – nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the church leaders among the political leaders in the front row of the official photograph that appeared in August 1917 (reproduced here courtesy of the National Library of Ireland) signals how highly–valued their input was considered in political circles. The two Church of Ireland archbishops are flanked on the left by Hugh J. Barrie, Ulster Unionist, and John Redmond MP, leader of the Irish Nationalist Party, next to whom is the Revd John Mahaffy (Provost of Trinity and Convention host) then the chairman, the Rt Hon. Sir Horace Plunkett, who is flanked to his right by the three other Roman Catholic leaders: the archbishop of Cashel, and bishops of Ross and Down. On the extreme left is the fourth Roman Catholic bishop, of Raphoe, beside whom is the Presbyterian Moderator.
The Church of Ireland, then as now an all–island institution, and including members of all political persuasions and none, appears to have been deeply committed to support the Convention and promote the stability it offered, particularly in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916. Once again through the pages of its weekly newspaper, the Church of Ireland Gazette, now digitized and available to search between 1890 and 1923, it is possible to get some insight to the moderate and middle–ground opinion being written and read by its members and others during this period.
For example, in a letter published in the 10 August edition under the header: ‘Irish Unity’, the Revd FR Montgomery Hitchcock, rector of Kinnity in county Offaly, reflected:
Irishmen have now fully placed in their own hands control of their own destinies
For the duration of the Convention’s deliberations, the Gazette continued to be edited by Warre Bradley Wells who, as we have previously revealed here www.ireland.anglican.org/news/6413/reporting–the–rising–a–church had witnessed first–hand the events of the 1916 Rising from inside the paper’s premises on Middle Abbey Street – initially writing up the graphic detail in the columns and editorials of his paper, and then co–authoring one of the first contemporary histories of the 1916 Rebellion: A History of the Irish Rebellion of 1916 (published Dublin, 1916 and New York, 1917).
It is significant to find Wells further co–authoring the first independent contemporary record of the proceedings of the Irish Convention which was written in the immediate aftermath of its demise after March 1918, and published as a sequel to his Rising book: The Irish Convention and Sinn Fein, in Continuation of “A history of the Irish rebellion of 1916” (Dublin, 1918). Whilst this book would lament what could have been achieved had the Convention succeeded, back in July 1917 through the pages of the Gazette we find Wells using his editorials and lead articles to foster hope. On the eve of its convening, in a lead piece in the 20 July 1917 edition, he wrote:
The Convention has in its power to rescue us from our tragic confusion
Whilst discouraged by the fact that: ‘Despite all appeals, the Sinn Fein party, Labour in Dublin and Cork and Mr William O’Brien’s group have all refused to take part in it’ thus having its ‘authority repudiated by the most vocal, if not the largest, section of opinion in the country, and with the menacing portent of East Clare [the by–election won by the Sinn Féin candidate Éamon de Valera on 10 July 1917] as its immediate preliminary’ yet the outlook ‘still induces hope’.
Commenting on the ‘Atmosphere’ created by the Dublin University setting, because that institution was ‘held in peculiar affection by all Unionists’ whilst symbolically looking out towards the Houses of Parliament (Grattan’s Parliament), he expressed confidence ‘in the people of Ireland, north and south, the great majority of whom’ he said:
desire merely to see their national destiny settled and to resume their peaceful activities …These are democratic days and Ireland must not lag behind the progress of democracy. Unionist and Nationalist members are now meeting face to face at the Convention … The country closes the doors of the Convention upon its members with the hope and prayer that the watch–word of its proceedings may be in things essential, unity; in things doubtful, liberty; in all things, charity.
In the next edition, published on 27 July 1917, two days after the Convention got underway, the paper’s opening ‘The Week’ column was pleased to report the first day’s proceedings had resulted in the ‘happiest omen’ with the unanimous appointment of Sir Horace Plunkett as Convention chairman. The paper added with some pride that Plunkett was ‘a member of our Church’ (being an active member of Kilmessan parish in the diocese of Meath which included the town and demesne of Dunsany Castle, his family’s ancestral seat). The article continued that having ‘preached the gospel of co–operation in Ireland for many years’, and embodying ‘tolerance, unity and progress’, he was the ideal person to lead. If the Convention did not succeed, declared the Gazette: ‘the fault would not lie with its Chairman’.
Additionally, it observed how ‘Tokens of the Church of Ireland’s good–will towards the Convention had multiplied, with ‘special prayers’ sanctioned by the bishops for Divine guidance’ in its work being produced and in circulation, albeit for a small printing cost.
The paper further reported how at the previous Sunday’s service held in St Patrick’s Cathedral, the cathedral precentor, the Revd Canon Dr Hugh Lawlor, had preached ‘a sermon inspired by the highest patriotism and charity’ urging the congregation to ‘make the Convention a subject of our daily prayers’. The Gazette took up this appeal elsewhere hoping people of all religious outlooks would ‘pride ourselves in this country, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike, upon being a religious people …
When we begin to apply Christian principles in our political relations we shall begin to solve the Irish question
In this Christian spirit, it is interesting that whilst the actual proceedings of the Convention did not contain any religious content, the Church of Ireland appears to have hosted a pre–Convention ‘special Service for delegates in St Andrew’s Church, Suffolk Street’. Rather than use the adjacent chapel building within Trinity’s precincts, added political symbolism was provided by staging the service in what had been the parish church for the Irish Houses of Parliament. The only detailed report of this service appears in the Church of Ireland Gazette on 27 July 1917. This piece observed how ‘Wednesday’s Service’ appeared to revive the old tradition being ‘the first Service of the kind since the Act of Union’, and was well attended: ‘about one–third of the congregation were gentlemen chosen to deliberate on the future of Ireland’. The rector, the Revd Robert Northridge, officiated while the Revd Dr Murray [Robert Henry Murray, minor chaplain at St Patrick’s cathedral, later select preacher at Trinity College and biographer of John Henry Bernard] preached a thought–provoking sermon on the text: “The body is not one member but many” with fitting references to the symbolism that the gathering was taking place in Trinity ‘at whose entrance door stood the statue of Edmund Burke, the greatest political philosopher this island had ever known’.
Unfortunately the relevant preachers’ book for St Andrew’s (click here) does not appear to survive for this period, which might enable us to verify the size of the congregation, nor does a service sheet appear to exist, but it is remarkable to speculate that at least some of the other non–Church of Ireland delegates, be they northern Presbyterians or Roman Catholics might have been present to worship together prior to their political deliberations. Certainly there would have been Stephen Gwynn MP, of the Irish Nationalist party, another son of the Church of Ireland, whose father, the Revd John Gwynn, was Regius Professor of Divinity in Trinity at this time. With southern landed gentry connections and a privileged education at St Columba’s College in Dublin behind him, Gwynn’s advocacy for home rule represented a positive bridge between nationalism and unionism.
In his book on the proceedings, Wells commented how a ‘very notable feature of the Convention was the amount of ability which resided in the delegations from the two [largest] Churches’ (Irish Convention & Sinn Fein, p.91). Archbishop Crozier was selected as ‘Chairman of the Proceedure Committee of the Convention’ (as reported in the 3 August edition) and it is thus hardly a surprise but no less remarkable to find that the operating proceedures to regulate the work of the Convention were in fact modelled on those of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland.
In addition to the voices that we hear through the pages of the Gazette another primary source available in the RCB Library, being the typescript memoirs of its founding benefactor – Rosamond Stephen (1868–1951) provides additional insight to the thoughts and hopes of one lay member of the Church. Indeed, this source entitled ‘The Record’ reveals verbatim her personal and direct contact with Sir Horace Plunkett on the eve of and very opening day of the Convention. The correspondence further confirms a similar hopeful approach to that of Wells’ Gazette. Writing from Belfast where she was working as a volunteer missionary for the Irish Guild of Witness, she reflected on 24 July 1917:
Tomorrow is the convention. I wrote a line to Sir Horace last night, and I said I was writing to send him good wishes for the great adventure …
“[cont.]…that I had ceased to be quite utterly in despair about it, and I felt very nearly sure it was going to be the means of good … somehow I feel something is going to come out of the Convention. Perhaps it will come indirectly, that is quite possible. I think Sir Horace is very brave about it, and very unselfish … I feel pretty sure that it will neither draw up a satisfactory plan, nor will it hinder bloodshed in the settling of this country … but if a very small flame of patriotism were glowing away under heaps, and mountains … and if the Convention gives that little spark the tiniest encouragement, then Sir Horace will be justified, and may say that the Convention has succeeded in leaving the country better than he found it.”
On the day that its proceedings opened, Sir Horace found time to reply to Miss Stephen, thanking her for her good wishes. Even at this early stage, his letter reveals that he was resigned to being part of ‘a very small minority’ who believed it could do any good. But he warned that those who would treat its efforts lightly
do not realize the changes which have taken place in the world, and which make the Irish question a very much smaller affair than formerly.
Miss Stephen was struck by Plunkett’s bigger–world view and felt compelled to write to him again, admitting that whilst she did ‘not see how it can do its work which belongs to the executive government … [or] how it can finally settle Home Rule in the middle of the war’, she was inspired by his optimism and dialogical approach in the darkest of times. Urging him to ‘keep up to it’ she offered her own hope that in time ‘it must have an educating influence on many of its members…it might be parent of the body which in quieter times will really settle the country’.
Perhaps Miss Stephens’ vision was only to be realised some 81 years later following the deliberations in the all–Ireland assembly that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
The RCB Library gratefully acknowledges the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht for supporting this online exhibition, and covering the costs of hosting Church of Ireland Gazette search engine online to the end of the Decade of Commemorations in 2023.
The RCB Library is also most grateful for the assistance of the National Library of Ireland which provided and gave permission to use the contemporary image of the Convention. Thanks also to Dr Ian d’Alton, Centre for Contemporary Irish History, Trinity College Dublin, for helpful comments.
The Stephen Papers (RCB Library MS 253) are available for consultation in the Library. For more about Rosamond Emily Stephen and her role in the foundation of the RCB Library see: https://www.ireland.anglican.org/about/rcb-library/history
The Church of Ireland Gazette (available in complete hardcopy format in the Library from 1856 to the present) is also fully viewable and free to search from 1890 to 1923 here: https://esearch.informa.ie/rcb
Librarian and Archivist
Dr Susan Hood
Librarian and Archivist