You can’t imagine that the ‘Secular Society of Ireland’ were too popular in 1930s Dublin. At a time when the Irish Christian Front were mobilising tens of thousands at College Green and glorifying General Franco, and when the Saint Patrick’s Anti-Communist League were smashing the windows of Connolly House, the name certainly leaps out from the archives of Irish newspapers.
Reporting on the foundation the Secular Society of Ireland in a January 1934 edition of the paper, the Irish Press noted that “a society which openly advocates anti-clericalism and demands the virtual suppression of religious influence in Ireland was recently formed in Dublin.” The paper went on to quote from the membership form of the body, noting that it aimed to terminate, among other things,”the clerically-dictated ban on divorce”, “the Censorship of Publications Act” and “the system of clerical management, and consequent sectarian teaching, in schools.”
The society met fortnightly in the Contemporary Club’s premises at Lincoln Place, and a journalist from the above paper was present at one lecture, noting that “there were about 35 people present…the attendance included a number of young men, apparently students,and about half a dozen women.”
The Chairman of that meeting explained that the society “did not advocate either Divorce or Birth Control but would press for facilities in both matters for people who desired them,and would endeavour to have the law here amended accordingly.” It was reported that “It would also press for full sex-education for all classes.”
The driving force behind the Secular Society of Ireland was John Swift, a trade union activist who was born in Dundalk in 1896, and a man who devoted much of his life to progressive politics. From a family of bakers, he had arrived in Dublin in 1912, and was once a member of the Irish Volunteers. At the time of his passing in 1990, an obituary noted that:
He joined the Labour Party in 1927 and became the first Irishman to be given the Soviet decoration “for friendship between peoples” having been president of the Ireland-USSR Friendship Society. He was a major force in the founding of the People’s College in Dublin, a co-founder of the Secular Society which existed from 1933 to 1936, and of the Spanish Aid committee which helped those fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.
Fergus D’Arcy has written that”in a number of important respects John Swift was untypical…most obviously as a secularist, socialist and supporter of the Soviet Union in an Ireland either hostile or indifferent to all three.”
Interviewed in Uinseann MacEoin’s Survivors, Swift recalled that “among the founder members of the Society was Capt. Jack White, who had trained Connolly’s Citizen Army in 1914-1916, Denis Johnston of Dungannon, the playwright, and Mary Manning, the critic.” Another leading figure in the body was Owen Sheehy Skeffington, later a Senator and university lecturer. Owen was the son of Francis and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, two outspoken liberal voices in the Ireland of the early twentieth century. Of the small organisation, Swift joked that “we were few so we had no trouble fitting in the average size sitting room.”
Reports of the existence of such a society in Dublin caused great offence to some, and at a meeting in Veritas House days after the Irish Press report , a lecturer denounced the movement, believing that “it was allied to the widespread movement of Materialistic Communism.”
That the Secular Society wished to remain private isn’t surprising in the context of the street politics of the time, yet the demand from Veritas House was that “it was time…for those who composed it to come out into the open and declare themselves and their opinions…This country had clung to the Faith of its Fathers through persecution and famine, through terror and distress, it would meet and defeat a campaign carried on behind closed doors by unnamed speakers.”
The Irish Press, in many ways a government newspaper owing to its close affiliation with the Fianna Fáil party, suggested that the blame for attacks on left-wing elements by anti-communist and clerically encouraged mobs rested with the victims, as “if they hold public meetings and offend the feelings of their audiences so deeply as to stir up spontaneous anger against them, then they cannot expect to be listened to and are in grave danger of suffering from the irate crowd.”
In a 1975 feature on Swift’s long career in politics,it was claimed that “soon the meeting place of the Secular Society was exposed…for a time they met in private houses, at the seaside or in the country. But in 1936 they wound it up and sent the proceeds to the Spanish Government.”
Unsurprisingly, the Special Branch took an active interest in the activities of the Secular Society of Ireland. One police report noted that “a man named Denis Johnson spoke at the first meeting. He wanted to see Ireland free in the fullest sense and this meant dealing with divorce, censorship and sectarianism.”
The Censorship of Publications Act (1929) was a torn in the side for many in liberal Ireland, and it’s not surprising it was one of the things the Secular Society of Ireland targeted. This act allowed for the indefinite banning of publications deemed by a Censorship of Publications Board to be “in general tendency indecent or obscene” or which advocated “the unnatural prevention of conception of the procurement of abortion or miscarriage.” As UCC historian Donal O Drisceoil has noted,”Irish censors had an unusually wide view of what constituted indecency and obscenity.” O Drisceoil has noted that among the literary community, the list of prohibited publications became jokingly known as “The Everymans Guide to the Modern Classics.”
The Secular Society of Ireland distributed a newspaper entitled The Freethinker, which was “distributed free at all lectures.” The Freethinker was a British secular magazine, founded in the early 1880s by G.W Foote in England. Foote had been imprisoned for blasphemous material in the publication, and claimed in the first edition of the newspaper that “It will do its best to employ the resources of Science, Scholarship, Philosophy and Ethics against the claims of the Bible as a Divine Revelation; and it will not scruple to employ for the same purpose any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that may be borrowed from the armoury of Common Sense.”
Many of the things the Secular Society of Ireland wanted, such as divorce and access to birth control, are available to people in Irish society today, but they are the end product of very recent battles. While the Secular Society was short-lived, it did bring together some remarkable and interesting people, in an Ireland that was anything but secular.