Catholic Elites

Interview with Dr Ciaran O’Neill, Lecturer in History, Trinity College Dublin, conducted by Gordon O’Sullivan, 28 March 2012

Mary Martin’s sons attended Downside public school in England. Was this a common occurrence for well-to-do Catholics?
Yes, there was nothing unusual about Irish Catholics turning up at prestigious schools such as Stonyhurst, Downside, Beaumont and Oscott. 309 Irish-born boys attended Downside between 1850 and 1900, 29% of the total intake. In all, as many as 300-400 Irish Catholic boys from this background attended English schools per annum, with French, German or Belgian schools the preferred choice of their sisters. Tuition fees for schools like Downside were not particularly high compared to the best schools in Ireland, though the cost of sending the boys over and back (sometimes for two years at a time) was prohibitive and far beyond the means of most Irish people. Sending a boy to Downside would have cost roughly £60-£90 at a time when many families in the west of Ireland survived on less than half of that figure for a whole year.

Downside School

Downside School
(Image courtesy of Downside Abbey Library and Archives)

What would her relationship have been like with the Catholic Church at the time? Was it deferential?
Deferential in a gestural way, perhaps, although it is impossible to accurately describe how Mrs Martin may personally have felt about the church it is very likely that she was rarely acting against their wishes.

Why do you think was Mary Martin so unaware of the Easter Rising and so unexcited by its impact?
Mary Martin was a propertied, conservative, south Dublin Catholic. Most people were either ambivalent or hostile towards those involved in the Easter rising and someone from her background even more so.

Two sons were serving in the British army, two sons at English public school, one daughter nursing in a military hospital in Malta, another nursing in a war hospital in Dublin. Was this a typical familial experience for Irish Catholics during this period?

Marie Martin with some of her patients at St.  George’s Hospital, Malta (Image Courtesy of MMM Archives)

Yes, of the Irish boys who attended English schools, typically a third to a half of them served in the army at some point – an extraordinarily high percentage which indicates the extent to which they were integrated into the British class system, which valued ideas of service and noblesse oblige then as it does now. The work done by her daughters in war hospitals was also connected to these ideas of service for one’s society in times of great need.

Was the British administration in Ireland connected to or concerned by these Catholic elites at the time?
The British administration were not at all threatened by the rising Catholic elite, and in fact incorporated many from this background into the civil service, mostly at mid-rank level. They represented no threat to the status quo and were not in any way a radical group.

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