Religion-The Knights of Columbanus
AFTER THREE YEARS as Supreme Knight of the 6,000 Knights of Saint Columbanus, the term of office of Vincent Grogan, S.c., has come to an end. He says he doesn't intend ever to hold any official rank in any organisation, apart from his existing commitment to the Council for the Laity, of which he is this year's Chairman, because in future he wishes to be free to speak openly and frankly on all matters concerning the Catholic Church. Certainly he spoke frankly to NUSIGHT about the Knights and his three years' of office.
The interview took place in Ely House in Dublin. It is a Stapleton gem, massively ornate, luxuriously carpeted, with heavy mahogany doors which have delicately chased silver handles. The fireplaces are marble, a crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling of the room in which we met. Later we went up the broad staircase, with it.> embellished banisters, walked past other lavishly decorated rooms, into a small office. We asked Mr. Grogan was it true that the Knights were an exclusive body, could a poor person become a member? He replied "No, because there is an annual subscription of £5 5s. Od. to £10 IOs. Od. which a poor man couldn't afford."
Do you agree with this, we said. "No, definitely not. I think the individual man's quality is far more important than the loose change in his pocket."
How then does one become a member? "Normally by being invited by an existing member, though unusually a person may apply for membership. When this happens every endeavour is made to find an existing member who will sponsor him."
Did he agree with this? "I agree that given the right motivation this is all right. The organisation is intended to be one which will promote leadership, therefore selection not election is the proper principle. However, I cannot say that this principle is universally observed." Was membership ever refused? "Yes, indeed. Sometimes for the best reason that people are seeking membership for their own advantage. Sometimes for the worst reason because this is the quality of much of the small Irish suburban life we have today."
Would he care to comment on why the Knights of Saint Columbanus is a secret society? "It has been secretive purely for historical reasons, in order to fight anti-Catholic discrimination. Nowadays, some people feel that the works of charity done by the members ought not to be advertised to glorify the Order. I, myself, and a majority of the members believe that we have been misreading scripture. The goods works of o:Jr members ought to be proclaimed." Why did the Knights provide themselves with such luxurious housing? "Our house is one of the greatest treasures of Georgian architecture. We have not only maintained it, we have restored the house to its original design, paid for, let us remember, by the members. And don't forget that the house was built by the Earls of Ely and paid for by the rents of their Catholic peasantry."
The Knights are often referred to as the Catholic answer to the Masons. Is this true? "If that were true we would be a very poor second. We are not nearly as efficient as they are." To the ordinary man in the street, the Knights are looked on as a secret society, given to ritualistic nonsense, and used by its members for getting on in the world. How did it all begin?
"The Knights were founded as late as 1915, in Belfast, by Canon James O'Neill. He had been for years Spiritual Director of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society there. Now he felt the needs of the time called for an adult lay leadership in the Church. In this he was far ahead of his time. In fact the whole idea of lay leadership was only realised at the Vatican II Council.
"In his own Council of the Saint Vincent de Paul, Canon O'Neill put his idea into practice. He got a number of brilliant young professional men to produce a series of pamphlets and give lectures on the Church in the World, on Social Justice, the Labour question and other issues derived from the inspiration of Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical on 'The Working Classes'.
"However, these men of the North, instead of thinking out their problems for themselves, looked to America for their model, where they found a readymade organisation - The Knights of Columbus-which had been founded in 1888 in Philadelphia. It was here they went wrong, I think. They were wrong because the Catholic Church in America was an underprivileged minority group.
accused of being un-American because of their allegiance to the Church. This drove Catholic leadership into an organisation which would defend their rights as Catholics, while also asserting their patriotism as Americans.
"Here in. Ireland, though we were under-privileged, we were a majority and all we needed to fight for was independence.
"Another aspect of the Knights of Columbus which was right for America but wrong for Ireland was their reverence of ceremonial, for a ritual to establish their identity. The Knights of Saint Columbanus adopted this ritual, and, to my mind, though we have since abandoned most of it, it always savoured to me the ritual of a minority cult, and in the satirical world of Ireland it was easily made an object of ridicule, notably by Mervyn Wall, in his novel 'No Trophies Raise.' Our own members are upset about this description, but in their hearts they know that though an outrageous caricature it was not altogether wrong.
"However, to get back to the Knight's foundation, Canon O'Neill took this American model and formed a society in Belfast in 1915.
"Now, let us come back to Dublin. From the late 18th century a series of societies had worked for the emancipation of the Catholic people. The best known was the Catholic Association, of which Wolfe Tone, a Protestant, was at one time secretary, and which under Daniel O'Connell secured Catholic Emancipation, which, at the same time as it gave the Church emancipation, deprived the small man of the vote by making the test of a vote the £10 freehold. In actual fact, the Catholic hierarchy fell over backwards to please Britain, and the Union of Britain and Ireland would never have been achieved without the Catholic hierarchy of Ireland.
"During the 19th century the fight was for Land Rights and Home Rule, and up to the turn of the century the role of the Catholic in business and the professions was very little better than it had been for 70 years before. This was forcibly brought out into the open by D. P. Moran the editor of 'The Leader' in a series of articles in 1901.
".He analysed the top executives of the railway companies, the banks and the few other enterprises that were of any significance in Ireland at that time. He showed that the Catholic majority in the country were still in the same subordinate positions as they had been when 'emancipation' had been secured. "It was as a result of these articles that a 'Catholic Association' was formed in Dublin in 1902, to protect the rights of Catholics. However, it didn't survive long, nor did it achieve much. In 1905 the Catholic Defence Society was established to fight against 'discrimination' against Catholics in business and the professions. This Society was launched at a meeting of the Maynooth Union in 1904 following a lecture by Dr. Hogan. The Bishops in general approved of this, but it too was allowed to lapse. "The final effort was made by a young Dublin man, Dr. Michael Walsh. He had fought for the Boers as a medical officer with the Irish Brigade in the South African War. When he came back to Ireland and saw the same picture of a Catholic majority under a minority rule, he, in turn, saw the Knights of Columbus in America as the kind or organisation needed to counteract this state of affairs. And so, in Dublin, in 1909, he founded the Columban Knights. He obtained the support of a dissident branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The main aim of the Columban Knights was to defend by all legitimate means the rights of Irish Catholics and to secure equality for them.
"The Columban Knights was still an active body when the Order of the Knights of Saint Columbanus was formed in Belfast in 1915 and an attempt was made in 1919 to unite the two associations, but at first nothing definite emerged from the exchange of views that took place.
"The result was that you had two organisations with similar constituents, but, in fact, different objectives. The people in the North were fighting for social justice as such, while the southern people were fighting for equality of opportunity.
"However, as a result of the pogroms in Belfast in 1920 to 1924, the Knights of Saint Columbanus moved to Dublin. They approached Archbishop Byrne, who said to them, 'Why have two similar oganisations. Go and talk to the Dublin Knights and when you have amalgamated come back again.' And so, on 24th June, 1922 the two associations became one.
"Now, to my mind, the Society has never quite made up its mind as to which of the two ideals, North or South, it should follow. The fight against discrimination was the first motive of the Dublin organisation which necessarily involved secrecy. For example, a case was made to a railway company that almost all the higher executive positions were held by Protes'tants. Now, it was obviously necessary to conceal the fact that this incontrovertible information was supplied by a member of the staff, who was, of course, a member of the Order. So, secrecy was a principle of the Dublin Knights as it had been with the Defence Association, and for a very practical reason. Because those who fought discrimination would themselves be the victims of it. So it was that only a small group of people who had completely established themselves could afford the luxury of indentifying themselves with the movement.
"This secrecy was completely foreign to Canon O'Neill who campaigned to procure social justice for all. However, secrecy was also at the core of the American Knights. Now they have abandoned it, and so, at long last, have we. But not until two generations of Irish people have left the Knights behind. Like the general we have planned our strategy for the next war on the tactics of the last.
"Nevertheless, the years after 1922 were devoted to solid work in correcting the discrimination against Catholics' in banks, insurance companies and other public enterprises. And the Order can rightly claim the credit for the present system of examinations for entry to employment in p:Iblic bodies. Promotion is another story. There, too, the Order fought. But, inevitably, the counter charge was made that people were promoted because they were Knights. This particular charge is impossible to prove but easily credible, and was particularly evident in the semi-state bodies. This has never been said in print before, but the E.S.B. was riddled with this nonsensical charge. The Army is another area in which this kind of charge has been made. I wish to God we had the amount of influence with which we are credited or discredited. At least in the last three years I hope I would have made good use ':)f it."
This last remark led to the question of how and why he had become a member of the Knights? "Well, I joined at the age of twenty. I was invited by the late Rev. Michael O'Halloran, Dean of Residence at U.C.D. He went round the College inviting people he thought would be leaders. I suppose I was fortunate in that I knew nothing of the Knights beforehand. Many of my colleagues refused to join because of what they thought of the organisation.
"Anyway, I joined. I became a member of a Junior Council, and I am glad now that I took the advice, given in another context, by Wee Joe Biggar"Never resign!" There were many times when for various reasons I was tempted to do so. The first was unwillingness to give responsibility to youth; there was also excessive conservatism, a defence mentality and undue secrecy. But I did see the essential rightness of Canon O'Neill's ideal and that when a structure exists it should be used and reformed where necessary. The appalling weakness of Ireland is our dreadful tendency to split and form other groups. Only for this tendency we would have been an independent nation centuries ago.
"Yes, we do have many humane projects in hand. For instance, the Catholic Aid Society was founded by the Knights, as was the Marian Invalid Fund. In Cork there is the Beggars for Others scheme. They run a whole series of enterprises to help the poor. Here in Dublin a Council has been looking after the boys in Daingean Reformatory, and lately we have managed to get the capitation fee paid by the Government raised by 100%
for each boy. In fact, really, in any community in Ireland, you will find Catholic enterprise is spearheaded by a Knight, because the whole objective of the Order is to train them to be leaders.
"Oddly enough, our relations with other churches are better than with many of our co-religionists. I have, myself, had the great pleasure of entertaining in Ely House leading members, clerical and lay, of the other Christian communities. It was as a result of our 'agape' or love feast that we had Protestant Observer/Consultants as members of the Irish delegation at the World Congress of the Laity in Rome in 1967. "At every annual meeting since I became Supreme Knight we have had a speaker from the Protestant Community. It was in Ely Hall in 1968 that Bishop Whelan and his Anglican confrere Bishop Cockin of Owerri launched the Joint Biafra Famine Appeal."
In all honesty, did he feel the organisation was relevant in the world today? "The only justification for the Order is to give the Irish (middle class) an awareness of their responsibilities as Catholics. I, myself, would be perfectly happy to see the Order wound up tomorrow if I could see Catholic men acting as responsible Catholic leaders."