Fr Kevin Hegarty
Ninety years ago, the appointment of a county librarian in Castlebar was the big news story in Mayo. It reached into the highest echelons of government and led to the abolition of Mayo County Council. It fuelled Protestant fears that ‘home rule’ would lead to Roman Catholic rule.
In 1930, Letitia Dunbar-Harrison applied for one of five county librarianships that had been advertised. She was 24 years old, a Dubliner and a Protestant who had been educated at Alexandra College and Trinity College Dublin. She had an honours degree in French and Spanish and a postgraduate qualification in library techniques. She trained as a librarian in Dublin County Library Headquarters and later worked in Rathmines Library, where she specialised in children’s books.
He application to be a county librarian was successful, and she was appointed to Mayo. Since the establishment of the State in 1922, proficiency in Irish was a requirement for public-service positions. Though Letitia’s Irish did not meet this standard, the legislation allowed an office holder three years to acquire it.
Her appointment took place under the aegis of the Local Appointments Commission. The creation of this body in 1926 was one of the major reforms of the new Irish State. It guarded against the nepotism that was prevalent in Irish society and guaranteed fairness in public appointments. Once an appointment was made by the commission, statutory bodies like the Mayo County Council were obliged to ratify it, whether they liked it or not.
In November 1930, the Mayo Library Committee – a sub-committee of the county council, composed mainly of Catholic clerics – rejected Letitia’s nomination as county librarian.
The then Bishop of Killala, Dr James Naughton, was chair of the library committee. It was a time when the Catholic Church sought to control the moral environment in Ireland and suffuse it with Catholic teaching. Books were seen as a possible source of spiritual contamination. The then Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Gilmartin, pronounced: “The modern world is teeming with all kinds of printed matter, books, more especially novels, magazines, papers – a few of them good, some of them indifferent, some of them positively immoral and many of them illustrated with indecent pictures.”
The reasons given for the rejection of her appointment was her lack of fluency in Irish, which, it was argued, might impede her interaction with Gaeltacht communities in Mayo. However, a reading of the discussion of the library committee meeting reveals the real reason for the decision. Letitia was unacceptable to the committee members because she was a Protestant and educated at Trinity College.
One cleric, as reported in The Mayo News, called her a West Briton and invoked the curse of Cromwell: “The people who have assigned her to Catholic and nationalist Mayo have made a serious mistake. The business of government is to promote the good of the community, to fall in with the general ideas of the country.
“Cromwell came to the country and our ancestors had no option but to go to ‘Hell or Connacht’ to make room for a class that was not of our race or religion, and now a national government has given the people the option of becoming West Britons or going into the mountains and glens again and leave knowledge aside in order to preserve what they hold most dear.
“A librarian is a teacher. She has to deal with books that are designed to give instruction, education and amusement. Therefore you will allow, whatever they may be, they will leave a trace behind them.”
Another speaker went so far as to say that ‘Trinity culture is not the culture of the Gael; rather it is poison gas to the kindly Celtic people’.
At its December meeting the county council voted to accept the sub-committee’s rejection of the appointment, though councillors were warned by the county secretary that they were acting illegally. An emergency meeting was held after Christmas. Councillors refused to change their decision. The Minister for Local Government, Richard Mulcahy, abolished the council on the last day of the year and appointed a Commissioner, PJ Bartley to discharge its functions. One of his first acts was to appoint Letitia as county librarian.
His decision did not end the sad affair. Clerics organised a boycott of library services. By June 1931, only four of 122 library centres in the county were operating. By the autumn, Letitia was happy to escape from Mayo, and she accepted a job in Dublin in the library of the Department of Defence. She found little welcome in Mayo. But she did experience some warmth in the cold atmosphere of Castlebar. She fell in love with the local Methodist Minister, Rev Robert Crawford, whom she later married. Though she lived until 1994, she never spoke publicly of her ordeal in Mayo.