It’s fair to say that the reputation of “Catholic Ireland” has taken a continuous beating in recent times. Books with titles like Republic of Shame and The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland, among many others, chronicle a society once considered to contain “the best Catholics in the world” now in retreat from its ancestral faith, and indeed manifesting a marked hostility towards that faith.
he words “dark theocracy”, “toxic theocracy”, and “Ireland’s dark theocratic past” often crop up in public discourse. An Irish-American writer, Niall O’Dowd, has even likened Catholic Ireland to “one giant concentration camp”.
Yes, we were — allegedly — worse than the Nazis! Small wonder that Government videos celebrating St Patrick’s Day to an international audience can omit any mention of St Patrick. The EU and the UN have replaced the Catholic Church as institutions the State wishes to identify with.
Obviously, the failings and errors of the church should be rigorously examined, reported and highlighted. It’s a matter of justice that victims of abuse or cruelty should be listened to, and awarded redress. Yet this collective image of “toxic theocracy” does not give the whole, contextual picture about the Ireland of our parents and grandparents — and in which I grew up. Younger generations in this country today — and the “new Irish”, who have arrived through more recent waves of immigration — may well get a skewed impression of the social history of this so-called “theocratic state”.
In fact, no serious historian has claimed that Ireland was ever a “theocracy”. That is a state run by religious leaders.
One of our best historians, Professor Joe Lee, has flatly denied it. Ireland was, since the inception of the State in 1922, a parliamentary democracy whose institutions remained democratic through a rocky century when many other new states crumbled into totalitarianism.
The new State has been called “a Catholic state”: the architectural historian Lorcan Sirr voiced a popular concept when he said: “When the Brits moved out, the church moved in.” Yet the constitution of the Free State was secular, pledging not to endow or favour any religion. But it did reflect the values of the people, and these values were socially conservative.
Divorce was abhorred — even the British administration had excluded Ireland from divorce legislation, nervous that it wouldn’t be supported, and Irish Protestants, too, strongly disapproved of divorce.
Birth control, in the 1920s, was also hugely controversial — France, and many American states, banned it. So the Free State wasn’t out of line in prohibiting birth-control “propaganda”, although initially it didn’t ban contraception in private.
It was really only during the 1930s, and the rise of De Valera and his Fianna Fáil party, that the Irish State became more “Catholic”. Politicians followed the growing sense of alignment with Catholicity. The centenary of Emancipation in 1929 and the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 affirmed this as part of the Irish identity. When the TDs voted to keep Ireland neutral during World War II, they emerged from the Dáil and, en bloc, attended early morning Mass. That was the culture of the country.
However, in that war’s aftermath, Ireland had few friends on the international stage. The break with the Commonwealth in 1949 caused tension with Britain: the British responded by giving extra guarantees to Northern Ireland.
Ireland was shunned in Washington, where power was still held by the old WASP elites. President Harry Truman wasn’t keen on meeting a representative of the Dublin Government — on the question of Partition, America’s sympathies were then with the Unionists.
Seán MacBride, assisted by Conor Cruise O’Brien and Brian Inglis, tried to launch an “Irish News Agency”, to publicise Ireland in a positive way internationally, but there were no takers: the stories they sent out were rejected by the international media. Nobody was interested.
Ireland was excluded from the United Nations by the Soviets, as a punishment for neutrality during World War II (until 1955). Possibly the only friend and ally during this time was the Holy See: the Vatican remained grateful for the continuous flow of missionaries which Ireland sent out to the developing world, and the willingness of Irish priests to venture into “Red” China, when martyrdom could be their fate.
Ireland was not a theocracy, but the church had prestige and clout. Politicians deferred to bishops, even though they denied doing so. Seán Lemass — who is thought to have been, privately, an agnostic — said he was never, in all his career, “leaned on” by any ecclesiastical source.
But an unexplored aspect of the church-state relations are the family links of so many Irish politicians; from Michael Collins, who had a sister a nun, to Jack Lynch and Charles Haughey, both of whom had a brother a priest, a clerical presence was woven into the fabric of Irish life.
President Mary Robinson, who was to campaign for contraceptive freedom, had two aunts who were nuns, and she ascribed her own leadership to religious missionaries who served the developing world.
Catholicism was, for much of the century, simply accepted as a normal part of Irish life.
When Aer Lingus — which played a vital role in the fledgling economic development of the 1950s — celebrated its anniversaries with a Mass, or had each new aircraft ritually blessed (until 1967) by a priest in full regalia, it wasn’t seen as “theocratic”, or even sectarian: it was the way we did things. Irish saints adorned the fuselage — and still do.
Many of the public servants steering the economy were educated by Catholic schools, and often practising Catholics — TK Whitaker, Michael Killeen of the IDA, Brendan O’Regan of Shannon Development. Aer Lingus ferried every major politician to Rome on pilgrimage, and opened up pioneer routes to Lourdes: well-known people often became brancardiers (stretcher-bearers) at Lourdes, including Seamus Heaney, Brendan Behan, and the Fianna Fáil politician and first Arts Council director, PJ Little, who served disabled people in Lourdes so diligently, the French awarded him an honour.
And it was an energetic priest, Monsignor James Horan, who got Knock Airport built in the teeth of stringent opposition: a British flight engineer called it a miracle!
To some extent, religious faith practice was not only built into the culture of Ireland, but into the economy itself.
As we know, as the 20th century wore on, challenges to the church’s base increased, liberalisation expanded, secularism grew and, by the 1990s, the church was in turmoil as a consequence of scandals and their cover-ups, such as the case of Brendan Smyth, as well as the way in which clerics like Eamonn Casey and Michael Cleary were perceived as odiously hypocritical.
Heartless treatment of unmarried mothers and their children was exposed in the media, notably the shocking disclosures around the Tuam infant burials. And thus, the “dark theocracy” narrative developed until it was seen, by some, as the only narrative, and felt, too, by individuals who have been deeply hurt by cruel and abusive treatment, as evidenced in the films made by Mannix Flynn — a survivor of dreadful episodes at Letterfrack — or by the forensic account of Irish adoption practices written by Paul Jude Redmond.
Yet Ireland was not unique in experiencing paedophile scandals: these have occurred in every organisation known, from the UN to the BBC, in scouting, swimming, education. Three public figures in Britain have recently spoken about having been sexually abused as young boys: the singer Marcus Mumford, the author AN Wilson, the TV presenter (of Long Lost Family) Nicky Campbell. Over a nine-year span, there have been 1,070 allegations of sexual abuse in secular institutions in England and Wales.
In the recent past, unmarried mothers and people born out of wedlock were stigmatised in many societies. In British maternity hospitals, married women were separated from unmarried mothers. More babies born to unmarried mothers died. More single mothers died than married mothers. Jane Robinson, a British social historian, found that even in 2015, some elderly people were not picking up their pensions because they felt the shame of having been “illegitimate”.
Currently, some 450 older women are backing a campaign to obtain an apology from the British government for having been subjected to forced adoptions. The former Labour MP Ann Keen has successfully received such an apology: when she was 17 in 1966, she was sent to a mother-and-baby home in Swansea, where she was forced to scrub steps, constantly reminded by staff that she was a “bad girl, a bad person”, denied pain relief when she was in labour — and her infant son was taken from her. It was, she says, “all about shame” and the “huge stigma” of being an unmarried mother.
Both France and Sweden sterilised young girls who got pregnant out of wedlock as “moral imbeciles”. As for corporal punishment: it was brutally administered in English public schools. Even in the 1980s, David Cameron was leathered at Eton.
It was a devout Irish Catholic, Dr Cyril Daly, who campaigned relentlessly, and ultimately successfully, to have corporal punishment outlawed in Ireland.
No amount of “whataboutery” can expunge the crimes and abuse described in the Ryan and Murphy reports, or in the many personal stories that have emerged describing cruelty and neglect — in John Cameron’s touching memoir Boy 11963, he recalls that even worse than being in an industrial school was the feeling of having no one — abandoned, no family, no attachments.
But this “toxic narrative” is not the only, or the whole, picture of Catholic Ireland. There were many nuns and priests who were kind, selfless and enlightened, and many memoirs recall such individuals.
Tim Pat Coogan has often criticised the institutional church, and yet, he loved his time with the Holy Ghost Fathers at Blackrock College. “My observation of the congregation over the years was that it contained high quotients of kindliness and educational skill and a marked tendency to temper the wind to the shorn lamb.”
Father Michael O’Carroll, the dean, had a lasting influence: liturgically conservative but politically “both liberal and democratic.” Tim Pat’s mother was widowed in reduced circumstances, and his uncles — both priests — paid the school fees.
Truths must be told, but the bigger picture must also be seen. Ireland was forged in the crucible of Christianity over the 1,500 years since Patrick evangelised. Its culture was defined, and its suffering, under the Penal Laws, was sustained by faith. The Irish Revolution, starting in 1916, was fired by faith — even Republicans like Liam Mellows and Ernie O’Malley, who were excommunicated by the church, adhered to their own deeply felt devotions.
As time went on, the institutional church became too strong — in the words of Tom Inglis it became a “moral monopoly”. Human beings err and are capable of great crimes. But idealism and a sense of the sacred and the transcendent are also necessary to the human heart, and to a community’s survival and self-worth. Erasing everything that was so much part of our history will deprive Ireland of the very root on which its culture and identity was built.
Glossary of old Catholic Ireland
AMDG: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. We wrote this on the top of our school copybooks — For the Greater Glory of God — as did James Joyce.
Craw-thumper: A person who overdosed on devout behaviour — thumping “mea culpas” on their chest.
Entering: Becoming a nun — entering a convent.
Examination of conscience: Recommended as a nightly practice, and making an act of contrition for what was done wrong. Practised also in other faiths.
Fasting (and abstinence): Fasting from midnight was obligatory before morning Communion. In Lent, fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays was often rigorous — only one meagre meal was permitted. Fridays were meatless — “the Friday fast”.
First Fridays: Special devotions on the first Friday of the month in dedication to the Sacred Heart. Like many popular Irish religious practices (Lourdes, Lisieux, the Miraculous Medal), the “Sacré Coeur” came from France.
Grace: Prayer before, and sometimes after, meals, commonly practised. Still said at posh Oxbridge college dinners, usually in Latin.
Holy water: What your mother sprinkled over you as you were going out the door (especially when in a teenage strop).
Litany: Of the Blessed Virgin. Recited after the Rosary. “Mystical Rose. Tower of David. Tower of Ivory. House of Gold.” James Joyce drew on this in his Portrait of the Artist.
Maytime processions: Young girls wearing white veils went in procession chanting
the Litany, when the blossom was in full Maytime flower.
Miraculous Medal: What your mother sewed into the lining of your clothes when you were going on some hazardous journey. (Inspired by an apparition to St Catherine Labouré in Paris in 1830.)
Offer it up: Acceptance of discomfort and even suffering. This included acceptance of cold, rather than turning on the heating (a trend making a return).
Priesteen: A mocking phrase meaning an excessive “Holy Joe”, and a priggish male. As in the accusatory phrase: “What class of a priesteen do you take me for at all?”
Scapulars: Very devout persons sometimes wore a kind a ribbon over their necks (from the Latin “scapula”, shoulder). It often denoted being a lay member of a confraternity.
Sodalities: Religious confraternities of people devoted to a special cause, such as the Children of Mary. Some sodalities had a social or comradely function too: sodality processions sometimes contained a cohort of trade unionists.
Stations: Stations of the Cross, following Jesus’s path to Calvary, both revered and parodied, as in Donleavy’s The Ginger Man — “Jesus falls the third time”. “Stations” had another meaning, when families invited the priest to say Mass in their home. There would be much cleaning and preparations for the event, with the best linen brought out.