Tracing the Cultural Legacy of Irish Catholicism: From Galway to Cloyne and beyond

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Eamon Maher - Spirituality September/ October 2018

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A few years ago, Eugene O’Brien and I decided that it would be interesting to edit a book of collected essays tracing Irish Catholicism’s steep decline in the decades immediately after the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Emerald Isle in 1979. Both of us were university students in 1979 and so had personal experience of the papal visit and the seismic fall-off of Catholicism as a guiding force in Irish people’s lives from that time until the present.

Before 1979, there had been signs of degeneration. The number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life was in freefall and a more educated laity was less willing to be dictated to by celibate men, particularly when it came to what happened between consenting adults in the privacy of their bedroom. The enthusiasm engendered by Vatican II had not been matched by the implementation of its documents. The idea of the Church being the ‘People of God’ was far from apparent on the ground, with no evidence of a transfer or sharing of power between clergy and the laity. Anger at Pope Paul VI’s volte face on Humanae Vitae left deep wounds that were slow to heal, especially among women who were subjected to the ordeal of multiple pregnancies in the absence of having access to artificial means of contraception. Increased disposable income, the emergence of a more cosmopolitan educated middle class, growing secularism, more women coming into the workplace, were all beginning to erode the hold that Catholicism had on Irish people and may well have been the reason why the Pope accepted the invitation that was extended to him to visit Ireland: in many ways, it was a last-gasp attempt to stem the tide.

A couple of observations stand out in my mind about John Paul’s few days in Ireland. The first is the ire directed at me by my mother for not attending the Mass in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, which was the highlight of the visit (on several occasions, I was reminded by this wise woman that I missed out on a historic moment, which is undoubtedly true). The second vivid memory I have, and which explains the sub-title of the book, is the iconic image of two of Ireland’s most charismatic clerics, Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary, warming up the crowd before the arrival of the Pope to celebrate the youth Mass at Ballybrit Racecourse in Galway.

It would subsequently be revealed that both of these men had fathered children, with Annie Murphy and Phyllis Murphy respectively, while continuing in their clerical apostolates. The hymn that was sung with such gusto by the Casey and Cleary, along with the 200,000 young people gathered at the racecourse, ‘Bind us Together’, would in time assume an ironic and tragic twist when the revelations of the Ryan Report into the abuse of children in industrial schools and reformatories came into the public domain in 2009. Pope John Paul II spoke in tones that predicted confidently that Catholicism would continue to flourish in Ireland because of the faith of its young population:

I believe in youth with all my heart and all the strength of my conviction. And today I say: I believe in the youth of Ireland. I believe in you who stand here before me, in every one of you. When I look at you, I see the Ireland of the future. Tomorrow you will be the living force of your country, you will decide what Ireland will be. Tomorrow, as technicians or teachers, nurses or secretaries, farmers or tradesmen, doctors or engineers, priests or religious – tomorrow you will have the power to make dreams come true.

Shortly after the Pope’s departure from Ireland, divisive referenda on divorce and abortion in the 1980s showed clear faultlines in the power of the Church to influence public opinion. While in the 80s the majority followed the advice of their bishops and priests (delivered for the most part in an unambiguous and autocratic manner), there could be no doubt that change was afoot. The Kerry Babies scandal in the same decade shone a light into collusion between the police force and the judiciary which led to a woman who was having an affair with a married man being wrongly accused of murdering her baby. Her treatment during detention and subsequently as a witness in her trial demonstrated a discriminatory attitude to women, especially those engaged in what was perceived as immoral sexual activity. The death of the 15 year-old Ann Lovett while giving birth to a stillborn baby under a statue to the Virgin Mary in the grounds of the local Catholic church in Granard, Co. Longford, once more called into question Ireland’s attitudes to women who became pregnant outside of marriage.

As writers such as John McGahern often remarked, the power of the Church in rural Ireland was absolute in the 1930s and 40s. However, the introduction of free secondary education in 1967, the impact of television and the images it beamed into Irish homes of lifestyles and behaviour that provided a sharp contrast with the rather backward customs to which they were habituated, higher disposable income, access to foreign travel, all contributed to creating a more secular and outward-looking society. By the time of Pope John Paul II’s arrival, weekly Mass attendance was still extremely high by European standards, but change was definitely afoot. Irish Times journalist Patsy McGarry, in his chapter, captures how a new breed of Irish Catholic was emerging in Ireland at this point:

This was the generation that would soon lead the so-called moral civil wars of the 1980s, 1990s and beyond in Ireland, favouring freely available contraception, decriminalisation of homosexuality, availability of divorce, same-sex marriage and availability of abortion services. (Cultural Legacy, p.34)

McGarry covers an extremely broad canvas in a few lines here. Contraception became freely available in the Republic of Ireland in 1985; a decade later, in 1995, divorce was made legal by a slim majority; in 2013, the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act allowed for abortion in strictly controlled circumstances where the life of the mother was at risk, including through suicide; in May 2015 the right to marry was extended to same-sex couples; finally, the Repeal of the 8th Amendment which will legalise abortion in limited circumstances, was passed by a two thirds majority in May 2018. The Church was strongly opposed to all these measures, but they were passed nevertheless, with comfortable margins in the case of the last two (most radical) referenda. Such developments would have been unimaginable in 1979.

The clerical abuse scandals in the 1990s certainly cast a dark cloud over an institution whose officers were quick to condemn members of the laity who strayed from the strict guidelines in relation to sexual continence but who reacted differently when their brother priests were found guilty of criminal and sinful behaviour with minors. People began to draw the conclusion that there was a significant gap between the message they preached and the lives they led.

There is no one single factor that can be considered the trigger that spawned disillusionment with the Catholic Church and its teachings. However, a few television documentaries in the 1990s brought to the surface some sordid aspects of Irish Catholicism. In November 1994, RTÉ devoted a special edition of the Tuesday File to the issue of clerical sexual abuse and included an interview with a victim of the notorious Fr Brendan Smyth, who would ultimately be found guilty of several counts of paedophilia in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. In 1995, a special edition of Counterpoint, entitled Suffer the Little Children, broadcast on UTV and detailing the horrors associated with Ireland’s Industrial Schools, caused shock and consternation in the Republic. A number of clerics came before the courts as victims, who had often blocked out memories of abuse, now found the courage to come forward. Names such as Fr Ivan Payne, Fr Seán Fortune, Fr Paul McGennis and the aforementioned Fr Brendan Smyth became part of an ever-increasing list of serial abusers. For a time, it seemed as though scarcely a month went by without a new scandal coming to public attention in some part of the country.

And there was far worse to come. The beginning of the real crisis for Irish Catholicism was Mary Raftery’s trilogy of documentaries, States of Fear, broadcast on the 27th of April and the 4th and 7th of May 1999, in which sexual, physical and psychological abuse across a range of Industrial Schools was brought into the open in a compelling way. There was no way of excusing what happened to the children in these institutions. In the wake of the revelations contained in States of Fear, the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern apologised to all victims on behalf of the State. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was established a year later and delivered its report in May 2009, with yet more stinging criticism of the Catholic Church.

In Ireland, there was a tendency to look the other way when it came to reporting incidents of severe violence. This is because corporal punishment was widespread in schools and homes at the time. So when Christian Brothers, teachers or parents beat children, or deprived them of food, or generally treated them in an inhumane manner, most people did not blink an eye. By the 1990s, however, there was a culture shift beginning to emerge which would ensure that the official version of events was not always accepted at face value. Therefore, when the Murphy Report into clerical abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin was published in 2009, people were not as astonished as they might have been by its contents. Once more, the report had its origins in a television documentary, this time the RTÉ Prime Time programme, Cardinal Secrets, which investigated cases of clerical sex abuse allegations in the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. By the time Judge Yvonne Murphy published her report, journalists and commentators were quick to point to an unhealthy deference among Irish people when it came to the Catholic Church. Fintan O’Toole pointed out that for far too long, the relationship was an abusive one:

The church leadership behaved towards society with the same callousness, the same deviousness, the same exploitive mentality, and the same blindly egotistical pursuit of its own desires that an abuser shows towards his victim.[ii]

There is a discernible anger in comments such as these, born perhaps out of frustration with an institution whose leaders considered themselves above the law. In a famous TV interview, Cardinal Desmond Connell admitted to having recourse to ‘mental reservation’ when dealing with complaints about abusive priests. That allowed him to withhold important pieces of information when he deemed it necessary. This ploy was brought to light when the Cardinal stated on one particular occasion that the Church had not provided a financial settlement for any victims of clerical sex abuse. His exact words were: ‘Diocesan funds ARE not used for such purposes’, which hid the fact that they had been used for this purpose in the past. Such casuistry damaged the moral authority of the Church and showed the extent to which they were determined to protect the institution at all costs. A few short quotes from Judge Murphy’s report will underline the web of deceit that characterised the Church’s behaviour: ‘There was little or no concern for the welfare of the abused child or the welfare of other children who might have come into contact with the priest. Complainants were often met with denial, arrogance and cover-up and with incomprehension in some areas. Suspicions were rarely acted on.’ At another point, the judge stated that the Archdiocese had an ‘obsessive concern with secrecy and the avoidance of scandal’ and had ‘little or no concern for the welfare of the abused child.’ Small wonder then, in the light of these findings, that the public reaction was one of disappointment and annoyance. That the ire was more directed at the Church than at the offices of the State can be explained by the fact that people rightly or wrongly expect higher standards of behaviour from priests and religious than they do from politicians, health workers, or the police. Moving priests who were known abusers from parish to parish without a second thought as to the danger they posed to children was a feature that particularly infuriated the public. Similarly, the attempts made by members of the hierarchy to cover up what had happened showed a distinct lack of empathy with the victims.

When one belongs to an institution like the Catholic Church, it is difficult to become part of the dismantling of that institution. This is a problem that confronts several priests at present. Speaking out against the clerical club usually results in ostracisation and marginalisation. Sometimes, it can lead to having your right to publish articles, to speak freely or to say Mass in public rescinded, as has happened to the Redemptorist priest Tony Flannery. There is a clear disconnect between bishops and their priests and an even greater chasm between the Vatican and those working on the ground. It doesn’t help either when the average age of diocesan priests in Ireland currently stands at around 65 years. The bishops do not appear to have any plan in place to tackle this shortage, other than to form parish clusters and to heap extra work on an already overstretched group of priests. So for perhaps the first time in its recent history, Ireland needs to consider the prospect of how the needs of the 78.3% of the population who identified as Catholic in the 2016 census can be catered for in the future.

How does one reconcile this Census figure with the claim made by many commentators that Ireland is a ‘post-Catholic’ country? In 2013, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin wrote an article entitled “A Post-Catholic Ireland?” that was published in America: The National Catholic Review. In it, he explained that one can “fully define post-Catholic only in terms of the Catholicism that has been displaced”. In other words, a post-Catholic society is one in which Catholicism still retains an influence in people’s personal lives and in the public sphere. For the sociologist Gladys Ganiel, ‘post-Catholic’ does not mean that the island of Ireland was once Catholic and now is not. Rather, she believes that a dominant, traditional form of Irish Catholicism is being displaced.1[iii] This is the type of Catholicism that enjoyed what Tom Inglis described as a ‘monopoly’ on the Irish religious market, exercised a strong influence over the political class, raised the status of celibate clerics to an unsustainably high level while at the same time inspiring doubts about sexual behaviour outside of marriage, or even within marriage when the couple was not open to the possibility of conception. So whereas the perception of Catholicism has unquestionably changed for the worse, it still remains a reference point for those of other religions and none. Ganiel’s research has shown, in fact, that people cannot stop talking about Catholicism, even if it is only to criticise it and point out its failings. Its cultural legacy is still very much in evidence also. It can be seen in the language of the people (phrases like ‘God bless’, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’, ‘Please God’ are still commonplace), in the rituals of birth, marriage and death, in how people make the sign of the cross when passing cemeteries or churches, in the built environment – Celtic crosses, church spires, rosary beads hanging from railings, and so on. Ganiel argues that a post-Catholic Ireland involves a ‘shift in consciousness’ whereby the Church, as an institution, is no longer held in high esteem by the majority of people but where those from a variety of religions, including Catholicism, now often define their faith in opposition or contrast to Catholicism.

In a lecture, ‘The Church in Dublin: Where will it be in ten years’ time?’ which he delivered on the 16th of November 2017, Diarmuid Martin once more showed himself to be an astute reader of the changed circumstances surrounding the Church in his Archdiocese. The general decline in the vibrancy and communal life of parishes, the loss of a whole generation of young people who have become detached from the Catholic Church and are largely ignorant of the most basic tenets of the Catholic faith, the failure to communicate the good news of the Gospel in an attractive and meaningful way, the position of women in the Church, all these are possibly more important than the declining number of priests in Dublin. Martin also quoted the statement by John Paul XXIII at the opening of Vatican II that what was required during the debates that followed was the ‘medicine of mercy rather than of severity’. For far too long in Ireland and elsewhere, condemnation and severity have dominated the Church’s pronouncements instead of understanding and mercy. Unless this is addressed, the 10% of Irish people who identified as having ‘No religion’ will increase substantially. It is significant that the average age of people in that category is 34. In other words, they are most likely to be the parents of young families and the leaders of the future.

There was a real paradigm shift in the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger whereby the symbolic capital linked to being perceived to be a good Catholic was replaced by the quest for real capital, as encapsulated by big salaries, a property portfolio, travel, eating out, having a holiday home (in Ireland or abroad, or both). According to Fintan O’Toole, social conservatives are incorrect in offering the loss of religious faith as an adequate explanation for the immorality and hedonism that characterized the Celtic Tiger years:

The Irish had been taught for generations to identify morality with religion, and a very narrow religion at that. Morality was about what happened in bedrooms, not in boardrooms. It was about the body, not the body politic. Masturbation was a much more serious sin than tax evasion. In a mindset where homosexuality was a much worse sin than cooking the books, it was okay to be bent as long as you were straight.

In tandem with Irish culture’s fixation on the unbridled pursuit of material wealth, there was a steady move away from the religious ‘habitus’ that had held sway for a number of centuries. In the opinion of sociologist Tom Inglis, Ireland went from a culture of self-denial to one of self-indulgence in the space of a few decades. Whereas heretofore, self-indulgence was considered a sin, at the zenith of the Celtic Tiger it became a rite of passage, something that underlined one’s freedom to do things that no longer held the stigma of sin. It is worth recalling that one of the lasting legacies of the Celtic Tiger period was its emphasis on instant gratification, an attitude which is, of course, not without its dangers. Catholic guilt did fulfil some worthwhile purposes: it preached a message of honesty, respect for others, moderation, fidelity within marriage, tolerance, all of which are vital to the creation of a wholesome community.

The 20th of July 2011 is a key date in the history of Ireland’s relationship with Catholicism. It was the occasion when the Taoiseach of the day, Enda Kenny, made a blistering attack on the Catholic Church in the wake of the publication of the Cloyne Report on the handling of clerical sex abuse in that diocese. The fact that the critical comments came from the leading politician of the State, and a practicing Catholic, made the impact all the more forceful. In a country where in the past it would have been an act of political suicide to criticise the hierarchy, where deference and obsequiousness to Rome were the norm, suddenly An Taoiseach made comments such as the following:

… for the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an enquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic.

… the Cloyne report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism – the narcissism – that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold, instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’.

He went on to declare in slightly more flamboyant language that Ireland was no longer a country ‘where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world.’ Kenny’s speech was a watershed in Church-State relations. Whether or not all his claims were justified is open to question, but the almost universally positive response to his words in Ireland showed how he somehow captured the Zeitgeist of a nation that was deeply frustrated with an institution that failed lamentably to live up to the high ideals that it preached. Shortly after Kenny’s speech, the Irish Embassy to the Vatican was closed (it has reopened since), which was a further severing of the link with Rome. The timing of the speech was important also, in that it coincided with a period when anger at the banks, the lending agencies, the developers, the politicians and all those associated with the collapse of the Celtic Tiger,  was at its zenith. The policy of austerity was biting and scapegoats were being sought. The various tribunals had already revealed that politics and big business were aligned to an unhealthy degree. But the Church was supposed to represent something better than the other institutions. When it too was shown to have feet of clay, people turned away from it in their droves.

The cultural legacy of Irish Catholicism has therefore been hugely dented by all the developments I have detailed in this article, and the institution is reeling as a result. However, as the moral theologian Vincent Twomey says at the end of his chapter:

The effective collapse of traditional Irish Catholicism has laid bare the ground for the renewal of the Church in Ireland, and with that renewal, the inner transformation of society.

It is a time of hope. (Cultural Legacy, p.102)

Not everyone would share Twomey’s optimism, but what can be said with certainty is that the cultural legacy of Irish Catholicism is destined to be very different from what might have been envisaged in 1979. Nobody knows what the future will hold, but it is unlikely that Catholicism will disappear completely as a force in Ireland. Its role will be far less influential, its numbers lower. Perhaps such a model is in conformity with what the founder of Christianity had it mind: a leaner, humbler, kinder and more sympathetic institution, which will be characterised more by ‘mercy’ than ‘severity’, just as Pope John XXIII advocated in the 1960s.


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[i] This is the title of the book of essays edited by Eamon Maher and Eugene O’Brien which has recently been released in paperback format by Manchester University Press.
[ii] Fintan O’Toole, ‘Church relationship with Irish Society has itself been abusive’, The Irish Times, 28 November 2009, 15.
[iii][iii] Gladys Ganiel, Transforming post-Catholic Ireland: Religious Practice in Late Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2016).
1 Comment
  • TOM GREENE - Jan 13, 2019

    We had indeed little faith but much ritual by 1979….how many will still fill a church for St Teresa’s bones while the Eucharist (Source and Summit) I is poorly attended…faith does not live on saints and relics but on Christ….He is , as one might say ‘’The whole ball of wax’’
    Keep up the good work for the good news …and do try and tell Maynooth!

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