Catholic Ireland’s reluctant undertaker…

This piece by Malachi O’Doherty is the cover story in the latest edition of Magill magazine is well worth a read. It brings to mind Bertrand Russell’s memorable essay “On Catholic and Protestant Sceptics’, in which he notes, “…in the Protestant type departure from tradition is primarily intellectual, whereas in the Catholic type it is primarily practical. The typical Protestant freethinker has not the slightest desire to do anything of which his neighbours disapprove apart from the advocacy of heretical opinions” (ref Tim Madigan’s Madman’s Speech) . O’Doherty distrusts Catholic memories of a past life of widespread pious observance. Towards the end he notes that “…the Irish had always seen through their own charade”.By Malachi O’Doherty

Gay Byrne got a recent unwelcome reminder of his place in history. He read a letter on his Sunday afternoon Lyric FM programme from a student who was preparing a master’s thesis about him. The student said in a letter that she would like to communicate with him about the dark days in Ireland and the role of his broadcasts in signalling the changes in Irish culture.

Gay was miffed. He said that the ‘dark days’ had not been as miserable as the student assumed.

There had been bad times and good times, and he had enjoyed himself. He obviously didn’t fancy being seen as the undertaker at the funeral of Catholic Ireland.

And if history was to record that Ireland’s century of Catholicism had been a dark and awful time, well Gay didn’t wish to concur or take any credit for bringing it to an end.

Yet, what was the student to do? Practically every book on the secularising trend in modern Ireland mentions Gay Byrne and the Late Late Show as signalling important milestones along the way.

Read Mary Kenny’s Goodbye to Catholic Ireland and you see how Gay Byrne was always at hand, like the priest at the ceremony, when old Ireland and new Ireland ere chosing to go separate ways.

There was that Late Late in which a woman revealed that she may, for all she remembered, have been naked with her husband on their wedding night. The context for the woman’s revelation had been a game of Mr and Mrs. She had been asked what colour of nightie she wore. Mary Kenny recounts the furious reaction of the Bishop of Clonfert as evidence of the closer cultural climate of the time, but she is mistaken.

The incident, far from representing the more censorious culture of the time, actually demonstrates that the ordinary people were more liberal than their bishops.

The question on the show was perhaps devised by someone who naively presumed that a bride always wore a nightie, but more plausibly it was thought up by someone who knew the mischief he was making.

The audience laughed and the show proceeded without any sense of an historic fault line having been crossed. So, if anyone was to be taken as representative of the mood of Ireland then, surely it was that studio audience and not the Bishop of Clonfert?

And it had always been like that, that when Ireland exposed itself as obsessively religious and puritanical, an alternative reading of circumstances was always available to us.

When Stephen Daedalus is agonising over the state of his soul after a scalding from The Preacher in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, there are others close by who know exactly what is going on.

“I suppose he rubbed it into you well.

– You bet he did. He put us all into a blue funk.

– That’s what you fellows want.”

What if Ireland was not really as religious as we remember it. The student writing to Gay Byrne stands for those of us who have inherited the easily accepted account of our past as a transition from a censorious religious culture to a more modern and secular one, but wasn’t Gay right to say that as he remembers it, it was never just as simple as that?

The recent history of Ireland recounts how the church had a powerful influence over government. The stories retold are of Archbishop McQuade’s interference in the Mother and Child Bill, Hubert Butler losing his job for offending the Papal Nuncio, De Valera dreaming of comely maidens. And the figures for regular Mass attendance were massive. It would seem to be a difficult to make the case now, that Ireland was not really very religious at all.

John Whyte wrestled briefly with this question when he was writing Church and State in Modern Ireland back in 1971. On the one hand there was clear evidence that the Irish were devout. They exceeded in their behaviour the basic requirements the church made of them. The church asked them to go to Mass once a week; many went every day. The church asked them to go to confession and communion once a year; many went every week. On the other hand, there was also evidence that the Irish were not particularly keen on religion. When they emigrated, many give up their regular religious observance. It can’t have been important to them personally, then. If devotion was a personal support through life, you would expect the lonely emigrant to express it more ardently when more in need of that support. Instead, the emigrant tended to let committment slide, and this was such a cliche of Irish life that our teachers perpetually warned us about the danger of losing the faith in London, where people didn’t even know their next door neighbours and young women had no restraint at all..

Whyte made a simple personal choice between the two alternative versions of Irish religiosity, as committed and enthusiastic or as weak and expendable. He decided to proceed with his book on the understanding that the Irish religious conviction was widespread, deep and strong. Hr could see that there was a puzzle in front of him but he did not solve it; he merely opted for one solution over another.

If he was now assessing the depth of devotion of the Catholics of his day he would have to account for why many of them have since lightly dispensed with their sense of religious obligation.

Fall out with a lover and you pine with a broken heart and take years to recover, but falling out with God seems relatively easy to get over.

If we were as religious as we thought we were, how come we suffered no particular cultural and moral trauma when religion went into decline, when the seminaries closed, the priests aged and the Christian Brothers and nuns mostly left and got married?

Maybe we weren’t very religious at all.

Yes, we went to Mass, more often even than we needed to. That isn’t as puzzling as Whyte found it. People did not take their guidance on how often to observe the sacraments from the strict code of Canon Law; they took it from the neighbours and the parish. He was wrong to conclude that the difference between practice and the literal minimum requirement of the church demonstrated a devout culture. People were not actually doing much more than was expected of them, if that expectation is traced to the active church and not to the church commandments.

The influence of the church has been reckoned by different authorities to have been both morally enriching and morally enfeebling.

Paul Blanchard, in The Irish and Catholic Power (1954) argued that the church had turned the Irish into moral infants with no clear sense of right and wrong. He compares the behaviour of Southern Catholics and Northern Protestants by looking at what proportions returned the 3D glasses they were given in the cinema. Southerners tended to take the glasses home with them but Northerners dutifully returned them as asked.

There is a world of difference between Whyte’s vision of the devout Irish who seek to give more than their church asks of them and Blanchard’s moral infants. So there is no single agreed coherent version of the religious Irish, and some versions contradict each other.

Blanchard’s conclusion was the the Irish catholics were not meaningfully devout or moral at all but had allowed the responsibilities of conscience to be appropriated by the Catholic church.

Yet even when Blanchard describes the presumption of the church to interfere in our moral conduct, he includes that other voice in the story too, the people in the sidelines mocking, refusing to take the church seriously.

The Rev J. McCarthy of Maynooth had written in an article in 1949 claiming that tampons could ‘easily be a grave source of temptation, especially to those who have strong physical desires “.

Certainly that is as glorious an example as one could hope for of the church prying into the private intimate affairs of lay Catholics and ordinary people. But Blanchard goes on, “the priestly ruling on the subject broke down, after a great deal of subdued laughter.”

He can’t have it both ways, that the Irish were dominated by a church which stripped them of all moral responsibility by dictating absurd rules to them and also that the Irish were perfectly capable of seeing through looney bishops and making up their own minds about private sexual morality.

The church’s slender hold on the people was indicated by the huge drop out rate, even then, from the seminaries. Most orders lost a third of recruits, probably because they were recuiting them too young. They believed in ‘bending the sapling’ while it was yuoung, but their own experience showed them that this didn’t work.

There was certainly an extensive culture in Ireland of observing religious forms, but was it a culture of devotion?

In the 1960s a city parish church in Ireland could expect to be filled with men attending the Sodality. Most today wouldn’t know what a Sodality is. So something has changed. Fewer Irish people are going to church and of those that are, few are taking it as seriously as their parents did.

We lived in a society, very recently, in which practically everyone you met affirmed your own simple religious view of the world. Your workmates went to the Sodality; your boss went to Lourdes once a year and everyone had a St Christoper medal hanging from the rearview mirror if they could afford a car. But does that mean that we were devout or just that we were conformist and dull?

There were times and occasions of heady religious devotion, notably around the visit of Pope John Paul II. But what did they mean? A quarter of the population rallied to hear John Paul but considerably fewer took his message seriously. He didn’t end the IRA campaign when he pleaded on his knees for the killing to stop and he didn’t reverse the spreading acceptance of contraception.

Had he explained to us his opposition to contraception, in the terms in which he had written it down in the 1940s, we would have laughed at him too. He had said that interupting the intimacy of sex to put on a conndom broke the flow and was particularly ennervating for the woman. If he had known about the struggles men have had with hook and eye bra fasteners, he might have objected to them on the same grounds.

The Irish had been dazzled by John Paul because they thought briefly that he was a Pope appropriate to the changing times. Hell was no longer mentioned and the Pope was a sexy man. The Irish were on for that; the Pope wasn’t. He thought that contraception and masturbation were intrinsic evils and that a man should not look on his wife with lust in his heart.

The Irish would probably turn out in big numbers for Benedict because everybody loves a spectacle, but it would no more prove they were good Catholics than the turnout for the Queen’s Jubilee proved that her Church of England was thriving.

If the Irish had been a devoutly religious people, then that should have been reflected in popular art and literature. It wasn’t. Instead we have a history of church-driven assaults on culture. What does that say? It says that the cultural activities of ordinary people and of the more sophisticated reader and viewer were invariably at odds with the church’s requirements of us.

Genuinely devout cultures like those of India and Pakistan throw up artists who excel in the expression of religious devotion. The Hindu culture produced, for instance, Rabindranath Tagore, whose devotional poetry moved Yeats. Muslim culture celebrates the music of Nasrat Fateh Ali Kahn and the songs of the mystic Rumi. Can you imagine Westlife singing the songs of St John of The Cross?

The works of these artists are exultant celebrations of the love of God, incorporated into popular culture and globally acknowledged as fine art.

Where is the Irish equivalent?

One devout poet comes to mind and that is Paul Durcan. But Paul is subversive.

In his poem To Our Friends in Brazil, he eulogises Father Patrick O’Brien of Mayo as an authentically holy person, but also as a man whose religion has survived the church rather than been fostered by it.


In his poem, Lough Derg, Kavanagh counts himself among the genuinely devout and sneers at the mass of pilgrims who are not. He was a pharisee.

Whenever an Irish writer depicted a priest, it was always from the humanistic perspective which either pitied him for his misfortune( The Sisters, Joyce) or admired his uncharacteristic wisdom (My Oedipus Complex, O’Connor). It is hard to think of a single short story, novel, play which empathises with the priest as the devotee of God or treats of religious devotion as an adequate response to human circumstance.

The easy way to remember the secularisation of Ireland is to attribute it to the media and its master, Gay Byrne, or to the sex scandals.

In truth, the Irish had always seen through their own charade. We had a culture of churchgoing and we had a wry assessment of the whole thing.

So when Gay Byrne bridles at the thought that history remembers him for having officiated at the demise of a dark and oppressive religious culture in Ireland, perhaps he has a point.

The people back then were not as proccupied with God as an easy celebration of our contrasting modern ways implies. We may have been in hock to the church, but we were no more religious, at heart, then than we are now.

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