The Catholic Church in Irish History and Context

Marie Kenny

Journalist, broadcaster, playwright and author Mary Kenny in her recently published book The way we were gives a perspective on Catholic Ireland of the past. ‘The Grande Dame of Irish Journalism’ as she is often called, gives her views

AS WE know, one hundred years have passed since the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922; and there are parallels with Brexit. Some critics thought it mad to leave the economically prosperous UK with its extensive links to the Empire, to become a poor, fledgling and possibly fragile separate state (even if Irish independence was at first limited) .

According to renowned historian JJ Lee, only two bodies could have stabilized this first Irish state: the GAA and the Catholic Church. The GAA provided an unparalleled network of community solidarity. The Catholic Church had trained a new generation of politicians and administrators – often through the Christian Brothers and Jesuits – who were ready and able to take the reins of governance.

Some have since joked that “when the British moved, the Church moved,” but it wasn’t that simple. The first constitution of the Free State – inspired by the plan of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith – was secular. The Free State also established a senate to which many Irish Protestants and former Southern Unionists were appointed (and many served honorably). True, the Free State introduced a ban on divorce, but this reflected the values ​​of the time – and many Irish Protestants were as opposed to divorce as Catholics.

Nuns in the 1940s

The Irish state only acquired a more “Catholic” identity in the 1930s, with the advent of de Valera. Again, this reflected a democratic trend: the newspapers that spoke most enthusiastically about priests and nuns (especially those going on missions abroad) sold the most copies! The Spanish Civil War revealed that the Irish were appalled by the burning of churches and the murder of priests and nuns.

Neutrality during World War II was supported democratically, but it increased the feeling of insularity. It was not until the 1960s that traditional Ireland began to change, both economically and by challenging older values.

Later in the 20th century, revelations of pedophile scandals, cruel industrial schools and heartless homes for single mothers – in which church and state seemed to agree – caused a wave of hostility against domination. of Catholic power. Irish women have become more proactive in challenging attitudes towards women and sexuality.

Countess Constance Markievicz — courtesy National Gallery of Ireland

In the centenary of 1916, same-sex marriage and abortion rights were on the national agenda: Ireland was a modified state and outright hostility to Catholicism was often evident. In 2021, a government video on St. Patrick’s Day erased any mention of St. Patrick’s Day itself, lest it “contaminate” the mark of a new Ireland.

Yet, whether our teachers liked it or not, Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, was rooted in our past; and in the 1500 years since Patrick he has forged and shaped Ireland as a people and a nation. This was indeed “the way we were”.

The Catholic Church in modern times

Danny LaRue turns 80 in 2008 with Elaine Paige (Getty Images)

It’s in the life of the Irish of the 20e century that we often glimpse the central role that Catholicism has played in Irish identity.

During the Civil War of 1922-23, anti-Treaties and Republicans who were officially excommunicated by the official church still practiced their faith – and even requested last rites when they faced execution.

Liam Mellows, a left-wing Republican, requested a Catholic chaplain before his death on December 8, 1922, and despite ecclesiastical disapproval, a Father Piggott came forward. Ernie O’Malley, the legendary author of On Another Man’s Wound – also condemned by the bishops – remained deeply spiritual, taking his Imitation of Christ with him.

This personal thread is seen throughout the timeline: Constance Markievicz dying in 1927 with the entwined rosary in her hands: the Dáil’s first leader, WT Cosgrave, meeting his future wife on a pilgrimage to Lough Derg; the entire Dáil attends 6 a.m. mass in September 1939, after spending the night debating and voting on Irish neutrality; Éamon de Valera, described by Lord Longford as “the most religious person I have ever met”; Taoiseach John Aloysius Costello, so devout that he had a private chapel in his Dublin home; President Sean T.O’Kelly, never happier than on a pilgrimage to Rome.

And a long line of political figures, from Michael Collins to Jack Lynch and Charlie Haughey, with a priest brother or a religious sister. President Mary Robinson was inspired in her public service role by her two aunts, missionary nuns.

Many distinguished Irishmen were stretcher bearers – stretcher bearers – in Lourdes, including Seamus Heaney, and at least intentionally, playwright Brendan Behan. A Fianna Fáil politician, PJ Little, served so long in Lourdes that the French authorities awarded him a special honour.

Irish Catholics could be personally devout yet bold.

The great ballad singer Delia Murphy, wife of a diplomat, was a Mayo woman full of spirit and strong faith: she helped Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, “the Pimpernel of the Vatican”, to help Jewish refugees and Allied servicemen fleeing the Nazis in Rome during the World War. II. When reprimanded by a government official in Dublin for breaking neutrality rules, Delia reportedly replied, “Fuck neutrality! Humanity is more important!

The life of famous drag queen Danny la Rue, born Daniel Patrick Carroll in Cork, was typical of an immigrant of his time. Arriving in Soho in the 1930s, the local Catholic church, St Patrick’s in Soho Square, was the family’s foothold. His widowed mother found work through the church network and Danny spent his “happiest days” as an altar boy. Danny loved his faith and died surrounded by his consolations.

The religious role of the Irish mother appears several times. TK Whitaker, who began the transformation of Ireland’s economy in the late 1950s, attributed his faith to his mother, Jane O’Connor, of Co Clare, who always said her prayers in Irish.

Gay Byrne, who probably did more to bring down the power of the Irish church, nevertheless retained the faith of his influential mother, Annie. Seán MacBride, a dedicated Catholic who founded Amnesty International among many other accomplishments, also felt a lifelong loyalty to the faith and politics of his mother: she was the iconic Maud Gonne.

Many stories from Ireland deal with the position of the Catholic Church, and rightly so. But in the final analysis, it is people’s lives that inform the story.

The Way We Were by Mary Kenny

The Way We Were by Mary Kenny is published by Columba Books


Comments are closed.