Ireland: A Country Deconverts – by Nialler

An Irish commentator recently commented that the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in September 1979 was not the joyous celebration of Irish Catholicism which was touted by the media at the time but that it merely marked the opening of the obsequies for the death of Irish Catholicism. This, on the face of it, is a radical analysis about a visit which was considered to be one of the country’s greatest moments, and which still has resonance in the numbers of 27-year-olds who are called John Paul. There is good evidence in his claim, however, and perhaps there is truth in the view that The Pope’s visit was a desperate effort to shore up Irish Catholicism rather than to celebrate it. Perhaps the Catholic Church spotted that the Irish Church’s vital signs were failing and that it was dying.

If so, it is quite a lingering death, with the most recent census still showing an overwhelmingly Catholic majority. Having said that, comparing the closest census to 1979 – that of 1981 – with that of 2006, the percentage of the population who declare themselves to be Catholic has dropped from 93% to just under 87%.

In the same period, the percentage of those declaring that they have no religion has increased from 1.14% to 4.39%.

But what effect has this had on the ground, and what are the causes?

First, it might be apposite to paint a picture of the penetration which the Roman Catholic faith had achieved in Ireland – a penetration which was present from the founding of the state. Indeed, the 1937 Constitution made special reference to the Christian faith in its Preamble:

“In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,

We, the people of Éire,

Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial….”

It further mentioned the Roman Catholic Church, specifically in Article 44, Section 2 :

“The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens.”,
while Section 3 made specific mention of other religions:
“The State also recognises the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland, as well as the Jewish Congregations and the other religious denominations existing in Ireland at the date of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”
A draft of the new constitution was brought to the Vatican for papal approval, but the Pope never met with the envoy, merely conveying a message through the Vatican secretary of state: “Ni approvo ni non disapprovo; taceremo.” (I do not approve, neither do I disapprove; I shall maintain silence). The Holy See felt that the Catholic faith should have been the only religion mentioned in the document, which was rather more secular than they would have liked. It is important to note that the mention of other religions was included not in a spirit of secularism, nor in a spirit of ecumenism, but was there as a sop to the aspirations for a united Ireland. Post-treaty, Northern Ireland had a significant majority of Protestants, and it was felt that failure to acknowledge their faith could be a major barrier to reunification in the future.

Another notable inclusion in the Constitution was a ban on divorce.

Away from the legal and constitutional underpinnings of the state, the Catholic Church also held great sway in the apparatus of state. Since its inception, the Irish Free State had been an impoverished nation, and it gratefully accepted the offer from the Catholic hierarchy to build schools and to thus form the backbone of the Irish educational system. With access to the formative minds of Ireland’s youth, The RC church was in a strong position to impose its will on future generations. The control extended further, to an effective boycott of the country’s oldest third-level educational establishment, Trinity College Dublin. Until 1970, intending students to the College needed dispensation from their local Bishop before they could attend. This dispensation tended to be granted only where the applicant could prove that the equivalent course was not available in approved universities. Failure to obtain dispensation could result in excommunication.

The Church had access to the levers of power, too, with the language of legislators frequently betraying a supine subservience to the Catholic hierarchy. Legislation was routinely presented while still in draft form to the Archbishop of Dublin for his approval before it was formally discussed by the Dail. Indeed, one maverick politician – Noel Browne – created enormous controversy in 1951 when he proceeded with presenting legislation on health care for children without first seeking the approval of the Church hierarchy. On being told that he should present the draft to the Bishop, he retorted that the Bishop was free to visit his office if he wished to see the draft himself. A measure of the Church’s influence is seen in the manner by which his own party colleagues disavowed themselves of the legislation, leading to his eventual resignation. That the legislation was proposed at a later date and was accepted illustrates the reality behind its first rejection.

In daily life, the influence of the Church was also ever prevalent. Couples moving into a new area could expect a visit from the local Parish Priest, who would wish to see their marriage certificate. Foreign newspapers and magazines were rigorously vetted and any offensive advertisements or articles were removed. Television and radio were also well monitored, and the national broadcaster tended to censor itself to avoid confrontation with the Church. The broadcast media also obligingly interrupted broadcasts at midday and at 6PM with the bells of The Angelus – a call to Catholics to pause and pray which is still a feature of the national broadcaster’s programming.

The dominance of the church had other disturbing effects. Protestants were discriminated against when seeking jobs, for instance. In one case, a local authority was forced to employ a Catholic librarian ahead of a more highly qualified Protestant one, as the latter – in the view of the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Eamonn De Valera – couldn’t be trusted with the job of dispensing and recommending appropriate Christian literature.

Sexuality was a very taboo issue indeed, and contraception was simply unavailable. Unmarried women who became pregnant would be taken away from their homes and forced into domestic service in Dublin, the baby being taken away from them after the birth. Many other “fallen” women found themselves in the harsh and primitive conditions of the Magdalen Laundries. There, many of the women slaved in terrible conditions, with the profits from their work bolstering the finances of the religious orders. Many were physically, sexually, and emotionally abused. Many became institutionalised and never left the laundries.

A further illustration of the sexual hangups which prevailed at the time centres on the Cavan Orphanage Fire of 1943. Thirty-five young girls died in this fire, herded away from the exit into a room while the fire was tackled. Efforts to control the fire failed and their exit route was cut off by the conflagration with the result that they perished. In time, it emerged that the reason that they hadn’t been immediately evacuated from the building was to prevent the firemen and rescue workers seeing them in their night-clothes.

Neither the Government or the Church authorities could, however, insulate Irish society from the world around it, and as communications improved – with television at the vanguard – occasional glimpses of the less-restrictive societies of our neighbours began to create demands for a loosening of the shackles. This trend was bitterly and memorably commented upon by a prominent politician – Rory J Flanagan – who opined on a chat show that “There was no sex in Ireland before television”. Risible as his comment sounds, there is a germ of truth in his suggestion that television raised issues with which those of a conservative social outlook were very uncomfortable.

Forward again to September 1979, and Pope John Paul II is holding a mass for the youth of Ireland. Appearing to be almost like a warmup act, two popular and famous clerics, Bishop Eamonn Casey, and Father Michael Cleary lead the crowd in hymns and prayer.

Both of them known as fire and brimstone preachers, and both of them with great access to the media, they were seen as ideal candidates to get the proceedings underway. In a splendid example of irony, future events would render them both enormous contributors to the loosening of the Church’s grasp in Ireland.

Besides the Pope’s visit, the 70’s also saw calls for easier access to contraception, and the first mutterings of a referendum on the repeal of the constitutional ban on divorce. Alarm was also being expressed about the increasing number of women travelling abroad for abortions. The Church had firmly fixed views on these issues, often forcibly expressed both from the pulpit and in its pastoral letters. Interestingly, this decade also saw the removal of the reference to the Constitutional “special position” of the Catholic Church – but this was less a sign of increasing secularism than an attempt to remove a clause which could be seen as antithetical to a united Ireland.

The 70’s also saw the banning of the film “The Life of Brian”. The main protagonist for the ban – a media-friendly guitar-strumming priest called Brian D’Arcy – launched his campaign courtesy of an obliging national daily, which gave him the entire front page on which to wax lyrical about its blasphemous content. Appearing on a panel show that evening, he sheepishly admitted that he hadn’t actually seen the film. The ban still went ahead. The decade ended with the passing of the “Pill Bill” – a bill which finally allowed the legal purchase of contraception. It had its caveats. Purchase required a doctor’s prescription, thus medical justification needed to be made to a doctor. The act referred to “family planning” use, which was interpreted by many as meaning that such a prescription could only be made out for a married person. Additionally, sale was restricted to pharmacies, and they weren’t obliged to stock contraception if they didn’t approve of its use. The then Health Minister Charlie Haughey ruefully described it as “An Irish solution to an Irish problem”.

The 80’s saw some efforts to address social issues, with contraception becoming gradually more accessible over the decade. In 1983, though, the country took a step backwards with the addition of a constitutional (rather than a legislative) prohibition on abortion. By the end of the decade, this prohibition was being interpreted to cover provision of information about abortion, or assisting someone to travel in order to obtain one. This lead to the withdrawal from newsagents’ shelves of issues of magazines such as “Cosmopolitan” which had been printed in the UK and which contained ads for abortion clinics. A 1986 referendum to remove the constitutional ban on divorce was also defeated, so the RC Church could look back on a decade which had seen some significant gains.

While the Papal visit may have temporarily strengthened the position of the Roman Catholic church, however, a groundswell of liberal pressures was building. Social issues were raising some difficult questions. A notorious example was the death of a 15-year-old girl, Anne Lovett. She was found dead in 1984 in a grotto in her tiny village. She had died from exposure after giving birth alone, having successfully concealed her pregnancy. For many people, her death spoke eloquently of an educational system which avoided the issue of sex, and the incident also highlighted the tragic cost of barring access to contraception and abortion. The location of her death – in a grotto to the Virgin Mary, of all places – also spoke to the Marian devotion which still held a strong grip on the populace, in particular in the rural areas.

The rural/urban divide was well exemplified by the respective level of devotion to religion throughout all of this. In a rural situation, a person’s failure to attend to their religious obligations would be obvious to the local community. This wasn’t such an issue in the cities, and it was in the urban centres that the first signs of rejection of strict Roman Catholic policies was seen. Indeed, right through the various referendums on divorce and abortion-related amendments, the urban and rural constituencies showed a major disparity in their voting patterns. The religiosity of their rural counterparts was often a topic of some scorn among young urbanites, in particular when in 1985 there were reports of moving statues in various locations, the most notable being Ballinspittle in County Cork. The church held its counsel on the issue, refusing to validate these “miracles”, which were drawing massive crowds. As if the worshipping pilgrims weren’t showing sufficient religious mania, a group of people trumped that level of devotion by vandalising and damaging the statue of Mary in Ballinspittle. Their ire was raised by what they saw as worship of idols. The craze of moving statues died as quickly as it had started.

The first signs that the church was losing its tight grip on the Irish people came with the earliest claims of clerical abuse in the early 90’s. Information about these crimes came initially in a trickle, and was at first received with great scepticism. These stories were soon overwhelmed by the news that the aforementioned Bishop Eamonn Casey had fathered a child with his ex-housekeeper. Claims that he had embezzled diocesan funds to pay for his son’s education were made, and he was forced to leave the country. That news was followed by the news that his colleague on that day in 1979 – Father Michael Cleary – also had a son (again with his housekeeper) and that he had effectively been living as a father and husband with his family. Whatever their position on celibacy, it appears that the two were rigorous in observing the Church position on contraception.

The initial scepticism at the claims of clerical abuse began to melt in the light of these further revelations, and the decade saw the enormous scale of the abuse become evident. One priest who had been charged committed suicide, while a bishop who had transferred offenders rather than report the abuse had to be treated for severe alcoholism. The Church was falling apart visibly.

Further pressure came in the form of protests concerning the ban on abortion. In 1992 a 14-year-old victim of rape was brought by her parents to the UK for an abortion. While there, they were told that DNA from the foetus could be harvested in order to help with a prosecution. Her father contacted the Irish authorities to determine the protocols for dealing with this, and he was told that he was breaking the law by assisting her in obtaining an abortion. He was told to return immediately or that he would face criminal charges. The “X-Case”, as it became known, led to a national outcry and also to very negative international commentary. As a result of the case, three amendments to the Constitution were proposed, with the result that travel for abortion and access to abortion information became legal.

Throughout all of this, laws on contraception were all but removed, and a second referendum on divorce (in 1995) saw it finally legalised in 1997. Interestingly, during what was to become a very heated campaign, one Bishop broke ranks by saying that it would not be sinful to vote “yes” to the availability of divorce – a Roman Catholic could do so without fear of divine reprisal. What would be sinful, however, would be to avail of it in order to enter a second relationship. His enlightened views resulted in a dressing-down by the senior hierarchy. Another outcome of the campaign concerned some cartoons which appeared in a national Sunday newspaper. A carpenter (appropriately) took exception to the cartoons, which lampooned the anti-divorce campaign. He sought leave to take a case against the cartoonist and the newspaper for blasphemy. While blasphemy remained on the statute books as a relic of the British administration, it was never actually defined in law. This was explained patiently to him at every step of the judicial process. He continued his appeals through successively higher courts until the case reached the Supreme Court. Finding against him, the Court also found that the case was not a valid test of the Constitution and that he would therefore be liable for all the costs, which were considerable.

In 1993, a gay Senator called David Norris saw the successful culmination of a long campaign when homosexual acts were legalised. He’d been forced to bring the Irish Government to the European courts in order to drive the issue through. Amusingly, the Irish Times carried a photograph after the legislation was passed, the caption of which read: “Gay rights campaigners celebrate the legalisation of homosexual acts in the Dáil”. A pithy letter was printed the next day, applauding the passing of the bill, but asking whether homosexual acts could be legalised outside the government buildings as well as merely inside!

It has been truly astonishing to have seen the sea-change which has occurred in Ireland. Abortion remains the nettle which nobody appears willing to grasp, but it is heartening to know that pregnancy advisory services which receive public funds are actually obliged to provide neutral advice on abortion. Recently, a radio station sent an undercover journalist to seek pregnancy advice and she reported that some advice centres were providing very biased and untrue accounts of abortions. That a radio station would broadcast such a report is a huge sign of an increasingly secular thrust to Irish society. A strong symbol of a new liberal trend in Irish society came with the 1990 election to the Presidency of Mary Robinson, a prominent lawyer and erstwhile campaigner on issues such as homosexual rights, free availability of contraception, and of women’s rights.

As of the present moment, Church attendance figures – while still high at 44% – are dramatically lower than the 70’s figure of over 90%. These statistics raise questions about the census figures. Many Irish people will reply, as a default, “Catholic” when their religion is demanded on a form. They may mean “nominal Catholic”, they may mean “raised as a Catholic”, or they may simply not wish to counter the possibility of a vengeful God-figure roaming the country with a list of apostates culled from the Central Statistics Office. In practice, it is easy to see that the number of people actually adhering to Roman Catholic dogma is diminishing markedly. The societal and familial prohibitions on cohabitation are gone; many people have availed of divorce to give themselves another start in life. Contraception is freely available.

The RC hierarchy has had to shift its position to try maintain relevance in this changed society, and has torn up many of its eternal moral truths. On a recent visit I noticed that the local church was holding a special service for cohabiting and gay couples. Like any commercial organisation they have realised that if their product is not meeting market needs, then they must adapt the product.

Much has changed, but there is still more to be done. The Department of Education has been wresting control of the education system back from the Church, and that is a work in progress. Abortion reared its head again in 2007, when a young girl sought to terminate her pregnancy when it was discovered that the baby would be born so seriously brain-damaged that it would die within hours. As with the X-case, the Supreme Court decided that there was sufficient risk to the mental health of the petitioner that the abortion should be allowed to proceed. This compromise solution has typified the results of every clash between the changing demands of society and an uncaring and religiously-based Constitution. Intriguingly, since the girl was in the care of her local authority, this led to a hitherto unimaginable situation whereby the State was ordering itself to pay for an abortion for a person in their care.

A quiet and unremarked revolution is being won in Ireland, but the old forces are not lying down and accepting defeat easily.

One of the iconic images of the 1995 divorce referendum was a highly-charged advocate for the “No” campaign, who intruded into a live TV interview during the ballot count. She left little doubt about her views as she screamed at the politicians present that they were “Nothing but a bunch of wife-swapping sodomites.” Fundamentalism is alive and well in Ireland. It may be less prevalent, but it’s still there.

The narrowness of the victory of the “Yes” campaign (a mere 9,000 votes from an electorate of 2.6 million) shows that there is still considerable opposition to the liberal social agenda. In the context of that tiny majority, I’m reminded of a very striking scene from a documentary made about the divorce referendum. The fly-on-the-wall team followed one of the major teams campaigning for a “No” vote. They were led by a prominent Roman Catholic who was a Professor of Law – ironically enough at Trinity College Dublin. Each evening, after a day’s campaigning, they would form a circle in their office and pray in the most pious manner imaginable. At the end of the final day of campaigning, a telephone in the office began to ring while they prayed. They continued praying, only deigning to pick up the receiver when they had completed their pieties. A hand reached out. The phone went dead.

My fervent hope remains that the caller had a surefire suggestion which would garner 4,500 votes for their campaign. Nothing would illustrate the futility of prayer more convincingly. Even though that is most certainly not the case, the incident itself is a fine analogy for a country which for too long was too absorbed by futile pleas to a divine agency to see that its future was in its own hands.


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