You don’t have to spend a lot of time in Ireland to see that churches are never far away, there is always one somewhere, whether it’s beautiful and full of people like in Dublin, or half in ruins all over the countryside. It is important to understand that, the history of the Irish Catholic Church and the history of the whole country have been intimately linked from the beginning on.
Indeed, the green Erin had been Christianized very early, as early as the 6th century, and Pope Adrian IV (fun fact: he was the only native english speaker pope in history) wanted to knock the somewhat depraved Church of Ireland into line. By the Laudabiliter papal bull of 1155, he gave the right to the King of England to invade Ireland, as a logical consequence of the Donation of Constantine (a letter of questionable existence by which the Emperor Constantine would have given Pope Sylvester the right to rule over the West).
As a result, for 300 years, the kings of England also bore the title of Lord of Ireland, but this was more honorary than anything else. Things changed with the Crown of Ireland Act of 1542, by which the King of England also became King of Ireland (small reminder : Henry VIII had just split with the Catholic Church and needed to establish both his power and new religion). From this point on, a set of laws called the « penal laws » were enacted to enslave the Catholic Church in Ireland. Expulsion of bishops, limitation of the number of priests, who had to register to the authorities, exclusion of Catholics from the right to vote and from all public offices, dispossession of land, etc. But actually, it was neither about eradicating the Catholic Church with mass conversions nor about making Irland a Protestant territory, because then there would have been no justification to have the dirty tasks done by the Catholics, if these de facto no longer existed. It was not until the 19th century that other laws gradually began to give the same rights to Catholics and Protestants.
It must be understood that during all these centuries, the Catholic Church served as a bulwark against the English invader and allowed an identification and a « wir-gefühl » (sense of belonging) of the Irish. The Irish were united thank and through the Catholic Church and continued to practice their religion, often semi-clandestinely (see picture below).
During the so-called « penal » era, when the Catholics and their Church suffered heavy oppression at the hands of the British Protestant occupier, institutions were created all over Europe – the Irish Colleges – to train Irish Catholic priests. There were about thirty. (The only one that is still really used nowdays is in Rome). In those times, the Church was the symbol of resistance and the priests its spearheads.
Ireland’s independence was also possible, because the feeling of being Irish and Catholic was a powerful unifying agent, even if the Catholic Church never really encouraged the independance movement, because it was fearing secularization (Fenians in particular, a secular independence group).
At the time of independence in 1922, this same Catholic Church that had served as a bulwark against the English invader, had an enormous spiritual power, equivalent to an earthly power for many parishioners. This is how the Catholic church of Ireland succumbed to the hubris despised by the ancient Gods… and its worshippers once united in the Church against the occupier stood under its yoke after the independance.
After 1922, the young independent Ireland was structured around the indispensable pillar of the parish. It is thanks to the Church that many children have learned to read and write. Simply put : since 1831 and until the 70s, instruction rhymed with religion. And this same Church, after having been oppressed under the English yoke for centuries, has become overpowered, even abusive in the independant Ireland.
The Church was abusive on two levels: both as a decision-maker of everyday life and as the guarantor of a parallel world. Scandals are unfortunately not lacking about children abused in schools and boarding schools. At the same time, special institutions existed for decades as the Mother and Baby homes, the industrial schools, and even worse the Madgalene laundries, the last of which closed only in the early 90s only. These organizations kept so-called delinquant children or pregnant women out of society, and did so in a rather lucrative way because social services funded the institutions. In addition, babies born out of wedlock were sold at a high price to Irish or American families in need of children, against the wishes of the young mothers, who then had to continue working in the laundries to « finance » their stay. A number of young girls were sent to the Magdalene laundries only because they were a little agitated, because they simply did not fit into the norm. Under the influence of the parish priest, many families had no other choice, but to send them there.
Ireland is not the only country that has experienced child abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church. But it seems that in Ireland due to the social weight of the church as well as the reluctance of people to speak, it was worse : « whatever you say, say nothing » masterfully formulated by Seamus Heaney in one of his poems.
One of the questions that arises is therefore to know if it was the doing of a few black sheep invested with a certain power as there are unfortunately everywhere, or if the phenomenon was systemic: as far as sexual abuse is concerned, it was probably the doing of individual black sheep. The Mother and baby homes, magdalene laundries and industrial schools, on the other hand, they were systemic.
This said, it was also under the auspices of the Catholic Church that thousands of little German orphans were taken in after the war, or forty years later hundreds of young Soviets after Chernobyl. Those were children that nobody wanted in Europe. In the twentieth century, the Catholic Church in Ireland was indeed capable of the best as well as the worst.
Gradually in the 70s, Sunday mass remained but the individual devotions began to disappear, while decorations inside the houses stayed.
And what about Ireland in the twenty-first century? Religion and civilization are never far from each other in Ireland, even in 2023. Ireland has made (late) amends : the parliament took away from the Church the full authority upon marriage in 1972, decriminalized homosexuality 30 years ago, and legalized abortion in 2018. Religion is still very present in schools and universities but has become open to all, and ecumenical. For example, after having long been a Protestant-only university, Trinity College now houses chaplains who pray for all students without discrimination during the exam phase, and display it on the billboards!
And the Catholic religion, still quite important until the leaving cert of irish children, tends to fade afterwards, even if the institution remains nowdays a key player in the crucial moments of the life of the Irish. Last but not least, Irish homes and gardens are still displaying numerous religious decorations, as well as the urban space.
As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement (10.04.1998), it may be interesting as a conclusion to focus on the very particular situation of Northern Ireland. Is it a cultural or a religious conflict? It’s a large issue.. One wonders whether it is not the Irish themselves who are using religion now to serve their cause, on both sides.
Because, indeed, whatever the Northern Irish may say, religion plays a role in this conflict, as the dual system remains in place, regardless of personal faith: a Unionist is Protestant, a Republican is Catholic, whether they believe or not.
The Irish Catholic Church : alternately founder, enslaved, oppressed, then abusing and now used ? Somehow, History is not lacking in irony ..The only thing we can be sure of : The cross and the flag always go hand in hand in Ireland.
* Article named after Derek Scally’s book « the best catholics in the world, The Irish, the church and the end of a special relationship, Penguin, 2021
« Mass in a Connemara cabin », Aloysius O Kelly, 1883,National Gallery of Ireland, Merrion Square, Dublin