In the historic sense, Ireland’s long love affair with the Catholic church was, as Ella Fitzgerald once sang, “too hot not to cool down”. Catholicism was once so all-pervading in Irish life that it seemed a definition of Irishness: but now, according to a survey by the pollsters Red C, the Irish are losing their faith quicker than most: seven years ago, 69% of Irish people described themselves as “religious”: this has now fallen more than 20 points to 47%.
Something had to give, and even before the clerical scandals broke into the public realm – in the 1990s – this intermingling of faith and fatherland was in decline. There was the effect of the 1960s. There was the effect of the pill, which, contrary to legend, was legal in Ireland. There was television. There was modernisation, which the Vatican advanced as aggiornamento. Around the time of Vatican II – 1962-65 – it could be said that in the hills of Connemara they spoke of little else.
But there were a lot of concerned parents, too, writing to the devotional magazines saying that they were in despair because they just couldn’t get their offspring to pray: the family rosary was gone: their son (it was usually their son) wouldn’t go to mass, no matter how much they beseeched. Gradually, you could see traditional Irish Catholicism unravelling. The votive lights placed under the picture of the Sacred Heart were disappearing in country B&Bs. My aunt, who had once felt miserably guilty for absent-mindedly taking a cup of Bovril on a meatless Friday, could relax.
Then there were heated national arguments about divorce – arguments as often about land as matrimony – and it took three referendums to introduce a divorce law. There were even more heated debates about abortion, and though faith is still a strong part of Irish values in this, there is a cultural element too: agricultural societies regarded infertility as failure, and “abortion” traditionally meant a cow had failed to calf.
And then in the 1990s and the 2000s the clerical scandals erupted, in which ghastly episodes of priests molesting and sometimes raping children and young people were brought to light. Richard Dawkins visited Dublin – and Listowel, in Co Kerry, for Writers’ Week – and scolded the Irish for having God in their constitution; they took it on the chin, and bought his book The God Delusion at the double.
Among Dublin’s smart set it seemed the kiss of social death to admit to being a practising Catholic: it’s even vaguely unfashionable to be married, especially only once. Nonetheless, in the 2011 census, it emerged that 84% of the people of the Irish Republic described themselves as “Roman Catholic”. The number of atheists and agnostics and diverse other faiths was up too, but Roman Catholics remained the majority.
However, it is evident, especially in Dublin, that nominal inscription to a religion is one thing, while actual practice is another. Red C’s survey only confirms what is obvious anecdotally: that a substantial number of Irish people have ditched the religion of their ancestors because they think it no longer applies in an age of scientific rationality; because they rebuff “control” by ecclesiastics; because they are disgusted by the clerical scandals – indeed, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is himself disgusted by what he has had to read in the archives; or because sex, drugs and accumulating electronic gadgets are more “relevant” to modern life than “God and Mary, His Mother”, as the traditional greeting in the Irish language puts it.
And yes, the forename of “Mary”, once so common that half the class at my convent school bore it, is now a highly unusual moniker among younger generations.
Yet I would distinguish between “religion” and “faith” in the Irish context. If the traditional structures of “religion” are weaker, there remains a strong deposit of “faith” among the people. Country pilgrimages still thrive. When there is a local tragedy – fishermen drowned at sea, teenagers killed in a bad road collision – the parish priest still speaks for the people, and organises the rites of passage. And solace.
I was in a church in a small Co Leitrim townland of 900 people not long ago when the priest thanked parishioners for helping out flood victims in Pakistan – they had put over €3,000 on the plate for the poor in Pakistan. If the structures of religion are weaker, some of the kind impulses of faith are still there.
Fuente: Bitácora Almendrón. Tribuna Libre © Miguel Moliné Escalona