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Ireland and the loss of faith


The Way We Were: Catholic Ireland Since 1922, by Mary Kenny; Columba Books

WHEN we consider the disappearance of shared values today in this country – and in the West generally – as well as the widespread collapse in belief and practice of the Christian faith, it is impossible to ignore Irish history of the last 100 years. For once-Catholic Ireland, a country where religious faith dominated the political, cultural and domestic landscape, has embraced modernity and distanced itself from its ancient religion with extraordinary rapidity.

Mary Kenny, a respected Irish writer and journalist for many decades, attempts here to provide her personal response to the question: How have we got to where we are today? She is not writing a sociological analysis or a scholarly history; more a lively personal account, where autobiography, wider reflections, reminiscences and brief biographies of Irish personalities jostle together to give readers some insight into this lovely, complex island. As someone who spent many childhood holidays in Cork and Kerry with Irish relatives, I share Kenny’s affection; also, her implicit regret at what today’s progressive Ireland has lost.

Her book is divided into two parts: ‘The Context of History’ and ‘Profiles from my Time’. The first part explains the civil war which led to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 and what followed from this. The victors were the ‘pragmatists’, who accepted dominion status within the British Empire, against the ‘romantics’, those who dreamed of a republic. Although the new Irish Senate included both Catholics and Protestants, essentially Catholics were in power. Donal O’Sullivan, clerk of the Irish Senate, could write with confidence: ‘It is hardly too much to say that every Irish Catholic regards the subject of divorce as abhorrent.’

Fianna Fail, the Republican party led by Eamon De Valera, joined the democratic process in 1926 when De Valera realised ‘that the path to power was in parliament and Dail Eireann’. He won the general election of 1931; the Republic – Eire – was born. A devout Catholic among other devout Catholic parliamentarians, De Valera was determined to give Eire ‘a more decisively Catholic identity’. The Irish Constitution, written during this period, prohibited divorce, frowned on working mothers and gave the Church a ‘special position’. Its opening words began: ‘In the name of the Most Holy Trinity . . . we the people of Eire humbly acknowledge all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ.’ Eire was not a theocratic state. Nonetheless, it was a democracy dominated by religious belief and the Church.

However, the country could not remain impervious to the ‘winds of change’, in Macmillan’s famous phrase. Kenny, a committed feminist in the 1970s, writes that feminists ‘were fiercely critical of the clause known as ‘the woman in the home’: Article 41, Clause 2, in which ‘the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved’. The feminists won. The chapters ‘Modern Times: It started in the 1960s’ and ‘The Women’s Revolution and the Advance of the Liberal Agenda’ chart the dismantling of the old order. This has led in recent years to public approval, by ballot, of divorce, abortion and a changed definition of marriage.

Older people, such as my late mother born in Cork in 1924, watched dismayed as Eire turned its back on its traditional stance in these areas. Kenny herself, from teenage rebellion to becoming a vocal campaigner for women’s rights, has gradually tempered her views. For instance, she met Valerie Riches, founder of The Responsible Society (now Family and Education Trust), a courageous defender of young people and their need for protection from a society busy dismantling all moral restraints on behaviour. Kenny writes: ‘She was critical of the “value-free” approach to marriage and morals she perceived in the new approach to sex education’ and she was ‘particularly alerted to – and prophetic about – the paedophile threat and seduction of young people under the age of consent’.

Kenny herself married and become a mother in the 1970s. She asks, with honest self-appraisal: ‘Did I desert feminism? I became critical about the direction in which it was going. I had come to understand Valerie Riches’ viewpoint that the “permissive society” had done a lot of damage – I could see that in my own life too.’ She adds: ‘I was also discovering that contentment in marriage (and motherhood) wasn’t achieved by shouting about your rights.’ Kenny admits to a deeper appreciation of her faith with age, alongside recognising the inevitable sacrifices that life imposes. Her husband suffered a series of strokes and she comments candidly: ‘I did indeed do my best to be [his] carer during the first 15 years of the new century [he died in 2015], but it was often at odds with what I would have chosen.’

Kenny is clear that the Church had too much power, especially evident in the decades-long, obsessive control wielded by John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin. Power always corrupts. This was certainly true of Catholic Ireland: evident not so much in the behaviour of abusive priests, appalling though this was, or the punitive attitude towards illegitimacy and unmarried mothers, but in the general, uncritical deference of the laity towards the clergy. Public status trumped holiness of life. One exception, sympathetically recounted by Kenny among her Profiles, was the saintly layman Frank Duff who, when the Irish Free State was created, provided a refuge for unmarried mothers; who cared for Dublin’s homeless; and who, through the Legion of Mary, worked to help the prostitutes of the notorious Monto district start new lives.

Kenny rightly champions Duff and those many anonymous Catholics such as her Aunt Josephine whose lives were spent in quiet Christian service of others; these were ‘good people . . . whose faith was a core aspect of their lives’. They shouldn’t be ‘written out of the past picture of Irish life’. They too are part of the story of ‘the way we were’.

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Francis Phillips
Francis Phillips
Francis Phillips is a mother, grandmother and occasional book reviewer living in Buckinghamshire.

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