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How Ireland lost its faith – but not completely

Love’s Betrayal review: Peter Mulholland is at his best in dealing with new religious movements

Love’s Betrayal. The Decline of Catholicism and the Rise of New Religions in Ireland
Love’s Betrayal. The Decline of Catholicism and the Rise of New Religions in Ireland
Author: Peter Mulholland
ISBN-13: 978-1787071278
Publisher: Peter Lang
Guideline Price: £74.9

On August 5th 1975 an Irish Times reader wrote to me as this newspaper’s Religious Affairs Correspondent seeking advice on how he might respond to “a young relative, who was an RC but has joined a sect started in the USA”.

The anxious reader had forgotten the sect’s name but remembered that they published “a bi-monthly named Plain Truth and have an institution with a name like Ambassador College in some part of England.” Specifically, he wondered if I was “aware of any critical comments on this sect which may have been published as, say a booklet, leaflet or periodical.”

This anguished Rathmines reader’s cri de coeur captures the depressed darkness of mid-1970s Ireland following the cultural optimism of the 1960s: although there was a slow but steady turning of the tide from the religious monolith of the Éamon de Valera-John Charles McQuaid era towards today’s more multicultural and socially diverse society; the mood was pessimistically driven by the post-1973-4 Arab oil embargo recession.

Peter Mulholland, who holds a PhD in social and cultural anthropology from Maynooth University, has written previously on the 1985 moving statues phenomenon in Ballinspittle, Co Cork, and the Orange Order marches of the tense 1990s in his native Portadown.


In this latest canvass, he undertakes the daunting three-fold task of examining the decline of Roman Catholicism, the impact of secularisation and the rise of new religious movements, against the background of changes promulgated by the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, militant feminism and sectarian warfare in Northern Ireland, all of which were eroding the ultramontane supremacy of the papacy.

Particularly commendable is the book's section chronicling the arguments against corporal punishment made by the forgotten heroine

The title of this pioneering work is inspired by President Mary McAleese’s response a decade ago to the Ryan Report’s condemnation of decades-long systematic abuse in industrial schools, orphanages and reformatories run on behalf of the State by religious orders, a corrosive collusion which she characterised as “an atrocious betrayal of love”.

The book’s ambitious aim is to provide “a synthesis of sociological, theological, anthropological and psychological theories and insights in explaining the decline of Catholicism and rise of new religious and spiritual beliefs in Ireland.” Incidentally, this does not explain the misnomer in its title of “the Rise of New Religions”.

Particularly commendable is the book’s section chronicling the arguments against corporal punishment made by the forgotten heroine. Constance O’Connell, who set up the School Children’s Protection Organisation (SCPO), in 1954; as well as the crusades by Senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, Frank Crummey, Martin Reynolds, Richard Clear and Maura Carty.

Overall, the book’s format retains too much of the didactic theorising of a doctorate being over-reliant on the pessimism of St Augustine rather than the more cosmopolitan theology of St Thomas Aquinas. This insufficient adaptation of a complex text to a more general readership is partly off-set by a lengthy appendix based on Dr Mulholland’s trawl of national newspapers, particularly the Sunday Independent.

If a paperback edition appears, the publisher should improve the index and bibliography and scrappy errors need correcting

In this latter section readers can follow the controversies of the day in which the contributions of Frs Lucius McClean, James Good, Joe Dunn and Martin Tierney stand out alongside the voices of church authority such as Cardinal William Conway and Bishop Jeremiah Newman.

If a paperback edition appears, the enterprising Swiss-based publisher Peter Lang should improve the index and bibliography. Scrappy errors need correcting: the minister for education who abolished corporal punishment in schools was John Boland, not Bowland; Dick Burke was a Fine Gael, not Labour Party politician; Archbishop John Charles McQuaid’s nephew is misspelt as Dr Paul McQuade; the late Mary Cummins was an Irish Times, not a Sunday Independent journalist; Fr Desmond Forristal is not Forrestal and Peter de Rosa is a former priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster, not a Jesuit.

Dr Mulholland is at his best in dealing with new religious movements and plans to expand his survey in a second book. He brought me back to the second national conference of the Charismatic Renewal Movement in Ireland in the RDS on Sunday September 21, 1975 when I reported how the Belgian Primate, Cardinal Leon Joseph Suenens, was applauded by 3,000 ecstatic Charismatics who believed that Catholicism was entering a new phase of evangelistic growth.

This book is an important contribution to the changing situation of religion in Ireland, but it does not reach conclusions on the prospects for a reformed Irish Catholic Church, overemphasises the rise of other religious movements and understates the advance of secularisation. How could it when it does not deal with the differing roles of Cardinal Desmond Connell and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin?

John Cooney, author of John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland, is preparing a companion biography of Cardinal Desmond Connell and the Downfall of Catholic Ireland.