Lisa McInerney on Ireland’s à-la-carte Catholicism
‘One might assume that a novel set in contemporary Ireland called The Glorious Heresies would feature a cast of blasphemers clashing with the faithful fraternity, but Catholic Ireland just isn’t Catholic enough to support such an Atwoodesque theme’
“We have a strange kind of dichotomy: a secular society still governed by outdated notions of tradition and creed. And a strange kind of paradoxical standard: we’re defined by a faith system that hasn’t adequately defined us in years.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Lisa McInerney: “to varying degrees but all rather categorically, Irish people are in favour of divorce, contraception, abortion, marriage equality, IVF, pre-marital sex, the ordination of women priests, Father Ted, and having a few scoops on Good Friday”
I’m not the first person to have said that Ireland is a nation of à la carte Catholics, clinging to religion as a distinguishing quirk while being pernickety in the extreme about its dos and don’ts. It is a truth more blatant than a gap in the One Direction line-up. In the 2011 census, 84.2 per cent of the population of the Republic self-identified as Roman Catholic, which would make anyone unfamiliar with our idiosyncrasies assume that we’re a fairly devout bunch.
We are not.
Likewise, one might assume that a novel set in contemporary Ireland called The Glorious Heresies would feature a cast of blasphemers clashing with the faithful fraternity, but Catholic Ireland just isn’t Catholic enough to support such an Atwoodesque theme. While the cast of Heresies is largely aberrant – all of its players existing on the fringes, making twisted decisions – there is no monstrous Catholic presence to battle, except one misshapen by old memories and mostly given its power in recall. The people of faith my cast encounters tend to be moderates. This is typical of our spiritual majority.
The statistics are there in abundance, merrily defying the census. To varying degrees but all rather categorically, Irish people are in favour of divorce, contraception, abortion, marriage equality, IVF, pre-marital sex, the ordination of women priests, Father Ted, and having a few scoops on Good Friday. We also tend to be sceptical of the existence of Hell, the need for celibate clergy, the idea of a virgin birth, transubstantiation, the tenet that we are born in a state of sin, and the assumption that the only way to deal with paedophilic priests is to move them to the next county and hope no one notices. We are pretty liberal, pretty thoughtful and pretty decent people. We self-identify as Catholic because Ireland is traditionally a Catholic country, and tradition and national identity are inextricably linked in any country, let alone in one where you can’t even say hello in your native tongue without invoking The Man Above.
“Dia duit.” – “God be with you.”
It is very tempting to think of this contradiction as another delightful Irish aberration but, just as it defines and explains us, it causes its share of problems. Most pressing, of course, is the binding of Church and State and the issues arising from religious interposition on our laws. We have severely restricted access to abortion, for example; it is illegal in all cases except as a direct result of medical intervention to save the life of the mother. About 90 per cent of our primary schools are Catholic – under the patronage of the diocese with a member of the clergy on the board of management, though financed by the State. While State schools aren’t permitted to discriminate against non-Catholic pupils, they can do so with their hires; schools are permitted to discriminate in order to protect their religious ethos, so being a gay teacher in Ireland means a lot of anxiety and limited opportunities. Many Irish hospitals are run by religious orders, too, meaning that it’s entirely possible that our openly gay Minister for Health could be discriminated against if he chose to pop in for an interview.
So we have a strange kind of dichotomy: a secular society still governed by outdated notions of tradition and creed. And a strange kind of paradoxical standard: we’re defined by a faith system that hasn’t adequately defined us in years. It makes sense to base your society’s governance on its population structure, so if almost 85% of us are Roman Catholic, then basing our day-to-day management on Catholic teachings might seem logical. Problem is, of course, that there’s Catholic and there’s Irish Catholic.
No, seriously. The majority of Irish Catholics don’t listen to the parish priest’s teachings on obligatory fast days, but are not going to stop inviting him to say grace at the annual GAA dinner-dance. We think of that stuff about pre-marital sex as obsolete blustering by elderly virgins, but we still want to get married in church because everyone loves a bitta pomp. We want our newborns baptised, but not a hope in Hackballs Cross are we bringing the scamps to Mass. And if we do we’re definitely ducking out as soon as the priest is distracted by Communion formation.
Of course there are real and significant historical reasons for Irish people to be so reluctant to extricate themselves from their Catholic identity, not least of which is that the Church was there at the birth of our State, and so religious teaching seeped into the Constitution itself. Our more recent history of emigration further galvanised the idea that Irish meant Catholic, and so Catholic came to mean a fondness for spuds and hurling and stout and mammies.
From the outside it must look like we have short memories or unquenchable bloodlust to have accepted the horrors of Magdalene Ireland, or the sexual abuse scandals, or the strengthening of patriarchal boundaries so readily. For most modern Irish Catholics, such scandals can be confined to the past. The feeling is that they don’t reflect contemporary sensibilities; they were incontestably terrible, but have little or nothing to do with Confirmation days out or funeral lunches. They belong to the Holy Joes – the pious, the hardline and the foreign-funded careerists. They do not belong to normal people. And, sure, they were as much the fault of the State as the Holy See.
And so it is that Catholicism – a very Irish brand of it – continues to be an important facet of cultural and spiritual life on the ould sod, even if it is primarily used to shore up important social milestones, and only on scant occasion for its intended purpose. In the meantime, if the lads abroad in the Vatican insist on counting us among their more committed member states, one might mischievously hope it’s with a cheery obliviousness to our continued irreverence and our own glorious heresies.
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney is published by John Murray, at £16.99
This article was first published on the Beagle, John Murray’s blog