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Clonliffe has gone and the Irish Catholic Church may not be far behind it

An unfashionable truth, and to some unpalatable, is that the church has no future without priests

Our Lady of the kitchen pray for us! That invocation was the add-on to the Angelus at noon, led in lore by Sr Bernadette, at Holy Cross College, Clonliffe. A woman fondly remembered by one venerable cleric as direct in speech, strong in character and possessed of a clear Cavan accent, she managed the kitchens. Angelus was first and then lunch.

Clonliffe is closed now and the seminarians long gone. On Sunday, September 4th, evening prayer will be said there for the last time. It is seemingly an event of no wider cultural significance whatsoever but another pillar of the religious revival led by Cardinal Paul Cullen will have been been dismantled. What Cullen, Clonliffe and a wider infrastructure achieved was the romanisation of Irish catholic piety from the 1850s onwards. There is misplaced nostalgia now within the crumbling edifice. There is triumphalism outside at its collapse. Generally, there is indifference about something already irrelevant. Reading history backwards, we saw as unchanging what was innovative and, it transpires, transitory.

Clonliffe was founded to provide priests for the Dublin diocese, part of a church briefly possessed of astonishing influence. Its progenitor, Cardinal Cullen, is now largely forgotten. Historians will struggle to reconstruct, for a generation with no lived experience of what prevailed, the end of the influence and power of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. Those brought up since the mid-1960s have watched that change and decline. What could not be imagined became inevitable; no greater proof is needed than the decline in vocations.

Clonliffe was a powerhouse that together with Maynooth and All Hallows educated clergy to man a global religious empire for more than 100 years. One-third of the 730 bishops at the First Vatican Council in 1868 were Irish or of Irish descent. Founded in 1859, Clonliffe’s centenary celebrations were delayed a year until 1960 to complete a building programme and it confidently looked forward to another century. It was a big occasion for church and state and began a succession of commemorative anniversaries unequalled until the current Decade of Commemorations. The Patrician Congress in 1961 was a reprise of the earlier Eucharistic Congress, marking the 1,500th anniversary of the death of St Patrick with all the panoply of a State visit. The 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 apparently confirmed the State as robustly democratic in its politics, but overwhelmingly catholic and nationalist in ethos.


Roger Casement was reinterred in Glasnevin Cemetery. Having been blackguarded in death by the British, he was whitewashed by the Irish State on his return

By then Seán Lemass had in fact already visited Terence O’Neill at Stormont. Significant law reform benefiting women was being enacted. RTÉ television was a reality. A new secularism, outward-looking and emphasising economic development was already Irish political orthodoxy, if not economic reality, from the late 1950s. Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls was published and banned in 1960. John McGahern’s The Dark similarly in 1965. That year Roger Casement was reinterred in Glasnevin Cemetery. Having been blackguarded in death by the British, he was whitewashed by the Irish State on his return. If the centenary celebrations at Clonliffe seemed majestic in their panoply, it was but the swansong of the Cullen church.

The collapse of its moral authority was central to the church’s demise. But that was still a generation away. Desacralisation within the church was well under way before revelations beginning in the 1990s caused reputational destruction. The surrounding culture has so taken hold, mystery so abandoned, as to leave little point to being a priest it seems. Exaggerated deference and unquestioned authority degenerated into embarrassed confusion about the role. What were once sacred ministers are now apparently presiders. It’s language that would stop a prayer in its tracks. It only succeeds in ensuring that people mandated to find disciples have no successors.

A telling of the story of where the Catholic Church is now, recounts correctly the historical aberration of the Cullen era and its legions of clergy. Post-famine this included for the first time large numbers of nuns. At the celebratory dinner in Clonliffe in 1960, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid thanked the Sisters who “before the dawn until after dark … make the daily service of our students their infallible method of loving Our Devine Master”. Well indeed, might Sr Bernadette have added on to her Angelus.

It bears no resemblance to the church of penal days, or the one refounded by Cullen after the Famine on the basis of Catholic emancipation

Philip Larkin wrote in his poem Church Going; When churches fall completely out of use/What we shall turn them into ... What is at stake in 2022 is unprecedented. It is different from the collapse of Patrick’s monastic church at the hands of marauding Vikings. It is not the end of the medieval church and its religious orders at the reformation. It bears no resemblance to the church of penal days, or the one refounded by Cullen after the Famine on the basis of Catholic emancipation. At every previous juncture, religion was pervasive. Now it is absent from the surrounding culture.

Catholicism, hocus-pocus or divine revelation, turns on the intercessory powers of the priest, in the person of Christ. Its sacraments are not available on a self-service basis. The unfashionable truth is that it has no future without priests.