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Catholicism’s influence is very much alive in Ireland

The faith still has significant public and private sway despite blows to the church

Pope John Paul II about to board an Aer Lingus plane following his visit to Ireland in 1979. File photograph: Dermot O’Shea

A few years ago, Eugene O’Brien and I started work on a book of essays entitled Tracing the Cultural Legacy of Irish Catholicism: From Galway to Cloyne and Beyond. We approached contributors from different disciplines and shades of opinion to provide as balanced an overview as possible of what is an emotive topic.

The timespan covered in the book is revealed, somewhat obliquely, in the subtitle. It begins with the visit by Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979, when the large crowd at the youth Mass in Galway was entertained by two high-profile and charismatic clerics, Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary.

It would subsequently be discovered that both men had fathered children. Revelations about their clandestine affairs caused much consternation, but these would pale into insignificance compared to the raft of scandals that came to light in connection with the sexual abuse of children by priests or of the horrors endured by thousands of unfortunates in industrial schools and Magdalene laundries.

The Cloyne report in 2011, on the handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations in that diocese, inspired an emotional response from taoiseach Enda Kenny. In an unprecedented speech in the Dáil he stressed how the “rape and torture of children” had been “downplayed” by the church in an attempt to preserve the standing and power of the institution.

Kenny noted that the Cloyne report “excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism . . . the narcissism . . . that dominate the Vatican to this day”. Ireland, “a Republic of laws”, would no longer tolerate the cover-up of crimes committed against its citizens.

The cultural legacy of Catholicism in Ireland is still very much alive

The taoiseach’s address represented a sea-change in the formerly symbiotic relationship between church and state in Ireland. The fact that the comments were made by a practising Catholic and the leader of Fine Gael added to their impact.

The book therefore covers more than three decades during which the face of Irish Catholicism was completely transformed.

The referendum vote in favour of same-sex marriage in 2015, in spite of church opposition, underlines the distance Ireland has travelled from the time of the divisive divorce and abortion referendums in the 1980s, both of which went in accordance with the church’s stated preference, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993.

The marriage equality vote is the clearest indication to date that most Irish people refuse to be guided by an institution that is now seen as largely irrelevant to young people and from which many older people have become estranged.

Language and customs

Nevertheless the cultural legacy of Catholicism in Ireland is still very much alive.

One encounters it in the language and customs of the people (phrases such as “God bless”, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph”, or making the sign of the cross when passing a church or cemetery, are still commonplace); in the rituals of marriage and death, and in the large number of crosses and churches one encounters all around the country.

The writer Roddy Doyle has stated bluntly that in Ireland one has to be prepared to say “F*** off” to religion if one has any desire to hold on to one’s “agnostic space”. It is significant how in Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy, set in the Dublin suburbs of the 1980s and 1990s, there are very few references to religion.

The same would be true of many of the work of Doyle’s contemporaries who are writers.

In 2013, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin wrote an article entitled “A Post-Catholic Ireland?”, that was published in America: The National Catholic Review. In it, he explained that one can “fully define post-Catholic only in terms of the Catholicism that has been displaced”.

In other words, a post-Catholic society is one in which Catholicism still retains an influence in people’s personal lives and in the public sphere.

Eamon Maher is director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies at IT Tallaght