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Fintan O’Toole: Catholic Ireland is now a religious rust belt of half-empty churches

The authoritarian version of Catholicism is over. In other forms it is alive and well

On Friday of last week, the people of Dunleer in Co Louth went to the local national school to mark their ballot papers in the referendum. There is no reason to think they voted differently from the rest of Louth.

So two-thirds of them most probably defied the wishes of their bishop who, as it happens, is the Catholic primate of All-Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin. He had made it very clear that the faithful were expected not just to vote against the repeal of the Eighth Amendment but to "be missionaries for the cause of life" and actively campaign for a No vote.

It is easy to see Dunleer as a microcosm of an epic change, the end of Catholic Ireland.

Yet on Monday night, while the rest of the country was still coming to terms with the sheer scale of the Yes vote, much of the population of Dunleer, about 800 people in all, young and old, was at St Brigid’s Catholic church on Old Chapel Lane.


Around the altar were 18 large candles, one for every year of the life of the local lad Cameron Reilly, whose body had been found in a nearby field on Saturday morning. The people were there to hold their own candles up against the darkness, to mourn Cameron and to show their love for his family. They were seeking comfort from their parish priest, Michael Murtagh, who articulated their shock and grief with eloquence and dignity.

The people at the polling booths on Friday and the people at the vigil in St Brigid’s on Monday are not two tribes. They are the same people. Even more importantly, it is most likely that very few of them saw any contradiction in their behaviour over those four days.

Indeed, the chances are that the precise opposite is true. The motivations for voting Yes on Friday and holding a candle in the church on Monday may have been, for many people in Dunleer, exactly the same.

Both were acts of human solidarity; both were ways of standing with others in their time of trouble.


If Catholic Ireland is a culture of obedience to a male hierarchy, it is indeed over – and has been for some time. The referendum produced for the church leadership something much worse than defiance: mere indifference.

That handsome, austere church where the community of Dunleer gathered itself tells a more complex story

The bishops issued pastoral letters, but few people read them and fewer still took their exhortations to heart. Nobody even bothered to rail against the bishops – the hierarchy is not worth anger any more. It is not even clear that the most faithful and orthodox Catholics look to the bishops for leadership on political questions rather than to media figures such as David Quinn, Breda O'Brien and John Waters.

But is that all that Catholic Ireland ever meant – the power of an authoritarian institution?

That handsome, austere church where the community of Dunleer gathered itself tells a more complex story. It is called St Brigid’s because there used to be a holy well in the village named after the female saint, who may herself be a Christianised version of a goddess – a reminder that Irish Catholicism has always been watered by an underground stream of Irish paganism.

The local belief was that Brigid, who had blinded herself in order to appear ugly and ward off male suitors, had her sight miraculously restored by the waters of the well in Dunleer.

In 1911, the curate, Fr McKeown, employed a water diviner to find the lost location of the well. Some might not call this Catholicism, but it certainly deserves to be called Irish Catholicism.

The church in Dunleer also encapsulates the vicissitudes of the majority religion. In the late 18th century, when Catholic Ireland was still emerging from the effects of the oppressive Penal Laws, it was a humble thatched building with a cabin beside it for the priest.

In 1802, a more permanent structure was built. A tower and a spire were added in 1859, and the church underwent a major renovation in 1884.

The church's power had some very particular foundations

Here, in summary, is the history of modern Irish Catholicism – the long endurance of a popular religious identity that, very unusually in Europe, defied the rule that subjects should follow the faith of their rulers; the gradual emergence of a supremely well-organised and increasingly self-confident church; the triumph of an institution that came to tower over Irish society.

The church’s power had some very particular foundations. Oppression had made it the locus of endurance and defiance. Irish nationalism, in spite of its republican and non-sectarian rhetoric, effectively fused Catholic and patriotic forms of self-assertion.

Mass emigration made the universality of Catholic ritual – you could go to the same Mass in Brooklyn as in Ballina – a guarantor of personal and communal continuity in a broken society.

And, as Tom Inglis has pointed out, whereas in other countries it was factory life that "civilised" people, teaching them how to turn up on time and control their bodies, in Ireland this process was largely managed by church attendance.

Brutally enforced

These factors gave the institutional church extraordinary power over public discourse, collective identity and sexuality, especially the sexuality of women. With the formation of a partitioned State in which Catholics were an overwhelming majority, that power was fully institutionalised.

What we have to consider, though, is not that it was often brutally enforced but that this brutality was deemed necessary. You don’t have to enforce something if you’re fully confident of its strength.

Rigid censorship had to be imposed to keep forbidden images and unorthodox thoughts out of the minds of the populace

Ostensibly, the Irish church in its pomp had every reason for confidence. It enjoyed the genuine allegiance of much of the population: in 1891, 89 per cent of the population of the 26 counties was Catholic; by 1991, this had actually risen to 92 per cent. Its strictures were deeply embedded in a culture of conformity and respectability. It controlled education and healthcare. It set firm limits of what politicians and governments could say and do.

Yet none of this was enough. Rigid censorship had to be imposed to keep forbidden images and unorthodox thoughts out of the minds of the populace. The laws of the State had to be made into force fields to protect Catholic teaching on divorce, contraception and health.

And most brutally, a reign of terror had to be imposed by incarcerating an astonishing 1 per cent of the entire population in a huge archipelago of industrial schools, Magdalene laundries, mother-and-baby homes and mental hospitals.

In 1950, when this kind of Catholic Ireland was at its height, the church ran a scarcely believable 51 industrial schools in which 6,000 children were held in conditions that can reasonably be compared to slavery.

Sheer overkill

Some of this vast abuse of power can be explained by sheer overkill: tyrants, after all, tend towards paranoia. But some of it may have come from a justified suspicion that, if they were let off the leash, the Irish faithful might be inclined to stray.

The spectre of emigrants “falling away from the faith” in the fleshpots of England and America haunted the church because it had some substance. John McGahern, who lived in Mohill, Co Leitrim, reported with glee the reaction of a neighbour to whom he explained that he did not go to Mass because, as an unbeliever, he would feel a hypocrite: “But, sure, none of us believe . . . We go to see all the other hypocrites!”

Hypocrites is probably too strong a word. Hypocrisy involves saying one thing and doing another. In the real, underlying Irish Catholicism, the gap between saying and doing was not so wide. It was wriggle room. Devotion was generally sincere.

The church’s practices, as McGahern pointed out, provided colour in an often dreary world. The Stations of the Cross and the Corpus Christi processions were the theatre of the countryside. The Redemptorist priests, with their blood-curdling sermons, were “evaluated as performers and appreciated like horror novels”. The larger-than-life parish clergy – “from a line of swaggering, confident men who dominated field and market and whose only culture was cunning, money and brute force” – were compelling characters in the local drama.

Clergy and bishops were looked up to. Families were very proud to have a priest or a nun in the family: the Catholic theologian Donal Dorr has written of the emergence of a "privileged clerical caste" and this was indeed a caste system.

The “foreign missions”, with their exotic tales and assumptions of cultural superiority, created the illusion of a “spiritual empire” that belied the obvious failures of the State at home. Even the sprayed-on odour of sanctity, the desire to be holier-than-thou (and especially holier than England) that culminated in the Eighth Amendment, functioned as a kind of compensation culture: God may have made Ireland uninhabitable for so many of its citizens but he blessed the remnants with divine self-righteousness.

Yet however sincerely felt most of this was, it was never quite as simple as it seemed. Emigration itself was the ultimate in wriggle-room, but even at home there was no uniform conformity.

Contraceptive pill

How, for example, could Catholic schools and hospitals function if the married female teachers and nurses were doing their duty and having a baby a year?

The legal affairs correspondent of The Irish Times gave the answer in April 1970: "The pill is not described as a contraceptive in presentation by manufacturers for import to Ireland. It is imported under the title of 'cycle regulator'."

What happened in Ireland is what was bound to happen in a society that was becoming economically and politically globalised and ever better educated. The wriggling got stronger and faster, and it gradually shrugged off sexual shame, social conformism and deference to authority.

The remarkable thing, indeed, is not that the official Catholic Ireland died but that it lingered so long. It is astonishing to think, for example, that it is less than a quarter of a century since a proposal to remove the ban on divorce – the most flagrantly Catholic provision in the Constitution – was passed by a margin of fewer than 10,000 votes.

If it had not been for the child abuse scandals, and the church’s catastrophic reaction to them, it is possible that this Catholic Ireland would have lasted much longer.

As it is, this long goodbye has now finished, and it is hard to foresee a resurrection of the authoritarian, clericalist and patriarchal church.

But Irish paganism was vanquished 1,500 years ago – and we are still tying rags to holy trees, drinking from holy wells and climbing sacred mountains. And where else would a community stunned by shock and grief go to light a candle against the darkness except to the place it has been going for centuries?

Religious rust belt

We are left, certainly, with a religious rust belt: hulking half-empty churches, too cavernous to be heated in the winter, that were once literal powerhouses, factories that churned out dominance and consolation, shame and beauty, terror and pride, for the Irish and global markets.

But this de-industrialised Irish Catholicism will gradually become what it has been before: local and artisanal. When, as there will be, there are women priests and bishops, when the clerical monarchy is no more, when the church belongs to its members rather than the other way around, when it lights candles against the darkness of all human troubles, Catholicism will take its place as one rich seam in a many-layered Irish culture.

The interesting thing about St Brigid’s well in Dunleer is that it seems to go through cycles of being lost and found. It was a site of pilgrimage in the 18th century. By 1835, it was reported: “St Brigid’s well has been closed for 30 years but people remember where it was.”


The diviner hired by the curate to find it in 1911 seems to have failed. It was found again in 1953. By 1987, however, a local parishioner reports on Facebook: “I discovered that this mysterious holy well has again vanished and to my amazement there is not even a trace of water in its vicinity.”

Institutional Irish Catholicism is in an arid state with hardly a trace of water in its vicinity. But the long view suggests that its oldest and deepest sources will surface again in their own good time.