Fintan O’Toole: Ireland is still defined by the church’s mindset

A vast system of Catholic repression has left Irish society with four toxic habits of mind

In that most searing exploration of the Irish psyche, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, James Tyrone urges his ghostlike wife: “Mary! For God’s sake, forget the past!”

Mary Tyrone, “with strange objective calm”, replies: “Why? How can I? The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too.”

In Ireland, we don't live in the past – but the past lives in us.

The abusive relationship between church, State and society may, like the dead babies that have haunted us in recent weeks, be buried beneath the surface of our postmodern globalised reality.


But its consequences still lurk in our bloodstream and until we understand them, the past will be our present and our future too.

There’s a way of thinking about the Ireland we inhabit that divides its consciousness into two states: a dark past and a bright future.

But societies and cultures don’t work like that. Institutional Catholicism had such formidable power because its oppression was thoroughly internalised.

The church formed Irish society, and Irish society loved and obeyed its church.

It is one thing to have an invader or external oppressor, a nasty, alien power that can be thrown off in a single act of liberation; it is quite another to have a form of oppression that goes very deep into your own bedroom, your own loves and loyalties, your own notion of that most intimate of all institutions, the family.

The worst damage inflicted by what we might call the moral-industrial complex – the vast archipelago of industrial schools, Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes and mental hospitals – was that it used shame and fear to get families to collude with it.

We offered up our own daughters and sons to be sacrificed on the altar of Ireland’s exemplary purity.

And in doing this we got a double helping of malignant shame: the shame that made us lock up unwanted people and then the shame of having done so.

It would be astonishing if this abusive marriage did not produce habits of mind that would persist long after the system that created them had passed away.

Successful viruses

There are at least four of these habits that, like successful viruses, have made the leap from one environment to another, from a religious-dominated culture to an ostensibly secular democracy.

The first is what I have previously called the “unknown known”.

The system of repression and its attendant horrors were not secret: these institutions were often among the most imposing buildings in our towns.

By the time I was 10-years-old, growing up on a Dublin housing estate in the 1960s, I knew three exotic words: Artane, Letterfrack, Daingean.

And I knew what they stood for: the hell that awaited those who did not fit in. So did everybody else.

But Irish society developed a deep capacity for not knowing what it knew.

We may not have understood what “cognitive dissonance” means, but we were world-class practitioners. And we still are. We behave “as if”.

To take one tiny example, we trumpet figures such as last week’s growth in GDP as if we didn’t know that Irish GDP figures are up there with Ulysses as our greatest work of fiction.

Second, we don’t do accountability. For generations we were ruled by people who knew themselves to be accountable only to God. And since God spoke through them, that didn’t help matters much.

They could do literally anything – rape children, flog off babies as profitable commodities on the international market, forge death certificates – and get away with it.

This impunity virus jumped the species barrier, from the religious habit to the habitual contemporary conclusion that nobody in power is ever to blame for anything bad.

Tooth and crozier

Third, we have charity, not rights. You still hear intelligent Irish people say that, were it not for the church, we would never have had education or healthcare.

The truth is that the church fought tooth and crozier at every stage to either block or take control of every attempt at public provision, from the non-denominational national school system to national insurance to the Mother and Child Scheme.

And it did this to ensure that Irish society would see itself not as a community of citizens with rights, but as the object of charitable bounty.

It succeeded: ask anyone dealing with disability in Ireland today whether they are made to feel like citizens with rights or like recipients who should be grateful for the State’s beneficence.

Or ask why we still have to have “patrons” to thank for one of the most basic public services, primary education. We are literally patronised.

Fourth, malignant shame is still at work and we still take it out on the poor.

The children of homeless families who would have been sent to industrial schools are now locked away in anonymous hotel bedrooms.

And we don’t talk about this for the same reasons we were so silent 50 years ago.

These children are shameful. In the old days they didn’t fit the picture of Ireland’s unique holiness. Now, they don’t fit the story of the miraculous success of austerity.

Different context, same mindset; past becoming future – unless we take control of our present.