After 100 Years, Is Ireland Still Catholic?

January 21, 2019, will be the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of Dáil Eireann, the legislature of an independent Irish state. This legislative body consisted of members of the majority elected from Ireland in the December 1918 national election to the British parliament.

This event was an act of secession by a legally elected group rather than a violent act of rebellion (even though a two-year war for independence followed, and after that, a one-year civil war over the terms of independence).

The history of the Irish nation in the past hundred years has been a successful pursuit of constitutionalism and democracy. It has been matched by few among the newly independent European nations of the post-World War I period or the newly independent nations of the Third World in the middle of the twentieth century.

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Most of the Irish in the early twentieth century (aside from the primarily Protestant Unionists, especially in Ulster) were sympathetic to the Irish Parliamentary Party which adhered to the constitutional nationalist heritage. This tradition, led in turn by the likes of Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stuart Parnell, and John Redmond, sought its objectives by political rather than violent action.

Its primary concern was to overcome several centuries of ill-treatment and the virtual outlawing of the religious faith of the overwhelming majority of the population: Catholicism. Edmund Burke, in the mid-eighteenth century, described the disabilities imposed on the Church and its members, especially the Penal Laws, as “a law against the people itself,… not particular injustice, but general oppression.”

This system of oppression inhibited the purchase of land, restricted the length of leaseholds, required equal distribution to heirs—unless the eldest converted to Protestantism, limited bishops and religious orders, outlawed church schools and seminaries, excluded Catholics from public positions, the professions, and military service, subjected even minor leaseholders to tithes, that is, taxes supportive of the established Protestant Church of Ireland, and excluded Catholics from the admittedly limited number of Irish residents allowed to vote and from election to public office.

Irish political history from the mid-eighteenth century up until the early twentieth century is the account of the gradual but increasingly successful effort to alleviate this oppressive system: the gains include the allowance of longer leaseholds, acceptance in the military service, legalization of bishops and religious orders, the awarding of licenses to school teachers, inclusion in the voting franchise, admittance to professions, and “Catholic Emancipation,” i.e., eligibility to serve in parliament.

Irish Catholics would also be the primary beneficiaries of social programs and legislation of the nineteenth century, including a national elementary school system, continual expansion of the voting franchise, dis-establishment of the Church of Ireland, generous land purchase schemes that ultimately transformed Ireland from a nation of short-leased tenants on land owned by a small minority to a nation of small freeholders, and the establishment of popularly elected local government bodies to replace the previously landlord-dominated grand juries.

In the twentieth century a National University with branch colleges in Dublin, Cork, and Galway became a de facto Catholic system, especially in the philosophy and theology departments.

With the passage of a Home Rule Act in 1914, it seemed that the ultimate dream of the constitutional nationalists was about to be realized. However, two things inhibited its implementation. One was the determined opposition to being included in a home-ruled Ireland by the Protestant majority in the northern province of Ulster. The other was the outbreak of the First World War.

Accepting the British government’s reassurance of the implementation of Home Rule after the end of the war, the Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond, gave his and his party’s support to the war effort and successfully encouraged tens of thousands of Irish to enlist in the military to serve in the war.

A small minority of more adamant Irish nationalists staged a short-lived and unsuccessful Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 with little public support. However, the heavy-handed treatment of its leaders, several being executed, softened public attitudes toward them.

In late 1917 and early 1918, Irish public support for the war lessened, especially following an attempt to impose conscription in Ireland. More disturbing was the large number of Irish casualties in the First World War, which greatly exceeded the number in both the later “War of Independence” (1919-21) and the “Civil War” (1922-23).

In both by-elections and in the national election held in December 1918 after the war ended (in which women were given the franchise if 30 years of age and male suffrage was virtually universal), the Parliamentary Party was virtually decimated by the Sinn Féin Party: Sinn Féin 73, Unionist 26, and Parliamentary Party 6. Sinn Féin was an originally non-violent, but separatist group which had not been part of the 1916 uprising, but whose leadership was taken over by the uprising’s surviving leaders.

The elected Sinn Féiners (i.e., those neither in hiding nor in prison for opposition to conscription) refused to take the seats to the Westminster Parliament to which they had been elected. Instead, they gathered at Mansion House in Dublin and formed Dáil Eireann, i.e., the legislature for an independent Ireland.

The same day hard-line nationalists attacked and killed members of the Royal Irish Constabulary in County Tipperary (most of whose rank and file were Catholics). This was the beginning of the War of Independence; it was endorsed by Dáil Eireann.

However, possibly more remarkable than the Dáil’s support of “military” action was the taking on of the task of replacing the official judiciary, assuming the collection of taxes, and gaining control in elections of most of the local governments aside from those in decidedly Unionist sections in Ulster.

When the British government passed a new Government of Ireland Act in 1920 giving separate Home Rule parliaments to the six counties of Northern Ireland and the 26 other counties of the rest of Ireland, Sinn Féin participated in the elections, but regarded them as an election to the Second Dáil.

Conciliatory rhetoric by King George V at the opening of the Northern Irish parliament led to a truce and ultimately a treaty, giving the 26 counties a status comparable to a dominion. Opponents of a status of less than absolute independence fought a civil war, but were defeated within a year. Most of them eventually accepted the Dáil government. Within a decade, the Irish Free State—under the leadership of Eamon de Valera—would rule that government.

This government, whether as the Free State or in its later incarnations, especially after de Valera secured popular approval of a new constitution in 1937—had an unavoidable Catholic flavor—but not in the sense of the church being established. (Admittedly, a section in the 1937 constitution, repealed in 1972, noted that Catholicism was the religion of most of the people, but it also specifically acknowledged the presence of other religions in Ireland. In addition, the preface to the constitution contains a reference to the Trinity).

Protestants in Ireland suffered no disabilities, were scarcely disadvantaged and probably played a disproportionate role in the administrative direction of the state as well as in the economy. Significantly, the first President of Ireland elected after the de Valera constitution was approved was a Protestant: Douglas Hyde.

No doubt Catholic social and moral thought highly influenced many constitutional and legislative provisions, although many of these questions had the assent of many Protestants and some were the continuation of laws existing before self-rule. Examples include no possibility of divorce, the illegality of homosexual actions, a ban on the importation of contraceptives, and literary censorship, all of which have since been overturned, repealed, or discontinued.

Politicians seemed especially deferential to the Catholic hierarchy, some possibly because of the Church’s earlier episcopal condemnation of the Sinn Féin militancy.

Significantly, in the late 1940s, when there was a fear that the Italian Communist Party might come to power, the Irish made overtures to the Vatican that the pope would be welcomed in Ireland should he desire to exile there.

At any rate, in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, Ireland was as intensely Catholic, at least in outward appearances, as any place in the world, at least in terms of church attendance and religious vocations, as well as in the provision of missionaries for the Third World. In 1979, the enthusiastic reception of the first visit by a pope, John Paul II, and the establishment of a public airport near the Marian shrine at Knock, County Mayo, seemed to confirm that impression.

In 1983, the fears of many Catholics that the Irish Supreme Court might take a cue from the American court’s Roe v. Wade decision allowing abortion prompted a successful promotion of a right to life amendment to the Irish constitution which passed with two-thirds of the vote. A comparable-sized margin three years later rejected an amendment that would have allowed divorce.

But from an institutional Catholic perspective, this was just the calm before the storm. Already there had been some decline in church attendance, a diminution in religious vocations, misinterpretations of Vatican II mandates, and the general worldliness accompanying the economic modernizations that had come to Ireland beginning in the late 1960s.

Then scandals befell the Church, especially the discovery that a prominent bishop had fathered a child. There would be many other instances of priestly misbehavior and criminality, including abuse of minors. Welfare institutions inherited from the Victorian government, but which were taken over by religious orders with minimal public financial support, retained the older punitive character of dealing with unmarried pregnant young women put in their charge with familial consent. The same applied in many homes for either delinquent or orphaned boys, especially in outrageous instances, even if relatively small in number, of sexual abuse.

The narrow success of a 1995 amendment allowing divorce, admittedly in limited and time-consuming circumstances, suggested things were changing. Two decades later, in 2015, the Irish electorate, by a margin comparable to those outlawing abortion and rejecting divorce in the 1980s, approved same-sex marriage. Then, in May 2017, the Irish electorate gave a similar-scale approval to an amendment allowing legislation for the termination of births.

Acting on that mandate, the government advanced and the legislature approved legislation allowing abortion under any circumstances up to twelve weeks of pregnancy, and up to 24 weeks for reasons relating to the mother’s health, and later still if there are prospects of a fatal fetal abnormality. The government seems indifferent to the conscience concerns of medical personnel opposed to abortion or the fact that relatively few doctors are able or willing to undertake such services.

On December 20, recently re-elected septuagenarian President of Ireland, Michael Higgins, signed the legislation in time for the 100th anniversary of the founding of Dáil Eireann.

This development will be celebrated by many as the death knell for the Catholic character that had characterized the Irish state since independence. Serious consideration is being weighed to remove an unenforced constitutional barrier against blasphemy. Future prospects might entail the easing of divorce rules in Ireland and the ending of the nominal Church management of most of the state financed schools in Ireland, with state schools providing only comparative religion classes or no religion classes at all.

As it is, religious education, even in schools designated as Catholic, tends to confine itself to rehearsal for First Communion and then, years later, Confirmation, with little visitation to any church in between. Many have come to consider both more as coming-of-age ceremonies than as sacraments.

Ultimately, claims might be made on much of the property held by the Church and religious orders, whether as compensation for alleged abuses by Church personal or as a result of a contrived concept that the property belongs to “the people,” who were the intended beneficiaries of the gifts and donations to the Church and the religious orders.

Before this happens, there will probably be a further dilution in the religious character of the Angelus moments on television and radio, if not their being dropped altogether. Naturally religious references in the preface to the constitution might be removed, as well as the daily prayer said at the opening of Dáil sessions.

The prospects of Ireland remaining a “Catholic” nation are dim. Fortunately, a significant number of the population will continue to adhere to the “faith of their fathers.” With the help of God it will persist and even thrive under the “soft persecution” of these politically correct times as much as it did in harsher earlier times.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Leinster House, the location of the Irish Free State parliament beginning in 1922 following the enactment of the Anglo-Irish Treaty whereby England recognized Irish independence. (Photo credit: Jean Housen / Wikipedia)


  • John P. McCarthy

    John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical (1978); Kevin O’Higgins: Builder of the Irish State (2006); and Twenty-first Century Ireland: A View from America (2012).

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