The New Ireland

Many external observers were startled when they learned the results of the May 25 referendum in Ireland. Close to two-thirds of the electorate voted to repeal a constitutional amendment—passed in 1983—prohibiting abortion and replace it with one that allows the legislature to pass laws regulating the termination of pregnancy.

The Government, as well as the leadership of all Irish political parties, endorsed this move and announced beforehand its intention to introduce legislation allowing abortion on demand up to the twelfth week of pregnancy, and afterwards in cases where the health of the mother is endangered or where there is a likelihood of what it calls “fatal foetal abnormality.”

However, the wording of the newly approved amendment allows what many suspect (and some hope) will actually ensue—abortion on demand up to birth, as is the reality in so many other nations. Already, concern about the inadequacy of medical facilities and practitioners able to administer abortions has prompted discussion of government subsidization of travel to Britain for abortion—the very phenomenon invoked in the campaign to justify allowing abortion in Ireland. Misgivings are being voiced about granting immunity to doctors opposed to abortion from having to advise patients where they can get the service.

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This development is an overwhelming departure from the earlier image of Ireland as an especially devout Catholic society. But a sense of what was happening in Ireland in the past few decades could have been grasped by reading the columns in Irish papers (secular and religious) by an Irish writer, David Quinn, the founder and director of the Iona Institute. This organization was formed to provide commentary and research about the role of religion in society and in defense of the family. It has become the foremost champion of the Catholic position in Ireland, exceeding the role of older and more established organizations. A collection of some of Quinn’s columns between 1994 and 2017 have now been published in a book entitled How We Killed God (Dublin: Currach Press, 2017).

Quinn’s columns deal with many of the crises and issues directly related to the weakening of the Catholic faith in Ireland in terms of church attendance, religious vocations, political and community deference, and media treatment. Major issues were clerical scandals, including numerous cases of sexual abuse of younger people, and the maltreatment of children in orphanages and industrial schools run by religious orders.

These days Church authorities disclose to the police any accusations made about the clergy. Many, even those reported recently, are historic, that is, having occurred between 1970 and 2000. In that period, Quinn noted that the canon law practice of laicizing or “defrocking,” errant priests had fallen “into disuse and disrespect.” It was regarded as being “too legalistic and against the new spirit of ‘compassion,’” supposedly arising in the 1960s. When confronted with priests being accused of sexual abuse, the Irish hierarchy, in keeping with post-Vatican II liberalism, listened to the psychologists and directed the accused to them for advisement rather than to laicization, if not prosecution.

Presently illiberalism on matters of justice is now the trend, so much that even the very liberal Association of Catholic Priests, which is supportive of married clergy and female ordination, has complained about the disregard of the rights of the accused priests who are removed from their posts upon accusation, and only returned when cleared by the civil authorities.

Quinn deplores the abuse of youngsters in institutions, including industrial schools, by members of religious orders, but he senses a degree of exaggeration in the prevailing understanding of the matter. For instance, drawing on the report of the Ryan Commission which was empowered by the government to study the situation, he notes that of 26 boys’ schools studied, “four schools … accounted for no fewer than half of all physical abuse complaints” and that the average number of complaints in ten of the schools was less than two. A similar pattern applied to sexual abuse. Four of twenty institutions accounted for 61 percent of the complaints, and, in 39 nun-run institutions for girls, three institutions “accounted for more than a third of the complaints.”

While not excusing the maltreatment of orphaned and unmarried pregnant girls, who were a small portion of the girls/women who were committed to the infamous Magdalene Laundries, Quinn drew attention to the conditions of mid-century Ireland. The welfare state had barely started, and Ireland was among the poorest of western European nations, with infant and early childhood mortality, and widow/widower parenting, and even the number of children in orphanages, were all much higher.

The institutions that the religious orders had taken over were the products of a pre-independence Ireland governed by a nineteenth century laissez-faire attitude of regarding poverty as the consequence of moral failing. The public compensation awarded to the orders for assuming their task was minimal.

Admittedly, the Irish Church had accepted a degree of Victorian puritanism (incorrectly attributed to Jansenism) regarding sexual sin. It prompted some, but scarcely not all, families to seek either the immediate giving-up of a child born out of wedlock for adoption and/or the institutionalization of the mother. Single mothers in Sweden met similar, if not worse, treatment, with many forced to abort. Also in Sweden, “the policy of sterilising unmarried mothers was explicitly a Social Democratic policy” from the mid-1930s until the mid-1970s. At least the demonized Irish nuns with their limited resources accepted and cared for the mothers and children, many of whom were adopted.

However, the problems for which the Catholic Church has received so much blame—abusive clergy and maltreatment of single mothers—scarcely exists in contemporary Ireland. The ranks of the clergy have dwindled substantially, leaving a primarily elderly clergy, and the availability of birth control and access (in Britain until now) for abortion has resulted in fewer unwanted children. Irish couples desirous of adopting a child need to look abroad. Another important feature of modern Ireland has been the greatly increased acceptance of unwed couples living together and having children.

While the decline in church attendance has been partly attributable to outrage at abuses by church personal, the decline of religious faith was an inevitable accompaniment of the startling economic prosperity experienced by Ireland from the late 1990s through the first decade of this century. A spirit of individualism replaced the close sense of community that had characterized an earlier Ireland.

Of course, the anti-clerical bias of the media and the educational establishment were just as important. The secularizing spirit is also growing with regard to the Irish national schools. Over 90 percent of them are nominally under Catholic direction, with smaller percentages being of either Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim patronage. Another small group, Educate Together Schools, offers religious instruction of a comparative religion character. But there has been a determined effort to prompt a surrender of managerial control of a substantial portion of Catholic-managed schools on the grounds that a significant number of newborn Irish children have not been baptized, nor were their parents married in the Church.

Parents have the constitutional right to exempt their children from religious instruction in national schools. However, in some crowded urban areas, where insufficient schools exist, priest-managers in a small number of cases used a “Baptismal test” as a criterion to allow admission. The authorities have since disallowed such.

Agitation continues to discontinue Church management of more schools, ideally following a polling of parents. But one suspects that most of the parents, even non-church goers, have little objection to the status quo.

In reality, the Church should look more closely at those that are nominally under its management. One suspects that the religious instruction is superficial indeed, and most of it involves rehearsing children for the reception of their First Holy Communion and several years later for Confirmation, with minimal religious instruction in-between. The absence of children between the ages of 7 and 12 from Sunday Mass even within the first few Sundays after their reception of First Communion, and then Confirmation, is startling. But then what more might be expected if many of the parents, and even the faculty themselves, do not regularly attend?

Hopefully it is not too late; a possible alternative would be for the Church to surrender management of most of the schools and preserve the remainder (and possibly start a few new ones) as distinct parochial schools with compulsory (and orthodox) Catholic religious instruction. Obviously, tuition would be necessary, although a serious campaign should be made to have the state provide parents with tuition-assistance vouchers comparable to the cost the state pays to educate a child in the existing national schools.

Quinn examines a significant change in the character of one of the two major parties in Irish national politics, the Fine Gael Party, as reflective of the changing religious temperament in Ireland. This party was more conservative, had its roots in a group that governed Ireland in its first decade of independence (1922-1932), and was generally supported by the upper and middle classes, larger farmers, and churchmen. It was also a member of the European Christian Democratic Movement.

The other major party, Fianna Fáil, had its roots in more radical nationalism. It had accepted constitutionalism in 1927, eventually came to power in 1932, and remained dominant in Irish politics, with few short exceptions, until 1911. It was populist, but also relatively conservative.

By the end of the twentieth century many younger members of the Fine Gael Party began to show signs of social liberalism, being sympathetic to divorce (which had been narrowly approved in a 1995 referendum), gay rights, and abortion. In 2011, the party came to power, in a coalition with the more socially radical Labour Party. The party leader, and Taoiseach (or Prime Minister), was Enda Kenny, who had been elected to the Irish parliament, Dáil Eireann, at 24 years of age, succeeding his deceased father.

Riding on the atmosphere of anti-clericalism that had been provoked by issues like the institutional and clerical abuse scandals, Kenny insisted “while he is a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic, he is not a Catholic Taoiseach.” This was a remarkable parallel to candidate John F. Kennedy’s reassurances to a gathering of Protestant ministers in Texas in 1960 that his religion would not dictate his political policies. Subsequently Kenny would get legislation passed allowing abortion when a woman was deemed to be suicidal, invoking the Fine Gael Party whip to expel anti-abortion members who voted against it.

He also delivered an anti-papal tirade in a speech to the Dáil because of what he regarded as inadequate Vatican response to Irish government inquiry about clerical abuse in the diocese of Cloyne a few years before. Shortly after, the Irish government withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican (although calmer heads in the Department of Foreign Affairs ultimately prevailed and the ambassadorship was restored, but in less elegant quarters, as almost an adjunct to the Ambassador to Italy). Perhaps Kenny’s most tasteless action was using his cell phone while Pope Benedict XVI was addressing him and a small group of European political leaders.

David Quinn couldn’t “imagine a Protestant Taoiseach closing the embassy to the Holy See or playing with his mobile phone in front of the Pope.”

By 2015 Kenny’s government successfully advanced a constitutional amendment allowing the marriage of same-sex couples.

Two years later, after his party strength had been significantly lessened in a national election, Kenny was replaced as party leader and as Taoiseach by a cabinet colleague, Leo Varadkar, who successfully advanced the recent referendum on pregnancy termination.

Reading David Quinn’s columns gives one a complete insight as to how far the decline of faith has advanced in Ireland. One fears that euthanasia and/or assisted suicide, as exist in several European countries, will not be far behind.

(Photo credit: Cross of the Scripture; Rob Hurson / Wikimedia)


  • 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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