Secular anti-Catholicism can fairly be described as the ruling ideology of the modern Republic of Ireland. In no other country do politicians and the media so openly, persistently, and savagely attack the Catholic Church. In no other country do leading politicians seek to score political points by launching virulent attacks on the Church and all she stands for. The Church is depicted as a monstrous institution that tyrannized the Irish people for decades, physically and sexually abusing Irish children and oppressing women. In 2011, in the first few months of his premiership, Ireland’s then prime minister Enda Kenny launched a withering attack on the Church to widespread public approval; more recently, in October 2016 at the height of his re-election campaign, President Michael D. Higgins seized the opportunity to attack the Church for her “absolutist . . . statements about women and about relationships between men and women,” among other things.
The Catholic Church has been transformed almost overnight from Ireland’s most deeply respected institution to her most despised. Ireland is today one of the world’s most liberal countries. No major newspaper, media outlet, or political party seriously questions the new orthodoxy. Additionally, a stream of movies has been released over the last 20 years purporting to show us what an evil and cruel nation Catholic Ireland was—Angela’s Ashes, The Magdalene Sisters, and Philomena being the most notable. Irish celebrities such as Bob Geldof and Liam Neeson make frequent negative references to Catholicism.
Yet Ireland within very recent memory was a deeply Catholic country, with Catholicism being almost a badge of national identity. How did this dramatic transformation happen? In order to understand modern Ireland, it is necessary to understand what went before.
It is said that faith is often strengthened by persecution, and this was certainly true in Ireland’s case. Ireland was the only part of the British Isles where Protestantism failed to take root and the only part of the British Empire where the British imposed their religion. Irish Catholics were subjected to Penal Laws that forbade them to be educated in their Catholic faith. Thus, Catholics were for many years educated in “Hedge Schools,” often meeting in secret and outdoors. As the Catholic faith had been the principal target of English suppression in Ireland, it was the part of Irish identity to which they held most strongly. Catholicism was the characteristic that most distinguished the Irish from the English, Scots, or Welsh.
Ireland’s incorporation into the United Kingdom, beginning in 1800, led to an improvement in the position of Ireland’s Catholics, culminating in the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, under which Catholics gained full political freedom. For many years Ireland played an enthusiastic role within the Empire, her men filling the ranks of the British army where, in the mid-19th century, over 40 percent of soldiers were Irish. In his 1916 book The Irish at the Front, Michael MacDonagh said of the Irish in the British army, “The Irish are the most religious soldiers in the British Army; and it is because they are religious that they rank so high among the most brave.”
Ireland’s Catholic bishops had supported the Union, especially as the British state was now providing funding for Church institutions, including the national seminary at Maynooth. Irish missionaries were so active in preaching the faith in Britain’s overseas colonies that the British Empire became known as “Ireland’s spiritual empire.” Most Irish nationalists supported the British Empire and monarchy, seeking only a separate parliament. The more radical movement known as Irish Republicanism, initially led by nominal Protestants and influenced by French Jacobinism, had little support.
A great turning point came with the 1916 Easter Rising. Taking place at the height of the First World War when many Irishmen were fighting in the trenches, it was opposed by the Church and the vast majority of the population. But the repression that followed alienated a great section of the Irish public. Additionally, the leaders of the republican movement realized that they could get nowhere without appealing to the Catholic identity of the people. The Irish had been won to the cause of Britain’s war by appeals to “Defend Catholic Belgium.” Now, Ireland’s anti-British rebels appealed to that same Catholic sense. Awaiting execution, all the leaders of the rising, even the Marxist James Connolly, embraced the Catholic faith, made confession, and received communion and the last rites before heading to the firing squad. Whether this display of piety was genuine we cannot judge, but their actions captured the imagination of the Irish people, now thoroughly alienated from Britain, and the rising was responsible to a large extent for converting Ireland’s people to the rebel cause. This need to appeal to Catholicism to gain support for a cause shows how deeply their faith was ingrained in the life of the Irish.
The next few years were the nation’s most turbulent. A bloody war for independence was followed by a bitter civil war. The country was partitioned into North and South as it remains today with the Protestant majority in the North forming a separate nation. In the overwhelmingly Catholic South the Irish were violently divided over political and constitutional issues. The only force that could truly unite the nation was the Catholic Church. And it was to Catholicism that Irish politicians of both factions, many of whom had previously been excommunicated, now turned, realizing that being a Catholic was a great vote-winner.
The event that helped cement national unity and heal the wounds of division was the Eucharistic Congress of 1932. This spectacular occasion stands as a testament to the strength of Ireland’s faith at the time. Biplanes flew in the shape of a cross to escort the ship carrying the papal legate ashore. Irish cavalry in Hussar uniforms, designed for the occasion, escorted the legate to Dublin as cheering crowds lined the road. Streets and buildings were covered in celebratory banners. The sight of Ireland’s leading politicians genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament is something unimaginable in any Western country today. The Congress was attended by Catholics from around the world. Pope Pius XI addressed the pilgrims via a P.A. system that was then the most expensive ever devised.
The Congress culminated in a Pontifical High Mass in Phoenix Park, Dublin, attended by around a million people in a country whose population was less than three million. On leaving Ireland, the papal legate Lorenzo Cardinal Lauri stated,
I shall never forget the unforgettably glorious days of this Eucharistic Congress . . . all have cooperated to make this congress a triumph, government and civic leaders, as well as ecclesiastical authorities, priests, members of religious communities, men, women and children, have all united to make this Eucharistic Congress a plebiscite of love for the Blessed Eucharist, a plebiscite . . . of devotion to the vicar of Christ.
Another event of the 1930’s, the ratification of the constitution in 1937, stands out for its importance in defining Ireland as a deeply Catholic country. This document went against the grain of the increasingly godless spirit of 20th-century Europe by enshrining Catholic social principles as the basis of the nation’s core values. Much of this constitution still stands but has been rendered meaningless by amendments that specifically legislate against Catholic morality.
It is impossible to imagine today any Western country drawing up a constitution with the following Preamble:
In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred . . .
Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial . . .
Article 41 recognizes the family “as the natural primary and fundamental unit . . . of Society . . . a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.” The state dedicates itself to protecting the family as “the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.” Section 2 of this article would trigger modern feminists:
[T]he State recognizes that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. . . . The State shall, therefore, endeavor to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labor to the neglect of their duties in the home.
Marriage, “on which the Family is founded,” is to be protected against attack and is declared indissoluble: “No law shall be enacted providing for the grant of a dissolution of marriage.”
Article 42 upholds parents as the primary educators of their children and defends their right to homeschool their children should they so desire:
The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide . . . for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children. . . . Parents shall be free to provide this education in their homes. . . . The State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State.
Although Catholicism was never established as the state religion and the constitution accepts religious pluralism, Article 44 nonetheless declares,
The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honor religion. . . . The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens.
These constitutional provisions, so utterly contrary to the spirit of the modern world, reveal why today’s liberal elite so hate the country that Ireland once was.
The man responsible for this constitution was Irish prime minister Éamon De Valera, whose principle concern was to create an Ireland devoted to “things of the spirit.” Though a violent revolutionary in his youth (he was excommunicated at least three times), he is perhaps, along with many of his political colleagues, an example of how a deeply Christian society can turn a man on to the right path. His outlook has been described as bigoted and sectarian but, as Mary Kenny notes in her book Goodbye to Catholic Ireland, his constitution was “supported as much by Protestants and Jews as by Irish Catholics.”
The Irish government allowed the Church substantial control over education and welfare. Almost all Irish received a Catholic education, and in this era over 90 percent of the country’s population were practicing Catholics. Catholic devotional magazines such as Messenger of the Sacred Heart had over 300,000 subscribers. Irish missionaries could be found everywhere from Alaska to Africa, India, and China.
How did Ireland become the militantly secular country that she is today? Many have noted that Irish Catholicism was more emotional than intellectual, and there is indeed much truth in this. Irish Catholics were a devotional rather than an intellectual people. The Irish clergy and people appear to have shown an extraordinary naivety in their belief that the faith could never be shaken in their country, and no discernible strategy for defending it was devised. The kind of witty, brilliant defenders of the faith who have graced English Catholicism have no equivalent in Ireland. There is no Irish Chesterton, no Irish Belloc. The kind of militant counterrevolutionary Catholicism of continental writers such as Joseph de Maistre and Juan Donoso Cortés is even more alien. The Ireland of the past is frequently accused of “clericalism,” and it is certainly true that an exaggerated respect and trust for the clergy, though admirable in one sense, has been the curse of Irish Catholicism. For as the priests changed, so changed the people. In the 1960’s a new breed of priest was to emerge.
The chaos and confusion that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), including a collapse in Mass attendance and large numbers of priests and religious abandoning their vocations, did not leave the Irish completely unscathed. A new hip and trendy type of priest emerged who was less concerned with sin than with “social justice,” the latter usually being the latest leftist shibboleth. As liturgical and disciplinary changes rocked the Church, many believed that a change in moral practice was imminent. In the decade of the Pill, it was widely thought that the Catholic Church was about to relax her teaching on contraception. When Pope Paul VI, in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, reaffirmed traditional Catholic teaching on this matter, there was genuine surprise. While the Irish bishops affirmed the traditional teaching, some of the country’s most influential theologians dissented from it. The principal dissenters were professors of moral theology at the national seminary at Maynooth. John Lacken of the Catholic lay association Lumen Fidei states,
In the years following Humanae Vitae, at least six professors in the college, all of them priests and two of them moral theologians, publicly dissented from the encyclical. None of them were disciplined and none . . . were dismissed. Remember that these dissenting professors were teaching and training men for the priesthood . . . and this dissent continues in the Maynooth seminary to this very day.
In 1974, Ireland had her Griswold v. Connecticut moment, when the Irish Supreme Court ruled in McGee v. The Attorney General that the Irish constitution contained a right to privacy, which therefore implied a right to access contraception. All other restrictions on contraception had been swept away by the end of the 1970’s. The Church did little to oppose this and it is now common for Catholic marriage preparation courses in Ireland to include information on different forms of contraception. The Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (now called ACCORD) has rarely upheld the teaching of Humanae Vitae. Lacken describes a tragic case in which a woman who desired a break from having children but wished to be faithful to Catholic teaching consulted the clergy on what to do:
Her husband was not opposed to using contraception and so she sought the advice of a priest. The priest told her that in her case it was OK to use contraception, so she went to another priest, and another, and another. In all she told me that she had gone to six priests and that each one of them told her that it was OK to contracept. . . . Finally, in desperation she wrote to her bishop. Her bishop responded by telling her that he had sent her letter to what he described as one of Ireland’s leading theologians and had asked him to address her concerns. The theologian in question was none other than the . . . former professor priest from Maynooth . . . the same professor who was appointed to the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council in the 1980’s despite his public dissension from Humanae Vitae. . . . The young woman then showed me the letter from the former professor and in it he told her that she could use whatever contraception her doctor recommended.
Think for a moment upon the damage this bishop’s actions have done to this young couple’s marriage. A wife seeks to live her life according to the rule of Jesus Christ, but now her husband can say to her, “The priests disagree with you, the leading theologian disagrees with you, and even the bishop disagrees with you. How can you be right and all of them be wrong?”
In 1972 the Irish voted in a referendum to remove the constitution’s reference to the Church’s “special position.” This reference, initially introduced to appease the bishops who had wanted Ireland declared an officially Catholic state, was now removed with the bishops’ full support. With sectarian conflict raging in Northern Ireland it appears that the Irish felt guilty about this rather overt statement of their faith.
Yet the Ireland of the 1970’s and 80’s still regarded herself as a Catholic country. In 1979 Pope St. John Paul II visited Ireland and said Mass in front of 1.25 million people, one third of Ireland’s population. It was one of the biggest gatherings in Irish history. “On Sunday mornings in Ireland, no one seeing the great crowds making their way to and from Mass could have any doubt about Ireland’s devotion to the Mass,” said the Pontiff. Around 85 percent of the Irish population still attended Mass weekly.
In 1983, the Irish voted by 66 percent in a referendum for the eighth amendment to the constitution, which read: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” Though Planned Parenthood had been active in Ireland since 1969, the Irish made a categorical statement that they did not want abortion in Ireland.
Yet Church and society had already changed. We should not underestimate the role of the media and television in degrading Irish culture and shifting it in a liberal direction, but neither should we ignore the leftward drift of the clergy since the 1960’s. And the Irish respected none more than their priests. Mary Kenny writes, “You could have said the Irish were passive to Church authority, and never questioned why an action could be wrong and forbidden one month and suddenly acceptable and right the next.”
This leftward drift among the clergy was on display during Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ireland in 1984. Kenny describes how the Irish clergy received Reagan:
[H]e was greeted . . . with howls of protest in the streets for his “aggressive” nuclear policies and alleged bullying of Central America. . . . A Dominican nun . . . led a public fast. . . . Several nuns and priests joined her in a rotating fast . . . in solidarity with El Salvadoreans, black South Africans and the people of the Philippines. . . . [L]etters [and] columns of the newspapers were full of denunciations from priests and nuns of the wickedness of President Reagan. . . . Father Peter Lemass, a well-liked Dublin priest, . . . wrote that Reagan’s Star Wars defense policy was the greatest threat to the human race that had ever existed.
Kenny comments, “Had Ronald Reagan appeared in Ireland 30 years previously, he would have been applauded as an Irish-American hero for his firm stand against Communism and his unyielding defense of the unborn child. But by the 1980s he was the baddie.”
In addition to this clerical embrace of leftism, the faith of Irish children was being undermined by religious education programs that failed to pass on the basics of the Catholic faith. In the 1970’s the Irish bishops introduced the Children of God program into Catholic primary-level instruction. In the next decade, “A Survey of Senior Students’ Attitudes Towards Religion, Morality, Education 1982,” carried out by the bishops themselves, found that fewer than one in three 16- to 18-year-old boys and girls believed in the Real Presence, barely half firmly believed in either God’s existence or Heaven, and only 11 percent in Hell. There was also a very high level of acceptance of premarital sex, contraception, and, to a lesser extent, abortion. In the 1990’s Children of God was replaced by the Alive-O Programme. The Learning Assessment Survey 2017/18 found students educated under Alive-O to be woefully ignorant of the most basic Christian doctrines: 60 percent of students were unable to complete a single statement of the Apostles Creed, while only 15 percent could correctly name the Holy Spirit as a divine Person of the Trinity, 80 percent believing the Spirit to be merely a godly presence. Only 27 percent expressed belief in the divinity of Christ, two thirds believing Jesus to be simply a great human being. Given such religious illiteracy among Catholics who have supposedly had a thorough Catholic education, is it at all surprising that many of those who remain practicing Catholics have voted for the redefinition of marriage and for legalized child-killing?
The 1980’s saw the first assaults levelled against the constitution’s defense of the indissolubility of marriage. A 1986 referendum on divorce ended in victory for the pro-marriage forces, but it was only a matter of time before a second referendum (1995) resulted in a victory for the pro-divorce lobby by a majority of a mere 0.3 percent.
It was in the 1990’s that the terminal blow to the Church in Ireland was struck. Revelations began to emerge of sexual abuse of children and teenagers by priests, and these were seized upon by the liberal media. This has done permanent damage to the reputation of the clergy and has dramatically transformed the image of the Catholic Church; once Ireland’s most respected institution, she has become her most detested. As with similar scandals in other countries, Church authorities had not properly investigated allegations against the priests in question and had often moved offenders from parish to parish and diocese to diocese. Additionally, the Church was accused of having been cruel and excessive in the punishment of children in parochial schools and of having brutalized women, especially unmarried mothers, in the so-called Magdalene Laundries.
The case of the Magdalene homes for “fallen women” presents us with a ludicrous example of how overblown anti-Catholic rhetoric has become, with one Irish politician suggesting that the Magdalene institutions had perpetrated an “Irish Holocaust.” These institutions were neither Catholic in origin nor exclusive to Ireland. The first such establishment had been founded in 18th-century London by the Church of England. They were introduced into Ireland by the Anglican Church’s counterpart there, the Church of Ireland, and similar institutions had later been run by the Catholic, Presbyterian, and other churches, as well as by various charitable organizations. They existed all over the English-speaking world and in Sweden. Magdalene homes provided housing and work for troubled women, many of whom would have otherwise lived lives of prostitution or crime. No new Magdalene institutions were established after Ireland’s independence in 1922. Many were run by nuns, who, it is claimed, both physically and sexually abused their charges; yet a 2009 report by the Irish government found these allegations to be largely without foundation. Not a single incident of sexual abuse was ever committed by a nun. Additionally, many women entered the homes of their own accord, and few stayed more than a year, the average time of residence being seven months.
While the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries are largely fiction, sexual abuse by priests and religious—though the number of cases has been exaggerated—has been all too real and has provided more than enough ammunition for Ireland’s fanatically anti-Catholic press and political establishment, who now frequently compare the institutions of Catholic Ireland to the Nazi concentration camps and Soviet Gulag. Tell a big lie often enough and people will soon believe it. Twenty-first-century Ireland measures what is right and wrong, moral and immoral, by discovering what the Catholic Church thinks and assuming the opposite position.
This mentality gripped the substantial majorities that recently voted in referenda for same-sex marriage and abortion. The liberal victory on these culture-defining issues represents the final nail in the coffin of Catholic Ireland.
In less than a quarter of a century Ireland has been transformed from a country where homosexual acts were a crime to one with an openly gay prime minister. Already by the 1980’s, a gay culture had infiltrated sections of the Church, and several priests and even bishops were urging acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle. Following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, Ireland decriminalized homosexual acts in 1993 with little or no opposition. From there on two radical feminist- and LGBT-supporting presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, fought to advance the gay agenda. Within little more than ten years of decriminalization, faithful Irish Catholics were being arrested for distributing literature opposing the gay lobby. Following a predictable pattern replicated in a dozen other Western nations, the LGBTs were given “civil partnerships” in 2009 (passed in the Dáil without a single dissenting vote), followed by the Gender Recognition Act 2015, which allowed all Irish adults to “self-declare” their “gender.” In the same year Ireland became the first nation in history to vote for same-sex marriage by popular referendum, with 62 percent of the population voting in favor. The 34th amendment to the constitution states, “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” Thus, Ireland is perhaps the only nation in history to have a constitution that, on the one hand, invokes the Holy Trinity, “to whom . . . all actions both of men and States must be referred,” and then goes on to defend the right to same-sex marriage. This change was supported by all political parties and saw only lukewarm opposition from the Church, whose confidence to defend basic Christian teachings was now seriously undermined.
It remained only for Ireland to put the icing on the cake of a “modern, progressive nation” and give her endorsement to the killing of the unborn. The eighth amendment had prevented the Irish Supreme Court from handing down a Roe v. Wade-style ruling, which some had feared in the early 1980’s. Thus, Ireland’s abortion law, like so much else, could be changed only by referendum. For decades 3,000 to 4,000 Irish women per year had traveled to England to obtain an abortion, and the Irish Family Planning Association had established “referral centres” to facilitate this practice. The abortion lobby won its first great victory in 1992 when it succeeded in garnering explicit legal sanction for those who travel abroad for abortions and for those who distribute information on how to obtain an abortion. This curiously incongruous situation, whereby abortion in Ireland was forbidden but traveling overseas in order to obtain the same was officially approved, seriously undermined the integrity of Irish law. Nonetheless, there was no abortion in Ireland, and the nation could boast of having the world’s lowest maternal mortality rate, giving the lie to feminist propagandists who claim that restrictive abortion laws damage women’s health. But after years of relentless media and political propaganda in favor of legalized abortion, any illusion that Ireland was still a pro-life nation was shattered on May 25, 2018, when Ireland voted 66 to 33 percent to scrap the eighth amendment and allow for legislation in favor of killing the unborn. Subsequently, Irish politicians voted down a proposal to allow Catholic-run hospitals to opt out of providing abortion services.
In many ways modern Ireland is the model society for liberal globalists. As prosperous as California and probably more liberal, Ireland is open to anything and everything as long as it does not smack of Catholicism. While the Irish still use the Church for weddings, baptisms, and the like, such religiosity doesn’t amount to much. David McWilliams, in his liberal triumphalist work Renaissance Nation: How the Pope’s Children Rewrote the Rules for Ireland, refers without any sense of shame to what he calls Ireland’s “new deal,” a cultural situation in which “a person [may] vote enthusiastically for repeal” of antiabortion laws, then “get up the following morning . . . and sit proudly in Mass overseeing their [sic] daughter’s entrance into the Catholic communion.” As McWilliams smugly adds, “Welcome to the home of à-la-carte Catholicism for the Tinder Age.”
Is there any hope for Ireland today? A number of Irish Catholics who are well formed in their faith have realized the terrible predicament into which their country and Church have fallen. A Catholic organization called the Lumen Fidei Institute is focused on restoring the faith in Ireland by promoting fundamental truths such as marriage as a lifelong union of a man and woman and the inseparability of the procreative and unitive aspects of the marital bed. Similarly, the Iona Institute produces research designed to counter the antilife, antifamily, and anti-Catholic agenda of the Irish state. Iona’s studies on family breakdown in Ireland have shown the catastrophic effects of the move away from Catholic faith and morals. Heroic priests such as Fr. David Marsden, at great cost to themselves, work to expose the gay subculture that has so poisoned the Irish seminary at Maynooth. Youth groups such as Juventutem promote the traditional Latin Mass and devotions. These groups face an uphill struggle, yet according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 72 percent of Irish still consider themselves Catholic, and nearly half see religion as a key component of national identity. While drastic measures will need to be taken to improve the quality of the clergy, catechesis, and Catholic education in Ireland, surely this Catholic religious sense can be channeled in a positive direction. We can only hope and pray.