It is hard to see how a country that hates its past can have much of a future. If that is so, the gay marriage referendum in Ireland last week suggests that Ireland has no future. 

In the aftermath of the vote, Agence France-Presse ran two articles summarizing the reactions of the Irish press. The Sunday Independent opined: “On a fine day in May 2015 this country became a much more open, inclusive and modern society. With the mark of a ballot paper, hundreds of thousands of citizens voted by a large majority to leave behind those grey decades of a less tolerant Ireland.” One of the paper’s writers, Niall O’Connor, was explicit about which entity was responsible for those “grey decades”: “The once unshakable influence of the Catholic Church over Middle Ireland has been confronted.” The Sun was equally explicit: “Ireland officially emerged from the shadow of the Catholic Church yesterday.” So was the Sunday Mirror, which commented that a vote against gay marriage would have strengthened “tired stereotypes of a small-minded, God-fearing Catholic country.”

The country’s politicians were a bit more circumspect, but they said more or less the same thing. Ireland’s Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, said that “With today’s vote we have disclosed who we are: A generous, compassionate, bold and joyful people.” Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton stated that Ireland is “now a rainbow nation, and that means a nation of inclusion and diversity.” It seems safe to assume, then, that Ireland’s leaders regard their country’s past as one marked by meanness, gloom, and bigotry.

And the past the Irish elites are excoriating is a past that had been embraced by the vast majority of the Irish. The point of the penal laws that so shaped Ireland’s history was to coerce the Irish into giving up Catholicism. The English often looked down on the Scots and the Welsh, but they were able to be integrated into Britain’s political culture because the majority of them became Protestants. For centuries no such integration was possible for the Irish precisely because they refused to become Protestants.

The Irish themselves continued to identify strongly with Catholicism after the creation of the Irish Free State. As many have noted since the vote on gay marriage, the preamble to the Irish Constitution, adopted in 1937, begins,  “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity.” More recently, the Irish voted two to one to give constitutional protection to the unborn in 1983 and voted by the same margin to keep divorce illegal in 1986. Even in 1995, some 49.7% of Irish voters wanted to keep divorce illegal, an effort that probably would have succeeded if Ireland’s Catholic bishops had vigorously defended the ban on divorce. Instead, many of them indicated that, while they would vote to retain the ban on divorce, Irish Catholics were free to vote for divorce. (The Irish bishops followed more or less the same strategy in response to the gay marriage referendum, with Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin saying before the vote that, while he was going to vote “no” on the gay marriage referendum, “I have no wish to stuff my religious views down other people’s throats,” and allowing afterward that “I appreciate how gay and lesbian men and women feel on this day. That they feel this is something that is enriching the way they live.”)

This is a past of which Ireland’s elite is deeply ashamed, and for decades many in that elite have sought to make oppression by the Catholic Church the central fact of recent Irish history. In essence, the Catholic Church was to be the great historical villain for those decades after the British had left the scene. Of course, this would mean turning the Irish themselves into villains, since it was they who became the country’s bishops, priests, and nuns, not foreigners. 

It goes without saying that the mishandling of clerical sexual abuse by many Irish bishops gave their enemies a great deal of valuable ammunition. But those enemies have also been quite willing to exaggerate and embellish every Catholic misdeed they could find, as shown by last summer’s hysteria over the supposed dumping of the bodies of illegitimate babies into sewers by nuns in Tuam. Such is the climate in contemporary Ireland that Brendan O’Neill knew he was risking criticism when he observed, in 2010, that while “it might be unfashionable to say the following . . . it is true nonetheless: very, very small numbers of children in the care or teaching of the Catholic Church in Europe in recent decades were sexually abused, but very, very many of them actually received a decent standard of education.” Last Friday’s vote on gay marriage shows just how successful the effort to demonize Ireland’s Catholic past has been.