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My grandaunt, Kate Darcy, was born in 1890 in the shadow of the Slieve Aughty mountains. She had only a few words of Irish though both her parents had been Irish speakers. She told me that she learned English at school and was reprimanded at home if she spoke Irish. Her story reflected a major shift in Irish life at the time.

The Gaelic language, that had been the vernacular of Ireland for over 2,000 years, was abandoned by the two generations of Irish people who lived after the Great Famine of the 1840’s. Many of them began to associate their native language with poverty and hunger. Parents also realised that that if their children were to be successful emigrants, they needed English. Consequently, Gaelic went into a spiral of decline from which it has never recovered despite being a compulsory subject in our schools for the past century.

The Roman Catholic religion, that has been the predominant belief system of most Irish people for over 1,500 years, is undergoing a similar decline.

There are many reasons for this great social change.

Economically, as people become better off they tend to abandon organised religion. This is certainly true of the more developed countries around the world. Higher levels of education tend to make people more questioning and less willing to accept old orthodoxies. Higher incomes make them less fearful of changes in fortune. This pattern can be seen in many European states where the number attending established churches are tiny.

The Catholic Church exerted a strong hold over Irish life, particularly for the past century, because partition created a 26 county State that was overwhelmingly Catholic. Ironically, this eventually weakened the Church because complacency set in. The Hierarchy failed to lead, vocations declined and so called “Catholic” schools were not effective agents of indoctrination despite public perceptions to the contrary.

In the more recent past scandals rocked the foundations of the Irish Church with allegations of paedophilia by some priests and stories about the abuse of women and children in homes and orphanages operated by religious orders. The cumulative effect of these scandals has been to undermine the moral authority of the Church, especially among the young.

A further weakness of Irish Catholicism has been its clericalism. The priest dominated the parish and while lay involvement was accepted it was always in an ancillary position. Lay people were not trusted. This was even more the case with the Church’s failure to engage with women and its blind obsession with sexual matters.

There was also an anti-intellectualism that discouraged questioning and consequently side-lined those who challenged issues like family planning and divorce. The Irish church failed to keep up with the rapid social changes of the past 50 years. In recent times the only members of the Hierarchy who engaged with these changes were Archbishop Martin in Dublin and Bishop Walsh in Clare. Even though there has been a catastrophic decline in vocations to the priesthood no effort has been made to make alternative provisions or find new leadership for parishes. The church hierarchy has abdicated its responsibility and as more and more priests die or retire churches will be closed.

Religiosity and devotion were given undue prominence in the Irish version of Catholicism. As someone once said about the North – there was too much religion and not enough Christianity. The roots of faith and belief were very shallow so it is no surprise that they wilted when conditions changed. For some Catholicism was a badge rather than a conviction.

Modern means of communication, that allow rapid and unfettered access to publicity, tend to universalise issues and individuals. There is an inclination to move from the particular to the general. If some members of an organisation misbehave the entire organisation is blamed. This constant attack on social organisations, and the exposure given to unhappy or disgruntled people by the social media, has undermined not only the Catholic Church in Ireland but political parties, voluntary organisations, charities and much of the social fabric of life.

Then there are the people who despise religious beliefs and practices. They argue that religion is a private issue and should be excised from public life. They would remove religion from schools and other public institutions. They would withdrawal State supports. They would nationalise, without compensation, all Church owned institutions. How successful this line of thinking will be is hard to determine at present.

Even without these drastic changes what might life be like in a new post Catholic Ireland or, to put it another way, what did Catholicism ever do for Ireland?

One obvious point is the link between nationalism and Catholicism. While many of the great leaders of Irish nationalism weren’t Catholic (Tone, Davis, Parnell) it was Catholicism that prevented Ireland from being assimilated into the United Kingdom. While the Scots and Welsh accepted English dominance, the Irish resisted it down through the centuries. After the Reformation of the 1500’s successive British Governments tried to undermine Catholicism in Ireland through colonisation, plantation, penal laws, discrimination and poverty but without success. For reasons that are never entirely clear Irish people remained faithful to the old religion despite the political, social and economic benefits of changing.

One reason for the resurgence of nationalists in Northern Ireland in recent times has been their social cohesion. Organised around the Church, the parish and the school system they have been the envy of their unionist neighbours who, despite their name, have been far from united. Consequently, nationalists now have a large say in the workings of the Assembly, in a parliament that the first Prime Minister of the newly formed State declared was “a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People”.

Elsewhere on this island the parish has been a source of great social cohesion. The local Church brought people together every weekend. The local school and sports clubs reinforced this bond. Though class distinctions exist in every society, in many parts of Ireland they were mitigated by these unifying factors as rich and poor worshipped at the same Church and attended the same schools.

If the Catholic Church disappears from Irish life what will replace its role as social catalyst? Already we see the increasing fragmentation in education with a multiplicity of schools aggravating social distinctions and drawing children apart rather than bringing them together.

Morally, the Catholic Church laid down very strict guidelines on how to behave, not only in terms of the Ten Commandments, but reaching into every aspect of social behaviour. No doubt some of these rules were dubious, at best, and daft in other cases (no meat on Friday, bad thoughts, etc). But where will our ethical guidelines come from in future? What shall we teach our children? And who will decide what is right or wrong because nature abhors a vacuum and new dogmas will replace the old ones?

Catholicism, like the other major religions, gave meaning to life. It unified the past, present and future by creating rituals to ennoble the crucial stages in life – birth, maturity, partnership, illness and death. Even today, people who don’t normally attend Church, turn to it to marry or bury the dead, want Communion and Confirmation ceremonies for their children or the emotional impact of Christmas ceremonies. Who or what will replace these events when the Church is gone?

There are many other areas where the Church influenced Irish life. It gave people an opportunity every Sunday, and during Missions and Solidarities, to reflect on their lives and to think about larger issues. It promoted the belief that all people all equal in the sight of God. It placed the common good before individual rights.

Catholicism gave people a belief in something greater than themselves, a life after death. In turn this encouraged volunteerism both locally and nationally. This led to the creation of many religious congregations, both male and female, that provided health, education and social services not only for Ireland but for countries across the globe. Reading accounts of Irish missionaries working in large parts of Asia and Africa, as well as in the English-speaking world, we see what tremendous influence they had in those lands and the affection in which they were held. Who or what will replace them or encourage young people to look beyond themselves without this idealistic framework?

On a personal level, Catholic rituals gave meaning to life for many people by providing an explanation for the great imponderables like evil, tragedy and death. They helped people come to terms with events that are beyond normal comprehension and consoled them in their hour of need.

All organisations are imperfect. No matter how highly motivated the founders may have been their creations operate in the real world of imperfect people. Systems will fail, people will make mistakes, some people will abuse their positions. Irish Catholicism was no different. It failed at times. It made mistakes. It could have done more. On the other hand, it played a huge role in shaping modern Ireland and in making us the people that we are whether we like it or not.

So, if, as seems likely, Catholicism almost disappears from Irish life in the coming years will the new, secular Ireland be a better or happier place? Will the distinctive features that characterised Irishness for over 1,500 years fade away? And will the gains be greater than the losses? Only time will tell.

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