Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The Pietà of Irish Catholicism

There was a curious reaction on Twitter to yesterday’s Magdalene Laundry report. Some people thought it was a cover-up, which is fair enough, but it seemed that some others were disappointed that the history of the country was insufficiently horrible. Which seems a strange way of looking at it.

There are a number of issues in contemporary Irish life which all boil down to the same thing - the breakup of the sixteen hundred year love affair between the Irish nation and the Roman Catholic Church. There are people who are passionate advocates on either side of the gay marriage, abortion or schooling debates but it seems reasonable to guess that most people will divide up according to how they feel about the faith of their fathers.

George MacAuley Trevelyan published a shortened version of his epic History of England in the late 1930s, when National Socialism was on the rise in Europe and he wasn’t even sure that his civilisation would even survive. There’s a real sadness when he writes about Ireland; it was a genuine puzzle to him why the Irish couldn’t get with the program and integrate into the United Kingdom, just as the Welsh and Scots had done.

The reason why, of course, is religion. There may have been an outbreak of ecumenism during the time of the United Irishmen, but the identification of Ireland with Catholicism has been a constant theme of Irish history since Henry VIII got the glad eye from Anne Boleyn.

The Church’s own history towards the eight hundred years of oppression is an interesting one, with a certain amount of running with hares and hounds. The Norman Invasion was sanctioned by Pope Adrian IV. It was only when the English started claiming church lands and putting prices on priests’ heads in the sixteenth century that the church changed its mind on that policy.

By the time of Catholic Emancipation, the Church was quite happy with the status quo, until they saw the British Education Act as act of Protestant proselytism, and didn’t care for it. And then came the Rising and the Civil War and partition, and the emergence of a Catholic state for a Catholic people in the south and a Protestant state for a Protestant people and everyone was happy. Except any poor mug who should have been in one but ended up born into the other. He or she had no great time of it.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, David Trimble admitted that Northern Ireland was a “cold house” for Catholics. It was none too toasty for Protestants in the south either, as the triumphalism that is one of the baser strains of the Irish character abounded. Anyone who doubts it should read Pat Walsh’s excellent and humiliating Curious Case of the Mayo Librarian, the sad story of Letitia Dunbar-Harrison, and realise just how shabbily the Irish nation treated freedom when we got it.

And, having sown the wind, the Church is now reaping the whirlwind. The revelations of abuse have been too much to bear for a people who once thought nothing of gathering at Mass rocks in the wind and rain. And, like all spurned lovers, the people’s need for vengeance is now bloody and insatiable.

Perhaps the most bizarre thing of all is that the small band who do defend the church defend what they consider the Vatican II church, the church of the sandal-wearing priest with his guitar and his beard and his “please, just call me Eddie” shtick. They think it connects with people, when all it connects with is Craggy Island. Feck.

One of the features of the Catholic Church is that it is meant to be the same all over the world, but it’s not – every country puts its own particular stamp on things. In Ireland, for instance, there are none of the ornate churches that you see in Europe. It was a much more monastic church, with emphasis on penitence and suffering – Croagh Patrick and Lough Derg have always done business. It’s hard to see how this particular flavour of Catholicism sits with Father Eddie singing Bind Us Together, Lord.

But then, perhaps to be Irish is to live with contradiction. It is unusual, with the country still mired in recession and questions about its sovereignty being both very real and very unanswered, that the death agony of the Church is so important to us and permeates so much of public debate. I guess it’s always hard to say goodbye.