Ireland's loss of faith
Ireland's loss of faith

Ireland's loss of faith

As a history of the Irish church and people this book is a succinct but amply-expounded account, aimed at the general reader and reasonably priced.

The five sections, Conversions – Foundations – Reformations – Revivals – Troubles, are enclosed by an introduction and a conclusion, the latter dealing with “fall” part of the title. It is a largely political analysis which ends section five with the Good Friday Agreement (1998). The author, an historian at Queen’s University Belfast, has particular expertise in the area of religious dissent and evangelical movements, which is given prominence in section four, but his general coverage of religious culture is excellent.
A theme of apocalyptic tension pervades the narrative from the first sowing of the new faith as the Roman empire disintegrated to the violence of revolution and “redemptive sacrifice” as the island tore itself apart in the early twentieth century. There is much to enjoy as the story unfolds, the text supported by colour illustrations and an informative bibliography; the essentially monastic, as opposed to diocesan, structure of the church before the twelfth-century Gregorian reforms; the effects of the Norman and English attempts at colonisation where divisions were still largely cultural, ethnic, linguistic and legal; the largely-unsuccessful Reformation which nevertheless gave birth to the sectarianism which still plagues the North; the excessively bloody seventeenth century; popular religion during the penal times and its unconventional devotions; the zeal and energy displayed, from the great early missionary diaspora to Britain and Europe to the revivalist and temperance movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Irish language

Much attention is paid to one of the casualties, as much of religious conflict as well as economic impoverishment – the Irish language and its literature, transcribed and disseminated by monastic labour but virtually lost in the eighteenth century; caught between the waning interest of the established church (which had initially been prominent in promoting the language for proselytising purposes) and the alliance of the Catholic clergy with the rising Anglophone, mercantile middle class, Irish would be dependent on foreign academics at the end of the nineteenth century for its survival.

Sudden catastrophic decline

It is reasonable to assume that the reader coming to this book will already be acquainted with a rough outline of the origins and history of Christianity in Ireland. What he will be unsure of, if not bewildered by, is the reason for its sudden catastrophic decline in the last fifty years, and he will probably turn his attention to the final portion more than to any other part of the work. The real failing of the “Conclusion” of this otherwise splendid work is the lack of any deep social analysis of the forces at work in the last fifty years (and indeed the fifty years before that). The role of the media, old and new, and of the bankrolled lobbies and pressure groups with their relentlessly anti-religious posture, is underestimated. There was not, as the final section suggests, a sudden rush to secularise in the mid-nineties. The forces of revolution had always been there; it was just that they were suddenly presented with such glorious opportunity in the succession of revelations of clerical wrongdoing, handed to them as it were on a plate. To declare somewhat melodramatically of the then Taoiseach’s 2011 speech in response to the Cloyne Report: “Kenny’s speech announced the end of Christian Ireland” is to give too much importance to gilded butterflies. A more subtly intelligent role was played by former presidents Robinson and McAleese (neither of whom, surprisingly, are mentioned in the text), who for good or ill, depending on one’s view, subverted the neutrality of their roles to assist in the undermining of constitution and status quo.

Northern Ireland has been slower to rush down the road to ruin, partly at least because of the close alliance in moral matters of traditional Catholicism with the conservative evangelicalism so strong in the province.


Secular numbness

I will concentrate primarily on the Catholic Church in the Republic; the protestant churches also suffered their reverses, but as minorities in the quasi-theocracy they were never as viscerally hated by the new liberal establishment as the Catholic Church was. Secularisation was delayed in post-partition Ireland, partly through its late development as an industrial society and the persistence of a rigorist moral discipline supervised by the Church, perhaps giving the impression that the island of saints and scholars would never succumb to it. Perhaps people expected something better from a country which had a better than average romantic legend for its Christian transformation and an heroic obduracy in the face of centuries of coercion, political or religious, than to sink into the secular numbness of irreligion, or adopt a strident atheism. However a confessional state where politicians could be cowed by a “belt of the crozier” became one of the most permissive in the world; the Church which had the virtual monopoly of education lost, within two generations, the youth of the nation.

Loss of faith

It is not necessary to rehearse the dismal litany of the abuses which gradually came to light from the 1980s onwards. The shambles was presided over by an inept episcopate (with a very few honourable exceptions), which by the time of the constitutional referendums of 2015 and 2018 offered only a feeble defence of Church teaching concerning same-sex relations and abortion, and did not bother to contest the campaign for the repeal of the blasphemy laws in 2018. The real reason for the fall of Christianity in Ireland, if indeed it has fallen, was not the enmity of the media, the moral turpitude of a section of the clergy, the scandalous conduct of the shepherds who protected the wolves rather than the sheep, the corruption of the seminaries, the deliberate watering-down of doctrine in Catholic education since the 1970s, the secular assault of Western culture since the 1960s, though these all played their part. It was, neither more nor less, a loss of faith among both clergy and an ill-taught laity.

A second chance?

Such things have occurred before and will occur again. The author holds out hope for the renewal of Christianity in the face of secular persecution, as the penal laws ironically (as he demonstrates) assisted the revival of the church, adherence to which they were designed to crush. He suggests the emergence of a “feasible parallel society”, concentrating more on the conservative rather than the liberal wing of the church, and lay organisations like the Iona Institute in the Republic and the Christian Institute in the North, and it is clear that his sympathies lie here, rather than with liberalising bodies who wish to modernise the church from within. “After the failure of religious nationalism, what looks like irredeemable failure might actually be a second chance. For the old Augustines still point to a heavenly kingdom, as new Patricks shape the rise of another Christian Ireland”. Ending on this note the book is overall an encouraging read in these dark times.

Peter Guilding is a retired librarian, formerly of Trinity College Library, Dublin.

Faith Magazine

September - October 2022 2022