The Catholic Church in Contemporary Ireland (1931)

3 Benedictine nuns gathering peat in a bog in Co. Mayo, 1920s.

3 Benedictine nuns gathering peat in a bog in Co. Mayo, ca. 1920s.

See also: Priests and People in Ireland (1957)

The following paper was read by Dr. James F. Kenney at the 12th annual meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association on 29th December, 1931, at Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA:

In the county of Antrim, on the north coast of Ireland, about ten miles to the east of the Giant’s Causeway, lies the little town of Ballycastle. It grew up in a valley running inland southwest from a small bay, not far from one of the castles of the MacDonnells of the Glens. To the north the town is sheltered from the sea by high ground, where the Catholic church and other religious institutions now stand; to the south rises the dark mountain of Knocklayd, 1695 feet high, one of the more prominent of the Antrim hills. The MacDonnells of the Glens were a branch of the family of the Lords of the Isles, who, about the beginning of the fifteenth century, obtained by marriage a domain in this northeast corner of Ireland. Ballycastle is an out-settlement from the Glens, and, like them, has a considerable Catholic population. The MacDonnells, earls and marquesses of Antrim, although becoming Protestants themselves, protected their Catholic dependents, with the result that today, in Protestant Northeast Ireland, this extreme northeast corner, the Glens of Antrim, is held by a Catholic community.

A short distance to the east of Ballycastle are the ruins of the abbey of Bun-na-mairge, or Bonamargy, a Franciscan house, founded, it is said, about 1475 or 1500. It was destroyed, according to local tradition, during the wars of the Elizabethan conquest, towards the end of the sixteenth century. The friars retired into Glenshesk, the glen that leads into the interior at the foot of the eastern slopes of Knocklayd, and maintained a poor shelter at a place called Ardagh until that too had to be abandoned under pressure of persecution. The story is still told around Ballycastle of Julia MacQuillan, “the Black Nun of Bonamargy,” who, after the friars had fled, took possession of the convent and there amid the ruins devoted herself to prayer and penance and the care of the deserted sanctuary. A curious old cross is pointed out as marking her grave at the western church-door. Be this as it may, the cross itself, a rude stone monument of unusual character, with a disc at the intersection through which a round hole has been perforated, must be many centuries older than the abbey of Bonamargy, and may well be a relic of the first ages of Christianity in Ireland. An equally noteworthy relic of a later era is preserved in the new abbey of Bonamargy, built — with the corner-stone transferred from the ancient ruins — on the “Catholic hill” overlooking Ballycastle from the northward. It is an altar-stone of the penal days, an oblong of mottled black marble, bearing the inscription: “Fr. Bonaventura Boylan ordinis Sti. Francisci me fieri fecit Anno Dni 1725.” Of Father Boylan we know little, except that he was one of the priests who braved the worst of the penal laws in order to maintain the Faith on the slopes of Knocklayd and through the glens of Antrim, but his altar-stone could, doubtless, tell many a story of Masses said in strange places in the days when priest-hunting, and more particularly friar-hunting, was a profitable industry.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century the restrictions on Catholics began to be relaxed. In 1796 Hugh Boyd, a wealthy local magnate to whom Ballycastle owed much, donated a plot of ground at the south-west of the town for a Catholic “chapel”. A small wooden building was erected; the statement is made that it was the first Catholic church built in Ulster since the penal days, which is as it may be. The building, although much altered, still stands, and is now used as a parochial school. Slowly through the nineteenth century the Catholic people, though losing in numbers, gained in wealth, power and independence. In 1874 the present imposing church of Sts. Patrick and Brigid was built on the hill above the town; in 1880 a commodious presbytery was constructed near by, and in 1905 a parish hall; in 1924 the abbey convent of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion, dedicated to St. Brigid and linked spiritually and materially to the ancient Bonamargy, was completed, a beautiful and impressive addition to the Catholic “city on the hill.”

Thus the Catholic who stands on the streets of Ballycastle has, almost within a stone’s throw of him, visible monuments of the history of his Church in every age. So it is throughout Ireland. Each step one takes is planted on historic, indeed on holy, ground. In any survey of Catholicism in Ireland, first consideration must be given to the pervading presence of this background of fifteen hundred years of Catholic history, history in which glory and disaster alternate, but struggle and exaltation are never absent. By reason even of purely secular, though non-material, influences the Irishman cannot but be loyal to the faith of his fathers. Religious apostasy is, broadly, as unthinkable in Ireland as national apostasy in, shall we say the United States of America.

In one of the early years of the nineteenth century a certain Catherine MacAuley was born in Ballycastle. As it happens, she was my maternal grandmother, and to seek information about her I, some time since, visited Ballycastle. My search was in vain; as in so many Irish parishes, the extant registers begin only towards the middle of the nineteenth century. (Parenthetically may it be remarked that in a large measure the priests of Ireland do not seem to realize of what priceless historical importance their parish registers are to the far-flung Irish race, even in our day, and still more in ages to come!) So I went back to the little weather-beaten frame building where my grandmother had worshipped, and wished she could have been at my side. Doubtless she rejoiced in her day that once more, after so many generations, her people had a church in which to bend the knee, but it must have been wormwood to see, standing in the middle of the town — green and towering above that little chapel, the lofty stone edifice of the then Established Church of Ireland. Could she have lived to behold the magnificent group of Catholic buildings that now dominate the whole community her prayer assuredly would have been Nunc dimittis.

Ireland, a poor country, has, it is said, indulged in one foolish extravagance, her churches. Such comment misses the spiritual inspiration of which they are the outward and visible sign; misses the economic philosophy of

Give all thou canst: high heaven rejects the lore
Of nicely calculated less and more —

and quite fails to comprehend the past of Ireland and the reaction thereto of a high-spirited people. The churches, monasteries and convents with which the Irish people, at great sacrifice, have adorned their land are not unconnected with the sentiment of the Irish poet:

Sound the load timbrel o’er Egypt’s dark sea,
Jehovah hath triumphed, his people are free.

Though Irish Catholics won religious liberty, in theory, and with certain limitations, by various measures culminating in Catholic emancipation in 1829, in practice they continued handicapped in many ways, and particularly by their political disabilities. The Irish revolution of 1916-1921, the supreme political upheaval of the present generation, has had powerful repercussions on all phases of Irish life, and not least the religious.

Of the causes and progress of the Irish revolution this is not the place to speak. It must suffice to say that on Easter Monday, 24 April, 1916, the workers’ “Citizens Army,” led by James Connolly, and a section of the Irish Volunteers, led by Padraic Pearse, seized a considerable portion of the city of Dublin and proclaimed an Irish republic; that the insurrection was crushed by the British army after a week’s fighting; that fifteen of the insurgent leaders were shot by order of the military tribunals; and that, by the time the fifteenth man had gone down before the firing squad, the majority of the Irish people had been won to latent, if not open, support of the revolution. In 1919 and 1920 the war broke out again, but there was no repetition of the tactics of Easter Week. The Irish resorted to guerilla warfare and assassination, and the British forces to a terrorism which rapidly lost them sympathy not only abroad but even in Britain. In June, 1921, negotiations for peace were opened; on 11 July an armistice was arranged; and on 6 December a treaty of peace was signed. The Irish Free State came into being, consisting of all Ireland except six counties in the northeast. There followed the usual aftermath of revolutions, a civil war among the Irish themselves in 1922-1923, and sporadic outbreaks of violence in subsequent years.

The six counties excluded from the Free State, in which, taken as a whole, there was a large Protestant and Unionist majority, had in 1921 been, by British legislation, created a principality with restricted self-governing powers. The result has been that for the last ten years Ireland has had two governments, that of the Irish Free State with the great majority of its members practical Catholics, that of Northern Ireland with all its members either enrolled in or acknowledging political adhesion to a secret society whose raison d’être is opposition to the Catholic Church.

The Irish revolution has been remarkable, if not quite unique, among European revolutions in that it had no anti-Catholic flavor. The anti-Catholics were on the other side. A careful observer wrote of the rising of Easter Week, when the later phase of the struggle was still in the future: “To speak of a Catholic Revolution is practically an oxymoron. Yet Pearse’s movement inevitably claims the epithet. Since the days of the Chouans so many practising and believing Catholics, aided by so few who were not, never set out to combat an established government. . . . And — what would if possible be less believable to a continental observer — the Freemasons were found well-nigh to a man on the side of constituted authority engaged in putting down the insurrection.”[1]

The labor movement in Dublin contained a small ingredient of Socialism: James Connolly, it is said, had, under socialistic influences, fallen away from the practice of his religion, but at the end he returned to the Faith. Sometimes its opponents accused the Sinn Féin party of being anti-clerical: the only foundation was that Arthur Griffith, its leader, criticised equally unsparingly priest and layman who did not square with his ideals of duty to country. A few insurgent leaders, and a relatively smaller number of the rank and file, were Protestants.

Easter Week inaugurated the revolution in the grand manner. Its history reads like a romance of chivalry. Its gesture was successful with the Irish people, but its methods would never have forced negotiations from an imperial government. Over Ireland after 1916 came a change like that which passed over Europe after 1914: when the war broke out again, to the ideals of chivalry and sacrifice were joined those of “blood and iron” and the “will to conquer.” The wholesale assassinations, ordered by the Republican military headquarters and executed by the Irish Republican Army, presented a serious moral problem. The Catholic Church in Ireland made no official pronouncement on the subject, and was in consequence severely criticised by her, and Ireland’s, enemies. The Catholic Church is always loath to invoke her spiritual authority in political struggles. It is only recently that she has taken definite action condemning the organization that is believed to be mainly responsible for the occasional but persistent outrages which have marred the tranquillity of the Free State during the past eight years, and also condemning a number of very small but active Communistic societies in league with the Bolsheviks of Russia. Every revolution carried by violence has its evil influences, and the Irish revolution was not an exception.

The Irish revolution was a political, not a religious, struggle. This statement holds true, from Easter Week to the Treaty of London, for the twenty-six counties in which Catholics form an overwhelming majority. It does not hold true of northeast Ulster. There the upheaval became a fight between Catholics and Protestants, a Twelfth of July riot turned into civil war. The Ulster Orangeman defines political issues on religious lines. When the Republicans attacked a policeman because he was a government official the Orange mobs retaliated by assaulting their Catholic fellow-citizens because they were Catholics. Belfast, an industrial city of over 400,000 inhabitants, of whom slightly less than one-fourth were Catholics, living, for the most part, in segregated enclaves, became for two years, from July, 1920, to June, 1922, a scene of horror. During this period 420 people were killed and over 1600 wounded. On 21 July, 1920, riots began in the shipyards, as a result of which all Catholic workmen were expelled, many of them after receiving serious bodily injuries. Henceforth the Catholic sections of the city were in a state of siege, subject to systematic terrorism, to bursts of rifle-fire, sniping, and bombing, and to frequent raids in which men, women and children were butchered with almost unbelievable savagery, and whole rows of houses destroyed. The connection with the war going on in the remainder of Ireland was little more than nominal: there, hostilities ceased with the armistice, while in Belfast they grew worse, and reached their climax after the treaty.[2]

That agents of the Irish Republican Army were operating in Belfast, at least till the truce, may be regarded as certain; that some of the Catholic people who were not of the I. R. A. resisted attack and occasionally struck back fiercely at their persecutors is also certain; but the statement of the Catholic archbishops and bishops assembled at Maynooth on 26 April, 1922, cannot be gainsaid:

No reasonable man will believe that Catholics, who form only one-fourth of the city’s population, or Sinn Féin, who form a much smaller percentage, are the instigators or originators of riots in which they are always the chief sufferers.

To this may be added the resolution of the Irish Protestant Convention held at Dublin on 11th May, 1922:

We abhor and condemn as unchristian and uncivilized the murders and outrages which have been committed upon men, women and children as a result of sectarian hatred, as well as the forcible depriving of any Irish citizen of his means of livelihood because of his conscientious opinions. We place on record that, until the recent tragedies in Co. Cork,[3] hostility to Protestants by reason of their religion has been almost, if not wholly, unknown in the twenty-six counties in which Protestants are in a minority.

The supreme test of persecution even to death has not been lacking to Catholicity in the Ireland of our day.

It is not to be inferred, however, that the Protestant or even the Orangeman of the northeast of Ireland is a cross between a Bashi-Bazouk and an Iroquois scalp-hunter. The average Orangeman is a kindly person who would do no harm in the ordinary intercourse of life to his Catholic neighbors. But he is an outstanding example of social atavism: on politico-religious topics his mental processes are those of the seventeenth century. He believes that civil and religious liberty, which are the peculiar glory and monopoly of Protestantism, depend on his own individual vigilance against the machinations of the Pope; from the cradle to the grave his ears are made familiar with “putting down the Fenian” and “slaughtering the Papists”; and twice a year, on the anniversaries of the battle of the Boyne and the relief of Derry, he falls a victim to an epidemic brain-storm. The fever of the revolution wrought a brain-storm long drawn out, under which the wild fanatics and the hoodlums of Belfast reverted to their type and their teaching. Only a very small minority were actively concerned in the pogroms, but the vicious system of sectarianism, like the vicious system of nationalism in a world-war, blocked respectable citizens from taking any action that might be interpreted as sympathy for the enemy.

However, brain-storms pass, whether after a day or two years, but the atavistic politico-religious principles remain. Even in his periods of “normalcy” and good-will the Orangeman is absolutely determined on one thing: to maintain his own political supremacy. In politics his attitude towards Catholics is not unlike that of the whites of the southern United States towards the negroes in the years following Reconstruction. It is the opinion of careful observers that in public and municipal affairs Catholics in Northern Ireland are today in a considerably worse position than they were twenty years since. Of the six counties and two boroughs that were incorporated in this new state two counties, Tyrone and Fermanagh, and one borough, Derry, had each a Catholic majority. One of the first acts of the new parliament was a reorganization, in 1922, of the municipalities in what was, it is asserted, a bare-faced gerrymander against Catholic voters. Since then Protestants have had a substantial majority on the councils of these three Catholic municipalities. In 1929 the parliamentary constituencies were rearranged, again, it is charged, by gerrymandering methods; and the system of proportional representation, enabling minorities to win a fair number of seats, was abolished. Catholics are almost entirely excluded from the public service, and a new educational system gives serious dissatisfaction.

Prior to 1921 there was a single system of education for all Ireland, but it was amorphous and more or less inefficient. From the religious point of view, however, it was generally acceptable to Catholics. Governmental control was exercised through various boards on which, for the most part, Catholics were well represented. The national primary schools were nominally non-sectarian, but practically those that Catholics attended were, normally, Catholic in character, owned by Catholic trustees and administered by managers who, almost always, were the respective parish-priests. Secondary schools were subsidised by the state, but privately owned — those for Catholics, by religious orders or diocesan trustees.

The Northern Ireland Education Act of 1923, modified by later amendments, centralised governmental administration in a Minister of Education, and greatly increased its range; required that all schools receiving full state aid must be transferred to the ownership and local control of the municipal councils; permitted schools not transferred to continue to receive a subsidy, relatively smaller, at the discretion of the Minister; and authorised public payment for “simple Bible instruction” in the newly provided and transferred schools. The Catholic bishops at once declared “the proposed schools are impossible for our children”; Catholics have not transferred their schools; and there has been constant friction over the discretionary aid granted by government.

When the boundary of the Irish Free State is crossed we are in a different world. Politics here are not based on religious difference. The state is maintained as a strictly secular institution, and the spirit as well as the letter of the constitution (based on the treaty of 1921) is rigorously observed: “Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen, and no law may be made either directly or indirectly to endow any religion or prohibit or restrict the free exercise thereof or give any preference or impose any disability on account of religious belief.” A small number of good Catholics have been highly critical of such a policy pursued by a government whose members, with one exception, are practising Catholics.

But there are fields in which religion and politics necessarily overlap. One of these is the restraint of the public presentation of matter which may lead to sin or crime or may give serious offense to a large body of well-deserving citizens. The Censorship of Films Act, passed by the Oireachtas, or Free State Parliament, in 1923, provided that no motion-pictures should be exhibited in public unless certified by the Official Censor appointed by the Minister of Home Affairs. The Censor was required to certify any film presented to him “unless he is of the opinion that such picture or some part thereof is unfit for general exhibition in public by reason of its being indecent, obscene or blasphemous or because the exhibition thereof in public would tend to inculcate principles contrary to public morality or would be otherwise subversive of public morality.” The Censor may also allow only portions of a film to be shown, or restrict its exhibition to certain classes of people or certain geographical districts. An appeal was allowed to an Appeal Board of nine members, appointed by the same minister. In general, the censorship has been applied more rigorously, and much more in accord with Catholic ideals, than in other countries. During the year 1930, out of 1321 “Drama and Variety” films submitted, 185 were rejected and 202 received expurgatorial cuts; of the 185 rejected the Appeal Board admitted 13 as submitted and 15 others with cuts. The situation has called forth threats of boycott from the film-renters of London, and the sarcasm that “theatre architects in Ireland must have a troublesome time designing theatres so that the audience can see stage or screen over each other’s haloes.” On the other hand the story goes that when one of the renters pointed out that he had no Free State rules similar to those of the British censors the Irish official replied: “Our rules are now the oldest and the shortest in the world; you will find them in any catechism. They are generally known as the Ten Commandments.”.[4]

In 1929 a further Censorship of Publications Act was passed. It was introduced as a result of Catholic agitation, but was opposed by some Catholics and received only moderate support from the government. The act may be divided into an optional section and an obligatory section. Under the first the Minister of Justice may, after complaint has been received, and on the recommendation of a majority of five members of the Censorship of Publications Board, prohibit the sale and distribution of a book that is indecent or obscene or promotes birth-control. Periodicals come under the same regulation, with the addition of such as “have devoted an unduly large proportion of space to the publication of matter relating to crime.” The obligatory portion of the Act places restrictions on the reporting of judicial proceedings, particularly those relating to conjugal relations, and prohibits the printing, publishing, sale and distribution of literature setting forth methods of birth-control. During 1930 the ban was applied to 44 books and 12 periodicals. The Act is so recent that discriminating information as to its effects is not available. Divorce, as distinguished from separation, cannot be granted by the Free State courts, and the attempt by private member’s bill to introduce judicial divorces has been decisively defeated. It would appear that a majority of Protestants as well as of Catholics is opposed.

By the Intoxicating Liquor Acts of 1924 and 1927, the government, in the face of an influential opposition, made drastic reductions in the hours for the sale of intoxicants and, what was more important, in the number of licensed houses. In neither respect, however, did they go quite as far as the parliament of Northern Ireland in its legislation of 1923.

In education, nearly as extensive a revolution has been wrought in the Free State as in Northern Ireland, but by administrative methods rather than radical reconstruction. As in the North, governmental control has been increased and concentrated in the hands of a responsible minister, but the local management is still, for Catholic schools, in the hands of the Catholic priest; for Protestant schools, of the Protestant minister or his representative. It may be noted that the department declares that of all subjects taught religious instruction is “by far the most important.” In the case of secondary schools, increased grants towards salaries and more rigorous requirements as to teachers’ qualifications have resulted in a growth in the proportion of lay teachers.

University education is provided for Catholics by the National University of Ireland, with its chief centre in Dublin, but having constituent colleges in Cork and Galway. It remains, as it was created by the British Government in 1908, a non-confessional institution, but is Catholic in control, personnel and atmosphere in much the same way as the average state university in America is, in these respects, Protestant. In affiliation with the National University is St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland’s famous seminary. About six-hundred students are enrolled there: in 1930 seventy-three of its graduates were ordained to the priesthood. There are other smaller seminaries in Ireland, which, assuredly, does not lack vocations.

The Free State government has met with strong criticism because of its Irish-language policy. Irish is made compulsory in the primary schools, in the National University matriculation, and in the first years of that university’s Arts course; and a necessary qualification for teachers’ certificates and appointments to the civil service. On Catholic grounds there should be no objection; the Irish language bears the impress of Catholicity even more than English does of Protestantism; and for a time Irish may be some offset for Catholics to the tremendous cultural, social and financial advantages that non-Catholics will possess throughout Ireland.

This inferiority of potential opportunity for Catholics is a matter of some consequence. According to the census of 1926 Catholics formed 92.6 per cent of the population of the Irish Free State, yet they numbered only 85 per cent of civil servants, 83 per cent of employers, managers and foremen in industry, 80 per cent of railway officials, 78 per cent of physicians, 73 per cent of farmers holding over two hundred acres, 71 per-cent of male clerks not in government employ, 70 per cent of lawyers, 64 per cent of civil engineers, 55 per cent of chartered accountants and 47 per cent of bank officials. This is, of course, in the main the heritage from centuries of anti-Catholic rule. It may be noted that there is still some legal debris of disabilities and discriminations against the Catholic Church. The majority are curious rather than important, but it is remarkable that even yet neither the Church as a whole nor the separate dioceses have any legal corporate existence, but most hold property through the troublesome and expensive system of trustees.

It should be added that the Irish Free State maintains a minister at the Vatican and receives an apostolic delegate representing the pope.

It is now time to present a brief statistical and factual summary of the condition of the Catholic Church in Ireland. By the census of 1926, Catholics in the Free State numbered 2,751,269 out of a total population of 2,971,992, and in Northern Ireland 420,428 out of 1,256,561. They experienced a slight relative gain in the Free State since 1911, and a slight loss in the North, probably in each case resulting mainly from conditions connected with the Revolution. In all Ireland there are four archbishoprics and 24 suffragan sees; 1115 parishes with 2473 parochial and district churches, increased by chapels to over 5000. Statistics now some years old give the number of priests engaged in diocesan work as 3925, of whom 736 were of the regular clergy. There are some 22 orders or congregations of priests, with about 115 houses in Ireland; five congregations of teaching brothers; and about 45 different communities of nuns with some 478 convents.

Attention should be directed to the recent development of interest in the pagan mission field. The missionary spirit has been active in Ireland since the early middle ages; in the nineteenth century, however, it expended itself chiefly in supplying priests and religious institutions to the growing Catholic populations of Britain, the British dominions, and the United States. Even today it is estimated that there are nearly 3,000 Irish priests and over 5,000 Irish sisters serving abroad in English-speaking lands. But in these the need is no longer so great, and Ireland is turning more and more to work among the heathen. A recent article in the periodical, Pagan Missions,[5] gives the following statistics of Irish religious now so engaged: priests, 385; teaching brothers, 259; sisters, 1,063; and in each case the lists are incomplete. In number of priests, Ireland stands seventh among the nations, following France, Belgium, Italy, Holland, Spain and Germany, and preceding the United States and Canada. Special fields assigned to Irish missionary institutions by the Congregation of the Propaganda are as follows: to the Irish province of the Fathers of the Holy Ghost (established in Ireland in 1860), the Vicariates of Sierra Leone, Southern Nigeria, Zanzibar, Kilimandjaro and Bagamoyo, with a population of about 4,000,000; to the Irish province of the Society of African Missions (first introduced into Ireland in 1876), the Vicariates of Western Nigeria and Benin, and the Prefectures of Northern Nigeria and Liberia, in all a population of some 17,000,000; to the Maynooth Mission to China (a purely Irish organization, founded in 1916, just a few weeks after the Dublin insurrection), the Vicariate of Han Yang and the mission of Kien Chang, containing over 5,000,000 persons. The Irish Redemptorists have important charges in the pagan sections of the Philippine Islands, and other Irish congregations are working in various parts of Africa, India and China. Father Gavan Duffy is known throughout the English-speaking world for his work in and his propaganda on behalf of the missions of India.

And what of the Irish laity? In the first place, they supply the men and women and the money that make possible all ecclesiastical effort. But the following headings may be noted of more peculiarly lay Catholic Action, devotional, educational, charitable:

The Retreat movement, especially among the working men of Dublin, is growing steadily. The Third Order of St. Francis is peculiarly strong in Ireland. Many confraternities, especially those maintained by the Dominican Fathers, flourish. There are over 600 sodalities of the Blessed Virgin. In the Apostleship of Prayer, Ireland ranks sixth among the nations in the number of prayers and intentions offered for the Holy Pontiff. The Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart has 253,000 subscribers, besides 3,000 for the edition in Gaelic. In 1927 the Messenger office published 469,077 books and pamphlets. “The League of Daily Mass”, founded in 1915, has more than 50,000 members, a total which includes the membership throughout the world. The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland is well-known beyond the bounds of the Green Isle for its popular doctrinal and controversial publications, but we are not so familiar with its other wide and diversified activities — public lectures, Catholic weeks, study clubs, national pilgrimages, and Catholic press service. Two special organizations have recently been founded, in 1923 the Rescue Society of Ireland to fight non-Catholic proselytism, a not very serious but extremely persistent feature of Irish religious conditions, and the League of the Kingship of Christ, to inculcate Catholic principles in public affairs. The Catholic Young Men’s Society, founded in Limerick more than eighty years since, still has a number of large branches, but, in the opinion of some observers, is neither so well-organized nor so vigorous as the peculiar conditions of the present day demand. The Saint Vincent de Paul Society in 1927 counted 350 conferences and some 5,650 active members: 57,824 families were visited and 108,938 persons benefited from its assistance. Like the Catholic Truth Society, its activities are more diversified than in other countries, and include the maintenance of an orphanage, a class for deaf-mutes, sailors’ clubs, penny-savings banks, restaurants for the poor, a night refuge for men. The Roomkeepers Society, an organization some 140 years old, assists poorer workmen who are temporarily in difficulties. The temperance propaganda of the famous Father Mathew has been revived in recent years by various organizations, of which the most important is the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, founded in 1899 and now numbering over 300,000 members. Due to this movement, to government legislation, and, it must be added, to economic depression, there has been in the last two or three years an extraordinary decrease in the consumption of spirituous liquors.

Two movements of recent origin should, perhaps, be selected for emphasis because they seem so well designed to meet the special needs of the present day. One is the Central Catholic Library, founded in Dublin in 1922 to provide “a representative collection of Catholic literature on all subjects bearing on the Faith . . . intended primarily as an aid to students, journalists, teachers, social workers, professional men, writers, and inquirers,” but open to all who wish to use it. Already, in large measure because of the energetic work of the Rev. Stephen J. Brown, S.J., it has gone far to attaining its aim. The other movement is that of the Legion of Mary, founded in Dublin in September, 1921, chiefly through the instrumentality of a man who should be described as a worker of wonders in our time, Mr. Frank Duff. It has a somewhat elaborate organization, modelled on that of the Roman military legion, and with its ideals of action those of the Roman legionaries: fearlessness in the face of the moral enemy, self-sacrifice, discipline. Its object, as stated in the handbook, is “the sanctification of its members by prayer and active co-operation in Mary’s and the Church’s work of crushing the head of the serpent and advancing the reign of Christ” It seeks especially such tasks, open to the laity, as seem impossible. Its standards and its aims appear to be perilously high, and yet, as Professor Alfred O’Rahilly recently wrote, “I made a great discovery, or rather, I found that the discovery had been made, that there is a latent heroism in seemingly ordinary men and women; an unknown source of energy had been tapped.”[6] Mr. Duff states: “No branch of the Legion has yet failed. . . Its members have specialized in the attacking of situations and problems — and places — voted impossible, and have gained a uniform success.” In Dublin, three concrete monuments show part of its achievement: the Morning Star Hostel, for the permanent rehabilitation of “down and out” men; another for “down and out” women; and a third for derelict women who can also be described as “fallen.” They have been maintained entirely by voluntary workers, and have had extraordinarily good results. The Legion now numbers 130 branches, including many established abroad; is increasing at the rate of about two branches a week; and has received the stimulus of the expressed wish of our Holy Father that it may spread over the whole world.

Such are some of the factual records of Catholicity in Ireland as they appear to an onlooker from abroad. They seem good. And they do not include the intangible evidences of spirituality, the Catholic attitude of mind evidenced in casual speech, the matter-of-fact devotion that sends city housewives in crowds to the eleven o’clock Mass that is said daily for their accommodation. At least two men who died in our time may, we hope, be some day classed by the Church as of heroic virtue: Father William Doyle, Irish Jesuit who was killed while serving as chaplain in the great war, and Matt Talbot, poor day-laborer of Dublin. The record, I have said, seems good; but the average Irish Catholic of today has not the “guid conceit” of himself as offspring of a chosen people that possibly characterized his father. The average elderly Irish priest will tell you that spiritually the country is going to the dogs. There is change in the things that the priest has loved; the modern world is pressing more and more into the green fields of Ireland; a great revolution has shaken the country morally as well as materially to its foundations. God in his own good time has seen fit to give to some of the Irish people some of the secular blessings they have prayed for during seven hundred years. To our blurred vision it would seem that He is likewise reviving old or raising new forces to meet changed needs. Certain it is that from Ballycastle to Skibbereen the average Irishman is faithful still as he has been faithful since Patrick brought the Faith fifteen hundred years ago.[7]

[1] Arthur E. Clery, Poets of The Insurrection (Dublin: 1918), p. 59.

[2] Cf. Patrick J. Gannon. “In the Catacombs of Belfast”, Studies, June, 1922.

[3] On 27 April, 1922, five Protestants were murdered in Cork county, apparently in reprisal for the killings in Belfast. If these were reprisals, the universal execration with which they were greeted brought them to an immediate stop.

[4] Manchester Guardian Weekly, 13th November, 1931, p. 395.

[5]Use has been made of a summary published in The Eikon (Toronto, Canada) for October, 1931, it having been found impossible to obtain a cone of the original publication.

[6]The Irish Press, 15 September, 1931.

[7]The book which comes nearest to covering the matter of this paper is Le Catholicisme en Irlande, by Dom Thomas Becquet, O.S.B. (Liége, La Pensée Catholique). Some help has been obtained from the Rev. George Stebbing, C.Ss.R., The Position and Prospects of the Catholic Church in English-speaking Lands (Edinburgh and London: 1930), and from M. F. Liddell, Irland (Leipzig and Berlin: 1931). The most valuable repertories of source material are the various Irish Catholic periodical publications, in particular the annual Irish Catholic Directory and Almanac. Other such are The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, The Irish Rosary, The Irish Monthly and Studies. The Dublin Review, published in London, also contains occasional articles on contemporary religious conditions in Ireland. The present writer has consulted many individual issues of these publications, but has not been in a position enabling him to make use of complete series. He has also used the following pamphlets: The Rev. T. Corcoran, S.J., Notes sur l’enseignement secondaire catholique en Irlande (Brussels: 1930) and and Les écoles catholiques en Irlande (Louvain: 1931); the Rev. M. J. Browne, Legal Disabilities of the Catholic Church in Ireland (Dublin: The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland); The Morning Star: the theory and practice of a great experiment; and the provisional handbook of the Legion of Mary. Official statistics and other information are to be obtained from the publications of governments of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, more especially the statutes and parliamentary debates, the census reports and the reports of the departments of education. Finally, the writer is indebted for suggestions given personally by the Rev. Stephen J. Brown, S.J., the Rev. Myles V. Ronan, and Mr. Frank Duff.

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Posted on December 16, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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