The Myth of Irish Catholic Exceptionalism

One of my many bugbears in life is the highly exaggerated emphasis now placed on the (alleged) ‘uniqueness’ and ‘peculiarities’ of pre-conciliar Irish Catholicism. On the Catholic blogosphere the idea that the Irish Church in the 1950s was an insular, peasant-led, anti-intellectual, aliturgical backwater is particularly widespread. While I originally subscribed to this view myself I was forced to seriously question it in the course of my research and found it to be nothing more than a myth.  Hibernicus made some excellent comments on this a few days ago at the Irish Catholics Forum (incidentally if you haven’t already registered there, you really should — the quality of discussion is excellent):

In regard to the people who complain to Shane that Ireland was not “really” Catholic like France – the nineteenth-century French experience was in some ways more like the Irish in the same period than we realise. Much of the French ecclesiastical infrastructure was smashed in the Revolutionary Era and had to be re-created from scratch; the religious orders had to be reintroduced and the process involved a certain amount of trial and error (for example, the Dominicans were brought back by LAcordaire and a section of the Order tried to adopt a very strict regimen of fasting ad experimentam, which eventually had to be abandoned because it left friars who adopted it incapable of carrying out their other duties; Gueranger had to re-create the Benedictines from a blank slate at Solesmes). The Cure d’Ars’ stamping out dancing in his parish and trying to re-create a full devotional life and revive sacramental observance was not all that different from Irish priests of the same era (except the latter would not have encountered such a strong current of anti-clericalism, which would have been seen as selling out to the Protestants). Similarly, excessive attention to French Catholic intellectuals and aristocrats tends to obscure the extent to which the congregations and personnel of French Catholicism came from the peasantry and the lower bourgeoisie; English commentators tended to say the same sort of things about the social background and mindset of the French lower clergy as they did about Maynooth priests.

And of course Irish Catholicism imported a lot of French devotional and spiritual practices in the nineteenth century, and even when these didn’t originate in France they were usually transmitted via France.

One other problem the “Irish Catholicism is not really Catholic as compared to traditional French Catholicism” brigade have is that Continental Catholic culture had some extremely dubious features which were not nearly as pronounced in Ireland. For example, when Sean O Faolain wrote about Irish Catholicism not being really Catholic like the Continentals, part of what he meant was that many Continental male Catholics thought it perfectly acceptable to cheat on your wife while going to Mass (as indeed O Faolain did on his 1940s Italian tour, on which he was accompanied by Honor Tracy, an English Catholic of Bohemian sensibilities. Hubert Butler said that Honor Tracy’s modus operandi was to present herself as a superior being to the English because she was a Catholic, while ignoring the bits of Catholicism that didn’t suit her and sneering at Irish Catholics for taking Catholicism seriously. That was one occasion when Hubert Butler was smack on the button.) Simone de Beauvoir, who was brought up in a devout Catholic family, said that one reason why she left the Church was that while she was expected to remain chaste until marriage and faithful afterwards, her brothers were expected – even encouraged – to fornicate and would have been considered odd had they not done so. This was not the universal attitude among French Catholics in the early C20, but it was pretty widespread.

Furthermore, at the time of the abolition of the French Concordat in 1905 (and indeed for some time before and after) Republican anti-clericals made a big song and dance about allegations of priest-teachers abusing boys in Catholic schools and of ill-treatment of inmates in Catholic convent laundries (i.e. Magdalen laundries – these were not a purely French or Catholic invention, there were Protestant-run Magdalen asylums in Ireland and Britain in the C18 and C19). I know about this because British and Irish ultra-Protestants picked up on these reports (that sort of ultra-Protestant was always willing to ally with Continental atheists against Catholicism) and I have read some of their material. Admittedly, the Republican anti-clericals were pretty unscrupulous (I have noted elsewhere that some scholars have noted analogies between the imagery of classic anti-semitism and of French anti-clericalism) but I would be surprised if all these reports were fabrications.

The idea that C19 French traditionalist Catholicism is somehow the gold standard of authenticity by which all others must be judged is pretty shoddy IMHO. Every age is equidistant from God.


Posted on December 30, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Wow! Loads to digest here, Shane! If you don’t mind me saying so, it seems to be getting to the whole root of your blog (and please, please do keep going although I do realise how much time it must take). I look forward to reflecting on this post. It so chimes with my own personal experience, although I must confess to a degree of subjectivity.

  2. Thanks Jaykay, I was often intending to quit but I fear there is a vacuum out there that must be filled. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, but before this blog, if any ordinary internet user wanted to get an accessible and sympathetic insight into the modern history of Irish Catholicism, they’d be very hard pressed. Irish Catholic tradition was once extremely strong but is now loudly decried across the ecclesiastical spectrum. I hope this blog provides a balance and leads people to challenge some of the received wisdom.

  3. A few more recollections of growing up in 1950s Ireland (I was born in 1943). As a child I was aware from listening to Radio Eireann and reading The Irish Press of much of what was happening in the rest of the world. Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary was a household name in Ireland because of his trial in 1949. The Korean War was widely reported and ‘the 38th parallel’ embedded in my young mine.

    The return to Ireland in 1953 of Columban Fr Aedan McGrath in 1953 after nearly three years of solitary confinement in Communist China, was big news, with the President, the Taoiseach and thousands of others greeting him at Dublin Airport. Father Aedan, whom I came to know as a friend and confrere years later, was also a household name in Ireland. I know that his example was one of the reasons I became a Columban priest. (Father Aedan told me once that when the plane landed and he saw all the people at the airport, much smaller then than now, he said to himself, ‘There must be somebody important on board’.)

    The death in a plane crash of President Ramon Magsaysay of the Philippines on St Patrick’s Day 1957 was front-page news in Ireland. In contrast, the media here in predominantly Catholic Philippines practically ignored the death in 2009 of former President Kim Dae-jung of the Republic of Korea, one of the outstanding statesmen and Catholics of the last century, despite the presence of tens of thousands of Koreans in the Philippines, many of them studying English, and despite the parallels in his life to that of Benigno Aquino Jr, assassinated in 1983 at the airport in Manila now named after him in.

    While still in kindergarten I was aware of the many Irish missionaries overseas and the term ‘out foreign’ was widely used by Catholics in that context. In many ways the Church looked outward and missionary seminaries were full. Today they are all closed.

    There was a certain narrowness or strictness, whichever term you prefer. I remember our rector in the seminary in the 1960s saying jokingly in class that if an Italian goes to Mass 51 Sundays out of 52 he considers himself a saint, while if an Irishman misses one out of 52 he considers it a mortal sin. There was some truth in his observation, reflecting what you wrote in your post. I commented recently on another post that the Bishop of Clogher, in the early 1960s, declared it a mortal sin to dance after midnight on Saturday. So there was some narrowness.

    There was too a certain hubris about Irish Catholicism, as I recall. We were proud of our ‘spiritual empire’ and of our family values. Both have since collapsed. Pride before a fall?

    These are simply some recollections and comments of one person and carry no value beyond that. But I don’t think that 1950s Ireland was quite as insular as many say it was.

  4. Fascinating, Father! Many thanks!

    Though I wasn’t there, I completely agree with you that 1950s Ireland wasn’t particularly insular. One of the things that first struck me when perusing back old Irish Catholic periodicals was their keen interest and familiarity with international affairs and the situation of the Church abroad.

    • Well, I’ve been laid low with sickness for the last few days (not serious!) and have actually had time to reflect on this and other things. I was born in 1960 and so am in the hind-place when it comes to commenting on the pre-V2 scene but my family was very Catholic yet very middle class, although definitely not continental “haute bourgeouise” style. Yet their standards were not particularly backwards Irish, if one can use that term.

      One of my great influences was my father whose brother was an Augustinian missionary in Nigeria (doctor in canon law as well) and who did not tolerate fools gladly. My mother had travelled in France and Spain in the late 40s-early 50s and had very good French. Both were very faithful Catholics and loved the Liturgy and the Church, music and literature… roughly in that order 🙂 They were by no means unusual, even in our town where one of the priests ran an operatic society organising regular trips to the DGOS productions. Not a few members were what would have been called “working class” in those days. But they knew and loved music, as evidenced by the musical productions in the town. Much better than what happens nowadays. Italian stars from the touring companies were invited down to one of the better local hotels, including the famous diStefano. In short, there was more genuine culture around then than now, by a long chalk!

      The priests who taught me were gentlemen, if rigourous, but that was expected. Yes, the “strap” was freely employed, even in final year, but they were not illeberal. My God, our Latin teacher encouraged us to watch “I Claudius”, which by the standards of the time had some risqué scenes. My parents certainly watched it.
      I get very annoyed by the constant unthinking “bad old days” shtick. Apart from those (mostly superannuated 60s -70s hangovers – and no, I won’t mention a certain journalist) whose agenda is so paper-thin that they really should stop pretending they’re objective, I get so tired of the lack of questioning of a lot of the younger generation who seem to have swallowed the current zeitgeist/party line wholesale. Still, my own generation certainly is far from blameless in that regard. We are, after all, their parents. And it was all faithfully handed on to us, even if at the time it was becoming fashionable to sneer at it. I know I did it, to keep in with the crowd for a while. Until reality hit me with the death of my own parents.

      A very small apologia pro vita sua, maybe, but blogs like this have encouraged me so much to rediscover what I suppose I always knew. That Ireland was a vibrant Catholic civilisation (yes, a civilisation) joined to the wider Catholic world and the tragedy, as I see it, is that just as communications and opportunities were emerging to enhance this we lost confidence and threw it all away. I’d love to do research on this but… Shane: you’re already beating the trail. Please don’t stop.

  5. A fascinating comment, Jaykay. And thanks for the kind compliments!

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