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.