Ireland was long known as the land of saints and scholars. When the Western Roman Empire imploded, the teachings and accumulated knowledge of Catholic antiquity was preserved in its monasteries and disseminated by its monks across Europe. These monks created works of art of almost astonishing and miraculous beauty while the rest of Europe fell into chaos and anarchy. This was all done for the good of the “mother” church. Ireland’s fealty to Catholicism was a defining and describing part of national identity well into the 20th century were the power of the Catholic church went into a rapid and likely irreversible decay. Church attendance has dropped from an almost total attendance to in the 1970’s to a supposed figure of 30%, however if you were to step in any Dublin church on a Sunday morning this figure would be thrown into doubt by the empty, silent pews, unlit candles, and whispered psalms. This shunning of the faith is contributed to two major factors; materialism supplanting spiritualism and how the church abused the temporal power they had over the country in particular the abuses that the weakest and most vulnerable suffered while in their care.
To understand the scale of the Churches fall from grace it is necessary to understand how powerful they were. Perhaps alone within Europe, Ireland was to all intents and purposes a theocracy. There had been a progressive socialist movement involved in the bloody delivery of the republic, but it was the conservative and intrinsically Catholic factions who landed on top after a messy and wasteful civil war.
Éamon de Valera was the most significant figure in the early days of the republic, essentially head of the government from 1932 to 1959 while serving as Taoiseach and then the head of state as President in 1969. His belief that Catholicism was intrinsic to Irish identity had and has a lasting effect. He wrote the Irish constitution almost single handed, his only consultant was one Archbishop McQuaid. The Irish constitution was drenched in Catholic ethos, the Catholic church was given a special position. The woman’s place was to be in the home as “[…] the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” Divorce, abortion and contraception were all illegal and were to remain so until the millennium was almost at hand. Contraception was legalized with strict restrictions in the 1980s, divorce was only legalized in 1996. The Censorship of Publications Board rigorously banned books and movies that were critical of the church or not in keeping with their ethos. A trade war and the economic realities of a poor nation kept outside influence and contact to a minimum. Ireland was truly an island and the water around it deep. The “Catholic Taliban” liked it this way.
Coupled with a Catholic government, the vast majority of Irish children were attending schools run by the Church. Indoctrination was constant and unrelenting. The key to any cult is repetition, To this day most Irish children will spend five times more time in a religion class than one on civil, social, or political education. Morality is learnt from a pulpit, even if more often than not it’s now a metaphorical one. The collusion of church and state made for an intensely devout and conservative population. Non-attendance at church would make the absentee an object of scorn, rosary beads were clutched tightly at the anointed times. The papal visit in 1979 drew crowds of 1,250,000, essentially a third of the population and most likely the pinnacle of Irish Catholic devotion. All throughout those who wore a collar and donned the vestments were as princes of a supposed republic, free from criticism and imbued with a medieval authority over their congregation. It became clear the old adage held true, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”
The younger generation of Ireland grew up with a constant barrage of accusations and scandals of the most savage and despicable nature. Paedophilia, abuse, corruption, slavery, state collusion and serial avoidance of accepting responsibility were a constant headline from the late 80’s and continue to be revealed to this day, and rarely a conviction. No wonder pews were emptied and the seminaries lack new priests.
The litany of sins is a long list, too long to list without desensitising the reader. There revelation over decades was as demoralising and devastating to Irish identity as the constant car-bombs and tit-for-tat butchery in Northern Ireland. To show the extent and savagery of the crimes perpetrated by the Princes of the Nation, a few of revelations must be explained briefly, these are a few examples in a long and shameful litany. Though there may have been diocese and parishes who weren’t guilty, anyone who picked up an Irish newspaper on occasion over the last few decades would be hard pressed to name one.
One of the most shameful aspects of the Roman Catholic abuse scandals has been how consistently prosecution has not occurred or at least taken many years to be successful. The Church not only shielded monsters, but colluded in the prolongation of their iniquities. A case in point is well illustrated by “Fr” Brendan Smyth. Over a period of 40 years he assaulted, molested, or raped over a hundred children in Dublin, Belfast and the U.S. He acted with impunity, on occasion calling children out of class and engaging in sexual assault within school grounds. His superiors in several diocese were made aware of these crimes. They moved him to another diocese. When he was eventually arrested in 1991 for the abuse of four siblings he fled to a monastery in the Republic. The Royal Ulster Constabulary petitioned the Irish government for his extradition. They didn’t immediately consent. He didn’t stand trial for another three years. He died one month into his sentence. His gravestone called him reverend.
Brendan Smyth was one of many. Many of which will die or have died without there crimes coming to light. Why this is, is because of how the Catholic Church saw itself as above the law and state. They believed themselves both capable and able to handle these crises internally without submitting themselves to external criticism or punishment. The Ferns Report of 2005 showed this is a painfully bright light. It focused not on the truth or fact of the allegations made against the Diocese of Ferns, merely how these allegations were handled. The 1.9million euro report found that at their strictest priests accused of paedophilia, and many of these numerous accusations were extremely detailed, were sent to a psychologist. That was that. Within the report the accused were anonymous. No accusations or prosecutions were made.
From the 1930s up until the early 1990s, approximately 35,000 Irish children and teenagers were sent to a network of 250 Church-run industrial schools, reformatories, orphanages and hostels. Within these institutions, created to help and nurture the weakest and most vulnerable by those sworn to do God’s work on earth, places that should have been a sanctuary from abuse and pain, they became haunted and hell-like. When my father was growing up in the 60’s was asked to take a message to the nearby industrial school run by Christian Brothers he was always told to take a friend, Even then the people knew, they were afraid. The worst of these intuitions was the Magdalene Laundries.
The Laundries, or asylums to be more concise, are now well known and a watchword for the exploitations of the Catholic “aristocracy” of their subjects. These institutions incarcerated woman, usually for falling pregnant out of wedlock. Within they were stripped of their identities, shunned, branded as prostitutes and forgotten by the outside world. They were forced to perform menial tasks as repentance and submitted to torture psychological, physical and sexual by the religious overseers. The first of these Laundries opened in Ireland in 1765, the last only closed it’s door in 1995. By then 30,000 woman had been incarcerated. It’s estimated that 2,100 children born of unmarried inmates, were taken from their mothers and sent to the US, for the financial gain of the institutions. The religious orders can add child trafficking and slavery to their corruptions. The Laundries operated with the consent of the state. In 2013 Taoiseach Enda Kenny apologised, describing their existence as “the nation’s shame”. A compensation package of €34.5million has been recommended for the surviving victims. The four religious orders that ran the institutions have refused to contribute.
The Catholic Church with all its faults was tolerated out of necessity when Ireland as a poor people of a poor, backwards nation relied on the communities defined by the local parish. The Church provided succour and were for many the only source of a desperately needed alms when times were more difficult then we can comprehend. Ireland’s sudden and unprecedented rise in fortunes dissolved its reliance on the church, this finally allowed criticism of this most powerful of entities. Even the fall of the Church is not without its tragedies, communities so long held together and made strong and safe by their shared faith are no longer bound by such.
The religious divide in the North seen by so many as the cause of conflict and not a result, has hardened the distrust amongst near neighbours. Removing oneself from association with the Church is seen as akin to removing yourself from the bloodshed, hatred and sectarianism. They forget the origin of the Republican state in 1798, the flag’s green, white, and orange was conceived as a place of unity between the separate religions and conceived by protestant.
Not all clergy were guilty. Probably not even a significant percentage, but with the accused rarely being held accountable they all bare a mark of Cain. The Irish people no longer trust the church, this is not a fact that can be quantified, but it’s blatant and obvious.
Having for so long defined themselves by their faith, the now dissolute and disillusioned of Ireland are as an ethereal quantity, with a history tarnished by shame of both abuse and collusion.