I recently gave a talk on the impact of Vatican II on Irish Catholicism.
Immediately afterwards, a lady approached me and told me, with a twinkle in her eye, how Archbishop John Charles McQuaid once ordered that a monkey in Dublin zoo be shot for repeated lewd acts, the last straw being when a tour of respectable convent school girls “up from the country” were traumatised by its simian exhibitionism.
“This,” she declared, tells you everything you need to know about the Catholic Church in Ireland.”
To ask whether the incident ever happened is, of course, the wrong question; it perfectly illuminates a popular perception of Ireland’s religious past on multiple levels.
In her latest book, Mary Kenny aims to provide a more nuanced reading, much of it informed by her experience.
The book is divided into two parts, the first chronicling a century of change since the foundation of the State; the second comprising pen portraits of 12 Irish public figures and their relationships with the church. In the round, the book paints a more complex picture than the stereotype of monochrome religious conformity.
There’s no doubt that the new state had deep roots in Catholicism. We learn minister for defence Richard Mulcahy was a daily mass-goer and that minister for justice, Kevin O’Higgins, had once been a seminarian, his sister was a nun, and his wife’s cousin was head of the Carmelites in Ireland. An Garda Síochána, which O’Higgins established, would replace allegiance to the Crown with a prayer to the Sacred Heart.
Kenny argues that Ireland’s increasing Catholicisation from the 1930s was not primarily an imposition from above, but essentially a government response to popular demand. This was an Ireland where Aer Lingus planes were blessed and named after Irish saints; where literary figures such as Brendan Behan and Seamus Heaney made visits to Lourdes. One American Jesuit sociologist’s survey in 1963-64 concluded that almost 90pc of the Irish people believed the Catholic Church to be “the greatest force for good in Ireland today”.
The last quarter of the 20th century saw a slow but steady process of modernisation, in which Kenny admits to have played a very small part. She suggests that, ironically, it was the old Catholic Ireland that produced a galvanised group of young women such as those who spearheaded the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. And that’s one thing that even some of the church’s greatest critics often grudgingly admit — religious teachers gave them a standard of education they might not otherwise have had.
Many darker parts of our more recent history are discussed: the Kerry Babies case of 1984; the death of Ann Lovett in the same year; the X case in 1992; the Bishop Eamonn Casey and Fr Michael Cleary scandals; and the avalanche of revelations of clerical paedophilia and cover-ups through the 1990s; the Magdalene Laundries and the industrial schools. In one place, Kenny suggests that the Irish may well have “over-valued the family… and the respectability that came with an intact family structure”.
She writes with no small degree of compassion about the complex and heart-rending situations women found themselves in as a result of the Eighth Amendment.
Yet, despite Kenny’s even-handed approach, some of her parenthetical asides seem unnecessary, even somewhat barbed. Referencing Katherine Zappone’s meeting with Pope Francis in August 2018 to discuss Tuam and the Magdalene Laundries, the former minister for children is identified as “a gay former nun born in America”. This hardly seems relevant to the substantive point. When discussing the closure of the Irish Embassy to the Holy See under Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, she adds in parentheses “a former member of the Marxist Workers’ Party”; by contrast, when referencing the pro-life activist Maria Steen, she does not feel the same need to add “a member of the Iona Institute”.
This book is at its best when it is telling stories; and Kenny does this very well, especially when highlighting the cognitive dissonance that has been part of the Irish Catholic experience. This is exemplified in the quiet acceptance of the sexual identities of much-loved figures such as Micheál Mac Liammóir and Danny La Rue. In the case of Kevin O’Higgins’ extramarital love for Lady Lavery, she contends that “social conservatives and devout Catholics can also be smitten with the flames of Eros”. Quite.
There’s a good deal of wisdom to be found in this book (even if its 400-odd pages might have benefited from an editor’s scalpel). Kenny’s delving into Ireland’s past rightly recognises that, inevitably, “new orthodoxies are created and new rules of censorship drawn up”. Many of these will eventually be likewise interrogated.