Thursday, November 16, 2023

Ireland’s Return to Paganism

Early this year, the launch of the St. Patrick’s Festival by Ireland’s arts minister provoked some discussion. 

Announcing the theme of ‘We Are One,’ the Green Party deputy leader posed alongside a large group of people clad in decidedly non-traditional dresses, including more than one drag queen. 

As has become the norm, this event in honour of the saint who converted Ireland to Christianity made no reference to the illustrious Patrick and made no attempt to connect the proceedings to Irish culture at all. 

No European observer should be surprised about the gravity of the cultural change that has occurred in Ireland in recent decades, and yet few have considered the long-term implications for Ireland’s own sense of itself as a sovereign and unique country. 

Ireland has not just caught up with the conventional social mores of post-Christian Europe: it is exceeding them. 

Five years after legalising abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy, the parliament now looks likely to extend the time limit while also abolishing the three-day waiting period. 

The Green-driven coalition is planning to ban any kind of peaceful protest outside abortion facilities. 

Biological males can be housed in women’s prisons—creating ideologically awkward challenges when a ‘female’ prisoner is found to be a threat to ‘her’ fellow inmates. 

There is a parliamentary majority in favour of euthanasia, and while Spanish socialists condemn surrogacy as exploitative, Irish cabinet ministers embrace it. 

As in Orwell’s 1984, the radicalism of today’s ruling class is justified by a continuous distortion of the past. Virtually every historical documentary, drama series, or film now presents Catholic Ireland as an incredibly repressive and inhumane place. 

No historical or international context is ever provided, and those who attempt to highlight the good performed by the clergy and religious are generally silenced. Priests are reviled, and nuns are condemned with a particular venom.

The rulers of modern Ireland are at war with their country’s past. 

But in their haste to sever their connection to the nation’s religious roots, they are ignoring a very obvious question. 

After several centuries in which Catholicism and Irishness went hand-in-hand, what does the complete rejection of Christian heritage mean for Irish national identity?

In a country that is now linguistically English, economically American, politically European, ethnically multicultural, and religiously indifferent, what makes post-Catholic Ireland any way distinctive? 

The birth of the Irish nation

It is true that there is more to Irish history than Catholicism or persecution by Protestant Britain. 

Yet it remains the case that a disinterest in the long history of religious persecution of our ancestors is a hallmark of today’s Ireland. 

The Irish people’s refusal to adopt the religion of their foreign overlords from the Tudor era onwards is now passed off as a merely incidental quirk of history, rather than what it was: the great fault line between the countries, and the battle which the world’s greatest empire could never win. 

Later generations have emphasised the French-inspired republicanism of Wolfe Tone and the other United Irishmen in the 1790s as the starting point for Irish nationalism. 

However, the late Cambridge academic (and Catholic priest) Professor Brendan Bradshaw highlighted how the increasingly anti-Catholic London government of Henry VIII brought about a reconciliation between the Gaelic Irish and the ‘Old English’ descendants of the original Norman settlers who had not previously been culturally assimilated.

According to Bradshaw, in And so began the Irish Nation (2015), from the mid-16th century “the evidence indicates an increasing awareness among the Old English of the bonds that bound them to the Gaeil as the historic denizens of Ireland and as adherents alike of Roman Catholicism.” 

Though the natives and the descendants of the Normans continued to feud intermittently, religious loyalty gradually began to supersede ethnic kinship. Thus was a modern Irish nation born. 

Following this, the savagery of the Cromwellian conquest and land settlement in the mid-17th century made concrete the eternal separation between Protestant Britain and Catholic Ireland. 

During the centuries of humiliation afterwards, Irish Catholics eked out a bare existence in their own country, where they existed without land, liberty, or even the comfort of free religious practice. 

In considering Ireland’s evolving self-identity, it is worth reflecting upon how much had been lost by the 19th century, when Ireland’s march towards independence began in earnest. 

The old Gaelic political order had been annihilated, and when Daniel O’Connell led some of the world’s first popular political movements, he operated within the Westminster model of politics, as would future Irish leaders. 

English had replaced Irish as the vernacular. Irish cultural practices from farming to clothing had been largely replaced by imports from Britain. 

The only important cultural attribute that had not been taken away was the Catholic religion, and in this environment of cultural impoverishment, it was little surprise that Catholicism became the national identity. 

Monsignor Patrick Corish—arguably the greatest historian of Irish Catholicism—summed up the changes thus: “In this long-drawn-out struggle, the old Irish order was worn down, and, in the end, destroyed. Yet the very destruction of the old political order led to a greater attachment to the old religion, which had, during these disturbed years, undergone a deep spiritual revival and reformation.”

Not only did Irish Catholicism fulfill the people’s deep psychological and emotional longing for a sense of themselves and their countrymen’s place in the world, the Church was also at the forefront of Ireland’s social development after the catastrophic Great Famine. 

It has become common for anti-Catholic voices to suggest that Ireland’s deep religiosity only commenced after the famine and was in some way a baleful puritanical legacy of that tragedy. 

It is certainly true that the stern morality of Victorian Britain paled in comparison with Ireland. Here too, though, the story is more complicated. 

The late Irish-American historian Emmet Larkin maintained that the Church had “provided an impoverished and oppressed people with consolation, hope, discipline, and cultural and national identity.”

Today, many people have been led to believe that there was a ‘handover’ of the country’s education and healthcare sectors to the Church post-independence, rather than a continuation of a system in which the religious carried out the lion’s share of the social and educational work.

In this version of history, a nefarious and power-hungry Catholic Church replaces the British as the colonial power post-1922. 

This account ignores the role Catholicism played in binding the new state together and thus avoiding the sort of long-term political violence that has bedevilled other postcolonial states. 

It ignores the international connectedness which the Catholic identity provided to the Irish people, in a world where the vast Irish Catholic missionary tradition forged a ‘spiritual empire’ to rival the political and military empires of other European peoples. 

Above all else, it does not take account of the overarching cultural weakness of the independent Irish nation state, which necessitated an unwholesome emphasis on a religious identity too often tainted by anti-intellectualism, lethargic social thought, and an unhealthy puritanism. 

Abandoning the Church

The popular understanding of the secularisation of Ireland is hopelessly inadequate. 

In the standard telling, a devout nation is horrified by revelations of sexual and physical abuse, and this results in a dramatic collapse in religious belief and practice. 

Yet though every European country has secularised, it is hard to find any example of a country where the Church’s collapse has been so complete, where the nation has become so enthralled with ‘woke’ ideology, or where the widespread religiosity of the past is looked upon with such contempt. 

The truth appears to be that Irish Catholicism was easy to abandon, because it seemed so hard to love. 

Though the Church created an impressive physical infrastructure from the 19th century onwards, there was no corresponding effort to create the sort of vibrant Catholic culture that still permeates countries like Italy and Spain and is most vividly seen during public celebrations and festivals. 

There was a weakness in both theology and Catholic social thinking in Ireland—as highlighted by both Whyte in Church & State in Modern Ireland, 1923-1970 (1971) and Twomey in The End of Irish Catholicism? (2003)—and at its period of greatest strength, Catholic Ireland proved itself incapable of inspiring Irish people to use their innate gifts when it came to literature or music to express or explain religious faith. 

Not only did this country not develop a Catholic literary tradition of its own, it censored the works of popular Catholic authors from elsewhere

All of this helped to produce an environment where it was easy to turn one’s back on religion and to close the door on deeper discussions of human existence and purpose. 

The fruits of unholy modern Ireland extend beyond the newfound political infatuation with modernity and progressivism. 

They include a plummeting birth rate, skyrocketing abortions, more crime, more suicides, more loneliness, more dysfunction in Irish families, and more lawlessness on Irish streets. 

Writing 30 years ago, the writer and intellectual Desmond Fennell identified the emerging social decay that had become obvious in Dublin as the country quickly secularised before the avalanche of scandals broke in the mid-1990s. 

He wrote on this topic in Heresy: The Battle of Ideas in Modern Ireland (1993): 

The value of Irish Catholicism becomes palpably evident as its influence on lives diminishes and nothing emerges to fill the vacuum but security personnel and paraphernalia, more police and vigilantes, more courts and prisons, state allowances for unmarried mothers and deserted spouses, rape crisis centres, campaigns promoting condoms, the great and increasing sums of money which pay for all this, and windy, impotent moralising.

Fennell was fixated on questions of identity and was greatly disturbed by the provincial nature of Irish society prior to the collapse of religion. 

As noted by the historian Marianne Elliott, Fennell saw the widespread rejection of Catholicism as the fatal blow to a previously distinct culture, and being disgusted by the country’s “post-nationalist condition,” Fennell later emigrated to Italy.

Now, a generation on, we have not begun to scratch the surface in examining what is signified by the widespread abandonment of Christianity in Ireland. 

The replacing of Catholicism with a form of liberationist neo-paganism has had a predictably detrimental social impact, but, in the long-term, potentially more ruinous implications are in store. 

No country can survive without a national identity, and for centuries, Ireland’s identity was inextricably connected with Catholicism. No serious proposal has been put forward for what the replacement identity should be. 

The ‘woke’ infatuation is a partial effort in this respect, but it is failing to provide any of the positive benefits that flow from a shared adherence to a coherent set of beliefs. 

In recent decades, we have seen the beginning of another massive cultural change: large-scale immigration. Ireland has been fortunate in this area up until now. 

Not only did Catholics from central and eastern Europe make up a large proportion of the first arrivals, they were joined by many Filipinos, as well as Christians from Nigeria and India; regardless of how awkward it is for many secular observers to acknowledge, religious commonalities certainly facilitate successful integration. 

According to the initial findings from the 2022 census however, there has been a change. 

Not only has the percentage of Irish people identifying as Catholic fallen to just 69%, there have been sharp increases in the size of the Muslim and Hindu populations.

For decades, nations with rich and distinctive national identities like Italy, Germany, and France have failed miserably in assimilating large populations from very different cultures. 

In time, more Irish politicians and people will likely come to realise the difficulties involved in encouraging newcomers to become part of a society which has no strong sense of itself. 

We define ourselves more by what we have rejected—and there is no positive vision for what Ireland is or should actually be. 

Evangelizing a pagan land

Thus, we see the Irish Arts Minister launching a Patrick-less and Irish-less St. Patrick’s Festival. 

Thus, we see the political class stumbling about in search of a new public holiday, before at last choosing the feast day of a female saint out of a sheer lack of imagination, before instantly seeking to obscure the division between the actual saint and a pagan goddess of a similar name. 

And thus, do we bear annual witness to the obscene goings on in the White House when Irish prime ministers present a shamrock to U.S. presidents, while awkwardly invoking God’s blessing and working in the mandatory reference to St. Patrick’s true significance as an undocumented immigrant.

Ireland remains backward just as sneering liberal critics have always claimed—wedded as we are to modernist dogma as European politics moves rightwards. 

Irish Catholics need to find their niche in a multicultural and hostile environment where they exist now as a subculture. This will take time to master: English Catholics, in contrast, have had five centuries of practice. 

In time, as the scandals and the sense of lost status recedes into the mists of time, this will happen. 

Irish Catholics will begin anew the work of St. Patrick in a hostile pagan land. 

The more formidable task is not that placed on the shoulders of the dwindling number of Catholics in Ireland, but that facing those who have consciously rejected their own history: those who have attacked the tree’s roots while assuming it will continue to provide them with comfort and shelter.

The hardest truth is that Catholicism can survive fine without Ireland, while Irishness without Catholicism is a project that already looks doomed.