The Joyful Death of Catholic Ireland
By James Matthew Wilson
The reason the Irish—as Irish—are celebrating is that they have with this referendum delivered a decisive and final blow to their venerable image as a Catholic nation.
Do you remember the joke about the Irish brewery worker who drowned in a vat of suds? “Poor Sean,” the new widow said upon learning her husband’s fate, “He didn’t stand a chance.” “Oh, I wouldn’t say that, Mrs. Reilly,” replies the foreman. “He did crawl out three times to use the bathroom.”
The Republic of Ireland has just voted, by a commanding and unprecedented popular vote, to establish “gay marriage” in its territory. The world, and the Irish themselves, who generally look at themselves from the viewpoint of the foreigner in a sad kind of “double consciousness,” will not fail to read the message: “Catholic Ireland’s dead and gone, it’s with De Valera in the grave.”
The coverage of the vote holds it up as an occasion of joy, of national pride, of a new era in an old country. I am sure there are some who use these expressions sincerely. Modern westerners usually think of life in this world in therapeutic terms. Matters of what is sometimes called “private” morality are decided entirely in terms of the question, “How will this make me feel?” while matters of “public” morality are submitted to a utilitarian calculus the numbers of which are usually undefined or unsatisfactory, boiling down to something like, “How will such-and-such a measure affect public health?” These are the only questions one can ask, if one inhabits an impoverished world where goodness and truth, happiness and justice, are taken for mere “subjective” projections onto the wandering atoms of the universe. But this diagnosis is not my interest today, because it cannot wholly explain the queer elation in Dublin.
What I want to consider is the specific conditions in Ireland that led up to this moment. My account will be somewhat hobbled; though for a number of years I resided in Dublin regularly, I have not visited the country since 2007, and so learned of some of the more recent and traumatic events in Irish life only from the newspapers.
My days in Ireland began just after the peak of the so-called Celtic Tiger. The economy was expanding, the “ribbon effect,” or suburban sprawl was spreading out around Dublin and Galway, and the restaurants, bars, and hotels were staffed by immigrant workers, most of them from Eastern Europe.
My interest in Irish culture was incidental to begin with. I had fallen in love with the modern Irish poets, from Yeats to Mahon, for their formal dexterity. But I also loved God above all things, and viewed the love of country as little less sacred than the love of one’s father and mother. The Irish narrative of faith and fatherland, fought and died for, resonated with me and, I thought, provided an occasion to deepen my understanding of those loves. To study Irish literature, it seemed to me then, was to study the work of authors who lived and died for the sacred.
What I found in the Ireland of 2001 provided little occasion for dwelling on any of that “rubbish.” In the previous decade, the hierarchy of the Irish Church had been wracked with scandal. Its prestige had come to be viewed as hypocrisy and arrogance, its power as conceit and corruption. Regular Mass attendance had dropped from nearly 90 percent a few years prior to around 60 percent, and it continued to plunge in the years of my visits. If practice of the faith was plunging then, it has plummeted since. The churches were full on Sunday, then, now they sit empty, as if Dublin were Paris or New York.
I saw few signs of genuine piety, and the demeanors of the pious seemed passive and weary. The Irish saw well that prosperity had at last come to their land; it seemed to entail a giving up of both Irish folkways and the ancestral religion, and that was a bargain they were willing to make.
The political elite in Ireland had long since come to have more in common with their counterparts in other western European nations than with the supposedly backward sensibilities of the people they ruled. They clearly saw the embarrassment of the Church as something to be capitalized on to advance the secularization of the country—its normalization, you might say, within the post-Christian mainstream. A prime minister brought his concubine to dinner with the Archbishop; it created a sensation rather than a scandal.
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