Saying Nope to the Pope: Why Catholic Ireland Lost its Faith

Until now, Ireland has only ever had one papal visit, despite historically being one of the most densely Catholic nations in Europe.

The first papal visit was in 1979 and took place over three days. In that time, Pope John Paul II celebrated events in Dublin, Drogheda, Clonmacnoise, Galway, Knock, Limerick and Maynooth, with over 2.5 million people in attendance. The mass celebrated in Phoenix Park, Dublin, was attended by over 1.25 million people, one third of the population at the time.

However, Pope Francis’ visit this weekend will, undoubtedly, be a smaller affair. Much has changed in Ireland since the last papal visit, as the Catholic character of the nation is fast fading. Although the vast majority of the population formally identify with the Catholic faith (78%, to be precise), weekly mass attendance has plummeted to 40%. The influence of the Church in government, education and the media has rapidly decreased, although there is still a sizeable religious presence in primary education and healthcare. Contraception, divorce and gay marriage have been fully legalised, the latter two in the form of popular vote, and legislation to legalise abortion is to be pushed through by January 2019 after a landslide vote in May this year.

Pope John Paul II celebrating mass at Phoenix Park, Dublin (1979)

This alarming decline in faith has been the source of much historical investigation. Some historians have argued that this deterioration was inevitable: the sheer dominance of the Church was not normal and was largely an attempt by the Irish to resist assimilation to British power. In other words, the rise dictated a predictable fall.

However, there is certainly more to Ireland’s evolution of faith than sheer inevitability. Although it has been popularly characterised as a sudden jolt in the 1990s, Ireland’s secularisation was occurring long before, and can roughly be dated to the 1960s. Although the clergy remained embedded in the political, social and economic framework of the country, challenges were beginning to be made regarding the Church’s authority on certain issues, particularly those of sexual morality.

Despite the Church’s preaching, a sizeable portion of the population were accessing contraceptives via the border with Northern Ireland, while debate around the issue was escalating due to coverage on popular television programmes such as The Late Late Show. In addition to this, such programmes were giving platforms to groups who sought to challenge the status quo of the Church, such as the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, whose aims included legalising contraceptives and abortion.

The commotion caused by such debate resulted in the partial legalising of contraceptives under the 1979 Health (Family Planning) Act. This tepid action was followed by a gradual discussion of other issues, such as rights for single mothers, divorce and abortion, and despite the fact that attempts to liberalise the latter two issues were defeated in referendums during the 1980s, voices challenging the views of the Church were becoming increasingly prominent.

The Irish Women’s Liberation Movement arriving at Connolly Station, Dublin, after buying contraceptives in the North

This gradual liberalisation set the stage for the 1990s. This decade has been argued by many historians as the moment where Ireland firmly cut loose form the Church. Indeed, it saw national outcry as a fourteen year old’s abortion plea was rejected in the ‘X’ case, the legalisation of divorce, and saw the much loved sitcom, Father Ted, appear on our screens for the first time. Most notably, the 1990s witnessed the leaking of a series of sex scandals from within the clergy.

The first of these scandals was regarding the personal fidelity of clergymen. Bishop Eamon Casey, a highly influential figure in the Irish clergy who was present at the papal visit in 1979, was revealed to have had an affair with an American citizen, Annie Murphy, in the early 1970s. Murphy bore Casey a child, Peter, whom Casey refused to develop a relationship with, despite sending him maintenance throughout his childhood. A year later, a similar story emerged regarding Father Michael Cleary, known as ‘the singing priest’ due to his singing performance during the papal visit. After his death, it emerged that Cleary had lived secretly with his housekeeper, Phyllis Hamilton, and had fathered two of her children.

These revelations sparked national outcry as citizens and the media alike criticised the hypocrisy of Casey and Cleary, as well as those within the clergy who covered the double lives up. For the first time, clergymen were openly criticised and mocked by a large audience. T-shirts were sold on Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin, baring Casey’s face on with the slogan “use a condom just in Casey!”

However, the scandal did not end there. Revelations of child sexual abuse by the clergy started to circulate after the Casey and Cleary scandals, although it was not until the investigations of the early 2000s that these histories were publicised. The Ferns Report (2005) revealed complaints of abuse by twenty one priests dating back to 1966, and included oral and written testimonies from over 147 people.

The Ferns report merely lifted the lid on a web of systematic covering up of abuse by the clergy. It was soon revealed that child abuse by priests in parishes was part of a wider web of institutional abuse in industrial schools, Magdalene Laundries and mother and baby homes. Investigation of the treatment of those incarcerated into such institutions is ongoing, as increasing evidence is coming to light that the Church played a greater role in covering up the trails of their abuse than initially thought. The discovery of a mass grave of babies at Tuam in March last year is one example of this.

And yet, in spite of this, the Vatican’s response has been deplorable. Fine words by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have not been matched by real action. Little action has been taken against the clergy who facilitated this action. It remains increasingly difficult to access information regarding institutional incarcerations, even if that information is about oneself, for example, the author of ‘The Adoption Machine,’ Paul Redmond, struggled for fifteen years to access his own medical report carried out by Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home.

Originally, the current Pope had left meeting abuse victims out of his agenda, instead favouring an hour stop at Ireland’s most famous Marian Shrine, Knock. After much criticism, however, the Vatican announced on Tuesday that the Pope would spend “part of his time” meeting with victims, despite previous reports stating that he was “too busy.”

For the remaining faithful Catholics in Ireland, the Pope’s visit will be a joyful occasion and an opportunity to celebrate their faith. However, it will be a far cry from the last papal visit in 1979. Many have brushed off the Pope’s visit as a reaction against the results of the referendum on the eighth amendment earlier this year, and they wouldn’t be wholly wrong. Ireland has changed a great deal since then, and it is hard to see the clock ever turning back at this rate. If the Church hopes to ever make amends with the nation, a serious acknowledgement of the atrocities that took place, accompanied by reformatory action, is to take place. This starts with an unlimited opening up of the past and a thorough investigation of what actually happened within the walls of the institutions listed above. However, for now, we can look to a brighter future for Ireland, where justice is being fought for victims, where women are regaining their rights, and where the power of the people for over four decades, is fighting a winning battle.


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