Irish not-so Catholic

by Sophia Skelly


County Cavan, a small, quiet region in the northern part of Ireland, is known for its bucolic green fields and rolling hills dotted with sheep and cattle. It is also known for having been a hotbed of clerical sexual abuse in the 1980s and 90s. 

Father Brendan Smyth (pictured above), perhaps the most notorious pedophile priest, stated in 1994 that “over the years of religious life it could be that I have sexually abused between 50 and 100 children...that number could be doubled or perhaps even more.” Smyth’s behavior, and the behavior of others like him, was kept secret by other members of the Catholic Church, who have admitted that they dealt with Smyth’s “problem” by assigning him to different communities every few years, in hopes of preventing any long-lasting ties with families and children. Consequently, Smyth was shuffled around different parishes, and his trail of abuse crossed communities in Ireland and the United States. Smyth’s abuse was some of the most egregious among Catholic priests. However, state-ordered investigations found tens of thousands of cases of sexual abuse of children in Ireland from the 1940s to the 1980s. 

Despite the time that has passed, many in Ireland still grapple with the abuse scandals that ravaged the country. Small, rural communities like County Cavan—where Smyth took shelter while on the run in 1991—were particularly rocked by their priests’ indiscretion. Over the past 30 years, church attendance has dropped nearly seventy percent nationwide. A country that was once characterized by its devoted Catholic citizens now has a much less pious population. But as religious affiliation is in decline throughout the West, it’s not clear if Ireland’s disillusionment with Catholicism is in reaction to the Church’s sexual abuse scandals or just part of a global trend.

To explore this more deeply, I spoke with eight college students in Ireland, all around the age of 20. Many, like Bill Carton, Laura Conway and Alex Sherry, expressed discontentment with the Church’s power over Ireland’s schools. Others, like Niamh Plunkett, Conor Kinahan, Niamh McNamara and Roísín Cleary discussed their relationship with Catholicism and how it differs from that of their parents. Generally, they all support a more secular approach to education in Ireland, but still have reservations about breaking ties with the church. 

This is unsurprising given Ireland’s religious history. The Irish War of Independence divided Northern Ireland—predominantly Protestant—and the Republic of Ireland, which is almost entirely Catholic. This marked the end of British occupation in the Republic of Ireland, and subsequently, the Irish people gained religious freedom. Prior to the war, Irish Catholics were subject to discriminatory penal laws. But from 1921 onwards, Irish citizens were able to practice their faith free of persecution. Consequently, Ireland’s national identity is deeply interwoven with its faith. 

Irish millennials like the ones I spoke with assert that even though church attendance may be declining, Catholicism and Irish nationalism are inherently tied together, and that bond won’t be easily broken. Besides the historical factors, I learned from the people I spoke with that in Ireland, people’s sense of community is tied to the Church. The nature of the Irish Catholic Church is intensely local. 

In Ireland, your parish is your community. Róisín Cleary said, “I nearly would have listed mass as one of my hobbies as a child.” Almost all children are altar servers at some point, and many sing in the choir. Activities within the sphere of the Church are an integral part of social life in Ireland. Almost everyone has a traditionally Catholic wedding, for example. Even funerals are celebrated in a strictly Catholic way. Niamh McNamara, a twenty-year-old college student from Galway, recounted that when a family friend passed away, the community put together a traditionally Catholic funeral, even though the man was a practicing Buddhist. She also told me that she planned to get married in the Catholic Church and have a traditional wedding, though she only goes to church a few times a year.

Even if they look at these practices as more obligatory than spiritual, many young Irish people feel some kind of spirituality, even if it often doesn’t fit into the confines of Irish Catholicism. Conor Kinahan said, “Of course we should discuss the shortcomings of religion, but it also makes people feel less shitty about the inevitability of death.” The shortcomings he refers to are primarily centered around the Church’s involvement with Ireland’s schools. Kinahan describes the number of denominational schools in the country as a “hape of shit.” In gentler terms, the others I spoke with agreed. 

Niamh Plunkett said that the Church “got used to having control over Ireland in the 50s and 60s” and now, “they refuse to admit that they don’t have the right to get a say anymore.” Many are frustrated with the Church’s reluctance to release their grip on the country’s schools. Laura Conway said “the only reason primary schools are Catholic is because they get more funding and you can’t get your kids in a good school unless you baptize them. Then they can brainwash them for eight whole years,” adding, “I disagree with it so much.” 

And yet, despite this sentiment, 90 percent of the country’s schools are still under the patronage of the Catholic Church. When public opinion departs drastically from the status quo, either the status quo changes or the public’s anger will rise. In Ireland, the status quo still stands. But resentment against the Church is certainly on the rise. 

First, there is the problem of discriminatory acceptance policies. It is extremely difficult for a child to get into a Catholic school if they are not baptized. This means that the children of tax-paying, non-Catholic citizens are repeatedly relegated to school waiting lists and are sometimes forced to attend below-average schools on account of their faith, as the few non-Catholic schools that do exist are of significantly poorer quality. And, as Plunkett notes, “it’s not like the parents are choosing to send them to a Catholic school; it’s just that the local public school is Catholic and in some places the next school could be a 20-minute drive away.”

In addition to discriminatory acceptance policies, Catholic schools also have a narrow curriculum. Bill Carton states that “the only views I was ever taught on abortion and euthanasia were Catholic ones.” Niamh McNamara had a science teacher who skipped her textbook’s chapter on evolution altogether. 

“You’re simply not allowed to do that,” McNamara told me. 

The Church’s influence on education affects the nation’s sex education programs as well. McNamara’s sex ed consisted of a two-hour class at 11-years-old, outside school hours and taught by an external instructor. It did not include any information about forms of contraception. At age 16, she took another one-off class where the teacher focused mainly on the risks of pregnancy. Niamh Plunkett had a similar curriculum. Her teachers did discuss contraception but “were not allowed to recommend any method.”

Despite their frustration with the Church’s role in education, the Irish people I spoke with didn’t express negative feelings about the Church itself. 

In some ways, their sentiments were similar to my own. Being the youngest child, my family seemed to let out a collective sigh of relief at my confirmation—a box had been checked. And although we go to church every so often, those mornings feel hollow and meaningless, a skeletal experience compared to what Sunday Mass was when my parents were young. This seems to be the first step of a larger trend in Western countries. 

But Ireland’s rapid decline in faith has larger ramifications. Unless there’s a sudden revival of faith, it’s unlikely that the church will maintain their position of power. The legalization of divorce in 1996 and same-sex marriage in 2015 both suggest that Ireland is swinging to the left. Young people have clearly influenced Ireland’s social legislation. The question, then, is whether the Irish Catholic Church will evolve with the country’s millenials or remain staunch in their ways and lose support from a large group of the Irish population.