Ireland, Whence and Whither?

Alan McGuckian, SJ

 Alan McGuckian, SJ / Pope Francis / Published Date:13 August 2018/Last Updated Date:1 March 2021

Ireland to a great extent missed out on “modernity.” During the “long 19th century” when the rest of Europe was experiencing industrialization, urbanization and secularization and rejecting the demands of tradition, Ireland – and especially Catholic Ireland – was otherwise engaged. As other traditionally Catholic countries were beginning to question the dominant role of the Church, Irish Catholics were becoming more committed and more faithful. There were particular historical reasons for this.

In the early centuries after St. Patrick (385-461) Christianity in Ireland developed along distinctively Irish lines. It integrated Celtic traditions and festivals in a very effective way. Church life was structured more around monasteries and abbots than dioceses. On issues as various as the date of Easter and monastic tonsure the Irish Church took its own stand while building up a monastic tradition that was strongly ascetical. The holy men and women of this period earned Ireland the soubriquet “Land of Saints and Scholars.” Within little more than a century there was a spiritual energy that drove the missionary project of St. Columbanus and others to mainland Europe.

Notwithstanding this, the passage of time and, perhaps, pressure from Viking invaders brought decay and saw the spread of indiscipline in the Irish Church. A movement for reform that started with the Synod of Cashel in 1101 saw the re-organization of the Irish Church along diocesan lines with boundaries established that have largely endured to the present day. This movement was spurred on by the arrival of Anglo-Norman invaders in the 12th century and brought Ireland more fully into line with the traditions and practice of the Roman Church. The Normans, who shared the same Catholic identity with the native Irish, were integrated into Irish society over time and became, as the saying goes, hiberniores hiberniis ipsis (more Irish than the Irish themselves).

The crucial 17th century

The next very serious effort at colonizing Ireland came in the early 17th century aimed at consolidating English power in Ireland after the final defeat of the native Gaelic forces at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. The English monarch was now the declared head of the Church in Ireland as well as England and the English insisted that the Irish conform to this new reality.

The new 17th century settlers were a mixture of English people who conformed to the Anglican Church, Presbyterians from Scotland and some Quakers and other dissenters who nonetheless maintained for the most part a loyalty to the British crown. The Penal Laws, imposed in Britain and Ireland, sought by various penalties and forfeitures to enforce acceptance of the Anglican Church. For the first time, then, there was a mass migration into Ireland of peoples who did not become assimilated over time into the Irish population.

The 17th century was crucial. Native Gaelic speaking leaders were conquered and dispossessed. The ancient indigenous culture which was carried by the Gaelic language, now effectively outlawed, went into serious decline. In those circumstances allegiance to the Catholic Church became a central marker of Irish identity as well as religious commitment.

As the 19th century got under way the first major struggle in Ireland was the drive for Catholic Emancipation (1829). This brought to an end the political penalties under which Catholics had still lived in the United Kingdom of which all of Ireland was now a part. Daniel O’Connell, the great Irish leader who mobilized Catholics to demand Emancipation, went on to lead a call for a degree of political independence. Catholicism remained central in the Irish people’s sense of themselves as a nation distinct from the other English-speaking countries of the United Kingdom.

The relaxation of the penal laws saw the emergence of a strong Catholic middle-class, most of whom had been educated on the continent. Many were successful business people and had a strong sense of philanthropic duty, setting up schools, orphanages and hospitals. Native religious congregations emerged, especially for women: the Sisters of Mercy founded by Catherine McAuley, the Presentation Sisters founded by Nano Nagle, the Holy Faith Congregation founded by Margaret Aylward, and the Sisters of Charity founded by Mary Aikenhead. At the same time Edmund Rice founded the Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers. Along with the other Congregations that arrived from the continent, these gave strong support for the Catholic population, empowering them to a new social mobility.


Famine and Poverty

The only part of Ireland to become industrialized during the 19th century was the predominantly Protestant north. The rest of Ireland remained largely rural and agrarian. These were the areas most badly affected by the disaster of Famine that hit Ireland during this century most especially in the 1840s. In a four-year period from 1845 at least a million people died and a similar number emigrated.

Given their experience of grinding poverty, cultural deracination and political alienation there were many reasons, both theological and cultural, to explain the enthusiasm with which the Irish embraced Catholicism especially in the second half of the 19th century. As Patrick Corish put it: “The fact was that as the Irish lost one identity they found another one and that identity was Catholicism.”[1]


Cardinal Cullen

The figure who is most centrally identified with the emergence of a strong and united brand of Irish Catholicism is Paul Cardinal Cullen. After spending 30 years in Rome as both student and professor at the Pontifical Irish College, Cullen was sent to Ireland as Archbishop of Armagh and Apostolic Delegate in 1849. (He transferred to Dublin in 1852.) He convened a Synod of the Irish Bishops at Thurles in 1850 and set about building an Irish Church strongly disciplined and united along Roman lines.

In this era there was a huge growth in the number of religious orders of both men and women. Orders committed to preaching, newly arrived from the Continent, were commissioned to give parish missions all over Ireland. New devotions and novenas began to strike a chord. Contrary to trends everywhere else religious practice rose in Ireland in the second half of the 19th century. It is reckoned that less than a third of Irish Catholics attended Mass regularly in 1840. This rose to 90 percent as the century went on.

Cullen had a vision for the Catholic Church in Ireland and overseas. Despite Ireland’s terrible weakness in material and political terms he saw huge potential in the millions of Irish who had emigrated to different parts of the English-speaking world. “Irish Catholics would convert the world Empire of Protestant England to the true Catholic faith.”[2]

Vocations to the priesthood and religious life were booming. New seminaries were opening to train priests to serve in Ireland and among the Irish diaspora. Growing populations of Irish emigrants formed the basis of new local churches in North America and Australia, and new Irish-based missionary movements to China and Africa emerged.


Native Spirituality

The ancient Celtic spirituality was known for being grounded in nature and for its asceticism. In Ireland there was always a tradition of visiting sacred sites linked to one of the saints, most notably holy wells. In many rural areas this continues today. The penitential pilgrimage to Lough Derg, consisting of three days of fasting and mortification, is completed by many thousands each year. While the numbers of pilgrims going to Lough Derg has fallen in recent years, the custom still survives.

The silent apparition in 1879 at Knock spoke powerfully to the Irish people. It was an apparition to peasants in the poorest part of Ireland and was widely understood as God’s providential care for his people in their darkest hour.

In rural Ireland the popular culture was full of faith; it probably also had some superstition but it did live through the ages in the Gaelic language. For example, if a woman was sitting reading in poor light and someone turned on a light she would spontaneously say: “God grant us the light of heaven.” This prayer, a direct translation from the Gaelic original, is one of many examples of a faith grounded in everyday life. In a collection of the old Irish prayers called Ár bPaidreacha Dúchais (Our Traditional Prayers) we find a prayer for every situation. On blowing out the lamp at the end of the day someone said; “May God not quench the light of heaven in our soul!” There was a prayer for everything: for making the bed, lighting the fire; a prayer for starting the day’s work and one for ending the day’s work. There was a prayer for going fishing and one for when you heard the cock crow. There is even another prayer simply titled: Roimh dhícheannú (Before a beheading)! With the loss of the Gaelic language some of the roots of this popular faith were lost but much of it survived in English translation.


The 20th century

The Church that emerged in the second half of the 19th century survived largely unchanged until the 1960s. Society in the newly independent southern state was largely agrarian with a traditional culture that was frugal and valued self-denial. Politicians and their voters were happy that the laws of the state would conform to the demands of Catholic teaching.

Growing up as a Catholic in the 1950s one was imbued with a great pride and confidence in the Church. There was a conviction that Irish Catholicism was stronger and more faithful than that of any other country. In the small villages of Ireland every Catholic went to Mass on Sunday. Even if in the cities it was just 90 percent attendance, still that was better than anywhere else in the world!

The National Seminary in Maynooth was the biggest in the world. As if that wasn’t enough there were other seminaries in Thurles, Kilkenny, Waterford, Carlow, Belfast and two in Dublin. All of those provided diocesan priests for Ireland and for the rest of the world. There was a parallel system in the many religious orders and missionary institutes, equally numerous, for training priests.

Irish missionaries were active all over the world, often bringing Christ to people for the first time. People at home, even the children in the schools, were playing their part praying for the missionaries and contributing their pennies for the support of the “black babies.”

Ireland had a Catholic population of just three million (2.5 in the Republic and 0.5 in Northern Ireland) but there was a confidence that we punched well above our weight in the mission of the Universal Catholic Church.


Where is Ireland today?

I want to make a few observations about the current realities first in Northern Ireland and then in the Republic of Ireland. Points made about the place of the Church in the Republic can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to Northern Ireland too.


Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement

In a very real way Northern Ireland carries the wound of the 16th and 17th centuries on behalf of the rest of Ireland and the U.K. The ethnic divide that arrived with colonialism, allied to the religious division of the reformation meant that two communities living side by side remained polarized over the centuries with relatively little intermarriage. That polarization has broken out in violence regularly over the decades, with the rest of Ireland and the UK reluctantly involved.

The Good Friday Agreement was – and is – a great ray of light, a sign not just for Ireland but for other conflict situations of a way forward out of civil strife.

When the rest of Ireland gained its independence from Great Britain in 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty saw the creation of two new states, The Irish Free State (officially called “Ireland” and later Republic) and Northern Ireland, which remained a part of the United Kingdom. The Irish always resented the setting up of Northern Ireland, which had a population of one million Protestant people with a British allegiance and half a million Catholics who identified as Irish.

The Constitution of Ireland in Article 2 declares that “The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas.” On that basis Catholics from Northern Ireland always qualified for Irish Passports.

The tension between those two allegiances lived on in Northern Ireland with the Catholic minority claiming that they were discriminated against in relation to jobs, housing etc. Those tensions escalated into a full-scale guerrilla war that lasted from 1970 until 1998 claiming 3,500 lives and leaving many thousands injured. While the great majority of the dead and injured lived in Northern Ireland the conflict affected the lives of people all across Ireland and the U.K. and blighted relationships between Ireland and Britain.

The Agreement signed on Good Friday 1998 seemed to bring down the curtain on a conflict that had simmered or blown up on and off for too long. The Agreement was the fruit of years of work and expert facilitation from U.S. Senator George Mitchell. It identified three strands of relationships that needed to be worked on and healed. The peace process managed to break the complex of issues into manageable segments or Strands. Strand 1 dealt with relationships between the two communities within Northern Ireland. Strand 2 looked at the north/south relationship. Strand 3 dealt with the east/west relationship between Great Britain and Ireland.

The agreement was a noble compromise involving the two sovereign governments, British and Irish, and the leaders of the two communities in Northern Ireland. The Governments agreed that if a majority of the people of Northern Ireland and a majority in the Republic ever voted for a United Ireland then both governments would be obliged to make that happen. Regardless of the constitutional status of the territory now or in the future, people born in Northern Ireland have the right to consider themselves British or Irish or both and both identities should be esteemed and people have the right to hold British and/or Irish passports.

To give expression to all of this, some laws of the British Parliament needed to be changed, as did the Irish Constitution. Referendums were held in both parts of Ireland on the same day, May 22, 1998, thereby establishing that the agreement was an act of self-determination of the Irish people.

The agreement brought an end to the violence. In the intervening years a form of shared government has been in place whereby cabinet positions in the Executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly were held by representatives of the two different communities according to the D’Hondt System.[3]

Though the worst of the violence has ceased, the disunity lives on. The political leaders of the two communities cannot agree on a shared approach to dealing with the legacy of the past and each side accuses the other of a lack of respect for the identity and culture of the other. As a result the shared government has broken down.


Éire, the Republic

In the Éire Republic, the Church made a huge contribution and had great influence in the areas of education and health care. Vatican II at the ecclesial level and the sexual revolution at the social level played their part in changing Irish society. However, the biggest factor was the opening up of the Irish economy. Ireland committed itself to being an open economy and introduced low rates of corporation tax that attracted very significant multi-national investment.

Thanks in no small part to the education system built up in earlier decades by Church personnel young Irish people proved to be a highly skilled and adaptable workforce who contributed to the rapid growth of new industries notably in Information Technology, Pharmaceuticals and Financial Services.

The Church in Ireland still plays a major role in the education system and is the patron/owner of 90 percent of primary schools. This sits as an often-uneasy relationship with the government that funds the operation of the schools and seek to respond to a growing secular agenda among parents. At secondary level, the Church runs approximately 40 percent of the schools and is involved in the governance of a further 20 percent.

Even though the Church has some influence in schools the demands of the economy are decisive in curriculum formation and choices. The rising generation of young Irish people are more influenced by social media than by their parents, their teachers or their priests.

At the same time Ireland has always had a strong tradition of solidarity with the developing world. This has its roots in the strong missionary tradition and lives on in generous support, notably for Trócaire, the Catholic Church’s own international development agency.


The Challenge of Co-responsibility

Until very recently Ireland was blessed with huge numbers of priests. Some dioceses had so many priests that newly-ordained men were routinely sent away to serve overseas for a number of years before receiving a posting at home.

This situation is now changing. Dioceses are working hard at developing a new spirit of co-responsibility for the life and mission of the Church at parish level and at the level of the diocese. In parish pastoral councils small groups of people are learning the art of pastoral discernment. A change of mentality is needed on the part of both priests and people. Increasingly, committed lay people are taking responsibility for the Church’s mission.

There is a huge problem of time. The Church needs people to volunteer their time and everyone seems to be busier than ever. Even those who have officially retired are often occupied with caring for their grandchildren while parents go out to work. Young people also have very full lives. Students, busy through the week, often have jobs at the weekend. This makes it difficult for them to commit to faith-based activities.

Tomás Cardinal Ó Fiaich (1923 – 1990) once referred to the laity as a “Sleeping Giant” whose time would come. In Ireland we have made small steps toward a fuller experience of shared responsibility between laity and clergy for the mission of the Church. The Church needs more and more to equip lay people with some basic pastoral and catechetical skills. In various institutes around Ireland this work is already under way.

Quite a few dioceses have already conducted meaningful processes of listening and responding to the Spirit at work in the hearts and lives of the people. One diocese has had a very successful Diocesan Synod and others have had Diocesan Congresses. Out of these has come a new awareness of the call to the New Evangelization, to which many lay people are committed.



Until very recently it was recognized that one of the few educated people in any Irish Catholic community was the local priest. There was no formal education system for Catholics in Ireland during the period of the Penal Laws. Poverty and lack of opportunity meant that there were very few Catholic professionals. In rural Ireland this situation lasted up until the 1960s. For that reason, priests were often called upon to chair public meetings and local committees of every kind.

Within families the authority of the local priest was often invoked to help discipline wayward children. In many cases the priest became much more than a religious leader. Given social and cultural authority, he was relied upon for a wide variety of needs. People had great love for their local priests and the ordination of a local man to the priesthood was a source of great pride.

Priests were very closely involved with their people, standing with them in times of great hardship. There have been many instances of enterprising and energetic priests, committed to care for the needy and social justice, and other instances of priests leading initiatives to foster community potential and strengthen local economies and industry. During all the events that took place in Northern Ireland, the priests, while they opposed all violence, remained close to the people.


Child Sex Abuse

The revelations of child sex abuse of innocent children committed by priests and religious in parishes and institutions caused great alarm and heartache for all Irish Catholics. Reports of poor handing of historic cases have been like aftershocks reminding the people of Ireland that great evil, sin and crime can exist even in the life of the Church.

People have responded in different ways. Some walked away and now look upon the Church and her teachings with suspicion. Others recognized the wrongs that have taken place and have chosen to be a part of the renewal. Thousands of people all over Ireland have volunteered to take on roles on child safeguarding committees, parish pastoral councils and finance committees.


The Gaelic Athletic Association and the new religion

In the Republic, where the population was overwhelmingly Catholic with small Protestant minorities, the public space was Catholic. In Northern Ireland the Catholic minority had its own parallel public space, semi-detached from the State. In these public spaces committed Catholics were the leaders in every arena, particularly in rural Ireland.

One sporting organization, the Gaelic Athletic Association, stands out as an example of Church and local community being intimately linked. In many cases in rural Ireland the local priest was often elected to serve as Chairman of the local club in his area. Organizing the club and training teams of young players was a perfect expression of commitment to building community.

Now as people become less religious the commitment to the local club lives on as a vibrant locus of belonging and solidarity. At times of loss and tragedy some families now find that it is the members of the club who gather round them and offer support. If in the past religion was the main reason for people coming together, today, for many people the symbols of community belonging have changed. Indeed, Gaelic games and sport in general provide metaphors for thinking about the virtues, like courage, commitment and perseverance, etc.

A Catholic consensus regarding beliefs and values existed right up until the 1970s. Laws on social issues like homosexuality and the availability of contraception stayed on the statute books long after they had been changed elsewhere. In 1981, in response to the legalization of abortion in Britain and in the United States there was a successful campaign to amend the Irish Constitution in order to give explicit protection to the life of the Unborn Child. This amendment, the 8th, was carried by a huge majority.

Now, in 2018, that unanimity has disappeared. Many of that 68 percent who identify as Catholic supported the movement to repeal the 8th. At the end of May, two-thirds of the citizens of the Republic voted in a referendum to abrogate it and open the way to free abortion. Many older Catholics feel conflicted between an appreciation of the teaching about the sacredness of all human life and a sympathy for hard cases.

In general, younger people, including many who identify as Catholics, seem to have lost all contact with the traditional position and have completely accepted the pro-choice argument. In the final days before the referendum the media told countless stories of young Irish people making huge sacrifices and long voyages to vote in favor of abortion. Ninety percent of young people voted for change. Most commentators saw the vote marking a watershed in Irish history and the end of “Catholic Ireland.”

Certainly, the faithful have been shocked by the strength and speed of this change, and they are unsure of what it means. The distinction between cultural Catholicism and committed Catholicism now becomes clear in ways that were not so obvious before.


From emigration to immigration

For centuries Ireland has been known as a nation of migrants. From the sixth century, Irish missionaries have made their mark on Europe and latterly the rest of the world. Grinding poverty and famine drove millions overseas in the 19th and 20th centuries. A significant Irish diaspora is found in Great Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand and even in Argentina. A huge crisis in Irish life up to the 1990s was the nation’s inability to provide employment for its youth and the resultant brain-drain of many of the most gifted graduates.

In a truly amazing turn-around in economic fortunes Ireland changed very quickly at the turn of the 21st century from being a country of mass emigration to one of huge immigration. By 2011 half a million people, or 12 percent of the population, were recorded in the Census as having been born outside Ireland.


Welcome, Holy Father!

The Ireland that Pope Francis will visit August 25-26, 2018, is changing fast. It missed out on modernity and is now caught in the tension between a generation who are at home in the moral relativism of postmodernity and globalization, and an ageing generation who still keep faith with the demands of the Catholic tradition. The arrival of so many New Irish gives the country a cosmopolitan feel missing for most of the 20th century.

Sadly though, conditions for asylum seekers and refugees leave a lot to be desired. Levels of educational attainment and economic achievement are high by any international standards and yet many families struggle with poverty in a very rich country. Old wounds from the 17th century, largely forgotten elsewhere in Western Europe, live on in Ireland, needing to be attended to.

The Irish Church, until recently, was an immensely strong and respected institution. Today, it looks at times beleaguered and humiliated. Yet, in every parish in Ireland there are many faithful and joyful Catholics living fruitful lives of prayer and service. They eagerly look forward to the visit of Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families in Dublin. Céad Míle Fáilte. (A hundred thousand welcomes.)


[1] P. Corish, The Irish Catholic Experience: A Historical Survey, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1985, 214.

[2] Ibid., 195.

[3] Devised by 19th century Belgian lawyer and mathematician Victor d’Hondt it was deemed most suitable for sharing out ministries in the Executive of a divided Assembly. It involves the principle of the “highest average.”