Catholicism in Today's Ireland

The Catholic Church has remained powerful in Ireland throughout the twentieth century. It played a major part in the emergence of the Irish Free State and still dictates much of the structure of the Irish family. There are still churches everywhere in Ireland, and priests in them say Mass regularly.

Ireland is more strongly tied to Rome than many other Catholic countries in Europe. When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979, people traveled for days and camped out overnight in the hope of getting a glimpse of him. Irish Catholicism also has an extraordinary number of links to its Celtic and medieval past. Some religious holidays have direct links to pagan festivals; for example, the annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick originated in the Celtic festival of Lughnasa.

Irish Catholics flock to shrines such as St. Brigid's shrine in County Louth or Glendalough in County Wicklow. The annual pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick draws hordes of the faithful to this steep, stony mountain in the bogs of County Mayo, where they crawl up the hill on their hands and knees.

School and Home

For most of the twentieth century, the Church controlled state-supported schools, which meant that almost all children were educated by priests, monks, and nuns. Some Irish remember the Catholic schools of their youth fondly. Others recall brutal physical punishments and being afraid to tell their parents for fear that their parents would beat them, too, so strongly did they believe in the Church's authority.

The Church has been present in family life as well. Irish often have crosses or religious pictures of the pope, Sacred Heart, or a favorite saint in their homes. Most Irish parents name their children after patron saints. Weddings and funerals almost invariably take place in the church; secular services are not popular. The Irish give more money to charity per capita than in any other European nation.

With the Church at the Helm

Up through the 1950s, many young Irish people chose religious vocations. Priests have long been honored and respected, and Irish priests have a reputation for being loving and devoted to their parishioners, though they can also be quite strict. Children and teenagers saw priests, monks, and nuns regularly, at church and at school, and the Church maintained a strong recruiting organization. Families who produced priests were praised, and many parents encouraged their children to seek a religious vocation. (Traditionally, it was a status symbol to have a priest or nun in the family, because it showed that the family had enough money to pay for religious education.)

Church and State

The Church has played a very active role in modern Irish politics. The Irish Free State was set up in 1922 to be a completely secular state, but its leaders saw the Church as an Irish institution that distinguished them from the English. The Catholic archbishop Charles McQuaid of Dublin helped Éamon de Valera draft the constitution, which is explicitly Catholic. It guaranteed the Church a “special position” as the guardian of the faith of the majority of Irish citizens (the clause was removed in 1972). It also prohibited divorce and abortion and said in no uncertain terms that a woman's place was in the home.

Irish politicians have often used Catholic symbolism to convey their political messages. The Easter Rebellion of 1916 was planned on that day to suggest national rebirth. The Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Accords) of 1998 were set for that day to represent reconciliation.

The Church still has an extremely strong relationship with the government. Many Catholic voters insist that the government enforce their idea of what a family is. Ireland's leaders have therefore long kept very conservative views on issues such as contraception, abortion, divorce, and homosexuality.

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