How re­li­gious be­lief has shaped Ire­land’s cul­tural her­itage

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - EA­MON MA­HER


The sheer au­dac­ity of this un­der­tak­ing by Kevin Whe­lan is noth­ing short of breath­tak­ing. Cov­er­ing the pe­riod from 432 up to 2018, and deal­ing with a topic as con­tentious as re­li­gion has al­ways been in Ire­land, was am­bi­tious in it­self. But then adopt­ing a 32-county ap­proach must have added con­sid­er­ably to the work­load, given the stark sec­tar­ian prob­lems which have char­ac­terised the Six Coun­ties of the north­ern prov­ince since the time of the plan­ta­tions.

This is clearly the book that Whe­lan felt he had to write, the one which mar­ries his con­sid­er­able skills as a his­to­rian and so­cial com­men­ta­tor, while also pro­vid­ing an out­let for his pas­sion­ate in­ter­est in the re­li­gious land­scape of Ire­land.

Ed­ward Said (1935-2003), a man well-ac­quainted with the power of ide­olo­gies to di­vide com­mu­ni­ties, sums up the dan­ger of in­su­lar mind­sets thus: “The more one is able to leave one’s cul­tural home, the more eas­ily is one able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spir­i­tual de­tach­ment and gen­eros­ity nec­es­sary for true vi­sion.” Ire­land’s is­land sta­tus and his­tory of coloni­sa­tion did not al­ways fa­cil­i­tate the de­tach­ment that is nec­es­sary for a ra­tio­nal ap­praisal of our fraught re­la­tion­ship with re­li­gion and, by ex­ten­sion, with our near­est neigh­bour.

Be­cause his in­tro­duc­tion is so short, Whe­lan does not go into any great de­tail about the cen­tral th­e­sis of his study. Nor does he re­cap on what he has cov­ered at the end of each chap­ter. The or­ganic na­ture of the book re­quires the reader to fol­low in a chrono­log­i­cal man­ner the evo­lu­tion of re­li­gion in Ire­land from me­dieval times up to present, an ap­proach which ef­fec­tively rules out read­ing chap­ters in iso­la­tion. The sit­u­a­tion in which Ire­land finds it­self at present has many links with the dis­tant and re­cent past: re­li­gious cus­toms and prac­tices evolve grad­u­ally over time, but can also change from day to day.


For ex­am­ple, pa­gan­ism did not sud­denly dis­ap­pear with the ar­rival of Saint Patrick. An at­tach­ment to an­cient myths, ir­ra­tional fears in re­la­tion to fairy forts, the tra­di­tion among Catholics of mak­ing the sign of the Cross when pass­ing a church or grave­yard, all these per­sist right up to the present. Whe­lan is par­tic­u­larly adept at pro­duc­ing lo­cal ex­am­ples of sites con­tain­ing holy wells, monas­tic ruins, churches, chapels, ceme­ter­ies, un­usual parish bound­aries, places of pil­grim­age, and show­ing how in many in­stances vil­lages and ser­vices grew up around such phys­i­cal ed­i­fices. The at­tach­ment to the dead, to the rit­u­als sur­round­ing burial, forged a no­tice­able di­vide be­tween Catholi­cism and var­i­ous forms of Protes­tantism. Whe­lan notes that the “ex­trav­a­gant Catholic lamen­ta­tions at fu­ner­als dis­gusted re­form­ers”, but it was not only the re­form­ers who were put out by the “keen­ing” en­gaged in by women at times of death: Catholic priests also were unim­pressed by such emo­tional out­bursts and sought to sup­press them. Equally, ex­ces­sive drink­ing at wakes was frowned upon by the Catholic clergy.

While women were re­spon­si­ble for birth, the task of en­sur­ing that cer­tain tra­di­tions with re­gard to death were re­spected also fell on their shoul­ders. The “caoineadh” or keen­ing they en­gaged in of­ten acted as “a cathar­tic, ther­a­peu­tic theatre of death, which ex­plored both the emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence of loss and the nec­es­sary con­ti­nu­ity of the sur­viv­ing com­mu­nity”. The Famine changed at­ti­tudes to­wards fu­neral prac­tices, as the sheer vol­ume of corpses dur­ing those tragic years did not al­low for the same lamen­ta­tion for each pass­ing soul. Even proper buri­als were of­ten not pos­si­ble at this time.

Land and build­ings were the source of con­flict and com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the var­i­ous de­nom­i­na­tions. The Protes­tant As­cen­dancy had own­er­ship of the best land and their churches were im­pres­sive in terms of scale and de­sign. (It is worth not­ing in pass­ing that the places of wor­ship fre­quented by Catholics in pre­vi­ous cen­turies were gen­er­ally re­ferred to as “chapels”, not “churches”.) Pay­ment of tithes to the Church of Ire­land sparked much re­sent­ment among Catholics. Rather than wish­ing the ex­ter­mi­na­tion of even the most tire­some pa­pists, how­ever, most Protes­tants wanted them to be, in a bib­li­cal phrase bor­rowed by Charles Boyle, fourth earl of Or­rery, “hew­ers of wood and draw­ers of wa­ter”.

Build­ing pro­gramme

The suc­cess­ful cam­paign for Catholic Eman­ci­pa­tion led by Daniel O’Con­nell showed how the Ir­ish were pre­pared to con­trib­ute gen­er­ously to causes they held dear if they were mo­bilised ef­fec­tively. In the 19th cen­tury, in spite of the mas­sive num­bers of peo­ple who died or em­i­grated dur­ing the Famine, a huge build­ing pro­gramme was un­der­taken by re­li­gious or­ders and the dioce­san clergy, with the sup­port of indige­nous Catholics anx­ious to have schools and churches that could ri­val and sur­pass those of their Protes­tant neigh­bours. The Church of Ire­land’s num­bers and pres­tige de­clined sig­nif­i­cantly dur­ing this pe­riod, with Catholi­cism head­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

When one con­sid­ers the sec­u­lar­i­sa­tion of Ir­ish so­ci­ety from the 1960s on­wards (with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of the six north­ern coun­ties), the sur­prise, in Whe­lan’s opin­ion, is not the “col­lapse” of or­gan­ised re­li­gion, and of Catholi­cism in par­tic­u­lar, but how it be­came so dom­i­nant in the first in­stance. After in­de­pen­dence, there was cer­tainly a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt made to as­sert Catholic val­ues in the newly formed south­ern State, but in­creased ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion dur­ing the 1960s, com­bined with the ad­vent of tele­vi­sion which re­placed fam­ily prayer in many house­holds, more dis­pos­able in­come and sig­nif­i­cant mi­gra­tion from the coun­try to the city, pro­duced the clas­sic con­di­tions for in­creased sec­u­lar­i­sa­tion. The re­peal of the Eighth Amend­ment al­low­ing le­gal ac­cess to abor­tion ap­pears to be one of the fi­nal moves to­wards the com­plete sepa­ra­tion of church and State in Ire­land.

Whe­lan’s schol­arly study points out the in­nu­mer­able links be­tween re­li­gion and Ire­land’s cul­tural her­itage, links that can be seen in lit­er­a­ture, folk­lore and the built en­vi­ron­ment. While re­li­gious be­lief is now in de­cline, it should not be for­got­ten that it con­sti­tuted a vi­tal part of what it was to be Ir­ish at var­i­ous stages in our jour­ney to where we are to­day.

Ea­mon Ma­her is a lec­turer at the Tech­no­log­i­calUniver­si­tyDublin(Tal­laght cam­pus). His lat­est book, co-edited with Derek Hand,

Es­says on John McGa­h­ern: As­sess­ing a Lit­er­ary Legacy,

will be avail­able from Cork Univer­sity Press early in 2019


Holy stat­ues and pic­tures at St Brigid’s Well; Lis­can­nor, Co Clare: The re­peal of the Eighth Amend­ment ap­pears to be one of the fi­nal moves to­wards the com­plete sepa­ra­tion of church and State in Ire­land.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.