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Artillery Row

Doubting the new Ireland

The more traditions have been deconstructed, the more people have experienced a sense of loss

In an interview last year, as part of his response to a question about whether the transgender movement was a new religion, Graham Linehan embarked on something of a digression, in which Catholic Ireland, the Israel-Hamas war, and misogyny and moral decay on the left were all, somehow, fused 

I feel slightly embarrassed about what happened with the Catholic Church, because I think, you know, it’s nice to go out on a Sunday and meet your neighbours, you know? And I think that’s one thing that we’ve all lost. And it’s led, I fear… I don’t want to get too into anything, current events, but… to an extraordinary, extraordinary dropping away of basic morality, like a basic ‘This is wrong. This should not happen’. I just think that what’s happened is the lack of respect for women in general has degraded especially the left, has degraded their sense of what is right and wrong.

There is obviously a deal of enigmatic content swirling through this answer and Linehan seemed to be struggling a little both to marshal his line of thought and contain his emotions. “Current events” is, I think, a reference to the Hamas attack on Israel and, in particular, the rapes committed by the attackers.  (The interview took place in mid-October.) Linehan’s comment about feeling embarrassed about what has happened to the Catholic Church probably stems from a feeling that too much has been made of Father Ted as some kind of surreal, comedic battering ram, that was bravely carried in the cause of social change in Ireland: “I don’t want give myself too much credit there,” he has said elsewhere. “It was kind of safe.  Catholic priests don’t try and destroy your career.”

But his answer also contains a fairly clear and plaintive expression of loss.  The demise of Mass attendance in Ireland has come at the expense of much everyday solidarity and togetherness.Indeed, Linehan returned to this theme in another interview a few weeks later. Talking about Father Ted: The Musical (which remains unperformed), he said: “I wrote it thinking it will be a bit like being in a lovely Mass. Even though I’m an atheist, I do feel a bit of a loss of the fact that we don’t have a weekly event where we all go and shake hands with our neighbours, you know.”

A comment on an Irish website, also from last year, vividly fills out further this picture of what has gone: 

When I was a child, and even though I only appreciate it now, Sunday mass was a wonderful weekly Community Fire Drill: Is everyone at mass, who’s missing and why, who’s expecting, who’s sick, what’s the trouble, what’s new, who’s “ailing” or “damn bad looking”, who’s “flying again”, who’s “growing up grand and strong”, etc

In effect, this commenter and Linehan appear to be pointing out an unfilled crater that has appeared in Irish life following the fall of Catholicism. They are not the only ones to do so and the exodus from Mass is not the only change that is preoccupying people.  

According to psychotherapist Stella O’Malley, the loss of ritualistic gestures, with all of the weight of meaning and consolation they carried, as well as the simpler comforts of the familiar, provides another: “When you look at some of the anxiety that’s manifesting, you really start thinking about the post-religious age,” she said last year in an interview given not long after Linehan’s. “OCD is a very good example.” O’Malley pointed out the reliance on repetitive, symmetrical gestures among those with OCD and drew parallels with what religion used to provide through actions such as blessing yourself or praying the Rosary. According to O’Malley, for anxious people, “who were inclined towards looking for a framework, the feeling that ‘God’s in his heaven, and if I do, you know, seven decades of the Rosary, I’ll be ok’” was a tremendous calming resource to fall back on. And all of those people, she continued, “have been plugged out of that framework”. For centuries, there was a repertoire of gestures that soothed the vulnerable, but, in abandoning religion, “we took it away from them and they have nothing. Where are they going? They’re going into anxiety and OCD.”

The Irish writer John Waters once made an adjacent point: “Previously, God acted as a kind of buffer between the human being and absolute responsibility to be in control of every aspect of his or her own life. Problems could be offered up, handed over or placed for mediation with the Blessed Virgin or Saint Anthony. Now, unless I am able to guarantee my own and my family’s safety, security, comfort and happiness, the responsibility rests on my shoulders alone.” Prayer and prayerful habits, Waters and O’Malley seem to be suggesting, formed an essential part of the social and psychological machinery that Ireland ran on. But they have been stripped out — and the replacement parts are not working.   

For the country as a whole, however, the collapse of Catholicism seems to remain either a more or less unalloyed good or certainly a net societal gain. Equally, however, post-Catholic Ireland is plainly enough the scene of enormous, disorientating changes — in demography, in housing, in employment and economics. 

The country’s sexual constitution, both written and unwritten, has been completely upended

And there is also much going on a layer or two below these mega-trends. The country’s sexual constitution, both written and unwritten, has been completely upended, as signalled most notably by the abortion and equal marriage referendums of the 2010s. But in the culture too everything has changed. I recall leaving Shannon Airport a couple of years ago and passing a billboard advert for RTE’s new drama season. It featured a seductively lit hotel bedroom, crumpled bed sheets, discarded shoes and underwear, an ice bucket, a toppled champagne flute, and the brash but knowing legend “Local drama always leaves its wedding ring at home”.  The national broadcaster, which had employed the cross of St Brigid as its logo as recently as 1995, was now flying the flag for adultery.   

Similarly, the Queen of Ireland may once have been, according to the hymn, Our Lady of Knock, but in Irish public life these days the title belongs squarely to Panti Bliss, a drag artist and activist, who last month accompanied the Minister for Education to London to act as Grand Marshal for the St Patrick’s Day Parade.  Back in Dublin, the symbol of the annual, four-day, government-funded St Patrick’s Festival is not the saint but a serpent. A non-binary, half-Swedish witch is representing the country at Eurovision. Newspapers are bursting with advice on throupling, friends with benefits, and botox. 

This headlong rush into a radically un-Catholic Ireland has not been untroubled.  Driving the Church from the field does not seem to have led to a safer system of public care: in 2022, academics from University College Dublin published a report claiming that girls in residential care, and those who go missing, are being targeted for sexual exploitation by gangs of predatory men. There is much state-level dysfunction in other areas where the Church once held sway: the cost of the new National Children’s Hospital has spiralled to such an extent that, even though the hospital remains unfinished and unopened, it now appears in Wikipedia’s list of the most expensive buildings in the world, somewhere between One World Trade Centre and the Burj Khalifa. Among certain hospitals that are open, stories of neglect and malpractice, both tragic and catastrophic, cause consternation.  

The state of the city centres in places such as Dublin and Cork has become a subject of intense concern

The one-time “best Catholics in the world” are now the biggest cocaine users in Europe. Barbaric crimes that in Graham Linehan and Stella O’Malley’s childhoods would have caused national soul-searching for months and years now seem to come and go from the headlines and public discussion in a matter of weeks or even days. The state of the city centres in places such as Dublin and Cork has become a subject of intense concern, when it comes to public safety, drug taking, dereliction, and the disappearance of small family businesses. Consumerism seems to be flooding every crevice of life: Kristy Kreme is adding First Holy Communion doughnuts to its Irish range.  

All in all, it seems fair to say then that, even as the most distant of ideals, Eamon de Valera’s much-derided vision of “the Ireland that we dreamed of” — “the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit (…) The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live” — has been reduced to “smoke in a gale, dust in the wind”, to borrow a phrase from Cork poet Theo Dorgan. Back in 2009, Dorgan, was pondering “the damage done in our country’s short-lived flirtation with mammon”, and worrying about the future of “the foundational ideals of justice, charity, compassion and mercy”. The Irish, he wrote, “would do well to begin thinking clearly, and very soon, about what we will choose for the moral foundations of a post-Catholic Ireland.”

Did Dorgan’s warning go unheeded?  Well, the current state of things has prompted Ireland’s superstar millennial novelist Sally Rooney to observe that:

Free-market ideology has replaced Catholic ideology. We see that as liberating because we have things like the contraceptive pill now, which is good, but what has replaced the values we had on community, family and things like that? The free market has nothing to say about, no concern for, and in fact has even open hostility towards these things. To me, it doesn’t seem like straightforward progress. We got rid of the Catholic Church and replaced it with predatory capitalism. In some ways that was a good trade off, and in other ways, really bad.

Whatever one makes of it, change of this kind, on this scale, at this pace, in a close-knit society like Ireland that has abandoned without yet replacing its once venerated source of values and rules, was probably going to spook people eventually — and to prompt the backward glances of the kind Linehan, O’Malley and Rooney have been giving to some of the more benign aspects of the ancien régime. It is also now increasingly open season when it comes to debating and contesting the benefits of developments such as large-scale immigration or legislation to tackle hate speech. And the bruises inflicted by exceptionally severe Covid restrictions are also still being felt.

What is staggering, then, is that the political class decided that this would be a good time to push even more change by tinkering unconvincingly with clauses in the constitution touching on home and the family and by proposing to erase the word “mother” from the constitution altogether. One explanation, therefore, of the result of the recent referendums is that many Irish people took up the invitation unintentionally extended by politicians and activists to — pace William F Buckley, himself a distant son of Erin — to stand athwart history and yell “Stop!”

What happens next is uncertain. Ireland has gone far and fast on its journey into modernity and post-modernity, in ways that — even if most people came to see such a course of action as broadly desirable — would be very hard to undo. Post-referendums, Irish politics does seem to have entered a kind of interregnum; but the latest Taoiseach-swap — Simon Harris for Leo Varadkar — could open the way to a slow return to business as usual, ushered along by a certain amount of stage managed gestures, showy concessions, and rhetorical flourishes – all calculated to demonstrate that “we’ve listened” — plus an easing off some of the wilder activism.

But nothing is certain. Keep your eye on Ireland: The period between now and the general election next year, which includes forthcoming local and European polls two months from now, could get quite wild.

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