Irish Identity Change (6) Shoring up Monopoly Catholicism

In this post I’ll sketch how Classic Irish Nationalism expressed its identity within a narrow, highly structured and tightly defined understanding of Irishness. Above all, this identity was different to that of its former Colonial rulers. If there was one thing ‘being Irish’ meant, it was that ‘we’ are not British. And Catholicism lay at the heart of that non-British identity.

And as we think of this stuff it’s interesting to ask ‘What does it mean to be Irish today?’ What place does religion play in contemporary Irish identity do you think?

Painting over the past

At last Irish nationalists had the freedom and space to get on with the practical job of nation building. While the 1922 transitional constitution was not an explicitly Irish document, it paved the way for national autonomy and the full implementation of an Irish catholic identity in the political sphere.[1] This process was what Fulton calls, ‘shoring up monopoly Catholicism’.[2] The period between the 1922 and 1937 Constitutions was marked by a remarkable unanimity, between previously warring factions in the Civil War, on the implementation of Catholic moral values in the social and political fabric of the new state.[3]

A wide range of policies implemented in the new state were markers of cultural dissimilarity with Britain. This impulse to delineate a distinct and separate ethos can be seen in a whole spectrum of developments characteristic of the Free State and subsequently the Republic from 1949. All this both reflected and fostered:

–          cultural and social cohesion

–          a strengthened sense of a unique identity

–          a heightened strength of purpose

A belief that moulded many policies of de Valera and other nationalist leaders was that political sovereignty was a necessary precursor to, (perhaps even a guarantee of) economic, social and cultural well being.[4] Many saw subjugation under Britain as the root cause of Ireland’s poor economic position. Thus, with political freedom, there was a strong expectation that prosperity and social harmony would follow.

In his speech to the inaugural meeting of Fianna Fail on the 16 of May 1926 de Valera stated that,

‘I think I am right in believing that independence – political freedom – is regarded by most of you, as it is regarded by me, simply as a means to a greater end … so that every man and woman in the country shall have the opportunity of living the fullest lives that God intended them to live.’

And what I wonder would de Valera make of Ireland’s current loss of sovereignty and complete economic dependence on (debt slavery to?) Europe and the ECB?  A situation that a free and independent Ireland managed to get herself into …

Political developments from 1922 testify to the exclusive and triumphalist form that a liberated Irish national identity would take. A series of acts helped to move theoretical notions of Irish identity from the abstract to the material world:

–          censorship of films was introduced in 1923

–          censorship of publications in 1929

–          The Intoxicating Liquor Act of 1924 reduced the hours of opening for public houses.

–          Divorce was prohibited within the state in 1925.

–          De Valera enacted legislation imposing tax on foreign newspapers in 1933

–          the sale of contraceptives was banned in 1935

–          Dance Halls Act in 1935

The grand scale of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress was a witness to the enormous popular power of the Catholic faith in the new state. Civic and state figures featured prominently in the celebrations. Catholicism was a vital bonding force within the developing nation. Within its embrace bitter divisions of the past were muted and ‘others’ on the ‘outside’ clearly identified. The church provided an ideal vehicle for distinguishing Irishness from the ‘hereditary foe’.[5] Annual rituals such as the Corpus Christi parades through the streets and the massive St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were a regular reinforcement of this inextricable connection between faith and state. The latter re-emphasised the heroic pilgrimage of the Catholic Irish people by claiming Patrick as ‘one of their own’, a claim vigorously contested by the Church of Ireland.

Apart from Article 44, the 1937 Constitution also gave expression to the depth and breadth of Catholic social values that permeated the very fabric of society. Approved by the Pope, it contained a significant amount of Catholic social teaching.[6] Although de Valera resisted even more far reaching demands of the Catholic hierarchy to have the church incorporated into the state apparatus,[7] the overall thrust of the document was an attempt to fuse myth with the precision of legal language, and Catholicism with Irishness.

On one level the result was ambiguous, confusing and contradictory. Other churches and faiths were recognised but the Catholic Church had special prominence. While claiming all thirty-two counties, provision for legislation was only made for twenty-six. While aiming for unity, policy ensured a ‘widening gulf’ between the two states.[8] Unionists were in theory Irish, yet had no rights to vote on the constitution defining them as such. Genuine ‘Irishness’ seemed to exist only south of the border. The new name of the state, ‘Ireland’ (Eiré in Irish), was coterminous with the island, yet not the state. The ‘Irish Nation’ remained undefined, perhaps because to do so would enable the Unionists to use similar criteria to define themselves as a separate alternative and therefore legitimate nation. This problematic split between myth and reality was the Constitution’s Achilles heel. It illustrates the ability of nationalist mythic imagery to suppress rational objections.[9] Such objections were made at the time but carried little weight when measured against the forces of God and destiny.[10]

However, at another level it was more successful. It became the platform for decades of stability.[11] A virtually homogenous population, with a common faith and sense of history, resulted in a consensus approach to where the nation was going. The greater the sense of cultural uniqueness the greater the chances of long term ethnic persistence.

Voices of dissent that threatened cultural homogeneity were isolated.[12] This type of society has seemed unpalatable to many commentators critical of the way the Church was granted control of areas where it wanted it; ‘education, the family, health, social matters, and the primacy of private property’.[13]

The control of education by the Catholic Church ensured that all children, (apart from those in separate Protestant schools), would be socialised within a Catholic/Nationalist atmosphere. Since identity is learnt, this was of crucial importance in maintaining and communicating a specifically Irish identity. The school was also the place where the state policy of compulsory Irish language was enacted. The 1937 Constitution defined Irish as the first official language of the state and as an essential qualification of ‘Irishness’. More significantly it became a required qualification for civil service and teaching jobs.[14]

One of the most contentious outcomes of Catholic power was the freedom to operate the 1908 ne temere decree in the law of the state. It remained in force right up to Vatican II in 1962-65.[15] Probably no other issue highlighted as clearly the superiority complex within Catholic/Nationalist ideology. Even where the small Irish Protestant population posed no threat at all to the established order, the ne temere decree was strictly practised in Ireland.[16] Such church law ensured the strengthening of ethnic divisions in the South, fuelling fears of eventual extinction of the southern Protestant population[17] as well as fulfilling the ‘worst case scenario’ of the Ulster Protestants.

The impulse to proclaim a separate identity can be seen in other areas. De Valera’s success in gaining the return of Irish ports retained by Britain as naval bases under the terms of the 1921 Treaty, the establishment of Irish Neutrality in World War Two and a damaging economic war with Britain from 1932 to 1938 were all essentially assertions of Irish self-sufficiency.

Difference was announced in more mundane ways. Symbols of Irishness emerged everywhere. British red letterboxes were painted green, the initials of the sovereign still visible under the paint (see the photo in this post). Streets were renamed in homage to the pantheon of nationalist and Catholic history; O’Connell, Pearse, Emmett, Mitchel, Connolly, St. Patrick, St. Peter, Davis, Parnell and many others. Statues were erected to honour the past visibly in the present, plaques and memorials sprang up all over the country commemorating people and events of the War of Independence.

This was a new nation in search of its origins.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


[1] D. W. Harkness, ‘The Constitutions of Ireland and the Development of National Identity, 1919-1984.’ Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, 26(2), 1988, 138. See Harkness’ argument that the 1922 Constitution was the product of English legal and liberal views, written under extreme pressure.

[2] J. Fulton, The Tragedy of Belief: Division, Politics and Religion in Ireland, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990, 133.

[3] J. Whyte, Church and State in Modern Ireland 1923-19792, Dublin, Gill & McMIllan, 1980, 60.

[4] Lee and O Tuathaigh, The Age of de Valera, 85.

[5] M. O’Callaghan, ‘Language, Nationality and Cultural Identity in the Irish Free State’ 1922-1927; The Irish Statesman and the Catholic Bulletin Reappraised’, Irish Historical Studies, 1984, 228.

 [6] Sources of such teaching were papal encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI, recently published documents such as the Code of Social Principles and Code Sociale and teaching from leading Irish Catholic theologians. See D. Harkness, ‘The Constitutions of Ireland and the Development of National Identity, 1919-1984’, 135-146. John Whyte also records that church authorities were consulted, see Church and State, 377.

[7] Fulton, Tragedy of Belief, 141.

[8] For an informative account of Unionist attitudes to developments in the twenty-six counties, see D.Kennedy, ‘The Widening Gulf: Unionist Attitudes to the Independent Irish State, 1919-1949, Blackstaff, Belfast, 1988.

[9] An example of this is de Valera’s faith in the natural shape of the nation, ‘I know that people sitting down calmly and thinking of the history of nations and national territory would tell me that national territories change from time to time it is quite another thing when frontiers are shaped by Providence.’ Quoted in Lee and O Tuathaigh, The Age of de Valera, 111-112.

[10] For example see Frank MacDermott’s appeal in the Senate, ‘While purporting to establish a constitution for the whole of Ireland, it offers no basis for union with the North and contains various provisions tending to prolong Partition’. Quoted in Lee and O Tuathaigh, The Age of de Valera, 104.

[11] F. S. L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine, London , 1971, 543.

[12] The most famous such case was that of Noel Browne (1915-1997), minister for health from 1948-51, responsible for introducing reforms to state maternity care (the ‘Mother and Child’ Scheme). The plan was perceived as threatening the Hierarchy’s monopoly of health care. Once the church denounced the plans Browne was abandoned by all his cabinet colleagues and resigned. For exhaustive treatment of the affair see Whyte, Church and State, 196-272.

[13] B. O’hEithir, The Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics, Dublin, 1986, 132. For similar criticism see T. Brown, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922-1979, London, 1981, 165-6.

[14] Irish remains a compulsory subject in both primary and secondary education.

[15] In sum, the decree stated that in a mixed marriage, if the Protestant partner refused to convert, both partners had to give written pledges that they would bring their children up in the Catholic faith. The most celebrated dispute connected with the decree was the Tilson case of 1951-2, when a Protestant husband changed his mind after nine years of marriage and sent his children to a Protestant school. Both the district court and High Court judged in favour of Mrs Tilson on the basis of earlier promises given.

[16] Fulton, Tragedy, 215. The procedure during the actual service is instructive in that often ‘actions speak much louder than words’. The marriage was only in side room of a Catholic church, with ‘no solemnity, no singing and no celebration. Disapproval had to be felt and not just announced.’

[17] Foster, Modern Ireland, 544.

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