Pre-famine Irish Catholics: fewer priests, less devout says new doco

A new documentary claims many Irish Catholics practised a mixture of Catholicism and pagan rituals before the Great Hunger (1845-1849) triggered a major turning point for the Church in Ireland.

Released yesterday, Irish broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTE)’s documentary Rome V Republic examines the events that led up to and followed the Church’s hold over every aspect of Irish life after the foundation of the state in 1922.

Although the early 19th-century Irish politician Daniel O’Connell’s campaign for Catholic emancipation in Ireland energised Irish Catholics, the mid-century Great Hunger (often called the Potato Famine) triggered the major turning point for the Church.

Having reduced the population from just under 8.2 million in 1841 to just under 5.8 million in 1861, the famine unexpectedly strengthened the Church’s influence.

Professor Mary Daly from University College Dublin explains the problem in pre-famine Ireland wasn’t that people were atheists – it was the lack of priests to serve them.

“Basically the Catholic Church in 1841 did not have the manpower to really look after the six million-odd Catholics in Ireland at the time,” Daly says.

However, the deaths of millions of Catholics as a result of the Great Hunger meant the church had smaller numbers of more God-fearing parishioners, she adds.

“A lot of the population loss occurred in the poor and very poor people who were not regular Sunday mass goers, who would have practiced a different form of Catholicism based around a good mixture of superstition and folk belief with Catholicism.”

With the deaths of the bulk of the country’s poor, the rising middle class – shop keepers, merchants in town, farmers – became a dominant influence, as they were much more devout as a group than the poor, Daly says.

“They were the people who would have educated their children, they would be God-fearing. Respectable is the word worth using.

“Many would have aspired in time to send a son into the priesthood, so the Catholic Church is in a stronger position, absolutely.”

Fast-forward to 1922 and the documentary shows how strong the Church’s influence in Ireland has become.

The documentary presenter, former Justice Minister Michael McDowell, says Ireland’s first free state constitution (1922) was drawn up by a committee which included Michael Collins.

McDowell says the constitution was a very secular document until a raft of “Catholic morally inspired legislation” was brought in.

It catalogues how the new cash-strapped Irish Republic was forced to rely on the country’s 13,000 religious personnel.

This situation continued until the huge numbers of vocations fell dramatically as soon as free secondary school education came in 1967.

“After that vocations literally fall off a cliff,” Dublin City University’s Dr. Daithí Ó’ Corráin says.

Despite all, however – including the lack of priests, two decades of scandals, cover-ups and revelations – the documentary concludes that church remains embedded in Irish life.

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News category: World.

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