It’s always a strange experience to read about home while abroad—seeing my own country scrutinized from the outside and recognizing my pride and shame compete as my sense of self is shaped by that scrutiny. As an Irishman, I travelled to the United States with a sense of entitlement to the esteem in which my country is held by today’s superpower. We helped to build this great country in the shadow of an empire that never fully recognized our worth, and while we may laugh about the Yanks’ relentless claim to Irishness, an Irish person (from the island of Ireland) is never slow to talk up our American connections. As a Catholic I can be doubly proud. Ireland is the land of saints and scholars, the civilizers of medieval Europe, the birthplace of countless thousands of missionaries and Christian communities around the world.
Things have changed a little, though. When I was young, Sunday Mass was as national a pastime as Gaelic football or griping about the weather, the English or…well whatever else was going on in our lives. You didn’t ask someone if they were Catholic. Not because it was a private affair—but because there was no need. Today the churches are empty and the English are our closest friends. If I Google the words “Ireland,” “church” and “daughter” today I don’t find Hollywood’s 1950s image of comely pious maidens. I see a country reeling from the shock of a litany of horrific revelations about its most trusted institution.
This all brings this longwinded Irishman to some sort of a point. The news from Ireland these days is more church horror: speculation of a septic tank filled with children’s skeletons at a home for women and children run by Bon Secours sisters. The media is in frenzy, the country’s bishops are struggling to respond sensitively and the world is again made aware of Ireland’s darker side. Then we heard that the story may be a convolution of truths that have been amplified by a media angry with the church, in line with their agenda. Whether they are true or not, these stories (and myths) remind people of the truth that many church leaders covered up crimes within the church for years.
What happened the bodies of 800 malnourished children is not the real focus of this story. We know that the child mortality rate in homes for unwed mothers and “illegitimate” children was significantly higher than elsewhere in Ireland at the time, due to malnourishment and other mistreatment. Sadly though, the truth is that this isn’t as much of a shock as we pretend. We know that many in the church acted in ways that stained not only the church but Irish society as a whole. We know that hundreds of priests, religious and lay people in church institutions abused vulnerable children and adults in mother and child homes, orphanages, schools and churches. We know that this was done in some collusion with the Irish government and supported by a society given over to a particular brand of Catholicism. Now we’re beginning to speak openly about how much was known publicly as it happened, but judged as proportionally acceptable.
What did that Ireland look like? It’s difficult to imagine today and even more difficult not to imagine some black and white simplistic image. My understanding of that time, garnered from books and newspaper articles, family stories and childhood introductions to church life, is that Irish Catholicism was a legalistic faith of obligation. An acceptable ideal of life was narrowly defined and rigidly adhered to. That ideal created stability in the fledgling state and supported a national contentment won from an understanding of the Irish as being right, just and holy.
Church and State were intertwined and church governance busied itself with the ordering of a “Christian” society through a tight control of the public square. The outside world had more crime and more depression. To many this new Catholic Ireland, while poor and lacking infrastructure, was a model to strive towards. If a person stepped or fell outside of the perfect mold however, they were treated with contempt and punished severely as someone who had forfeited the dignity the church claimed to defend. Spirituality was an individual, private affair. Public prayer was obligation.
The Ireland of my childhood was one where this system was crumbling. Crime and depression were on the rise but education and compassion were too. This disintegration could have made room for authentic religious encounter and an upsurge in spirituality, but before that could happen it allowed us to see beneath the surface of what was.
Once the revelations started it became torrential; clerical sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults; mistreatment and physical abuse by priests and religious in church-run schools and residential homes; an abuse of moral authority by church leaders to excuse abuses and a culture of cover up. It felt like every day we learned of more abuse and it became an uphill struggle to not abandon the faith altogether. Church leaders didn’t help. Not only were many of them personally culpable, they didn’t seem to know when they were beat. For years, any mention of the church brought an almost tangible sense of betrayal by those we would look to for guidance. The intensity has eased now and many still recognize a need for religion in their lives, but the same sense of betrayal remains for anyone who still cares enough to feel for the church at all.
The question then becomes is the day of Catholic Ireland dead and gone? In response to despair, St John Paul II claimed “We are the Easter people.” As Christians we have to remain hopeful, but after countless missteps, we know that the way forward is not going to be easy. Along with the rest of the Catholic world we have to navigate a course for the church that recognizes the lived experiences of women and men while remaining committed to Gospel values. To do that though we have first to find a way of moving forward, fully aware of our failings.
Yet the media storm blown up by allegations against the Bon Secours makes it almost impossible for us to move forward. Revelations of past atrocities feel like present tense news. That’s why so many of us respond to news like this with frustration that church leaders have still not learned anything from years of pain. Every past apology suddenly rings hollow and tentatively rebuilt trust is re-broken.
The sad reality is that these revelations tell us what we already know. We must face that image because it’s not a false one. While Irish Americans told stories and sang songs of their idyllic spiritual home, Catholics there abused the vulnerable and called it “Catholic Ireland.” The struggle today is to authentically face this reality head on and try to learn from it, while allowing ourselves to not be trapped in that reality. Mistreatment, abuse and cover up in homes like the Bon Secours should never happen again. The idea of homes like that for women and children excommunicated from society and church should never be acceptable again. We should continue to remember those who were abused by the church and the state in Ireland. But when we read about these horrors we must try to be Easter people.
What was Catholic Ireland is dead and gone. I for one couldn’t be happier. That just means there’s space for a new Catholic Ireland built on personal, loving relationship to emerge. So what does this all mean to those who had looked to Ireland as a model of perfection? Perfection isn’t real. When I was a boy we didn’t think the church could sin because it was holy. That seems so simplistic now. Just like there are holy lay people there are priests and religious who aren’t. The church is full of sinners who are there to care for one another because of a shared relationship.
What would an authentic Catholic Ireland, an authentic Catholic ideal look like? It’s obvious that this means a society built on a recognition of our being daughters and sons of God. There is much more to Christianity though than the belief in a caring Creator. While divinity is a part of all religions, Christianity is unique in its approach to humanity, because of Christ’s humanity. The Catholic ideal then should be one where we are open to our human vulnerabilities; one where we aspire to an image of how society should work but see falling short as part of our evolving story. Whether or not the 21st century will see the emergence of a more authentic Catholic Ireland is easy to see. Ireland is a nation with a deep-rooted Christianity, one that knows how to struggle on in hope. What develops now will be different from what Irish Americans have been singing about, but it will be real. We can find hope in that.
Ronan McCoy is an intern at America.