Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Irish and Penance

I am writing this on a Friday. In the Irish language, Friday (Dé hAoine) means 'the Day of the Fast'. I've known that for a long time, but it was only today that I learned that Wednesday was also a fast day in medieval Ireland, and that its Irish name (Dé Céadaoin) means 'The Day of the First Fast', while Thursday (Déardaoin) means 'the Day Between the Fasts'.


For these nuggets of knowledge, I'm indebted to an excellent book entitled Irish Catholic Spirituality: Celtic and Roman by John J. Ó Ríordáin (a Redemptorist priest), which was published in 1998.

I was a bit worried by the title of this book when I started reading it. In the ecclesiastical politics of contemporary Ireland, 'Celtic Christianity' is very often a code-word for dissent from Church authority. Dissident Catholics look back to Ireland before the Norman invasion, when the Church was structured according to monasteries rather than diocese, and when the Irish practice differed from that on the continent in some respects, such as the calculation of Easter. 'Celtic Christianity' has had all kinds of New Agey utopianism projected onto it.

My fears were unfounded, however, Irish Catholic Spirituality is a really excellent book, and one I heartily recommend to everyone. Fr. Ó Ríordáin really gets under the skin of Irish Catholicism, as it has developed from the era of St. Patrick onwards. It's also a balanced book, although I feel he is a little harsh on the 'post-Tridentine' Irish Catholicism that prevailed from the mid-nineteenth century to Vatican II.

I hope it is not infringing on copyright to summarise his list of characteristics that have defined Irish Catholicism:


1) "Little or no distinction" between the material world and the spiritual world, and a sense of being at home in both.

2) A spirituality in harmony with nature, even in its violent expressions.

3) A natural religious spirit in the people.

4) Giving a low priority to organisational matters.

5) A traditional faith rooted in the Scriptures. [To be honest, I'm rather dubious about this one, as applied to modern times. I've never noticed a deep knowledge of Scripture amongst the Irish, either today or in the recent past.]

6) A devotion to Christ, especially his Passion.

7) A love for Mary, the angels and the saints.

8) A sense of "community, communion, friendship....alliance with the Lord and his household in this present life and in the other world". [Not too sure what this means, actually.]

9) A combination of localness with a deep sense of communion with the Universal Church.

10) Hospitality as a living expression of the Gospel.

11) Penance and self-denial as a means for entering into the death of Christ.

12) Pilgrimage.

13) "A close bond of unity with the dead, giving a sense of fidelity to and continuity with the past."

14) A sense of humour.

But where is Luke Skywalker?
The book (and I haven't finished it yet) describes the various strata of Catholic history. It begins with the rugged but rather anarchic early monastic era; moves to the Golden Era when Irish monks evangelised and educated much of barbarian Europe; then there is the Norman era, during which a diocesan structure was built up, and a certain laxity crept into Irish religion, though there was no discernible diminiution of piety. Then arrives the long Penal era, when the English brutally suppressed Irish Catholicism, and when the peoples' devotion to the Mass and the priesthood (both outlawed) became ever more pronounced. The next era begins with the Synod of Thurles (1850), when Ireland's first Cardinal, Cardinal Paul Cullen, imposed a greater discipline on Irish Catholicism, along with contintental devotions such as novenas, Eucharistic adoration, the Sacred Heart, and so forth. (This is as far as I've reached in the book.)

As I said previously, Fr. Ó Riordáin is rather 'down' on this 'post-Tridentine' strain of Irish Catholicism, complaining that it replaced an indigenous spirituality-- one with a greater emphasis on pligrimages and other traditional forms of popular piety, which he sees as more suited to the Irish temperament.

I can't agree with him here. It seems rather idle to complain that post-Tridentine Catholicism was an exotic bloom, when it so obviously flourished in this soil. Nothing seems more expressive of Irish Catholicism to me than the Sacred Heart pictures that hung in so many houses (including in my uncle's farmhouse kitchen), and indeed the whole panoply of continental devotions.

Dermot Morgan, Church bashing Irish comedian, satirised the Irish 'hippie priest' with his 'Father Trendy'.
To be frank, I feel an affinity with all the phases of Irish Catholicism. I even have a soft spot for the post-Vatican II era in Irish Catholicism, for all its many faults. I grew up in the era of the 'hippie priests', and they were not without their virtues (as long as they remained within the bounds of orthodoxy). There is an upcoming article about this in my Catholicism Without Apologies book, which I am serializing on this blog.

But let me turn to the subject of penance. Fr. Ó Riordáin shows, as many other writers and commentators have shown, that Irish Catholicism has been devoted to penance from its earliest days. St. Patrick's Confession (which I read every St. Patrick's Day) reports a kind of mania for consecrated virgnity that took hold of young nobles during the time of his own mission.

And, even in our own era, the Irish seem to be drawn towards penance-- though now it seems to be the 'big ticket' penances which attract, rather than more routine ones.


Croagh Patrick is a small mountain in Mayo, one of the many sites where St. Patrick (tradition has it) performed spectacular penances. Tens of thousands of pilgrims climb it every year. Some of them even climb it barefoot, or on their knees. (I climbed it myself, a few years ago. I was certainly not barefoot. Even with shoes, it was quite a challenge.) On the last Sunday in July ("Reek Sunday") up to twenty thousand pilgrims go up it.

Even more daunting is Lough Derg, a pilgrimage which involves a three day fast and one night without sleep. This has been going on for a thousand years. I can't even imagine doing this.

Penance is a fascinating subject, as are the related subjects of austerity and hardship. I have been fascinated by them all my life, and I have written about them on this blog before-- in this rather silly (but short!) poem about a comic strip character of my childhood, and in this post about song lyrics that romanticize hardship and discomfort. 

Aside from its value as a sacrifice, many people have commented on the restorative nature of penance-- that it re-awakens our dulled senses, stops us from taking pleasure and comfort and the physical world for granted, and affords us a kind of rewakening. Patrick Kavanagh's poem Advent may be the most eloquent expression of this idea.
Patrick Kavanagh
But penance has come down in the world in recent decades. Very few Christians seems to practice it anymore. 

It might be argued that many of us now perform our penance in the gym, or that the more strenuously 'eco-friendly' lifestyles are a form of penance. It might also be argued that the routine self-abasements demanded by political-correctness-- especially if you have the misfortune to be a scum-of-the-earth white heterosexual male-- might also be termed penance. Then there is the phenomenon of 'self-harming', which seems a relatively new thing.

All of this is an interesting topic for speculation, but the fact remains that any penitential impulse in these cases is sublimated (or perverted). Penance performed self-consciously as penance is what I'm talking about.

Scum-of-the-earth white heterosexual male.
And (with the exception of Lent, which retains a hold over the secular as well as the Christian imagination) few of us seem to bother with it. When the Catholic Church lifted the requirement to abstain from meat on a Friday, the idea was that some alternative penance would be performed. It seems that few people (in Ireland, anyway) even realise that they are meant to perform some penance today. And I admit that I am very patchy about following it myself, especially since non-observance is (as far as I know) not a sin.

I was talking about this yesterday, with a friend of mine who is an Opus Dei priest. I was marvelling at St. Josemaria Escriva's devotion to mortification. My friend reminded me that penance and mortification can come in many forms. True, but somehow the more tangible ones seem more meaningful-- at least, more challenging.

I told him about my disastrous attempts some months ago, inspired by reading St. Josemaria Escriva, to drink only water. I kept it up for a few increasingly wretched weeks. Then I quit. It was miserable. During my weeks of water-drinking, I noticed how a cup of tea (or a cup of coffee) is especially the comfort of tough times and tough situations. A cup of tea is what hospital patients, and people doing hard manual labour, and people who've had a nasty shock or some bad news, all latch onto, and look forward to, and find warmth and sustenance in. I pretty much picked the worst thing in the whole world for my mortification.

Never mind the rubble, here's a nice cuppa!
It is true, though, that since then I've relished my cups of tea more than ever. And trying to conquer my gluttony is a bit easier, when I can think: "At least I can have a cup of tea."

As you might have guessed, I am no prodigy at penance myself. Missing a meal or a full night's sleep puts me completely out of sorts.

And yet my imagination is stirred by the subject. Perhaps because my imagination is an Irish imagination. (George Bernard Shaw wrote that an Irishman's heart is just his imagination. Probably true.)

But let us return to Irish Catholic Spirituality. The author (contradicting me a little, perhaps) notes that an urge towards penance lingers in the Irish Catholic psyche:

Certainly this penitential element is dear to Irish piety today, not only in conjunction with pilgrimages, but in many other aspects of devotion. In a school retreat which I conducted, one of the exercises I requested was communal penance; in this case each young student kneeling on the hands for the duration of five Paters, Aves and Glorias with the intention of making reparation to Christ for the sins of the world. The students joyfully and generously undertook this exercise amid a tumult of 'ohs' and 'ahs'. Six years later the teacher in charge informed me that the puplis, now adults, still remembered with satisfaction what had been for them a telling religious experience.

"Forgive me, Father, I propagated the racist heternormative patriarchy. And I cheated at Scrabble."
(This reminds of something that the chaplain in UCD mentioned during a homily-- that the children who make their Confessions to him actually take the idea of sin and confession very seriously. It's not religious brainwashing that conditions us into the notion of sin, he said-- it's secular brainwashing that conditions us out of it.)

The author also points out-- and he is not the first to do so-- that the use of the hunger strike in Irish history has roots in this penitential streak.

I suppose all this means that, if Ireland is going to be re-evangelized, we should take into account this latent urge for penance in the national psyche. How exactly that is done is a matter for wiser and more strategic heads than mine. But at least I've shown the way down one blind alley. The Irish thirst for penance, profound as it is, is unlikely to be more powerful than the Irish thirst for tea.

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