Monday, July 9, 2012

Why didn't Ireland Have a Victorian Crisis of Faith?

I've been watching the Jeremy Paxman series Victorians on DVD, a series in which the "Axe-man" analyses that era principally through the lens of its art works. Art (I mean proper art) always makes good TV, and it doesn't take much creativity to draw out the social and historical context of paintings. Nor does Paxman evince a great deal of creativity, ticking off all the expected themes of the Victorian era, including the celebrated Crisis of Faith.

His exposition of John Martin's apocalyptic paintings leads to a discussion of Victorian fossil-hunters and the challenge they posed to Christian belief. Instead of being a few thousand years old, as orthodoxy held, the Earth (the Victorian discovered) had been around for unimaginable millions of years. Paxman quotes John Ruskin: "If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses."

This sentence, along with certain lines from Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach ("the sea of faith was once, too, at its full...but now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar"), and some apocryphal exchanges from a debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, is one of the classic texts of the Victorian Crisis of Faith.

The commonly received story is that a robustly Christian British public suddenly found themselves confronted with a set of data that could not be reconciled with the old myths; Darwin's theory of the origin of the species, the discovery of dinosaur fossils and other evidences of an ancient Earth, and the historical criticism of the Bible.

I am rather sceptical of this common account. It is too tidy, too self-conscious, too dramatic. I suspect that the Victorians were all too ready too cast off their Christian faith, and that the discoveries of science (which were really no more dramatic than the discovery of the New World, or the shock of the Islamic invasions centuries before) were simply an opportunity. I believe the agnosticism of Victorian Britian had more to do with intellectual fashion than science. Was the era of Alexander Pope, a century before, really a high watermark of British Christian fervour?

Chesterton, who grew up in the late Victorian era, describes its religious temper thus: "And what I wish to attest, merely as a witness to the fact, is that the background of all that world was not merely atheism, but atheist orthodoxy, and even atheist respectability. That was quite as common in Belgravia as in Bohemia."

But the question that really strikes me is: What about Ireland? At the same time that Victorian Britian was having its (supposed) spiritual crisis, Victorian Ireland was enjoying what has often been described as a "devotional revolution". Anyone who has read a handed-down Christian Brothers textbook from the nineteenth century can attest that this was an educated revolution. The Irish panted for knowledge as much as for rosary beads and pigrimages. The Irish cultural and intellectual Renaissance of the early twentieth century was germinating at this time; and even in the mid-twentieth century prominent Irish intellectuals such as Flann O'Brien, Eamon De Valera and Michael Tierney (president of UCD) seemed to be confident in their Catholicism.

I think also of the passage in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

"--The Greek, the Turk, the Chinese, the Copt, the Hottentot, said Stephen, all admire a different type of female beauty. That seems to be a maze out of which we cannot escape. I see, however, two ways out. One is this hypothesis: that every physical quality admired by men in women is in direct connexion with the manifold functions of women for the propagation of the species. It may be so. The world, it seems, is drearier than even you, Lynch, imagined. For my part I dislike that way out. It leads to eugenics rather than to esthetic. It leads you out of the maze into a new gaudy lecture-room where MacCann, with one hand on The Origin of Species and the other hand on the New Testament, tells you that you admired the great flanks of Venus because you felt that she would bear you burly offspring and admired her great breasts because you felt that she would give good milk to her children and yours."

This doesn't seem to paint a picture of a defensive or anti-scientific Catholicism. And of course, Joyce was not studying at Protestant/agnostic Trinity College, but at the impeccably Catholic University College Dublin.

I think we are too prone to lazy stereotypes in the history of ideas.


  1. Many (not all)Irish PROTESTANTS did have a similar Victorian crisis of faith - quite a few of the Irish Revival writers such as Yeats and Synge came from clerical dynasties and/or reacted against Evangelical upbringings. (There was a fairly significant Evangelical revival among the major Irish Protestant denominations in the early nineteenth century; this I think was the backwash.)
    There was I think a certain amount of slippage among mid to late-Victorian upper and middle-class Catholics; partly for social reasons, partly from the same intellectual tensions that affected Protestants - but it's harder to chart because religious allegiance was bound up with so many other loyalties that they reinforced one another (at least in public) and because the proportion of the Catholic population who were upper and upper-middle class was smaller. Quite a few of Joyce's Catholic University contemporaries ended up as agnostics or atheists. (Francis Sheehy Skeffington and JF Byrne, the "Cranly" of PORTRAIT, would be examples.)

  2. Those are good points. I remember Synge's account of being thrown into mental turmoil, as a child, by reading a passage that compared a bat's wing to a human hand. All the same the intellectual world of late-nineteenth and early twentieth Irish Catholicism seems bullish and confident compared to the anxieties of English Christians at the time. It's more an atmosphere than anything I can specifically point to.