Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Irish Nationalism and Irish Catholicism

I mentioned many months back that I had collected my columns for The Catholic Voice newspaper, for which I wrote for about two years, into a book to which I had given the title Catholic Without Apologies. I was posting the articles here one by one, and also sent the manuscript to a publisher. They told me that collections of newspaper columns rarely sell. I lost interest in the book after that, though I keep the original articles in my files (as I keep copies of almost everything I've had published, and even some of my English exercises in school). If anybody wants the file of Catholic Without Apologies, I will be happy to send it to them. Just email me at

Anyway, one article that I thought might be worth posting here is my article on Catholicism and Irish nationalism, written a little bit after the Scottish independence referendum. The subject, as any longtime reader of my blog will know, is of longstanding interest to me. This article drew a few nice comments from people, so perhaps readers of the blog will like it.

A National Debate

The referendum on Scottish independence has led to much talk about nations and nationhood. We are used to hearing that we live in a globalised world, a post-national world—a global village, in fact. (The phrase was coined by Marshall McLuhan, a Catholic.) However, it would seem that a lot of people still haven’t ‘got the memo’, to use the piquant modern phrase. In the Ukraine and in many other parts of the world, bitter wars and conflicts are being fought over the claims of nationhood. And the referendum in Scotland, which was passionately contested and only narrowly defeated, shows us that the idea of nationhood still stirs the blood even in our own corner of the world, ultra-individualistic and ultra-materialistic as it has become.

In Ireland, the relationship between the Catholic Church and Irish nationalism has long been one of intense debate, lofty speechifying, desperate hand-wringing, fat academic dissertations-- and no consensus whatsoever. In some quarters, ‘Catholic’ has been used as a synonym for ‘Irish nationalist’. In other quarters, the bishops have been execrated as the enemies of Irish freedom. Modern-day Sinn Féin seem to take pride in opposing the Catholic Church at every juncture. What are we to make of all this? 

Marshall McLuhan

Before going on to that, I would like to describe my own view of Irish nationalism, which has changed drastically (and repeatedly) since my childhood.

In my thirty-seven years, I have passed from an ardent Irish nationalism, to a bitter hostility towards Irish nationalism, and back…and back and forth again…and I’ve gone through many stages in between. Part of this, of course, was simply the posturing and attitudinising of a boy. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think I had, not good reasons, perhaps, but understandable reasons for reacting against Irish nationalism. These included disgust at the terrorist outrages in Northern Ireland, rejection of the left-wing liberalism of so many Irish nationalists, dislike of the anti-Englishness so often attached to Irish patriotism, and, finally, irritation at the attitude of many Irish language enthusiasts. These last often seemed bent on taking offence at every perceived slight to the language, and all-too-eager to inflict embarrassment upon those who did not speak it, or who spoke it poorly.

Ultimately, though, I have come to consider myself—very definitely—an Irish nationalist, though more of a cultural and social nationalist than a political nationalist. I believe that, in a world where globalisation is threatening to inflict a deadening sameness upon us all, it is more important than ever for every country to protect its traditions, customs, heritage and everything else that makes it distinctive. Indeed, I believe that these things should not only be protected, but fostered, and revived where they have fallen into disuse. I think this is a matter for ordinary people in their everyday lives, but also for government legislation. And I think it is a matter of the first importance.


In attempting to answer that, I feel a sort of helplessness. Everybody holds certain beliefs that are as innate to them, and as incapable of being set aside, as the colour of their eyes or hair. In my own case, some of these beliefs are; the crucial importance of tradition (every kind of tradition) for its own sake; the importance of special times and places; and an urge to protect that which is unique and irreplaceable. This is what makes me feel a boundless delight in the sight of a Christmas tree or a Halloween bonfire, what makes my heart lift at the discovery of some obscure local slang-word, and what depresses me when I hear about any custom—Wren boys, or Guy Fawkes nights, or Corpus Christi processions—dying out. 

I could make arguments on behalf of these beliefs, but I no more require arguments in their favour than I need a motive to breathe. There would even be something false in such a rationalisation. If you don’t see the value of such things, nobody can explain it to you. Thankfully, I think most people do see their value—though they are rather too inclined to overlook it.

The Catholic Church also has a high regard for tradition. We see this in the rhythms of its liturgical year, in the accumulation of devotional practices over the centuries, and in the Church’s promotion of special times (such as feast days) and special places (such as pilgrimage sites). We see the Church’s respect for tradition, as well, in its insistence (since Pope Leo XII) that the sacred traditions of the Eastern Catholic Churches should not be Latinised; in Pope Benedict XVI’s Anglican Ordinariate, whereby Anglicans entering into communion with Rome were permitted to retain much of their distinctive style of worship; and in Pope Pius XII’s resolution of the long-running ‘Chinese Rites’ controversy, whereby it was decided that traditional Chinese ceremonies of ancestor veneration were fully compatible with Catholicism. 

‘For the Glory of God and the Honour of Ireland’ 

As for patriotism, there are solid reasons for Catholic to regard it as a duty. The Catechism tells us that “The love and service of one's country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity” (CCC, 239). Christ’s tears for Jerusalem seem to indicate that the Saviour himself could harbour a special love for his native people. St. Paul tells us that “I could pray that I myself might be accursed and cut off from Christ, if this could benefit the brothers who are my own flesh and blood”—that is, the Jews.

Of course, it is true that the nation, when it usurps the place of God, can become an idol, as in the case of Nazi Germany. But the same is true of all good things.

In the case of Ireland, it is my contention that the Catholic Church has always been the staunchest champion of Irish’s traditions and nationhood; that the golden eras of Irish history have also been high tides of Irish Catholicism; and that Irish nationalism only ever became disordered and perverted when it strayed from the guidance of the Catholic Church, as occurred with the campaign of the Provisional IRA.

The two eras that are most recognised as ‘golden ages’ in Irish history are the early medieval period, when Irish monasteries kept the flame of civilization alive through Europe’s Dark Ages, and the Gaelic Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the Irish people were seized with a collective enthusiasm for their native traditions, along with an intense determination to rediscover and revive them. This Gaelic Revival, which threw up such an astonishing effusion of literary and artistic talent, and which transformed Irish society so profoundly, was also deeply indebted to the Irish Catholic Church. 

A book in which this debt is laid bare is Catholic Churchmen and the Celtic Revival in Ireland 1848-1916 by Kevin Collins (Four Courts Press, 2002). Collins’s thesis is a blunt one: “There never would have been a Celtic Revival in Ireland, of the kind there in fact was, without the agency of Roman Catholic ecclesiastics.”

As Collins explains: “Both the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language and the Gaelic Union, founded in 1876 and 1888 respectively, owed their existences to the efforts of Canon Ulick Bourke. Priests created two new literatures; Peter O’Leary (1839-1920) was responsible for initiating a modern literature in Irish [with his novel Séadna]; two priests, Patrick Sheehan (1852) and Canon Joseph Guinan (1863-1932), along with a former priest, Gerald O’Donovan (1871-1942), were responsible for creating a new literature in English. It was aimed specifically at Catholics and was intended to give them a literature of its own. Moreover it was the truly popular literature of its time, far more influential on the Irish public than the now better-known work of Yeats and his fellow Anglo-Irish writers.”

Nor is this all. As Collins continues: “The Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884. Crucial to the success of the organisation was the support given to it by Archbishop Thomas Croke of Cashel. Priests were also essential to its success at parish level…The Gaelic League, too, founded in 1893, was brought into being through the efforts of a priest, Fr. Eugene O’Growney. This was also a period of educational reform, which saw the establishment of the Christian Brothers as a major influence in the nation’s schools. Their emphasis on Irish history and the Irish language shaped the world-view of important sections of the public….Taken together, [these developments] represented a cultural revolution which paved the way for the political revolution that created an Irish state.”

A Very Catholic Revolution

But it was not simply the prominent role of the clergy in the Gaelic Revival that gave it a Catholic character. The entire movement was steeped in a Catholic atmosphere. Professor Eoin MacNeill, co-founder of Gaelic League, and one of the leading lights of the Revival, wrote that: “No course of events injurious to religion can possibly be helpful to the cause of spiritual nationality of which the [Gaelic] League is the champion”. Daniel Corkery, whose book The Hidden Ireland was one of the central texts of the Revival, wrote that Ireland’s religious consciousness was “so vast, so deep, even so terrible a thing…that when one begins to know it, one wonders if it is possible for a writer to deal with any phase of Irish life without trenching upon it.” 

Eoin MacNeill

The political revolution that led to the creation of the State was also deeply Catholic—in the minds of the revolutionaries, at least. Mary Kenny in her book Goodbye to Catholic Ireland describes how each of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising went to their deaths in a spirit of Catholic martyrdom: “Even the hardened old Fenian Tom Clarke—who had a long-standing quarrel with the Church, which had so repeatedly condemned the secret Fenian brotherhood—like James Connolly [a Marxist], apparently died a Catholic death”. As for Connolly, she writes: “The night before Patrick Pearse died, what was most on his mind was the question of James Connolly’s reconciliation with the Lord. “Thank God!” Pearse exclaimed, when he heard that Connolly had seen the priest and received Communion. “It is the one thing I was anxious about”.”

Whatever your views on the moral legitimacy of the 1916 Rising, it cannot be denied that it was the single event which did most to bring about the creation of an Irish State. It further cannot be denied that it was suffused by a spirit of Catholicism. If this was not obvious from the stories of the executed leaders, it would be obvious from the five opening words of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic: “In the name of God…” When today’s newspaper columnists appeal to the Proclamation, usually to evoke a liberal-secular ideal of republicanism, they tend to ignore that dedication—as well as the first words of its conclusion, “We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God.”

There can be no doubt, either, that popular opinion in the founding decades of the State was solidly Catholic. Historians like to shake their heads in disapproval over the protests against Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, the introduction of laws against divorce and contraception, the strict censorship of books and movies, and the Constitution’s (now removed) reference to the “special position” of the Catholic Church as “the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizen”, as well as its invocation of “the Most Holy Trinity”. But taken together, all these facts prove that, if the newly-independent State was a ‘theocracy’, it was a ‘theocracy’ by popular demand. The common claim that the revolutionary idealism of 1916 and the War of Independence was betrayed by a later counter-revolution, led by the Catholic Church, doesn’t stand much analysis.

The moral is clear. Ireland will only rediscover its former greatness—indeed, its very soul—when Ireland rediscovers its Faith. Seek ye first the kingdom of God…


  1. I'd been thinking lately about the early Republicans and, indeed, what a diversity there was among them. I recently bought THE WIDENING GYRE(Altan)[ not easy to come across in Western Australia, as you can imagine] which contains an amazing musical version of WB YEATS, WHITE BIRDS dedicated to Maud Gonne. I can't stop listening to that particular track. Not being musical I'm not sure how easy it is to put a poem unadulterated to music, but goodness it's lovely. Anyway, it brings to mind that republicanism wasn't an exclusively Catholic movement, certainly nationalism encompassed all sorts. However, at the same time, there has to be something altogether unhealthy about a Catholicism that feels little or nothing for it's own nation(or ethnicity [ because I'm speaking as someone who's not Irish by birth and have only lived there for a short part of my life]) and , as you say, the challenges today to our spirit and culture are different but perhaps more deadly

  2. Yes indeed-- in fact, I think there was a potential tension between the republican movement as it emerged during the revolutionary years of the early twentieth century (solidly Catholic for the most part) and the radical, Protestant/agnostic organisations which it regarded as its precedessors, such as the United Irishmen and Young Ireland. I think it was rather fortuitous that 1916 had the Catholic colouring that it did.

    Personally, my nationalism is visceral, and its Catholic flavour is also visceral (though entirely approved by my rational mind). I can't help being an Irish Catholic nationalist.

  3. are you quoting deliberately quoting the last words of the Bunreacht na hÉireann? as you may or may not know after its last article, the constitution concludes with the words ""Dochum Glóire Dé agus Onóra na hÉireann". Although that phrase is in Irish (Even in what is otherwise the English lanauge text), a phrase you used is word for word what I got when I put that into google translate. just curious, nice reference if it was intentional