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Some Irish history

Irish Catholicism

July 2002 —

The Catholicism of Ireland is connected hand-in-glove with Ireland's historic national identity.

To this day, of course, the fighting in Northern Ireland, politically British, is between people divided on two matters — the political (loyalist vs. republican;) and the religious, (Protestant vs. Catholic.)

As for politics, the loyalists want the six counties that are Northern Ireland to remain part of Great Britain, or the United Kingdom as they now call it. Republicans wish these counties, which compose most of the ancient region of Ulster, to be united with the Republic of Ireland.

The latter concern, that of religious differences, is a matter of deep sentiment in Ireland, historically.

Ireland has been Catholic since the early days of that organization's success. It was the 400's and 500's when saints and scholars were first teaching and studying in Ireland. But the Catholicism of Ireland is unique in that it was dispersed only by the missionary work of early believers; there was never a Roman conquest, nor even significant presence.* The Romans knew of Ireland, had a name for it, and even left a few loose coins behind — but nobody knows who carried them here, and there is little if any further evidence of direct Roman influence. The Catholicism, then, was Irish.

Much later, when the English came, they came as protestants.* As conquerors and overlords, their esteem of the Irish was appalling. The Irish were wild and uncivilized in the English perception, and the English subjected the Irish to the worst abuse. The English killed many Irish, stole their land (often "allowing" them to rent it back,) and imposed ruinous laws upon their way of life.

Many people suffered, and many died, over many years, because they were Irish; and they died as Catholics. In some cases, the English offered special amnesties to Irish Catholics who would renounce their faith and become protestant. Naturally, the dishonor of any such agreement would not wash away; and the honor implicit in keeping the Irish Catholic faith was deep.

While the practical matter of whether Northern Ireland is a part of English Britain or Irish Ireland is obviously driving the conflicts there in the North, the religious differences are clearly a strong part of the basic disagreement between two communities.

The Irish State is still nominally a Catholic state. The grip of Catholicism has weakened considerably in recent years, for a couple of main reasons. One reason has been the secularizing influence of modernization, fueled by an expanding economy. The economic boom of the 1990's known as the Celtic Tiger has brought inevitable change to the culture. The plain effect of money has changed people, for better and for worse. Also, money has brought greater contact with the outside—through economic ties and through immigration.

The Church itself has probably had no small effect upon its own decline. Problems within Irish Catholicism have come to light recently, most notably involving the paedophilia of some of its priests, and the inneffectual if not outright corrupt management of the issue at very high levels of the heirarchy.

The Catholic Church used to hold immense power over affairs of the Irish, both politically and in daily life. The stories about the control that Catholic school teachers used to wield over pupils in the very recent past are harrowing. Physical punishments were normal, and often of a brutal nature; children were often unable to discuss these abuses with their parents, for fear that the parents would beat them too—so strong were commitments to the Church.

It is hard as a foreign (and non-Catholic) observer to bemoan the weakening of Catholic influence in Ireland. No doubt, something of value has been lost; but there is no doubt either that some practices have begun to come to light that have needed to come to light, and that change is important.


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* There are monuments on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, at the graves of seven Romans.

There are debates about various possible other sites that may or may not be evidence of anything more than a merchant relationship.

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Return to "significant presence" ...


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I've learned that the matter of "English: Protestant or Catholic" is greatly more complicated by the events of history than I implied on this page.

— Summer 2007

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Return to "...came as Protestants.... "