On a cold January afternoon in 1922, Irish history changed forever in the courtyard of Dublin Castle, as the last Viceroy of Ireland handed over the keys of the city’s most historic building to the new Provisional Government of the Irish Free State. Seven hundred years of British control of Ireland ended and the era of a sovereign Irish state began.
On a warm May afternoon in 2018, Irish history changed once again in the very same location as the result of the referendum on 36th amendment to the Irish constitution demonstrated that the people of Ireland voted to remove all constitutional protection for the unborn. A century of Catholic domination of Irish civil affairs ended and the era of a post-Catholic state began.
In the decades that followed Irish independence, the state went out of its way to identify itself by what made Ireland different from being part of the United Kingdom. It would take more than a quarter of a century to become a republic and to leave the Commonwealth, but make no mistake the priority of the founders of the independent Irish state was to do everything that they could to show how we were different from our nearest neighbours and former rulers.
In the first decade after independence the Irish language, which had been in retreat for centuries was revived, with compulsory Irish in our schools. Our coins and stamps declared the country to be “Éire” rather that The Irish Free State and we painted our post boxes from red to green. The new Ireland became an increasingly cold place for the Anglo-Irish minority and tens of thousands left, leaving centuries of Anglo-Irish culture to fade and die for better or worse.
The civil war that followed independence created fissures in Irish society that are only being finally healed today and forced the first governments of the Irish Free State to not only concentrate of what made Ireland different from Britain but what unified the people of the newly independent state. They chose the one thing that united 93% of the remaining populace, Roman Catholicism.
In the years that followed independence, divorce which had been available but limited when we were part of the United Kingdom was banned and by 1933 all forms of contraception had also been outlawed. The era of “Holy Catholic Ireland” or perhaps more accurately “Wholly Catholic Ireland” had begun. A year earlier the Eucharistic Congress showed the world where Ireland had gone, we had left London rule behind and embraced Rome rule.
De Valera’s 1937 constitution was co-written with the input of the rising star of the Irish Catholic Church, John Charles McQuaid, who would soon become the Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland and arguably the second most powerful person in the state. McQuaid’s input ensured that the new constitution recognised the “special position” of the Catholic Church and enshrined the ban on divorce, taking it out of the hands of our politicians. We introduced one of the most restrictive censorship regimes in the free World and dissenting voices were exiled.
The unfettered power of the church did not end when its special position in the constitution was removed by a referendum in 1972. The church still controlled the ethos of the vast majority of Irish schools and many hospitals, a legacy of its bygone altruism. Attempts by politicians to liberalise the availability of contraception failed and the first attempt to remove the ban on divorce floundered badly in 1986.
However it was in 1983, with the referendum on the 8th amendment to recognise the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn that “peak Catholic Ireland” was reached. Despite being strongly pro-life, I voted against, mainly because I felt that supporting abortion would make any Irish politician unelectable, so the clause was an unnecessary constraint on our medics and public representatives. With the benefit of hindsight, this may seem naïve, but no one could have forecast the self-immolation of the Catholic Church and the consequent social change that would follow in the following thirty years.
No one should need reminding of the litany of scandals that has beset the Irish Catholic Church. They are reheated by our media at every opportunity, although they paint a very jaundiced view of what Ireland was actually like for most people, who generally got on with their lives in blissful ignorance and concentrated on survival as we lurched from one economic boom and bust to another.
Ironically it would be the 8th amendment and the resultant X Case in 1992 when a young rape victim was banned from leaving the country, which would finally start to topple Catholic influence in Ireland. The resultant referendums on the right to information and travel, which passed easily despite the best attempts of the church and the pro-life movement to thwart them, showed that Ireland had moved significantly in less than a decade and the power of the Catholic Church was on the wane.
A year later (and a quarter of a century after Britain) homosexuality was finally decriminalised without any significant objections. In 1995, divorce was finally legalised after a divisive and extremely close referendum. Soon after condom machines started appearing in Irish pubs. Meanwhile mass attendances, once the highest in the Catholic World began their steep decline.
A narrative had been created and was amplified by a generally anti-religious media, Ireland had entered a new era and where we once defined ourselves by what made us different from Britain, we had now moved to what had made us different from the era of Holy Catholic Ireland.
And so in 2018 and with the removal of the 8th amendment, we can finally say that Ireland is once again a Free State, as we have reached a post-Catholic Ireland. However for those of us who do not have religious beliefs, there is a sense of throwing the unborn baby out with the bathwater. For pro-life atheists and agnostics there is perhaps a similar feeling to that of the Anglo-Irish forced into exile almost one hundred years ago. This new Ireland is no longer a welcoming place as many, especially a worrying number in the media, strive to silence dissenting voices and create another mono-cultural monolith.
There are some welcome changes that this new Ireland will create. The influence of the Catholic Church in our education system has neither served it, nor our children well. More non-religious ethos schools and better sex education are long overdue.
It is also time for the church to either remove itself completely from our health service or to take its hospitals into the private sector and not receive taxpayer funding. The Catholic Church should also stop being civil registrars of marriage as they threatened during the 2015 Marriage Referendum campaign.
Our ridiculous blasphemy laws need to be removed as they serve no function bar a potential limitation on free speech and our Constitutional preamble needs to remove any religious references. The church and the state need to be as separate as possible and no longer prop each other up. Both are not only strong enough to survive without being propped up by the other but should flourish as wholly independent entities.
We just need to remember that defining ourselves by what we are not, hasn’t served us well in the past. If we replace one form of exclusivity and intolerance with another, then we all lose. The post Catholic Ireland needs to be inclusive and welcoming to dissenting voices.