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The greatest trick the Church ever played was convincing the Irish that it wasn’t dictating our lives. Catholicism has a way of forcing itself upon the Irish psyche, but it goes about its work with such subtlety that we still react to its atrocities as though we have some cause for surprise.
The shadow of Rome is no metaphor; for many of us, however we might identify now, the Church had a significant influence on our upbringing. I grew up in anything but a God-fearing household: there was a time when we would have been regulars at mass—sure what would the neighbours think otherwise?—but my parents had other battles to fight with me. Having me say my prayers was very much an afterthought. Tradition is the force that has allowed the Church to retain a stranglehold on the Irish people.
Tradition is the force that has allowed the Church to retain a stranglehold on the Irish people.
Like most of us, I endured the rite of passage, the first confession, the holy communion, the confo—with all that cash, why would you question it? My communion money paid for a swingball set, a rich man’s sport at the time. All that ritual was just that, ritual, and we were just youngsters looking for a few quid, a day in the spotlight throughout which we’d be doted on by our grandmothers.
But if there’s anything more powerful than religion on this island, it’s tradition, and tradition is a dangerous thing. Tradition is the force that has allowed the Church to retain a stranglehold on the Irish people.
A crucifix and Celtic jersey were the most regular components of my adolescent attire—it was about being a proud Catholic, and all that such entailed: hate the British, support Celtic, loathe Rangers. Fuck the Union Jack type stuff—you all know it. Religious symbolism was central to the process of nationalist brainwashing permeating Irish adolescence. Patriotic motivations were never political or cultural, they were religious; it was about the Catholics against the Protestants. The danger now is that, looking back, it all seems harmless. But it wasn’t harmless, it shaped our earliest perspectives of important issues, and some people never grow up.
It was beneath the pretense of our hooped shirts that the real and sinister moral influence of the Church was to be found—reflecting on it now, I cannot say that my teenage self fundamentally respected the rights of women to have control of their own bodies. Catholicism forbade it, and I was a Catholic, a thing that made me part of the land I inhabited. Why is it that the Irish want so desperately to be Irish?
Then life kicked in, and I started to read, I started to meet new people and become exposed to new ideas. More simply, I began watching the news, absorbing the realities of Irish society.
One does not need to completely free themselves of tradition to reject religion. Tradition is a hard master to abandon. I began questioning tradition the first time I read James Joyce; in his writing I found something utterly strange and liberating—a challenge to the notion of Irishness. Admittedly, tradition is still something I grapple with, but my decision on religion was very straightforward—I decided that I was morally opposed to Catholicism the day I learned of the sexual abuses of the Christian Brothers. It seemed like a simple choice, a natural reaction to depravity.
A decade and a half later, it saddens me that there are still people who place tradition over morality.
If a political movement had demonstrated the barbarity of the Bon Secours they would be outlawed, but the inviolability of the Church is enshrined in the very soil beneath our feet. And this is because, while many of us have rejected the Church, we remain slaves to tradition. We are all complicit in the corruption that we have allowed to persist. Rejecting religion is not simply a matter of freeing yourself of tradition. Tradition is a hard master to abandon.
Rejecting religion is not simply a matter of freeing yourself of tradition. Tradition is a hard master to abandon.
We are complicit, because we refuse to break from tradition. Our social media accounts have been awash with indignation in recent weeks, but the pews will still be straining in December, children will still be dressed in miniaturised wedding attire come May, and our schools will remain controlled by orders who have repeatedly failed to exhibit the tenants they pretend to uphold.
An Garda Síochána might well have been made aware of the potential of these burial sites as far as back as the 1970s, but like every other indignation that children at the hands of our State have suffered, it was dismissed by the corrupt power brokers of this land. By using our votes to fuel the political merry-go-round that has persevered since the foundation of the State, we give power to representatives who allow our authorities to utterly neglect their responsibilities.
What would it take for the people of Ireland to rise up against an organisation that has systematically abused and murdered children? What would it take for the people of Ireland to rise up against a body that has ensured prejudices against the oppressed and marginalised remain enshrined within our constitution?
While tradition still reigns, and we still turn to the Church for the big days out, we remain complicit in their deeds. We remain part of a public that enables this abuse.
The great sadness of our past is that it remains our present—some of the mothers whose babies were lifted from the ground are still alive today. And what is yet to come? Now, that is the fear.
I stopped going to mass at a young age—I don’t believe in God, but this isn’t about spirituality, it’s about organised hate and abuse. People can be spiritual without belonging to a group that denies the rights of children, of women, of homosexuals—apply the same standards to this institution as you would any other. Take a look at your own children, your own grandchildren. What if it had been their bodies dug from the dirt?
I will respect the beliefs of family and friends and attend a wedding, funeral, or baptismal service, but I don’t take communion, and I don’t bend the knee. That is my feeble attempt at breaking from tradition, that and the fact that I would never raise children in the Catholic faith. By stopping short at simply refusing to participate in Catholic ceremonies of any kind, but not turning my hand to the eradication of this evil, I’m just as complicit as anyone.
It was difficult at first, telling my mother that I wouldn’t be going to Christmas mass, or arguing with my father over the inaccuracy of his entries to the census—it’s hard to see yourself counted as a Catholic when you aren’t one. It’s hard to be told you are a Catholic because you have been baptised, like some splash of water pre-determines your will for life.
Such issues seem trivial, but this was the reality for so many, spending our formative years with our opinions disregarded—we were branded difficult or depressed for expressing anger at the quietism of those around us. Well, we’re adults now, and many of us are still angry, and the quietism is rampant. It is a curious trait of the Irish people that we greet the transgressions of belief systems we consider foreign with absolute indignation, but display utter myopia when it comes to our own cultural misdeeds.
It is a curious trait of the Irish people that we greet the transgressions of belief systems we consider foreign with absolute indignation, but display utter myopia when it comes to our own cultural misdeeds.
I was a typically difficult teenager, and I was wrong in a lot of ways and on a lot of things, but I was not wrong in this—anger is a legitimate response to the workings of the Church. Anger should be encouraged, because at this point, anger is all we have left.
It is a curious trait of the Irish people that we greet the transgressions of belief systems we consider foreign with absolute indignation, but display utter myopia when it comes to our own cultural misdeeds. Is there anything more ironic than someone from this island branding a Muslim as a terrorist? The history of Catholicism is as bloody as any religion, while it could very well be argued that the Irish Republican Brotherhood refined those techniques that have come to define modern terrorism.
“You can’t be a maverick all your life.” That’s what my uncle once told me—my choice to break from the Church was dismissed as the behaviour of any teenager looking to cause a stir.
Ireland needs more mavericks, and it needs them quickly; it needs more people who are willing to upset mammy and daddy—or worse, granny and grandad—by refusing to participate in a ritual led by those who have committed the most heinous acts of abuse and oppression.
We recently had our national day of revelry, waving our tri-colours, banging our bodhráin, and supping our pints. But what are we celebrating? With the centenary festivities so fresh in our mind, we should remember that, in many respects, this State has amounted to little more than the dream of an unrealised ideal, an ideal that has been suffocated by tradition, and our willingness to adhere to it whatever the cost.