A Meditation

A Meditation

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Irish & Their Religion

by Bridget Green

The Irish are known for their humor, their storytelling, their singing. As Chesterton famously wrote, “The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad, for all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad” (Ballad of the White Horse).

They are also known for their Catholicism. Growing up in a family of 16 children in New Jersey, I can attest to this. We were often asked if we were ‘Irish Catholics.’

Speaking as an Irish Catholic (with some Scots, English and German in the mix as well, according to my genealogically-inclined father), I can confidently assert that the Irish like things their own way. And if that way happens to be contrary to others — for example, the English — that's fine by them.

Their ability to cling, to hold on, to never let go to what is theirs is, by far, their most prominent trait. It’s a fact: we Irish don't let go of things once we take them as our own.

Take, for instance, the land itself. The British have tried taking it more than once. It hasn't gone well for them. The famous joke is that the conquest of Ireland was begun in 1066 and has never been completed. The English knew that depriving the Irish of their land and their language would not suffice; without depriving the Irish of their Church, they would never defeat them.

 

It’s a fact: we Irish don't let go of things once we take them as our own. Take, for instance, the land itself. The British have tried taking it more than once. It hasn't gone well for them.

In response, the Irish held even faster to their Faith. They taught their children in secret; they shared their faith through symbols and secret meetings. They refused to let go.

Irish Catholic Americans, who have never set foot in Ireland, share this feeling of ownership over their Catholicism. The immense celebration of St. Patrick's Day each year is bigger in New York than it is in Dublin. Thousands upon thousands attend each year, packing St. Patrick's Cathedral in the morning and 5th Avenue by lunchtime.

Perhaps it was the tragedy of leaving their land which made the diaspora Irish cling to their Catholic identity? When they first came to America, the Irish were derided for being different, for being poor, for being Catholic. Just as they had clung to their land at home, they clung to their Faith in America. In times of hardship, they turned to the Church. In times of joy and celebration, they turned to the Church.

Just as they had clung to their land at home, the Irish clung to their Faith in America. In times of hardship, they turned to the Church. In times of joy and celebration, they turned to the Church.

When the “locals” (read: slightly senior Protestant immigrants) mocked them for their ‘popery,' they packed the churches even more. They formed tight-knit communities in their neighborhoods, centered on the local parish, which was almost always led by an Irish priest. It’s clear that the Irish in America kept their Catholic identity partly because everyone from the English to the Americans had tried to take it away from them.

But why do the Irish cleave to their Catholic heritage today? It’s fascinating that the Irish in both Ireland and America still cling to this Catholic identity, although many no longer participate in the life of the Church.

For the Irish – and for all the faithful, everywhere – it is clear that the lack of rigorous religious education over the last four decades has taken its toll. Left to their own devices in a secular education system and a media-driven world, Irish Catholics now are often among the most passionate supporters of birth control, abortion and feminism. More recently, the sex abuse scandals have driven a sharp wedge between the Irish and their ancient religion.

Left to their own devices in a secular education system and a media-driven world, Irish Catholics now are often among the most passionate supporters of birth control, abortion and feminism.

And yet the Irish hold fast to the idea of being Catholic. They refuse to let go, even if they are Catholic in name only. To them, it is not “simply” their religion. It is, instead, a part of being Irish. It is St. Patrick and St. Brigid, soda bread and shamrocks, roast and Rosaries, and everything else that is so closely associated with being Irish Catholic. In a rootless America adrift among many pieties, perhaps it is the only form of authentic identity left to them?

The Irish are a stubborn, contrary people and it is exactly this that has helped them to keep at least their culturally-Catholic identity. I wonder, perhaps if it will be this national trait which will be the very thing that introduces a resurgence of the Church in Ireland.

God willing, perhaps even a return to the days when the Irish were as Catholic as Ireland’s hills are green?

And yet the Irish hold fast to the idea of being Catholic. They refuse to let go, even if they are Catholic in name only. In a rootless America adrift among many pieties, perhaps it is the only form of authentic identity left to them?

Comments

comments

No Comments

Post A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.