Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Catholic Country

DeValera had quite a simple view of Ireland. It was one where maidens danced at the cross roads, where men worked hard and could be prosperous, a place to live comfortably,  speaking as Gaeilge, telling tales of the heroes of the past around a fire, thankful that those bastards across the sea didn’t rule us any longer. While cementing and shaping this twee, backward, conservative, cozy vision of our country, we were going back to the country of our old enemies in our droves. In fact, we were going all over the place, from America on one side of the world, to Australia on the other. Anywhere but here.

We must have been a country in denial, a place of deep contradictions. On one hand, there was Dev’s Ireland, calculated and idealistic past all reality (as was Dev’s way), and on the other there was the reality of a struggling, post-colonial people, having to deal with emerging power structures.

The emergence of the Catholic church as such a power interest, setting up a power structure pervasive right throughout Irish life, most concretely (most tragically) in education, but also right through society, should not be viewed as a historical anomaly. It should, instead, point to the weakness of the Irish revolution itself.

As one nationalist at the time said, he and his comrades must have been the most conservative revolutionaries ever. In his brilliant documentary series The Limits of Liberty, Dermot Ferriter presents this failure to perform real change beyond the surface rhetoric of revolution as a great failure. The hopes of the left were ignored, and social problems throughout the country were largely ignored, not least in Dublin’s dilapidated slums.

So there was this power vacuum left by the revolution. Maybe power vacuum is the wrong word. More fittingly perhaps, there was an expectation of a Republic that preceded and produced the revolutionary violence. Every revolution holds within it a hope of a new way of being, and not simply meaning that someone could call themselves Irish without ambiguity. Certainly, this was something which the revolution could present to the people, something which was expected after revolution. It was not the only thing, however. It was instead powerful rhetoric, the pretense behind their lives, their real lives, where you couldn’t get a job, and where you were better off hopping on a boat and finding a new life somewhere. It should have been a symbolic representation of proud citizenship for all.

Can we say that there was a disappointment, felt at the time by the Irish people with the Irish revolution itself, or is it only with hindsight that we can say such things? It may in fact be a much more subtle affair, where people did not react directly against the revolution consciously. But still, they reacted with their feet, feet which took them all around the world.

The lack of appetite for real revolution, real social change, perhaps can explain the rise of the church in this period. The church was, for centuries in this country, a symbol of our oppression by the British. The penal laws of the 18th century made it illegal to be Catholic. This was part of our fight for independence, in this case independence of religion, and the cementing of an identity different from that of the Protestant Britain, in opposition to it, openly defiant of it.

There was a power vacuum left after the War of Independence, after the facade of a revolution. This revolution was characterised by its violence, certainly, but it was without substance past the rhetoric of nationalism. It failed to entertain the socialistic approaches, hopes and dreams that some had for the revolution. These were the hopes of Connelly and Larkin.

Into the void stepped the church, the symbol for our distinct difference from the British, something to cement Irishness. It presented itself perhaps as the rightful heir to the throne, the rightful heir to the power vacated by the British, in hiding for years, finally allowed to take its rightful place. A symbol for our oppression and distinct identity became  fundamental socially and politically. And there is a sense that this was a sort of natural conclusion, that it ought to be the institution to provide the substance that nationalism couldn’t, simply because of its coupling with the idea of a distinct identity of our own, of being Irish throughout the centuries. 

With regards to creating an inclusive society, where everyone could maintain a certain degree of dignity, both economically and otherwise - on this, the church failed dismally. Socially conservative to the extreme, cruel, in some corners twisted, it provided such a service to the people of Ireland only conditionally and sometimes not at all.

The progressive hopes of revolution were superseded by a more traditional coupling - that of the church and the nation, a centuries old pact, created in a more oppressive age. With hindsight, considering the years of abuse within the institutions of the church, it is easy to curse this pact, and even denounce it as a sort of shackling.

But it was perhaps inevitable that the church would have some part to play in new Ireland, considering the history they both shared. That their role was so pervasive is perhaps the greatest evil. It points to the weakness of the revolution, and the political failure to create an alternative.

And I cannot help thinking: what if those revolutionaries were more revolutionary, more socially conscious, envisaging new ways of being in this new Ireland where we could be proud of our little corner of the world. If only, if only.

No comments:

Post a Comment