Although it is less and less the case, Ireland’s national holiday was traditionally rooted in religion.
No surprise there—the name gives it away: “St. Patrick’s Day.”
But Saint Patrick wasn’t even an Irishman. He was British (probably Welsh) and was abducted as a sixteen year old boy by Irish pirates. They brought him to Ireland as a slave, where he worked as a shepherd for six years before he escaped and returned to Britain.
We obviously made a strong impression on him though, as he returned to Ireland in his thirties. But then, maybe that was to extract his revenge—he was on a mission to save our pagan souls and convert us to Christianity. (But to be fair to him, I think he saw our pagan ways as backward and his motivation was—in his mind, anyway—progression.)
Using the shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity, he made a big impact on our little country and did indeed leave a land of Christians in his wake.
But I wonder what he would think if he were alive today and could look back on his legacy.
Needless to say, it’s not all good—the Catholic Church was guilty of horrendous and shameful offenses against single mothers and young children in their care. Within Irish society, these acts were rampant, perpetrated by priests and nuns who considered themselves above reproach. They got away with it because their obedient and god-fearing parishioners turned a blind eye.
I’m not intending to completely castigate all things related to the Catholic church. I was educated by nuns and they were fine women intent on sending open-minded feminists out into the world. And our country has a strong tradition of charity work which also has its roots in the commendable work carried out by our nuns and priests. While it’s true that some meted out shameful cruelty, others offered honest lifelines to families in crisis.
But I do believe that the Catholic church had a detrimental strangle-hold over the Irish psyche, which held us in a narrow and regressive mind-set for far too long.
Bit by bit, however, the church’s influence has been weakening. That has partly come about from within. And partly because most people of my generation (and younger) choose not to practice as Catholics—whether atheists, agnostics, or following other religious paths, we are no longer Catholics simply because we were raised so. Those who are practicing Catholics do so consciously, as a matter of choice—which is something I have complete respect for.
Nowadays, we Irish—regardless of religious orientation—will make up our own minds on moral issues and behave according to our own consciences, rather than blindly obeying the priest in the pulpit.
This is a significant growth in the Irish psyche—until the late 70’s it was illegal to buy condoms in Ireland. Until the mid-80’s a medical prescription was needed to obtain them, and only in the 90’s were they freely available for purchase outside of pharmacies. Even still, in the 90’s some pharmacists would hand you back your pill prescription and tell you to go elsewhere.
And that was not a backwards time—we were rapidly growing as an open-minded society even then. But the older generations were still very much under the influence of the Catholic church and that slowed progress in implementing more evolved laws.
But of course, as time goes on young people become middle aged and middle aged become senior citizens. Some of the early Irish feminists who took the train to Northern Ireland in the 1970’s to buy their condoms are now the older Irish Catholics. And they do have the courage to question the teachings of the church.
Better than that, they’re willing to ignore and defy the teachings if they contravene their own personal conscience.
The dogma is being rejected and people are voting with compassion on issues which previously would have been taboo. And while we still have plenty of work to do, significant progress has been made. Instead of turning a blind eye, we’re beginning to hold the clergy accountable for past misconduct.
In the last thirty years we’ve made contraception freely available to all, legalized divorce, elected a female president and now we’re on the verge of enshrining the right to gay marriage in our constitution.
The upcoming referendum on this topic is encouraging and inspiring, as Irish people from every walk of life are publicly endorsing the right of gay people to be married. And that includes long-serving Catholics.
And this is making my heart burst with pride today. Because the campaign is not being fought solely by the gay community. More than promising to vote in its favour, straight people are actively campaigning for it.
Under the banner of Straight up for Equality celebrities and ordinary Joe Soaps alike are getting involved. As are the older-fashioned folks, the ones from a generation where the Catholic church would have had its greatest influence. They too are standing up for equal rights—civil rights—for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
The following video is an example of how far we have come:
And what’s more, in the last week a priest has also lent his support to the campaign:
“Respect for the freedom of others who differ from us is part and parcel of the faith we profess. For these and for other reasons I will be voting Yes”.
~ Fr Iggy Donovan
I was raised a Catholic, but I have not practiced any religion since I was old enough to choose for myself on the matter. I have long been frustrated with the influence of the Catholic church in Irish society. But today, I am proud of the progress we are all making together. There is still much to do, but on our national holiday we have a right to celebrate how far we have come.
As for Saint Patrick—I wonder if he’s turning in his grave or nodding with approval?
Lá Fhéile Pádraig!
Bonus Video: The world goes green on St Patrick’s Day
Author: Hilda Carroll
Editor: Emma Ruffin