How the church made Ireland a society rife with hypocrisy and sexual guilt
In an exclusive extract from his new book, best-selling historian Tim Pat Coogan writes a strongly personal perspective on the century following the 1916 Rising, charting a flawed history marked by the powerful influence of the Catholic church
Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30
In 1966, I published Ireland Since The Rising, a history of Ireland in the 50 years between 1916 and 1966. The book was suffused with optimism. It was influenced by the promise of what I termed the 'watershed years': the emergence of a new generation of Irish decision-takers with preoccupations and horizons wider than those influenced by the civil war and clerical domination. They had their eye on the wider world, and had been stimulated by the effects of the Second Vatican Council, the coming of television to Ireland and by far greater State expenditure on and control of what had been largely the church's fiefdom - education.
Fast-forward 20 years, to 1986. I wrote another book, the stark lack of optimism of which could be summarised by its title, Disillusioned Decades. In the present work, I chronicle what can validly be termed the age of scandal and betrayal. What went wrong? Many complex factors can be advanced to explain the problems that befell Ireland during this period. But an accurate and a valid answer may be encapsulated readily enough: a great deal of Ireland's problems may be measured by the extent to which society's leaders departed from the ideals of 1916 and the integrity of those who framed the Proclamation.
And this departure can, as we will see, be detected and measured in many aspects of subsequent Irish history: in the ways in which Irish children were used and abused, instead of being cherished equally, as the words of the Proclamation have it; in the attitude of society towards women's rights and freedoms; in our general attitude to the social health and well-being that is necessary in the life of a nation, though all too frequently lacking in Ireland. In other words, what should have been part of the horizon-widening experience of the watershed years, including preparation for and subsequent entry into the EEC, in fact proved to be a factor in a sharp turn away from idealism.
The three monotheistic global religions - Christianity, Islam, Judaism - all use sex as an adjunct to religious power. In the jurisdictions in which they wield power and influence, this concern with matters sexual often manifests itself in an outward appearance of piety, accompanied by inward hypocrisy and cruel and unnatural forms of sexual subjugation. In an Irish context, this can be seen in myriad ways. Take, for example, the fetid Irish Catholic impulse to control female sexuality, which has certainly accounted for some of the nation's bitterest controversies since 1916, and in more general terms for much of the sexual guilt that has permeated Irish society.
Guilt and sex were, for example, conjoined in the infamous custom of 'churching', which was once widespread amongst Irish women who had had children. Before receiving Holy Communion, women who had recently given birth had to be purified of the stain of sexuality associated with childbirth. Churching was ubiquitous until the 1960s in Ireland; after this point, the influence of Vatican II caused it to fall largely, though not wholly, out of use. Church teaching on contraception and abortion, meanwhile, was - and to a degree, one could argue, still is - responsible for a set of outcomes which were as cruel as they were hypocritical. Catholic teaching forbade the use of artificial forms of contraception, and the general scarcity and unavailability of contraceptives in Ireland until the 1970s was directly responsible for a diverse range of social scandals.
The most obvious of such scandals is the officially unacknowledged, but nevertheless continuing, passage to Britain of pregnant Irish women in order to terminate unwanted pregnancies. In cases where termination did not occur, meanwhile, poorer women were often faced with being forced into one of the dense network of so-called 'Magdalene laundries': institutions where 'fallen' or otherwise socially rejected women worked, sometimes for years, under the aegis of Ireland's religious orders, the twin objectives being to remove them from the view of society and to use them as a means of turning an economic profit for the orders.
Frequently, too, they were simply driven out of the district or country altogether; and in both scenarios, they were forced by socio-religious pressure to give up their babies for adoption. To this day, the Irish landscape contains mass graves: the final resting place of the mothers and babies 'cared for' in such institutions. Many such mass graves are only now being excavated; others remain unexcavated, and their stories untold.
Nor were these evils untypical aberrations attributable to the 'few bad apples' syndrome. On the contrary: these were the direct outcome of policies consciously followed by Church and State, which led parents to deliver their children into the hands of the institutions, rather than helping them to keep and rear their babies.
I would like to bring a personal reflection to bear now, on these subjects of Ireland, sex and the Catholic Church. One aspect of Church teaching which has always struck me as particularly outrageous is the high level of hypocrisy it inculcates in Irish life. As a young man on one of my first visits to the Aran Islands in 1959, I became friendly with an Inis Mor family, the mother of which had become pregnant by a man who was not her husband. Long, lonely months - while the husband was away from the island in a mental home, and with a lodger in the house - had produced a near-inevitable result. This was the island of 1959, where gossip, claustrophobia and a culture of surveillance were ubiquitous - and the woman's pregnancy led to a withdrawal of friendships, such that the woman gave up going to Mass. This was rare behaviour indeed for an Irish Catholic mother in those days.
On the morning of the child's birth, as the woman lay recovering in bed, the parish priest visited the house to stand over her and inform her that she was in mortal sin. What the priest did not realise, however, was that this culture of surveillance was absolute in its effects. An islander called at the presbytery to speak with the parish priest - and the result of the visit is best described in the island vernacular: … he got no answer, but bedad, all he got was the priest's arse going up and down. When he looked in the window, the priest was on the job with the nurse.
The incident occurred many years ago. All the participants in this sad drama are dead. Readers cannot be expected to know, without explanation, that the real point of that story is not the priest's hypocrisy, not the contrast between the way he judged the woman's sexual needs and the manner in which he satisfied his own.
No: the real significance lies in the fact that, such was the awe with which the Church was regarded at this time, very little was ever said about the in flagrante moment. In over half a century of visiting the island, I never heard it discussed in a pub. It was a subject for mention around the fireside in low tones after the children were in bed.
The priest in due course got a rousing send-off when he left for another parish. He left Kilronan pier to the accompaniment of a fusillade of rockets from the encircling lifeboat, of which, like everything else on the island, he had been in charge. I happened to be on the boat, standing beside an American lady who remarked to the priest: "You must be very proud, Father. They all love you so much; you must have done great work!" In a sense, the island was a microcosm of what Ireland was like in 1959. It demonstrated the attitude of society as a whole to the clergy - God's anointed, as they would have been thought of - at this time, and in subsequent decades.
They set forth the evils of immorality, which was always sexual immorality - contraception, divorce and so on - and, all the while, as a shocked public would later discover, many of these same thunderers were buggering little boys, keeping mistresses and, where money was concerned, keeping anything they could lay their hands on, as they set themselves up as moral arbiters.
In the modern era, the fall from grace of one particular bishop has come to epitomise the general decline of the Irish Church. In 1976, Eamon Casey (pictured below) was bishop of Kerry when word came through that he had been chosen to succeed Michael Browne in the diocese of Galway. Casey's replacement of Browne seemed to indicate a profound psychological, stylistic and theological change in the Irish Church. Like Haughey, who became Taoiseach three years later, Casey was hailed as a moderniser. Both men were seen as the harbingers of a new era - as indeed they were, if not quite in the manner that people might have anticipated.
I attended Casey's consecration as a bishop in Kerry in 1969. During the ceremony, a Maynooth professor remarked to me: "[Casey]'s not a theologian, he's a tycoon." This was a not an unfair description. Dressed in business attire, Casey would have appeared the epitome of a smooth CEO with a zest for life. Yet he also had a feeling for the poor. While he was serving for a period as a young curate in England, he set up a housing trust that enabled indigent Irish emigrants to buy their own homes.
His interests extended further still overseas: he helped support Trocaire, the Irish Catholic aid charity; and, after witnessing the assassination in 1980 of Archbishop Oscar Romero in the cathedral at San Salvador, he reacted angrily, lobbying the UN and the White House and, when President Reagan came to Ireland in 1984, joining in protests against the visit because of American foreign policy.
His larger-than-life personality appealed to the Irish. He wrote off BMWs with gay abandon and was the subject of a not unkindly joke: 'What's the difference between God and Eamon Casey?' Answer: 'God is everywhere, including Galway. Casey is everywhere except Galway.' Casey's father was a creamery manager and he was one of 10 children. As the brightest and the best tended to do in those days, Casey entered Maynooth at the age of 17 and was ordained in 1951 - appropriately enough, the year the Irish Hierarchy assisted in the collapse of an Irish government.
In 1992, the news broke that Casey had had a long relationship with an American divorcee, Annie Murphy, and that the couple had a son together, born in 1974.
Casey resigned his ministry and left the country: first for Britain and then Ecuador. Although all these facts are now well known, I only discovered when the Annie Murphy story broke that Casey had been the subject of a notable example of omerta within my own circle of friends: the details were known to many, but not broadcast or reported for some years. The Irish Independent published an interview with Annie Murphy (on January 22, 2012) in which she explained how she and Casey came to be involved in the first place. She said that when Casey picked her up at the airport when she first came to Ireland in 1973, "a light went on, there was a spark, that was it… he was electric". Annie had been sent to Ireland by her father, following a miscarriage and various other problems, and Casey was a distant cousin. He wasn't distant for long.
Annie shared digs at that time with a woman I've known since she was a teenager. When Annie returned from weekends with Casey, she told my friend about romping with her new lover, sometimes dressed as Eamon liked her - in a bikini.
Annie scoffed at my friend's reception of her stories: 'You Irish girls are so prudish!' And yet, for all that the story was by no means a secret, it took its time to emerge into the public realm: beginning with a report in the Irish Times that an Irish bishop had had an affair and fathered a son - though still not naming the bishop concerned. My friend now told her husband: 'I'll bet that's Annie Murphy!' It was. My discreet friend had maintained silence for almost 20 years, lest she caused scandal.
Murphy published a book, Forbidden Fruit (1994), which detailed the course of her relationship with Casey; she appeared on RTÉ's The Late, Late Show, which still functioned at this time as a sort of national confessional.
Though his outing as a father was, initially, a shock to the Irish system - a shock of seismic proportions - his earlier popularity reasserted itself: at least to the extent that vox pops and first-hand experience would seem to indicate that people would have been glad to see him back in Ireland working as a priest. Casey remained in his missionary banishment in Ecuador, before moving to a parish in England.
In 2006, he was allowed to return to the west of Ireland, but was forbidden to say Mass.
My own sense is that Casey was too young when he became a priest - and too human. Many years after his fall from grace, he confessed in an interview that he found celibacy difficult not merely for sexual reasons, but because he missed the companionship. This was one glaring dilemma ignored by Church orthodoxy - one, of many.