Crisis of faith... the Church has been here before
Prior to the mid-19th century only a minority of Irish believers went to Mass, but a century later, attendance levels had doubled
In 1807 the Scottish clergyman, James Hall, made a tour through Ireland and, among the sites he visited was a Catholic chapel in Athy where he found "numbers, both men and women, lying flat on their faces, on the floor, repeating certain prayers".
He also observed "one man walk, on his bare knees, from the door up to the altar, though the floor was extremely rough, the chapel being new and not quite finished".
On Sunday last, November 22, there were different scenes in Athy as locals bade farewell to the Dominican Order which celebrated its last Mass in the town on that day. These two vignettes might appear to succinctly capture the journey of Irish Catholicism over the last two centuries: from fervour and new beginnings to a decline in religious practice and a fall-off in vocations, precipitating the ongoing closures of religious houses.
And yet such conclusions are never so neat. Given our experience of Irish Catholicism over the past century or so, in which the Catholic Church enjoyed a dominant position in Irish society, percentages of Mass attendance were uniformly high and the country was over-supplied with religious vocations such that we supplied large numbers of our clergy to English-speaking countries worldwide, it is tempting to believe that things were ever thus.
However, in some cases, our historical memories can be quite short indeed. The Ireland that James Hall visited at the beginning of the 19th century was not burgeoning with religious vocations; neither were percentages of Mass attendance all that high.
It is estimated that weekly attendance at Sunday Mass was in the region of 40pc and dipped below this in some western and north-western parts of the country (part of the reason for this was simply abject poverty which often resulted in the sharing of one good set of clothes between many members of the same family).
In some areas, such as parts of Connacht and Ulster, Masses continued to be celebrated at Mass rock sites into the 1830s for want of suitable chapels, for many of these remained in a ruinous state.
With a large pre-famine population and a scarcity of clergy, the pastoral care of Catholics was haphazard and it was not unusual for large numbers not to have received the sacraments. One parish mission in Dingle in 1846, for instance, discovered about 1,000 adults who had never received confirmation. And when the Irish immigrated to England, many English Catholics were appalled at their low levels of church attendance.
But the Irish Catholic experience would change beyond recognition over the course of the 19th century, especially in the post-famine period which, in the historian Emmet Larkin's well-known thesis, experienced a "Devotional Revolution", in no small measure owing to the efforts of Archbishop, and later, Cardinal Paul Cullen in a process that has become known as the "Cullenisation" of the Irish church. Although Larkin's view has been modified in more recent years, there is no denying the transformation in Irish Catholicism by 1900.
In 1800, for instance, there were some 100-120 religious sisters living in Ireland; by 1900, that figure had risen to some 8,000. The numbers were so great that one Good Shepherd sister was said to have remarked that "the labourers are many, but the harvest is lacking!" By the early 20th century, Mass attendance levels had more than doubled and in 1931, the year before the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, the Society of St Vincent de Paul reported making over 70,000 visits to Catholic homes in Dublin city and finding only one persistent non-attendee.
The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 would serve as a showcase of Irish Catholicism, and by the 1950s a man attending a job interview was likely to be asked not whether he was actually a member of a sodality or confraternity, but which sodality or confraternity he was a member of.
Despite appearances, contemporaries were not always satisfied with the state of Irish Catholicism. One Redemptorist missioner, preaching a sermon in Tipperary Town in the 1950s, could lament that "Irish Catholics, for the most part, are lamentably ignorant about their religion", going on to lambaste the "crowds of men you see outside the church doors on a Sunday" who, when they emigrate to England, simply "fall in with the crowd and go nowhere".
However, it is his parting line that is the most telling: "But they're letting down the flag!"
There can be few more concise examples of the conflation of "Irish" and "Catholic" in the mindset of many at the time. And yet, crucially, for this preacher, 1950s' Ireland, ostensibly steeped in Catholicism, was clearly no "Golden Age".
Such historical reminders to imagined pasts might give us pause for thought before we begin to interpret the significance of current events.
Salvador Ryan is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at St Patrick's College, Maynooth