News Gerard O'Regan

Tuesday 16 September 2014

There's no going back to the days when the church had a stranglehold on society

Gerard O'Regan

Published 01/02/2014 | 02:30

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Enda Kenny: said he is a 'Taoiseach who happens to be Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach'
Enda Kenny: said he is a 'Taoiseach who happens to be Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach'

HER passing is a reminder of how Ireland in many ways has changed beyond all recognition in the past half century.

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Betty Cooper, who died some days ago at the age of 86, was described in one obituary as a "modest jolly Protestant shopkeeper", who had become unwittingly ensnared in one of the great dramas of 1957.

That was the year of the infamous Fethard-on-Sea boycott. But in all the intervening decades it was not something Betty much liked to talk about.

She owned a shop on Fethard's main street, which stocked among other sundry items "cornflakes, sweets and newspapers".

Little was she to know her livelihood would take an unlikely hit when her Catholic customers would observe a boycott of Protestant businesses in the town. This came about even though she had nothing to do with the controversy which provoked the entire affair.

A bitter dispute had erupted because of a now well-documented story – subsequently made into the movie 'A Love Divided' – which told how a local Protestant woman fought to rear her children as Protestants, even though she was married to a Catholic.

This brought her into direct conflict with the Catholic Church at the time, because of its ruling that all children of a "mixed marriage" had to be brought up as Catholics.

But the woman, Sheila Cloney, who was the strong-willed mother at the centre of the controversy, was determined to make up her own mind on such matters, and a bitter stand-off resulted which left a legacy of bitterness in the Co Wexford town for many years.

Those were the days when all it took was a diktat delivered by the clergy and the "faithful'' did as they were told. Two local priests, obviously outraged by Ms Cloney's decision to make up her own mind as to what church her children should belong to, irrationally responded by telling Catholics to boycott local Protestant businesses.

Eventually the campaign petered out when one of the priests involved went into one of the boycotted shops to buy cigarettes. It was a signal to the locals they could once again shop wherever they wished.

But the whole affair was an example of awesome political and social power by the Irish Catholic Church. The fact it went against an agreed decision by a mother and father as to how they should look after their children, plus the fact it had nothing to do with other Protestants living in the area, such as Betty Cooper, was deemed to be beside the point.

Of course, the controversy should not be judged by the norms of today, and the motivations of some of those involved were complex. And a number of Catholics did speak out against the intrinsic unfairness, and sectarian nature, of the whole affair.

Most notably Fianna Fail leader Eamon de Valera signalled his unease.

"I regard this boycott as ill-conceived, ill-considered, and futile, for the achievement of the purpose for which it seems to have been intended," he said.

In retrospect, this period in the late 1950s marked the high point of Catholic power in Ireland. By the time the Sixties had arrived, there were already signs the once all-pervading influence of one denomination on politics and social behaviour would gradually decline.

BITTER divisions on matters such as contraception and other issues would erupt in the 1970 and 1980s. Some of the language used, such as Archbishop John Charles McQuaid's view that "contraception would be a curse upon the country" seems even more extreme with the passage of time.

And Charles Haughey's conclusion that as Taoiseach he had to come up with "an Irish solution to an Irish problem" on the contraception issue would hardly resonate with a modern day electorate.

Now there are other battles to be fought in this whole area of social legislation, most immediately on same-sex marriage. A government referendum on the issue is scheduled for next year and already there have been sharp exchanges between those for and against. The debate is certain to become even more acrimonious in the coming months.

But in a further sign of changing times, one recent poll indicated that over three-quarters of Irish voters say the law should be changed and official recognition granted to marriages between couples of the same sex.

Meanwhile abortion – given the inevitable developments in medical science – will continue to be a flashpoint for deeply conflicting views in the years ahead.

The Catholic Church and some of its more ardent supporters will continue to fight for their beliefs, as is their absolute right, when crucial legislative battles loom in the Dail.

But the ground rules have been changing fast. Even a social conservative such as Enda Kenny echoing JFK when he said that he is a "Taoiseach who happens to be Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach" accepts that the law of the land must now take precedence over religious conviction.

Those times in Fethard-on-Sea, when a particular view of morality could be imposed by populist pressure alone, are gone forever.

For good or ill, the separation of church and State on such matters in Ireland now has its own unstoppable momentum.

The ghosts of Fethard and of that time and place still hover – but it is now a lost world.

Irish Independent

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