We lose more than just feast days as culture becomes ever more secular
The weather for today's bank holiday is expected to be fine and may it be a pleasant day for all, although perhaps not one young person in a hundred now knows what the source of this holiday is: a replacement for Whitsun, or Pentecost, as it was marked throughout the Christian millennia. Whit Sunday was two weeks ago and traditionally, there was a holiday Monday following Whit. Ireland, along with the United Kingdom, secularised these traditional religious holidays some years ago, and replaced them with a holiday named for the institution of banking.
To exchange a Christian tradition for one linked with money perhaps reflects our values quite appropriately.
There is much to be said for separating church and state in a republic, something recommended in the New Testament itself. Many people believe that Ireland should be more secular, and that this would reflect inclusiveness and modernity. But it's interesting that other secular republics such as France and Italy have no problem about retaining their traditional Christian feast days.
France has been the most vehemently secular state in Europe for over a century now: 'laicite' – secularism – is a hallowed principle in the French republic, under which they have banned the wearing of the burqa in public as they have banned the sign of the cross in any French state institution or educational academy.
And yet, for all this sternly held and sometimes strongly imposed secularism – sometimes Muslim women are cautioned for wearing the headscarf, let alone the burqa – French Catholic feast days go untouched by state diktat. Pentecost remains Pentecost, as Ascension remains Ascension, allowed and honoured as public holidays. Corpus Christi (last Thursday, as it happens) is marked all over the Mediterranean. And many calendars used by state institutions – in some cases, even material published by state institutions – mark saints' days throughout the year, since French children like to have their saints' days as well as their birthdays.
So a secular republic can nonetheless allow, and even honour, long faith traditions which are deeply embedded in the practice of the people. It is not unusual, in France, to see a roadside shrine to the Blessed Virgin placed in a street named the 'Rue Gambetta', one of the fiercest anti-clerical politicians of the 19th century who resolved to get the church out of everything. History sometimes gently reconciles, with the passage of time.
It is noticeable, in contemporary Ireland, how secularism has grown – through the choice of domestic decor. When I used to stay in B&Bs around the country in the 1980s and 1990s, some holy pictures would be in evidence in most Irish homes.
By 2013, holy pictures are rare enough in an Irish B&B. This may be partly from tact – host families may feel they don't want to impose their values on visitors. But that thought would not have occurred in times gone by, when people thought it natural to have some religious images around the house.
Times change, and many changes are for the better, but when something is gained, something is also lost. The image of Catholic Ireland in past times is presented as relentlessly dark and negative without balance given to the spirituality of the people, or the commitment of our mothers and grandmothers to the Christian traditions they held dear: not to mention the beauty and aesthetics of faith rituals. What about the beautiful May-time processions that once brought neighbourhoods – even trade union members – together?
The slums of Dublin were once festooned, for Corpus Christi, with banners and flower processions which brought to the neighbourhoods a rich sense of community, beauty, solidarity and pride. We have forgotten all that, or it has been deliberately deleted by those who control the historical narrative. And these days all we hear of the Dublin poor is gangland shootings, while middle-class Ireland shrugs its shoulders when it reads of another such doleful episode.
In putting aside so many of the old Christian holidays, we are moving towards a secularism that may be upheld for its equality and diversity: but are we throwing out a deposit of tradition which irrigates a culture's roots? At Listowel Writers' Week the other day, the novelist Colum McCann recommended the growing movement to replace St Patrick's Day with Bloomsday: he felt pride in the fact that writers in New York and LA were honouring Ireland now for James Joyce's protagonist in 'Ulysses'.
'Ulysses' is a fine work: but can it have the same resonance as Patrick's shamrock, marked by bells ringing from Buenos Aires to Nagasaki? Can you replace 15 centuries of the people's faith with a fictional character from a book which is now globally merchandised but which – if we are honest – is seldom read from cover to cover? But Mr McCann's campaign is an interesting signifier of the way in which new values replace old.