Irish Catholics had a much looser attitude to the church before the famine
Irish Catholics were much less devout before the famine, according to a new documentary.
The RTE documentary, Rome V Republic, examined how the church got such a strong hold over every aspect of the nation's life after the foundation of the state.
It reveals that the famine unexpectedly strengthened the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
The documentary, presented by former Justice Minister Michael McDowell, found Irish people in the late 1700s and early 1800s had a much laxer attitude towards mass-going.
“We know people wouldn’t have gone to mass every Sunday but this is not to say they weren’t religious in their own way”, said Dr. Sarah Roddy from the University of Manchester.
“But I suppose the church might have seen as a kind of unorthodox religion which combined going to mass every now and then but also doing things which had ancient pagan roots as well.”
Daniel O’Connell’s campaign for Catholic emancipation energised the country’s Catholics in a mass movement in the early 19th century.
But Professor Mary Daly from UCD said the famine had an unexpected effect on the Catholic church in Ireland.
The population went from just under 8.2 million in 1841 to just under 5.8 million in 1861.
Professor Mary said the dramatic population decline disaster gave the Catholic church more control over its flock.
“The reality about religion pre-famine, it’s not like the place as full of atheists, it’s just that in many areas there aren’t enough priests.
“Basically the Catholic Church in 1841 did not have the manpower to really look the six million-odd Catholics in Ireland at the time.”
She said the deaths of millions of Catholics meant the church had smaller numbers of more God-fearing parishioners.
“A lot of the population loss occurred in the poor and very poor people who were not regular Sunday mass goers, who would have practiced a different form of Catholicism based around a good mixture of superstition and folk belief with Catholicism.
“They are removed from the scene.”
She said the middle classes left behind were much more devout.
“The people who really come through are the farmers.
“They are not the dominant group, publicly, socially, the church is very heavily dependent on a rising middle class. shop keepers, merchants in town.
“They were the people who would have educated their children, they would be God-fearing, respectable is the word worth using.
“Many would have aspired in time to send a son into the priesthood, so the Catholic Church is in a stronger position, absolutely.”
Michael McDowell revealed how the first free State constitution drawn up by a committee which included Michael Collins was a very secular document but then a raft of “Catholic morally inspired legislation” was brought in.
It catalogues how the new cash-strapped Irish Republic was forced to rely on the 13,000 religious personnel across the country.
But DCU’s Dr. Daithí Ó’ Corráin said the church’s huge numbers of vocations fell dramatically as soon as free secondary school education came in 1967.
“After that vocations literally all off a cliff.”
Despite two decades of horrific scandals, cover-ups and revelations the documentary concludes that church remains embedded in Irish life.
Rome V Republic will be shown on RTE One Thursday 11th April, 10.15pm