Studying Irish history is a lot like watching Rocky. As with every Irish hero, Rocky is an underdog with a lot of heart, a lot of will, and an incredible ability to accept a beating. And like every Irish hero, Rocky loses.
Unlike Rocky, however, the Irish continue well past six fights. Ireland’s history is marked by rebellion after rebellion. The legacy of the bloodshed and failed freedom fighters belie, by stereotype and by my experience, the true nature of the Irish people: boisterous, but ultimately passive and habitually willing to submit to (Catholic) authority.
While the separation of church and state has been a tenet of most Western democracies, the Catholic Church runs 90 percent of primary schools in Ireland. While Americans debated the ethics of cloning and stem cell research, Ireland was drowning in religious conservatism, only legalizing divorce in 1995. This has, in many ways, been Ireland’s downfall. It now appears, however, that Ireland may have found its saving grace.
Ireland is still reeling from the financial disaster brought on by their unending trust in the banking system. While riots break out in Greece and the U.K., the Irish accept their fate, silent in the face of austerity and with a sense of Catholic guilt for being so successful and prosperous during the Celtic Tiger era of the late ‘90s.
Money has never been a big issue in Ireland, though, mostly because no one has ever really had it. But everyone has always had faith, and even more tragic to the Irish than their near financial collapse is the deteriorating relationship between Ireland and the Vatican. The force behind most Irish institutions has also been the force behind some its worst offenses against human rights.
For years the Irish turned a blind eye because the Church always took in those on the margins of society: unwed mothers, prostitutes, orphans. The Church dealt with those who society never wants to, and to criticize or even ask about what happened to them after they were taken in would seem ungrateful, even heretical.
These feelings of gratitude and faith have been replaced by feelings of anger and defiance. After the Cloyne Report and the Ryan Commission, both released in 2009, exposed clergy abuse cover-ups and child abuse in orphanages, the Irish have become disgusted with the Church.
This disgust was never more vocal or more quaking than this summer when Prime Minister Enda Kenny addressed the Irish Parliament to censure the Vatican, saying, “For the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual abuse exposed an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry into a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago.” He continued, saying “the rape and torture of children were downplayed, or ‘managed,’ to uphold instead the primacy of the institution—its power, its standing, and its reputation.” He finished by adding, “dysfunction … disconnection … and elitism dominate the culture of the Vatican.”
Since this speech, the Vatican removed its Irish ambassador and transferred him to the Czech Republic, while Ireland is considering merging its embassy in the Vatican with its Italian embassy.
This apparent deterioration has sent shockwaves throughout Irish society, which has always relied on the Church for guidance on all ethical and moral issues. This fracture will be healed, but it is an important step for Ireland in dealing with clerical abuse, and one that goes beyond even the efforts of the U.S. to rectify this international problem.
Kenny is bringing Ireland into the 21st century by asserting state over religion and finally acknowledging the widespread and centuries-long victimization of Irish citizens by the Church. Fixing these issues is a necessary first step toward repairing the many social and political ailments in Ireland, and it bodes well for the future of Irish democracy.
The Catholic Church will remain the largest and most influential institution in Ireland, and its charitable work is undeniable and vital to daily life in the country. No society can tolerate systematic abuse or the interference with the inquiry into it, though. It’s been a long time coming for an Irish victory. Here’s hoping there need not be a sequel.