March 13, 2020


Does Ireland need a new St. Patrick?

Ireland seems to need a new St. Patrick.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 33 million Americans self-identify as Irish-Americans, descended from people who immigrated from the Emerald Isle. And on St. Patrick’s Day, next Tuesday, March 17, that number swells as many other Americans become Irish for a day.

St. Patrick converted Ireland to Catholicism in the fifth century. We don’t know the precise dates, but Patrick’s autobiographical Confessio tells us that he was a Roman-British youth who was kidnapped and taken to Ireland when he was 16. He managed to escape about six years later and made it back home. After being ordained a priest, he returned to Ireland as a missionary, became a bishop, and converted the people from a form of Celtic polytheism. There are many legends about the things he accomplished and miracles he performed.

Thereafter, most of the people of Ireland remained Catholic, often despite persecution and hardship. During the English Reformation under Queen Elizabeth I, the Church in England and Ireland broke away from the papacy, including all but two of the Irish bishops. But most of the clergy and laity remained Catholic.

It wasn’t until 1829 that Catholics, under the leadership of Daniel O’Connell, won their religious freedom when the Catholic Emancipation Act relieved Catholics of both England and Ireland of most of the civil disabilities to which they had been subject.

It was during the Irish potato famine when the Irish began to emigrate to America. A million people died in Ireland between 1845 and 1849 because of famine. After the famine, they continued to come to America.

The Irish war of independence lasted from 1919 to 1921. It ended with the creation of Northern Ireland in 1922, which remained part of Great Britain, and mostly Protestant.

Relations between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland deteriorated and resulted in what was known as “the Troubles.” These lasted for 33 years, ending in 1998, and led to more than 3,500 deaths.

Today, though, there’s a possibility that unification between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could take place in the near future. That could be one of the results of Brexit, the vote in Britain to exit the European Union, but also the fact that the Sinn Fein party in Ireland got the largest share of first-place votes in the recent election. That party’s core objective, its manifesto says, “is to achieve Irish unity and the referendum on Unity which is the means to secure this.”

There’s also the fact that Catholicism has grown in Northern Ireland. An article in the British magazine The Economist reported, “The pressure for unification is about more than Brexit. Northern Ireland’s census in 2021 is likely to confirm that Catholics outnumber Protestants for the first time.”

But Catholicism in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland doesn’t play the same role today that it did in the past. After Ireland won its independence, the Catholic Church played a significant role, especially during the political leadership of Eamon de Valera. For example, divorce and remarriage was not permitted, and neither was abortion.

That didn’t last. When Ireland was partitioned in 1922, 92.6 percent of the south’s population was Catholic. That began to change by the 1960s. Today in the Republic of Ireland, according to the 2016 census, 78 percent of the population still identifies as Catholic.

That’s still better than every other country in Europe (except the Vatican and Poland), but surveys show that the Irish are not practicing their religion very well. Fewer than one in five Catholics attend Mass on any given weekend, and it is even less often among young people.

A poll by the Irish Times found that, not only do the majority of Irish Catholics not attend Mass weekly, but almost 62 percent reject key parts of Catholicism, such as transubstantiation.

In 2015, the Irish voted to approve same-sex marriage in a referendum, and in 2018, they voted to legalize abortion, both of which had previously been forbidden. That prompted Una Mullally, a journalist who writes for The Guardian, to say that “the fiction of Ireland as a conservative, dogmatically Catholic country has been shattered.”

Thus, it appears that Ireland needs a new St. Patrick.

—John F. Fink

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