How Ireland Took On the Church and Freed Its Soul

A nation learned to dodge God’s law in everything from biscuits to birth control, until religious doublethink became an agent of its own undoing.

By James Wood – April 4, 2022 – THE NEW YORKER

“Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history,” Novalis said. It was subtle of Penelope Fitzgerald to use this as the epigraph for her historical novel about the poet, “The Blue Flower,” implying, as it does, the novel’s best powers of restoration. History is full of destruction and certain death, but fictional people may live forever, in an eternal redemption. And recorded history struggles to capture not only unwritten lives but unwritten thoughts, very often leaving a void around private existence, interiority. The novel gladly rushes in where the angel of history fears to tread.

But the novel has no monopoly on historical correction, and reading Fintan O’Toole’s new book, “We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland” (Liveright), is like reading a great tragicomic Irish novel, rich in memoir and record, calamity and critique. The book contains funny and terrible things, details and episodes so pungent that they must surely have been stolen from a fantastical artificer like Flann O’Brien. The pedophile Dublin priest who built a swimming pool in his back garden—in drizzly Ireland!—so that little boys could swim with him. The censoring, all-seeing Archbishop of Dublin who kept a telescope and a magnifying glass in his official residence, and once boasted that, when he used the magnifier to scrutinize “the drawings of women in ads for underwear, it was possible to see the outline of a mons veneris.” The moment, in 1963, when Ireland acquired its first escalator. The fact that Irish viewers could see only a chaste version of “Casablanca” that “cut out all the references to Rick and Ilsa’s passionate love affair in Paris, leaving their motivations entirely mysterious.” The deeply corrupt Prime Minister Charles Haughey, who spent a thousand pounds of someone else’s money a week on dinners with his mistress. The strange fact that Albania got its own television station before Ireland did. The bishop who fled Ireland for a convent in Texas after his lover told the press about their illegitimate son, whom he had refused to acknowledge.

These public events have the irresistible tang of the actual, and around them O’Toole—who has had a substantial career as a journalist, a political commentator, and a drama critic—beautifully tells the private story of his childhood and youth. But because the events really happened, because they are part of Ireland’s shameful, sometimes surreal postwar history, they also have the brutishly obstructive quality of fact, often to be pushed against, fought with, triumphed over, or, in O’Toole’s preferred mode of engagement, analyzed into whimpering submission. His great gift is his extremely intelligent, mortally relentless critical examination, and here he studies nothing less than the past and the present of his own nation. James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus promised to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race; less Parnassian than Dedalus but just as angry as Joyce, O’Toole tells the story of how his race, at last breaking the fetters of religion and superstition, created its own conscience.

O’Toole opens his book in 1958, the year of his birth. He was born into the working classes; his father was a bus conductor and his mother became an office cleaner. The family lived in a newish housing estate, “lined by largely identical two-storey working-class dwellings,” in a suburb southwest of Dublin. The modernity of the housing stock was important: the O’Tooles had electricity, running water, and an indoor lavatory. In a book rippling with extraordinary facts, here are some of the starkest: at the end of the Second World War, two-thirds of Irish homes had no electricity. In the countryside, especially, development was sluggish. The 1961 census revealed that nearly seventy-five per cent of rural homes didn’t have plumbing. At least half these houses “had no fixed lavatory facilities at all, indoor or outdoor.” O’Toole remembers visiting his ninety-eight-year-old great-grandmother in County Wexford: her house had recently been electrified, but the toilet was a dry outhouse that had a plank with a hole in it, and water was brought from a distant pump.

Politically, the Ireland of his childhood appeared to be remarkably stable. It was the triumphant survivor of its Easter Rising struggle, in 1916, against British colonialism, culminating, six years later, in the establishment of the Irish Free State; a wily evader of the ravages of the Second World War (it stayed neutral); a newborn democratic republic where ancient Catholic identity and ancient national identity were fruitfully locked together in place. The state was presided over by its aging founding father, the noble and deeply pious Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Éamon de Valera, who had led forces against British soldiers in the Easter Rising and had been a British prisoner of war. De Valera’s party, Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny), had comfortably dominated Irish politics since soon after its formation, in 1926.

But Ireland, in O’Toole’s telling, was in crisis, more of a fragile agrarian theocracy than a modern democratic republic. It was not de Valera who was really in charge but the zealous magnifier of women’s private parts, the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. (O’Toole includes a photograph of de Valera on his knees, kissing McQuaid’s ecclesiastical ring.) Crucially, the country was shrinking. In 1961, its population was less than half the size it had been in 1841. “Three out of five children growing up in Ireland in the 1950s were destined to leave at some point in their lives,” O’Toole notes. Oddly, given the country’s ardent Catholicism, Ireland had very low rates of marriage—perhaps because it also possessed the lowest proportion of women in Europe (women emigrated faster than men). It had a severely uneducated populace (most pupils dropped out of school at the age of fourteen), and a limited, colonial economy, based in large part on exporting beef and other cattle products to Great Britain. “The state founded in revolution and civil war had become remarkably stable,” O’Toole writes. “But it was a stability sustained by radical instability—to keep it as it was, huge parts of the population had to emigrate, for otherwise the sheer weight of their discontented numbers would drag it down.”

O’Toole uses his birth date to plot the country’s tensions and contradictions, drawing the reader’s attention to three symptomatic events that occurred in the week of his birth. Two days before he was born, the Dublin Theatre Festival struck “Bloomsday,” an adaptation of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” from the schedule, when Archbishop McQuaid made his disapproval clear by refusing to mark the festival opening with a special votive mass. (Samuel Beckett withdrew his play in protest.) The second event, while O’Toole’s mother was in labor, took place in England. Masked members of the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) raided a British Army camp in Dorset, and bound and gagged ten young soldiers. The episode was relatively trivial, but it portended many years of murder and sorrow. Meanwhile, the government’s minister for industry and commerce, Seán Lemass—like de Valera, a veteran of the 1916 Easter Rising—flew to Paris to discuss the possibility of Ireland’s joining the newly proposed European Free Trade Association, a precursor to the European Union.

Seen in hindsight, the three events occupy tellingly different temporalities. The censoring Church already belonged to the superstitious past, though the members of the clergy didn’t know it, of course, and had not yet even begun to cede their immense authority. The I.R.A. raid opened the long chapter of terroristic violence, perpetrated by both Catholics and Protestants, known as the Troubles—most of it confined to the British province of Northern Ireland and to the British mainland—that more or less came to an end in 1998, with the Anglo-Irish Good Friday Agreement. The ministerial trip to Paris set in motion an economic expansion and an integration with the rest of Europe that is open-ended and ongoing. The three events occupy the past, the finite present, and the unlimited future.

Also: religion, violence, and identity. Was Ireland just a curious, dusty little annex of the Catholic Church—its national vestry, essentially—or a modern nation willing to join a large, technocratic, increasingly secular political bloc, whose laws and mores were bound to conflict with Irish bans on abortion, divorce, and contraception? In a state that fused Catholic identity and republican nationalism, would sectarian political violence—violence done in the name of Catholics against the Protestants of Northern Ireland, and in the service of the “unfinished” Irish revolution of 1916—bind Catholicism and Irishness ever more intensely together or pull these identities apart? The sixty-year development that O’Toole so dexterously tracks is one in which an isolated religious nation becomes—slowly, then suddenly—a hospitably “normal,” secular one, and in which Catholicism and Irishness are no longer seen as synonymous. This sundering eventually made religiously sectarian violence not just difficult to defend (the modern Irish government never had a lot of time for the I.R.A.) but, finally, incoherent.

Like most nations, but more acutely, the Ireland of the late nineteen-fifties and the sixties was torn between isolation and community. Most important, it had to navigate a path between the claims of the Church and the secular appeal of the new. The country’s apparent strengths—its population’s ethnic and religious homogeneity, its battle-scarred unity against the old colonial aggressor, the romantic brilliance of its self-mythologizing—were the very forces that were pushing it toward disruptive upheavals. O’Toole is almost Hegelian in his understanding of history as a critical process in which eras helplessly recruit the agents of their own undoing. Religion and nationalism, the cross and the clover, promised a timeless stability but were actually subversive forces.

They were subversive because, despite the rhetoric of confidence, they were anxiously unstable, held together by a will to hypocrisy; when the deficits of this hypocrisy overwhelmed the benefits, the will began to wane. Reading this book, I was struck by parallels with the collapse of various European Communist regimes. In particular, I often thought of the jokes, novels, and allegories that circulated in places under Communist rule, like Czechoslovakia and Albania, with their comic, grim evasions and knowing irony around doublethink. Josef Škvorecký, as much as Flann O’Brien, could have produced the basic script.

Take contraception. The pill, though illegal in Ireland, had been imported into the country since 1963, officially as a “cycle regulator.” As long as no one spoke the word “contraceptive,” doctors could conspire with their female patients in this medical fiction. The Church connived at this solution, too. “Catholic schools and hospitals would have ceased to function if teachers and nurses were not having awful trouble with their periods,” O’Toole winkingly comments; pregnant teachers and nurses would have been sacked. (It was only in the year of his birth, he points out, that the government lifted its prohibition on married women working as teachers.)

O’Toole bundles these hypocrisies under the delicious term “Connie dodging.” Cornelius (hence “Connie”) Lucey, the Bishop of Cork, had demanded a particularly strict version of Lenten fasting, in which parishioners were restricted to one meal a day, along with two “collations,” which were understood to be something like a biscuit, to be had with one’s tea. A resourceful local baker then invented a gigantic biscuit for Lent, known as a Connie dodger. “The law of God was not defied,” O’Toole observes. “It was dodged. And so it was with the Pill.”

One of the liveliest episodes in the book occurred in 1971, when members of a new feminist group known as the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement (aided, in the legal realm, by the young law professor Mary Robinson, a future President of the republic) mounted a campaign to break the law restricting the importation of contraceptives. The women took a train to Northern Ireland, with the intention of buying contraceptive pills in Belfast and then openly declaring them at customs in Dublin. But because they were unable to acquire the pill in Belfast without a prescription, they returned with aspirin, confident that the customs guards would not be able to tell the difference. Alas, nothing much happened. When one of the group announced that she was carrying the banned substance, O’Toole recounts, the customs men in Dublin “dropped their eyes, silent and fussed,” and waved the women through, as if they hadn’t heard anything. Official hypocrisy doubled down; Connie dodging lived to fight another day.

O’Toole’s book pulses with righteous anticlericalism, and at its heart lies his eloquent outrage at what amounted to a vast religious penal colony. This network—comprising the ordinary Catholic schools run by the Christian Brothers, the more shadowy “mother and baby homes,” the Magdalene asylums, and the “industrial schools”—variously disciplined and incarcerated boys, girls, and pregnant or otherwise “wayward” women. Of these institutions, the most notorious, thanks to a landmark government investigation in 2015, are the mother-and-baby homes, most of which were run by Catholic nuns. Unmarried pregnant women were sent to these homes to deliver their babies, who were put up for adoption or neglected unto death and buried in situ. At the Tuam Children’s Home, which was administered by the Sisters of Bon Secours, some eight hundred children were buried within a decommissioned sewage tank, O’Toole writes. Between 1920 and 1977, many hundreds of dead babies were dispatched from these homes to the nation’s finest medical schools, in Dublin, for research purposes.

The Magdalene asylums confined women who had broken the law and were perceived to have fallen into sexual immorality. The industrial schools were boarding schools for problem kids, who were subdued by regimes of terror that included flogging, burning, head shaving, beatings on the soles of the feet, and being made to sleep outside overnight. The network incorporated fifty-two such places and interned some fifty thousand children. O’Toole writes that he can’t recall a time when he didn’t know the names of the biggest “schools,” which “formed a hinterland of dread.” When he was eight, a boy named George, who lived across the street, disappeared into one of these places. He had apparently stolen a bike.

O’Toole was lucky enough to attend a relatively normal school run by the Christian Brothers, if normality can be stretched to accommodate unrestrained physical violence meted out with leather straps or bamboo canes, and much enforced propaganda; the Brothers published such texts as “Courtesy for Boys and Girls” and a “Catechism of the History of Ireland,” which asserted that “in the martyrology of history, among crucified nations, Ireland occupies the foremost place. The duration of her torture, and the ferocity of her executioner, are as revolting as the power of the victim is astonishing.” A crucified nation must imagine itself a holy nation, allied in defeat and in victory with Christ’s necessary suffering. But once suffering is somehow necessary all control is lost, and violence can be theologically justified, because punishment is really a kind of shared self-punishment. (That’s the kind of thing I used to hear in my Church of England school in the North of England, as the headmaster, the Reverend Canon John Grove, bent down to beat my bottom with the back of a wooden hairbrush: “Believe me, Wood, this hurts me more than it will hurt you.”) It is the logic of original sin: all have sinned, all must suffer, and only through suffering is glory achieved.

Irish society was premised on what O’Toole calls “the unknown known,” Ireland’s “genius for knowing and not knowing at the same time.” This gap, this useful fiction, could be maintained in the postwar decades as long as ordinary people, many with modest educations and modest aspirations, understood their lowly place in the hierarchy. Parents trusted predatory or violent schoolteachers and priests, and were happy to outsource a fair amount of the parenting: a dog’s obeyed in office, as mad King Lear has it. The secret can survive as long as the monarch stays sane and does not reveal himself in all his doglike animalism, because then someone in the street might yell out, “But he’s just a dog!”

For instance, until the divorce referendum of 1995, a couple who needed to get divorced in Ireland had to convince a body called the diocesan Marriage Tribunal that their marriage should be annulled on the ground that, owing to some “defect” at the time of the nuptials, they were never properly married anyway. In Dublin, O’Toole writes, the moral arbiter before whom you had to lay these sophistical contortions was a priest named, appropriately enough, Ivan Payne. In 1968, Payne had become the chaplain of the Crumlin children’s hospital, not far from where the young O’Toole lived. He replaced Father Paul McGennis, who had been discovered photographing little girls’ genitalia and had been secretly pardoned and protected by our man with the magnifying glass, Archbishop McQuaid. At the children’s hospital, Payne started abusing little boys: O’Toole tells us that there were sixteen known victims at the hospital, and fifteen more identified victims after Payne joined the Marriage Tribunal. The Church knew about Payne’s activities as early as 1981, when one of his young victims alerted Church authorities. Payne admitted his offense, and was quietly moved from one parish to another. As O’Toole puts it, with measured fury, from 1985 to 1995 the body charged with making discriminations about the moral fineness of marriages “included a man who had admitted the sexual abuse of a child and two other priests who knew about that abuse.”

Hypocrisy shrivels when it is named in sunlight. In the nineteen-nineties, that sunlit naming happened fast, and the two sides of the unknown known—the knowing and the not knowing—started openly talking to each other, like a mistress and a wife finally comparing notes on the same atrocious man. Four events were propulsive. In 1992, Eamonn Casey, the popular and telegenic Bishop of Galway, fled Ireland for New York on an Aer Lingus plane. His American lover, Annie Murphy, had told the Irish Times about her long affair with Casey, and about their son, Peter, born in 1974, who was being financially supported by the Bishop—or, more precisely, by funds from the Galway diocese, without its knowledge. Not that Peter was being supported with much grace. Bishop Casey had, of course, urged Murphy to give the child up for adoption. Peter was not her child, he had admonished her in the hospital, but God’s. What right did she have to keep a boy who had been born in sin? O’Toole writes that, with the Irish Times story, “a code of silence had been broken forever.” Connie was not dodged; this time, it was Connie who had dodged.

Politically, change was also under way. In 1990, Mary Robinson was elected President, after a brutal campaign that exposed the nation’s religiose misogyny. A Fianna Fáil parliamentarian asked at a rally if Robinson was going to set up an abortion-referral clinic in the Presidential residence; Prime Minister Haughey, the Fianna Fáil leader, claimed that Robinson was just fronting for a “Marxist-Leninist Communist Party”; and a government minister, Pádraig Flynn, accused her of faking “a newfound interest in the family,” and wondered aloud about her bona fides as a mother and a wife. O’Toole notes that this kind of morally presumptuous misogyny worked when it remained unspoken, as part of the general contract of hypocrisy. The mistake was speaking it so blatantly, since to do so “revealed the reality obscured by the rhetoric, a deep contempt for women. It triggered a visceral rage that had been built up over generations.”

Robinson’s election, according to O’Toole, broke the reflexive alliance of the Church and the Fianna Fáil Party, debunking the notion that both had some kind of moral monopoly over Irish culture. Haughey—whose florid, sharp-eyed face, with its ruddy wattles, proved an icon for an era—resigned as the Fianna Fáil leader in 1992. A government tribunal, held in 1997, revealed that he had funded his lavish life style from other people’s pockets and shielded his wrongdoing via a shell company based in the Cayman Islands.

A year later, the Good Friday Agreement, announced by the Irish and British governments, largely ended the armed conflict between Catholics and Protestants. On both sides, all political prisoners who accepted the Agreement were to be released. Simultaneous referendums were held: in Northern Ireland, seventy-one per cent of voters, a majority of Protestants and Catholics, voted in favor of the Agreement; in Ireland, ninety-four per cent did so. Paramilitary organizations agreed to disarm. The Agreement bound the signatories to accept the principle of self-determination; namely, that they must “recognize the birthright of all the people in Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose.” Both governments moved to allow citizens to hold simultaneous British and Irish passports, which pushed the Irish to amend their constitution thus: “It is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions.”

O’Toole’s commentary here is especially acute. He points out that these words allowed for the reconciliation of two compound identities, Catholic/Irish and Protestant/British, that had once seemed immutably at odds, and, in consequence, broke any necessary link between Irishness and Catholicism. Identity could now be plural and open-ended. This prospect was still largely conceptual, perhaps, but, thanks to the enormous investments from America and elsewhere which had been pouring into Ireland since the nineteen-eighties, Irish society was indeed being transformed. Something unimaginable in 1958 was coming to pass: mass emigration was being reversed. A quarter of a million people flocked to an economically revivified Ireland between 1995 and 2000. Foreign-born inhabitants grew from six per cent of the population in 1991 to ten per cent in 2002. Once the European Union allowed the free flow of people and labor, in 2004—later to be one of the main engines of Brexit—Irish society began to diversify rapidly. By 2016, O’Toole informs us, seventeen per cent of the population had been born elsewhere.

In J. F. Powers’s novel “Morte D’Urban,” a priest named Father Urban is put under moral pressure when a woman undresses in front of him. He averts his eyes, and keeps them averted. “It was like tearing up telephone directories, the hardest part was getting started,” Powers jokes. Change in postwar Ireland was a bit like that, except in moral reverse. Ireland was slow to throw off its repressions and deceits, slow to unseat a theocratic system that insisted on votive masses to bless theatre festivals, and slow to overturn a moral arrangement that coddled molesting priests and murderous, secretive institutions. The nineteen-eighties, so violently transformative in Thatcher’s Britain, produced little evidence of general secularization in Ireland. The Irish reaffirmed the prohibition on divorce in a 1986 referendum. But when the process began for good, in the nineteen-nineties, the establishment phone book, as it were, got ripped up very fast indeed. The key dates fall on O’Toole’s closing pages like accelerating hammer blows: Mary Robinson’s election (1990); Eamonn Casey’s flight (1992); the tribunal on Charles Haughey (1997); a documentary series, produced by Mary Raftery, on the industrial schools, titled “States of Fear” (1999), which was such a powerful exposé that the government began discussing the possibility of making a formal apology the day after its screening on Irish TV; the governmental report (2009) that confirmed Raftery’s reporting, and, in the same year, an official report into sexual abuse in the Dublin archdiocese. These were followed by happier events, moments of triumph not just through suffering but over suffering: the 2015 vote in favor of gay marriage, the 2018 referendum that lifted the ban on abortion.

What happened? Ireland became normal. “To be normal was a wonder that deserved celebration,” O’Toole writes. Is it possible to say how in a sentence? He makes a brave effort, in what may be the most moving line of the book: “This, I think, was what really changed: ordinary Catholics realized that, when it came to lived morality, they were way ahead of their teachers.” O’Toole leaves unspoken the gaping implication: and perhaps way ahead of God Himself? “

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