A post I wrote last week seems to have struck a chord, judging by the reaction to it. In The Non-fighting Irish I was trying to articulate a sense of how meekly we accept whatever injustice or scam is inficted on us by church, state and business. I wondered where this docility came from and suggested how we might move on.
It seems to me that the Catholic church is guilty of more than just abusing our children. I think it abused our souls, though isn’t alone in this crime, being ably aided and abetted by the self-interested legal and medical professions.
By force-feeding the Irish a diet of pious absolutes from the time of Cardinal Paul Cullen onwards, I think they blunted the critical faculties of an entire nation. Perhaps as a reaction to the Irish Shoah — the Great Famine — an authoritarian Catholic church set about gaining a grip on the previously hedonistic and irresponsible Irish, strangling the last vestiges of gaiety and free thinking from the population.
They took over sporting activities. They imposed a new style of music and dance on the children, a cold robotic style filled with their hatred for the human body that has today become a parody of itself. They filled the countryside with the droning of their Rosary mantra, and created an occult pantheon of demigods to be feared and worshipped, led by the Virgin Mary. They required people to believe the most facile nonsense and those who refused were shunned. They whipped up anti-Protestant and anti-Jewish sentiment at every opportunity, and most important of all, they grasped control of the primary schools from a British government only too willing to accept their assistance.
When these clerical absolutes were combined with simplistic nationalist sloganeering, I think a toxic mix emerged. It was the primeval soup from which our national prototype crawled, grew legs and walked the land in all its infantile certainty.
Some will remember the Arch-confraternity in this very town, Limerick. A Catholic movement that held almost every Catholic Limerickman in its grip and whose meetings were reminiscent of the Nuremberg rallies. These meetings were lectured by fire-and-brimstone Redemptorists, whose thundering sermons were liberally and seductively sprinkled with the stirring rhetoric of the action novel, which was the only form of literature available at the time, thanks to a puritanical, and Catholic-driven censorship regime.
I recall my own father, a literate and curious man, confined to a diet of trash westerns, murder mysteries and war novels, thanks to successive governments of every political shade that didn’t trust their people to think for themselves. The authors banned in those days, not a million years ago, included Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, DH Lawrence, Brendan Behan, Aldous Huxley and Honoré de Balzac.
The list of Irish authors banned in the 30s and 40s is so distinguished that it reads like an anthology of the best of Irish writing: Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Liam O’Flaherty, Sean Ó Faolain, Frank O’Connor, Francis Stuart, Austin Clarke, George Moore, Kate O’Brien, Norah Hoult, Oliver St John Gogarty, Maura Laverty, and Walter Macken. Ó Faoláin is said to have called himself the leader of the banned.
The country, under the dark puritanism of the clergy, became a cold place for independent thought, and an even colder place for anyone with red blood in their veins, because if there was one crime worse than thinking freely, it was to be sexually active.
This is a country in which, until recently, clerics were held in such regard that nobody — not even our police force — believed them capable of a crime.
This is a country in which celibate, sexually-dysfunctional clerics felt entitled to lecture grown women about inserting thermometers to check their fertility, and felt entitled to terrify schoolchildren into believing sex was a dirty and shameful thing. As Woody Allen once remarked when asked if he thought sex was dirty: Only if you’re doing it right.
This is a country in which the same clerics constantly sought to influence the law of the land in relation to family law and sexual relations between consenting adults. It reached its most absurd and obscene when the cloistered order of Poor Clares were marched out en masse to vote down a constitutional amendment permitting divorce.
That was not in 1886.
It was in 1986, the year Elvis Costello released two albums: King of America and Blood and Chololate that included the aching I want You. The Pet Shop Boys released Please and REM unveiled Life’s Rich Pageant. Paul Simon released Graceland that year, Talking Heads told True Stories and Jennifer Warnes gave the world the sublime Famous Blue Raincoat. Movies that year included Top Gun, Aliens, Platoon and The Fly.
But in Ireland, silent nuns were preventing divorce. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
This is the country in which a prime minister voted against the party of which he was the leader, in deference to the sexual strictures inposed by the same clerics and that didn’t happen in the 19th century either. It happened in 1974. Brian Ferry, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Tom Waits and Fleetwood Mac were in the charts.
Liam Cosgrave crossed the floor of the chamber to vote down his own government’s bill, confining the importation and selling of contraceptives to licensed persons and making it an offence for unmarried people to buy them. It was a most conservative measure, forced on the government by the McGee supreme court case, and even at that, their knees buckled in the face of ecclesiastical displeasure.
Cosgrave’s actions happened in a country that dared to call itself a republic, and they show how an intelligent, educated man could yet bring himself to bend the knee in a childish deferential display of submission to the men with the rings.
At this remove, such behaviour seems insane, but that’s how it was, and today, in 2010, some government ministers are just as much in thrall to the church as Cosgrave was in 1974. After all, we still have a constitution which was in large part dictated by the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. Not too many years back, Michael Woods and Bertie Ahern meekly handed over €1.27 billion of our money to bail out the religious orders after their mass rapes and beatings were revealed.
What’s perhaps worse is this: the Catholic church hijacked morality and ethics in this society, and held them as a monopoly, stifling all rational humanistic tendencies in the people. Consequently, now that the people have lost all respect for them, a void has been created. Instead of an internal, self-generated ethic, we had an imposed artificial structure, and consequently, society is now left with no frame of reference for what is right or wrong.
Whatever about blind obedience to the instructions of the Catholic church, there’s a more insidious consequence, which is the training of generation upon generation to accept arrant nonsense with a straight face and without question.
Hence we have an entire nation institutionalised, and ready to accept not only the fairytales of the priests, but also the nonsense of the bankers and property developers who promised endless prosperity. Or the nonsense of a government in the pockets of the wealthy, telling them that billions of public money must be pumped into the same banks to save the vested interests from their own criminality. Or the nonsense of a heavily-funded health service that simply doesn’t work, because it’s geared towards making rich consultants even richer at the expense of poor people. Or the empty, meaningless sloganeering of A Nation Once Again, the monster that ate and spat out so many victims. Or the fact that the same crooks who fuelled the economic disaster have been re-employed and now work for NAMA at a healthy profit. Or the recent salary increases for the people who run the cancerous Anglo-Irish Bank.
Where do we go from here?
Why not begin with something very simple, but symbolic of a new start? Why not turn our backs on the old, failed, inward-looking ways by removing the meaningless titles from our two main, failed political parties. Let there be no more Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. Let them adopt titles that reflect what they believe in, and if they have no beliefs, let them be disbanded and gone from our parliament. Let them make way for new thinking, and let us once and for all bury their outdated, Civil-war, priest-ridden deference and collusion with authoritarianism.
Back in the Eighties there was something called the New Ireland Forum, set up by Garrett Fitzgerald to examine ways of giving stability and peace to Ireland, north and south.
It seems to me that we need another New Ireland Forum, but with a different focus. We are in the middle of a war without bullets, potentially more destructive than either the civil war or the Northern Ireland conflict, and this war has been triggered by the treason of the banks, the property developers and certain corrupt government ministers. It threatens to destroy this country if we don’t wake up.
No guns will win the new war, though I greatly fear there will be blood on the streets whether we like it or not. The only thing that will save us from annihilation is a new way of thinking, and the most important part of that is to finally shake off our pathological deference to all things authoritarian, whether priest or politician, doctor, lawyer or bureaucrat.
We need to learn that we are not children and that we do not need to be treated like children. We need to stop looking to the hollow men of politics and church for our ideas and instead start to look inside ourselves.
We need to trust our own hearts for once and begin to heal the soul of the nation that has been so badly damaged by the self-serving priests, politicians and pampered elites who have held this country by the throat for too long.
Forget about looking for a strong leader. That way engenders demagogues and rabble rousing opportunists.
The place we’ll find a new vision and a new focus is inside ourselves, but first we must face up to the reality of how childish and docile we have been , how much it has cost us as a nation, and how much it will cost our children.
Then we can begin to grow up and order our affairs for ourselves.