A terrible beauty
How the Irish are in flight from the past
by Thomas G Casey SJ
Every article written for the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica must be vetted by the Vatican before it is published. For this reason, many people believe that La Civiltà Cattolica is the unofficial voice of the Holy See. So what does the Vatican currently think about Ireland? What perspective on our country does the Holy See subscribe to? All the signs are that the Vatican believes there may be a terrible beauty unfolding in our land. At least that is what an article written by Thomas Casey in last month’s La Civiltà Cattolica claimed. Here is the English translation of Tom’s article.
The Nobel-prize winning Irish poet William Butler Yeats coined the phrase “a terrible beauty” in his poem “Easter 1916”. In this poem Yeats reflects on the rising of a small group of Irish people against British rule on Easter Sunday 1916. The leaders of the rebellion initially received little support from the Irish public, but once they were executed by the British authorities they immediately became national heroes. Although Yeats admired these men and women because of their extraordinary courage and commitment, he still questioned the value of their sacrifice. “Was it needless death after all?” All he can affirm is that things “Are changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born” [Una bellezza terribile è nata].Yeats’ phrase suggests the ambivalence and uncertainty that surround all momentous changes. There is something both beautiful and terrible about the new Ireland that is emerging today. On the one hand, Ireland is beautiful, alluring, appealing, and entrancing: for instance, it is now among the ten richest nations on earth, with a vibrant culture, a newly discovered self-confidence, and a thriving cosmopolitan society with immigrants now making up 1 in 10 of the workforce. Across the border in Northern Ireland there has been a peace agreement since 1998, as well as a pledge by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in July 2005 to end its campaign of violence, though deep religious and political divisions will take a longer time to heal.
On the other hand, there is something disquieting and unsettling about contemporary Ireland: it is in serious danger of losing its soul. But people are blinding themselves so much to their spiritual predicament with the help of things like money, drink, and drugs that they only sense this danger in a vague and obscure way. Religion is no longer an important force in the public sphere. Certainly Irish people continue to believe in God and regard themselves as religious. However, their religion has become a private matter, and there is now a moral vacuum where faith used to be. For the moment, the vacuum is being filled with materialistic pursuits. But this soulless void cannot provide a moral compass, a fact reflected by rising suicide rates, marriage breakdowns, and the increase in violent crimes. The consumption of alcohol and drugs is rising at an alarming rate: for instance, over the last 10 years there has been a major increase in public intoxication by underage drinkers, with a 400% rise in the percentage of underage drinkers getting drunk in public; the figures for drug abuse are even more astonishing: over the last 4 years the use of cocaine has increased tenfold, by a thousand per cent. The terrible quality of Ireland’s contemporary beauty is linked to how Irish people are leaving behind their Catholic heritage, or “emigrating” from it. By forgetting this crucial part of their past, Irish people are losing an essential aspect of themselves.
’Emigrating’ from the past
The phenomenon of emigration was traditionally associated with Ireland in the nineteenth century, and for most of the twentieth century. Up until the 1980s, young Irish people were emigrating in search of work. Now Ireland is facing large-scale immigration for the first time, as the booming economy attracts immigrants from all over the world. When people left Ireland, it was because they could not attain any reasonable standard of living in their own country. They wanted to get away and make a fresh start. Right now, Irish people are in a similar stage of emigration regarding their historical past. They are caught up in busy lives and in a booming economy; they have little time or energy to give to faith.
When emigrants took the ships away from Ireland, the island behind them gradually vanished from sight. Today Ireland’s religious past is receding into the past and sinking into the waters of forgetfulness and oblivion. The intelligentsia even presents religious indifference as a sign of human maturity and national coming of age. There is enormous reluctance on the part of many people to criticize the newly secularized Ireland, despite the fact that it is highly questionable in certain respects, and primarily because criticism of this secular culture is equated with the desire to restore a past that opinion-makers have demonized.
There is no doubt that there were negative elements in the Irish past. In his speech to the Irish bishops at the end of their ad limina visit to Rome on 28 October 2006, Pope Benedict XVI brought up the darkest and most sinister shadow of all from the Irish Catholic past, the awful crime of clerical sex abuse of children: “The wounds caused by such acts run deep, and it is an urgent task to rebuild confidence and trust where these have been damaged. In your continuing efforts to deal effectively with this problem, it is important to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes.” These misdeeds were certainly heinous. But they do not tell the whole story of the Irish Catholic past. Indeed in that same speech, the Pope went on to highlight other and more positive aspects of the Irish Catholic heritage. Nevertheless, there has also been a tendency to paint all of Ireland’s religious past as exclusively bad, a tendency that runs counter to the truth.
Take for instance this sentence from the opening page of the international bestseller Angela’s Ashes (1996) by Frank McCourt: “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” If a lie is repeated often enough, people eventually believe it, if for no other reason than the fact of its continual repetition. The lie about Ireland’s past has been so incessantly hammered home that over the last decade many people began to wonder whether this lie was in fact the truth. In the last couple of years, however, ordinary people have been waking up to the fact that this critique of religion was exaggerated and extreme. Nevertheless, a small number of social commentators continue to consider religion in predominantly negative terms. These critics resemble the character of Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Like Dedalus, these people who mould public opinion are highly intelligent and articulate. Like this gifted youth in Joyce’s novel, they lack self-awareness and dismiss the positive value of tradition, deliberately distancing themselves from the father and mother figures in their culture. The Irish media, although not hostile to Catholicism, is convinced that the Catholic Church is an outdated, albeit benevolent institution, in serious need of modernization and a radical overhaul. Journalists portray the Catholic Church as vainly battling against the inevitable progress of reason and tolerance in Irish society.
Both Irish religious practice and Irish spirituality are changing in Ireland today. There has been a big drop in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. In 2005 no candidate was ordained to the priesthood in the archdiocese of Dublin, where a third of the population of Ireland lives, well over a million people. This was a watershed moment, the first year in living memory that the archdiocese did not have a single ordination. As for mass-going, it has declined, above all in the younger age group. In 1992, 8 out of every 10 Irish Catholics attended Sunday mass every week. According to a survey conducted in 2006 by RTE, the national broadcasting network, this percentage has now more than halved to less than 40%. Even though some statistics point to a higher percentage of Sunday mass-goers, there is no doubt that the decline has been both steep and rapid.
However statistics do not tell the full story. They chart the changes in outward religious behavior, but they do not tell the deeper story of what is happening to the spirituality and religiousness of Irish people. Although Irish people are less inclined to formal religious practice, they continue to retain belief in God. They resort to prayer, especially at times of crisis, and are keen to turn to the sacraments at key moments such as birth, marriage and death. But it is difficult to know how deeply their faith influences their daily lives. However, this much can be said: the beliefs of a nation do not change overnight, even though religious practice may alter at alarming speed. What then has happened to Irish spirituality?
If spirituality is about what we do with our desires and the restlessness we feel inside ourselves, and Christian spirituality is channeling those desires to loving God and others, then the Irish have a double focus for their desires and immense energy: on the one hand they still retain an identifiably Catholic hunger for God; on the other hand, they are increasingly seduced by money, status and success. Because wealth and affluence are new to Ireland, some have taken to them with the zeal and energy of fresh converts. Yet not everyone is fooled by the trappings of money and success. There is a growing awareness that Ireland may be losing something of itself in the process. Thankfully some Irish people are beginning to realize the truth of the prophetic remarks Pope John Paul II made on his visit to the country 27 years ago: “The Irish people have to choose today their way forward. Will it be the transformation of all strata of humanity into a new creation, or the way that many nations have gone, giving excessive importance to economic growth and material possessions, and neglecting things of the spirit?” (Pope John Paul II, Homily in Limerick, 1st October 1979).
The new and dominant consumerist culture of Ireland does not offer a supportive structure for belief. Today the Catholic faith is no longer embedded in Irish culture as it was a half a century ago. Many Irish people of the younger generation, even those who are religiously committed, presume that faith is little more than a personal choice. They are remarkably fideist, presuming that there are no good reasons to support their religious commitment. They regard their Catholicism as a blind leap of faith. They compare this leap with meeting somebody and deciding to marry them; but they fail to see that there is a world of difference between deciding to marry someone you met a half an hour ago (a blind leap of faith!) and choosing to marry someone you first met five years ago. In the latter case, you know the person, even though you do not know everything about them. But at least you have a foundation, a basis. There will never be enough proofs to compel anyone to believe in God. We are always faced with a free choice. Nevertheless, there are certainly reasons that make this decision a plausible and rational one.
One of the side effects of the shift from a public faith to a private religion is that it pushes religiously-inclined young people to seek meaning and identity through a solitary search or within an isolated group, instead of being daring enough to promote a dream and vision for Irish culture as a whole. Young Catholics share an erroneous presumption with their secular peers: they wrongly presume that there cannot be a truth that is true for everyone; they imagine it is at most true for small groups. Although they are convinced that their faith is true for themselves, they are afraid that it will not make sense to others. This mistaken presumption means that believers think they have nothing to offer the wider culture. They are too fearful to venture outside their close-knit groups. Many youth do not think about God at all. Although they are not hostile to Catholicism, faith has become irrelevant for them, and disappeared from the horizon of their concerns. God is absent from their lives, and they do not even notice He is gone. They associate God with the afterlife, which is something vague and uncertain in their minds.
There is however one strong element in Irish culture that has not become privatized: the custom of drinking alcohol together in pubs. Irish socializing almost always revolves around drinking. And Irish people have always given themselves permission to regard the culture of drinking as part of their “spirituality”. There is some truth in this view because there was always more to social drinking than drinking alcohol itself. Gathering in the pub also offered the chance to nourish human and spiritual values: companionship, music, fun, a carefree and welcoming atmosphere, intimacy, relaxation, and even conversations of a religious nature.
But Irish people also turn a blind eye to the addictive side of alcohol. Instead they look on drinking as an appealing and integral part of what makes their national character so loveable to other nations. They do not want to face the fact that excessive drinking is a vice and a potentially deadly one; they prefer to regard it as careless mischief, as an Irish virtue of sorts. Meanwhile the traditional Irish pubs are dying out. In their place are much larger pubs, often doubling as nightclubs, which play loud music that makes genuine conversation impossible. The atmosphere in such pubs is not relaxed, but noisy and tense, pressurizing customers to drink a lot and drink quickly.
The reader may wonder what is the point of discussing alcohol in an article about how the Irish are moving on from their past; after all, hasn’t drinking always been central to Irish social life? Yes; but there are also new and alarming developments. First of all, the per capita increase in alcohol consumption in Ireland between 1989 and 2002 was 50%, an astonishing increase in a nation already renowned for its drinking. Directly connected to this increase has been a dramatic rise in public order offences and sexual assaults. Another new feature is the huge number of young people who are into “binge drinking”: drinking for the sake of drinking and in order to get drunk. Underage Irish girls have the highest binge-drinking rate in Europe. Ireland’s teen alcoholism rate is 6%, twice the rate in the USA. In 2005, over 90% of men under the age of 30 who committed suicide had alcohol in their bloodstream. It is all too easy for young people to find an excuse to drink: they have a lot of money to spend, they are given huge freedom by parents, and they buy into the empty promises of consumerism.
I have described different ways in which Irish people today are abandoning their past and “emigrating” from their recent history. This radical dereliction is too traumatic a form of emigration, and too dismissive of a rich tradition. There are many good values in Irish history that ought to be cherished. An encouraging sign in this respect was the decision by the Irish Government this year to mark the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising with a military parade through Dublin city on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2006. Shortly after the Troubles began in Northern Ireland in 1969, this annual parade had been suspended. At the time the Irish Government feared antagonizing the Unionist community in Northern Ireland, especially given the fact that the paramilitaries of the Provisional IRA claimed to be the inheritors of the freedom fighters of 1916. IRA terrorists identified their campaign of terror with the rebellion of 1916. However, positive developments in Northern Ireland led the government to reconsider its decision: for instance, since 1998 there has been a peace agreement in Northern Ireland and in 2005 the IRA promised to lay down arms definitively. The Irish “Taoiseach” [Prime Minister] Bertie Ahern declared that the reinstatement of this parade would offer citizens the opportunity to engage in a national dialogue about what it means to be Irish today.
Now that Ireland has shown itself adult enough to recall and commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising, an event that has shaped the nation so decisively, it is time to begin to acknowledge in a more serious and substantive way the positive aspects of its Catholic and Christian heritage. This is not to deny the shadow side of Irish Catholicism, the kind of things that the present Holy Father denounced as “filth” while presiding over the Way of the Cross as a Cardinal in Rome on Good Friday, 2005. But there is more to Irish Catholicism than dark and heinous misdeeds. For instance, Ireland would not be in the enviable economic position it is today without the immense contribution of countless Catholic educators. Ireland has progressed enormously in recent years; now it faces the challenge of reaching a more honest and fruitful future through owning and appropriating the nourishing and empowering aspects of its religious past. This soul-searching requires believers as well as unbelievers to go beneath superficial arguments and polemical positions in order to grapple with deeper questions such as where Irish people can find meaning in their lives today and how they conceive of the good life for themselves and their society.
What makes the Irish national character so gifted, passionate, charming, human, and engaging, derives in large measure from its Christian heritage. It is because of this national treasure that the Irish are so unique. If they drift too far away from this life-giving anchor, Irish people risk becoming submerged in a sea of banality, dulled and anesthetized by a consumerist culture that offers only fast food for their deep spiritual hunger. In his poem “The Second Coming”, William Butler Yeats articulates the disastrous effects of a world that has lost its stabilizing anchor, its Archimedean point: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold… The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned” [Crolla ogni cosa; il centro più non tiene… La sanguigna marea s’innalza e ovunque / La cerimonia d’innocenza è spenta].
But if Ireland stops emigrating from its past, it can become centered again. It can live a beauty which is not terrible but appealing.