Will Ireland ever be a Secular State?

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Grace Donnellan delves into Ireland’s still-present relationship with the Catholic Church and asks whether we will ever be free from their grasp.

In 1951, the then Taoiseach John A. Costello stated: “I am an Irishman second, I am a Catholic first”. Historically, Christianity was first recorded in Ireland as early as the 5th century, however, under British rule and suppression Catholicism became synonymous with Irish identity. Despite numerous attempts by the British to repress the religion of the Irish people, Catholicism survived. In contrast to the objectively socialist and egalitarian views of many of the nationalists of 1916, during the 20th Century Catholicism, and the conservative culture that came with it, became closely associated with Irish nationalism, perhaps in an attempt to separate ourselves from Britain. The most pertinent example of this is the Irish Constitution. Archbishop John McQuaid played an important role in the writing of the Constitution and it is heavily influenced by Catholic teachings. This caused Catholicism to become intrinsically linked with the Irish state. In recent decades Ireland has introduced a number of progressive measures, including referendums on the 8th Amendment and same-sex marriage, to counteract the lingering Catholic influence on the Constitution and our laws and policies. Despite these moves away from Catholicism, in the 2016 Census 78.3% of the population still identified as Roman Catholic. Catholicism is still linked to many elements of Irish life. This begs the question as to whether Ireland can ever become a secular state.

One inescapable reminder of Catholicism in Ireland is the Angelus. Every evening before the Six One News the Angelus rings out on our national, and publicly funded, broadcaster. The Angelus is also heard on RTÉ Radio at 12pm and 6pm. The first Angelus was broadcast in 1950, Archbishop McQuaid had influenced its introduction. While RTÉ have not accompanied the Angelus with Catholic images since 2009, it is a Catholic prayer recited in memory of the Incarnation of Jesus. Ireland is the only European country to continue to broadcast the Angelus bells. While some may consider the Angelus as harmless, it is a symptom of how deeply Catholicism is entrenched into the background noise of our lives. Some may argue that the Angelus is part of Irish culture or an Irish tradition. However, we need to move past the notion that Irish identity and culture are inherently linked to Catholicism. Additionally, the Angelus is a relatively new element of Irish society, having only been broadcast for 70 years so far. The Ireland that existed when the Angelus was first introduced was a conservative, repressive society. Continuing to allow the bells to ring on our national broadcaster, which is partially funded by the licence fees of Irish residents, creates an implicit endorsement of a religious society. 

Another subtle reminder of Catholicism in Irish society is the large number of religious statues across the country. One such statue, standing outside the Mercy International Centre on Baggot Street, depicts a mother holding her baby beside an open-armed nun. In the context of what we know now regarding Mother and Baby Homes, this statue feels like a betrayal of history. Allowing such statues to remain rehabilitates the church’s image and normalises its presence in our society. Statutes such as this are not portraying a historic figure, or any individual of significance, they are instead creating a false reality. A more complex issue arises regarding figures more central to the Catholic faith such as Christ, saints, and the Virgin Mary. Catholicism is embedded in the geography of Ireland through numerous shrines and statues that are dotted across the country’s landscape. Removing such statutes may prove controversial but could we ever call ourselves a secular state while their presence remains? These statutes remain a concrete reminder of the watchful eye the Church wishes to hold over our society.

An argument often put forward is that if people want Ireland to become a secular state, they must stop participating in Catholic traditions such as baptisms, communions and confirmations. However, with around 90% of Irish primary schools under the patronage of the Catholic Church, this is easier said than done. Communions and Confirmations are important celebrations in these schools. The removal of the controversial priority granted to baptised children only began in the 2019/2020 academic year. Despite the removal of the ‘baptism barrier’, parents may continue to feel pressured to baptise their child to allow them to participate in these rituals and not feel left out or othered during their Catholic education. This allows the Catholic church to continue to play a large role in our communities and our children’s most formative years. It is curious whether the percentage of those indicating they are Catholic on the Census would drop if many weren’t pushed into the religion at such an early age and then pressured into baptising their own children. While multi-denominational schools have begun to appear in Ireland, they are in the minority, particularly in more rural areas. 

Patrons are granted a large amount of power regarding how a school is run. They control the philosophy of the school, approve the membership of the board of management and appoint the chair of the board. Patrons can influence the religious ethos of the school and matters like the Relationship and Sexual Education (RSE) that the children receive. When the patronage system was created, it was envisaged that only the Catholic Church would become a patron of schools. Since 2012, parents have been surveyed regarding their preference of patron for new schools being built in their area. However, this does not impact on the patronage of schools built before this. Additionally, the new survey system has been criticised as the patronage of a new school can end up being decided by a very small number of votes. Catholic schools have also been known to spread misinformation when any question of divesting their patronage appears. In 2019, three Dublin schools shared leaflets stating that an end to religious patronage would mean schools would no longer celebrate Easter, Christmas and Halloween, healthy eating programmes would be stopped and that the Irish language would be censored. Once a patron has been decided for a school, patronage cannot be changed without their permission. When the divestment process is controlled by the church, the church has ensured obstacles (such as lack of information on alternative patrons) are put in place making it virtually impossible for any change of patronage to take place.

The archaic patronage system that continues to exist in Ireland needs to be overhauled if we are to have a secular state. It is shocking that after all we have learned about the Catholic Church in the past few decades we are still teaching our children to respect its moral authority. How can we expect to live in a tolerant society when children are forced through a primary education that prioritises one religion over all others?

Some practical elements of removing Ireland from the grasp of Catholicism, such as stopping the Angelus, seem relatively easy. Others may prove controversial, such as removing statues from public locations, or require more planning and logistics, like divesting all schools of Catholic patronage, but these are certainly doable. The hardest element of creating a secular state could be severing the psychological link between the notions of Irishness and Catholicism. Nonetheless, we owe it to those who have suffered mercilessly at the hands of the church since the creation of the state, to rid ourselves of the grip of Catholicism and move towards an inclusive, tolerant, progressive Ireland.