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25 September 1997 Edition

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Remembering the Past: An Droch Shaol - The Irish Holocaust

Demise of the Celtic Church


Side by side with the decline of the Irish language was the demise of the remnant of the Irish (as opposed to Roman Catholic) Church. While the Catholic hierarchy may not have agreed totally with Lord Clarendon's view that "the departure of thousands of patriot Celts must be a blessing to the country", they did seize the opportunity to extend their power into areas hitherto closed to their dictats and move closer toward Romanism, which had already been in train since the start of the century.

While it may have been of concern to lose so many of their flock, the end of the traditional church, a mish-mash of paganism, superstition, early Christianity and Catholicism allowed Rome to standardise Church practices and helped impose a new social discipline on the lower classes. The localised religious traditions, prevalent in the west of the country, which were frowned on for years by the Church authorities in Rome, were now in decline.

After the Famine, there was a shift away from traditional religious practices, which had combined elements of pagan rituals with superstition. They were replaced by a more orthodox and disciplined approach to religion. Moreover, as the population fell, the proportion of priests to people rose, resulting in greater church control. The involvement of the religious orders in education helped consolidate the position of the Church. The church also became more authoritarian and thus helped to impose a new social discipline on the lower classes.

The Catholic Church in Ireland was to become one of the most conservative and powerful institutions in the country. This was especially evident in the rise in devotional activity, a shift towards moral puritanism and a more patriarchal society. This shift was also evident in the other churches in Ireland. People no longer married young and children born out of wedlock became a cause of scandal.

It was a bad period for interdenominational relations in Ireland as the competition for souls saw a rise in evangelical fervour by proselytizing the starving Catholics away from the God who had visited the Famine upon them. In a letter to the English prime minister, the Protestant Watchman stated:

"Six millions of the people of Ireland are chained to a system that excludes, and is found to exclude, them from the true knowledge of the true God... You must endeavour to bring the knowledge of God to every cabin in Ireland. To do this you must use your endeavours to have the word of God taught and preached in every village in Ireland; and when you thus honour God by honouring His word, you may expect redemption in Ireland."

Another bizarre and equally illuminating example of that zeal is a quote in the Achill Missionary Herald which claimed that God was punishing the Irish for the 1845 Maynooth Act which provided "a college for training priests to defend and practice and perpetuate this corrupt and damnable worship in this realm".

Individually the local clergy did all they could for their parishioners (40 priest succumbed to Famine Fever in Ireland in 1847 alone) and did all in their power to counteract the indifference and the genocidal policy of the English empire. But as always the church authorities in Ireland were to the fore in preventing 'outrages' - revolts, food riots, acts of survival and desperation or revenge by the starving millions. They instead encouraged people to pray, to reject radical nationalism, republicanism, local agrarian societies and to embrace God.

By Aengus O Snodaigh

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland