Ireland is a country that was once known for its religious faith, as much it was for its music and beautiful landscape, and its troubled past. The churches were full, people went on pilgrimages to Lough Derg and Croagh Patrick (above) and showed devotion in their daily lives across all strata of society. The ‘special ones’ joined the religious orders themselves and often went abroad to spread the faith.

In the hall of All Hallows, the famous priests’ training school in Dublin, you can still see all those photos of hope – there they are, the faces of those ordained down the years, along with images from their ‘destination’ in Africa, Asia or the United States.  All those places across the globe that were earmarked back then for the spreading of the faith.

Going back centuries, and especially when you look at the Middle Ages, here in Ireland we had a reputation as an island of Christian learning and spirituality.  A tiny country, on the edge of Europe, brimful with spiritual riches, at a time when great swathes of the world were plunged in cultural darkness. So it is a rich and lengthy legacy.

However, in recent times, the Churches have been under great pressure. But, worse than that, religious faith has almost become ‘the love the dare not speak its name’. And so, openly and proudly showing your faith is now more akin to the atmosphere described in a recent book by Colin Murphy entitled The Priest Hunters which is all about the persecution of religious faith during the time of the Penal Laws. Then, desperate worshippers were forced to hold hidden services on ‘Mass rocks’ (image below) and hide their banned clergy from the notorious bounty hunters who were rewarded by the English Crown for delivering a captured cleric – dead or alive.


Of course, we don’t have such barbaric persecution anymore but there is definitely, these days, a more forbidding atmosphere afoot when it comes to open expression of religious faith.   Many worshippers are increasingly afraid to speak up for their religion and find themselves forced to defend its principles on a daily basis.

Granted, some of this is to be expected in a country that has become more secular. And yes, we needed to move on from the situation where, even as late as the early 1990s, this ostensible ‘Republic’ of ours was still reflecting the sectarian conservative laws of Catholicism in many areas of family life.

As an agnostic, non-Church goer, who passionately believed in a new pluralist Ireland, I was depressed back then by this residual Catholic sectarianism and was very glad to see the subsequent liberalisation of Irish society. But now I wonder if this has gone too far. All many of us wanted, after all, was for the Catholic church – and all religions – to step back from interfering in the laws of society. But we always expected that the churches would still have the right to preach according to their faith and to continue to offer their very important solace and support to society as a whole.

And yet now, politicians and commentators seem to expect the Church to change to suit our brave new secular world, to go in tandem with society. And when it doesn’t they subject it to endless criticism for not doing so. Only this week, we heard former President Mary McAleese take the Church to task for its thinking on homosexuality. Her comments were welcomed by many, including former Minister Gemma Hussey who wants to see an equal push on the issue of female ordination. This may well be the view, but the Church’s teachings are what they are. Perhaps there should be change, but surely that is a separate debate for within the Church. Why should a committed Church feel compelled to change its stance to suit societal demands?

And whatever about asking the Church to amend its policies, what about the energetic campaign that is in evidence and hell-bent on pushing religion out of public life altogether? An attempt to stifle its influences as if it was indeed the furtive faith of the dark period of The Priest Hunters.


Witness, for example, the way in which the Irish army chaplain was recently berated for making the quite reasonable observation that the Christmas message from President Michael D Higgins (above) did not appear to contain any Christian references – which it didn’t. For saying this, the chaplain himself was criticised and the army Chief of Staff felt compelled to apologise, something which then sparked further public anger. The fact is that many of us would assume that President Higgins, a passionate socialist, is probably not a practising Christian. This prompted a follow-up question as to whether the President is in fact an atheist, but the President has refused to answer this. Now President Higgins’ religion – or lack of it – is his own business – while he remains a private citizen. But he is no longer a private citizen and, on taking office, the President also took an oath of allegiance to God.

This actually goes to the kernel of the issue. Many would assume, and accept, that the President was just exercising a formality in taking this oath – a public homage to the faith of the land. But this assumes that while Church and State are intertwined, the former should be subject to the latter.  Thus, we have arrived at a point where people want Church baptisms and weddings without feeling obliged to show proper devotion, or even sometimes much respect, to the Church and its teachings and rituals. They feel entitled to use the Church’s facilities as if they were public property. It is the same with schools, where many people demand to use the existing Catholic schools, but nowadays object to its ‘offensive’ Catholic ethos.


People of faith are now being made to feel that there is something wrong with their religion, and its expression. They see clergy attacked when they speak out on public matters, or even on social justice, they see cribs being removed from hospitals because they might offend non-Christians, they see Christian beliefs of celebrities or public figures ridiculed as irrational and superstitious. Meanwhile, in modern literature, TV and movies, they see clerics and people of religious faith invariably treated as comic figures. And let’s not forget either that they have also witnessed our Government, in what could be seen as a somewhat spiteful gesture, closing the Irish Embassy to the Vatican while still considering opening embassies in places most Irish people couldn’t find on a map.

It is as if it is not enough to have the Church rolled back from its once dominant influence on the laws of the land: it must be prevented from exerting its influence anywhere outside the church buildings themselves. Recently, we have seen protests because the Catholic marriage advisory bureau, Accord, has declined to give advice to same-sex relationships – as one would expect given the Church’s teachings on such matters. Accord will not criticise such applicants, just refer them elsewhere. But this is not enough for the critics. They argue that Accord takes State funding and so should apply non-discriminatory laws. But why? Such distinctions are part of Accord’s religious ethos. Would we expect such a State-funded Muslim organisation to give sexual advice to women? No.

In a similar vein, some anti-religious elements have called for the removal of chaplaincy services from community schools and VECs, based on the strange ‘logic’ that school guidance counsellors have already been abolished under recent cuts, so why shouldn’t religious advisers? But isn’t it great that there is such spiritual and psychological support for pupils?  In an age of rampant materialism, isn’t it reassuring to have even a modicum of spirituality? But no, that’s not the way it is anymore. Christianity is now constantly targeted, at every turn, by these secular crusaders. And it’s not just here in Ireland.


Above: church attacked in Syria

Look further afield and what do you see but Christians under brutal attack in the Middle East and Africa. Now that the Arab Spring has turned into an Islamic winter, Christian communities in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq are under sustained attack by Islamic militants. It is the same in Mali, Sudan and Nigeria. The sacrilege is extraordinary. On Christmas Day, no less, 22 Christians were killed in Iraq in a bomb near a Mass and in villages in northern Syria where they still speak Aramaic, the ancient language spoken by Christ, Christians have been driven out of places they have lived in for thousands of years.

And yet there has been little outcry about all this in the West or, indeed, in once pious Ireland. But such a lack of outrage is no doubt related to the general lack of interest and even disdain that there is now anyway for Christianity in Ireland. If official and unofficial society is so busy driving Christianity out of public life in Ireland, why would they get too excited about the persecution of Christians abroad?

And yet what a contrast this to the huge concern that Ireland used to show for the persecution of Christians under Communism in Eastern Europe, admittedly less violent but just as pernicious and oppressive. In the 1950s and 1960s, Irish politicians regularly spoke out about this and endless letters appeared in the newspapers about the harassment of Catholics and other Christians in Hungary, East Germany and the Soviet Union.But those days are gone and there is no similar concern for the current killing of Christians in the Middle East.

Wouldn’t it be great if Ireland, a small independent country, which used to speak up on such issues, could take a lead on this again, in Europe, and internationally? It would be consistent with our ‘Island of Saints and Scholars’ legacy, when we kept a light burning for monastic Christianity during the European Dark Ages. And it would also resonate with our decades-long tradition of sending missionaries around the world to help the poor and spread the faith.

But don’t hold your breath. Ireland is a different place now. We don’t even have an Embassy in the Vatican anymore. And where once Christianity was at the very centre of our life and society, now it is consigned to the margins, fearful and nervously apologising for itself.