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Irish Catholic Identities$

Oliver P. Rafferty

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780719097317

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: January 2016

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719097317.001.0001

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Identity and political fragmentation in independent Ireland, 1923–83

Identity and political fragmentation in independent Ireland, 1923–83

(p.307) 18 Identity and political fragmentation in independent Ireland, 1923–83
Irish Catholic Identities

Louise Fuller

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The identification of Ireland with Catholicism was reinforced by the way in which independent Ireland functioned in the early decades of its existence. However by the 1960s the easy coalescence between Irishness and Catholicism began to unravel. This was caused by a number of factors: social aspirations, economic improvement, the influence of television, and internally in Catholicism by the Second Vatican Council. By the end of the 1960s the violence of the IRA also caused many to re-evaluate the issue of national identity and the role of Catholicism in such identity. The church was beginning to lose its influence as witnessed by the removal from the constitution of mention of the ‘special position’ of Catholicism in the Irish state. The visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 represented but a temporary hiatus in the transformation of Irish society, where Catholicism and Catholic moral teaching would no longer condition how the Irish thought about themselves.

Keywords:   Culture transformation secularisation nationalism identity ecclesiastical-influence

The centrality of Catholicism to Irish identity in the post-independence era has to be understood against the background of nineteenth and early twentieth century Irish history. The mobilisation of bishops, priests and Catholic laity by Daniel O’Connell from the early nineteenth century led to Catholic emancipation and from that time the Catholic community was increasingly politicised. A chief priority for the bishops throughout the nineteenth century was the securing of education rights for Catholics. To this end they were prepared to support Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party to secure home rule and a resolution of the land question. Thus the Catholic faith became inextricably linked to the Irish nationalist cause. This was precisely at the time when the Irish language and Gaelic culture were in decline.

After the Parnell crisis, the subsequent split in the Irish Parliamentary Party and the failure of the second home rule bill a number of groups emerged in the late nineteenth century to fill the vacuum in Irish politics and they were concerned to address this situation. In their various ways they were conscious that the Irish had lost their cultural identity and aimed to revive the Gaelic cultural heritage. These groups became the nursery of the independence movement which led to the 1916 revolution. The Anglo Irish treaty, partition and a bitter Civil War followed. The outcome fell far short of their dreams of national unity and a republic and the country was left politically fragmented. The identification of Irish and Catholic, already well in place by the time of independence, now took on additional significance in the search for national identity and several factors served to reinforce this synthesis post-independence.

Partition left the country polarised along religious lines – southern Ireland was overwhelmingly Catholic in its population. Each census from 1926 to 1961 recorded an increase in the Catholic population. A very close alliance developed between church and state and the essential Catholicity of the state was reinforced in all sorts of ways by successive governments between the 1920s and 1950s. Politicians in the new (p.308) state were also very concerned to further the aim of restoring the Irish language and culture to its rightful position and they did this chiefly by means of the education system. Church and political interests had the same vision of the purity and distinctiveness of Irish culture and were equally concerned to restore, maintain and protect what was seen as the unique Irish Catholic identity from what were perceived to be alien influences emanating from abroad. Independence made it possible to copper-fasten Catholic identity and politicians across the spectrum legitimated the Catholic ethos by their actions, public appearances, rhetoric and crucially by legislation. An early example was in 1923, when the possibility of making divorce available in the Irish Free State was raised, W. T. Cosgrave sought and complied with the advice of the hierarchy that ‘it would be altogether unworthy of an Irish legislative body to sanction concession of such divorce’.1 The Film Censorship Act of 1923 and the Censorship of Publications Act later in 1929 were designed to protect what was seen as the distinctive Irish Catholic way of life from alien influences.

Two important occasions provided early opportunities to emphasise Catholic identity. The commemoration in 1929 of Catholic emancipation and the triumphant celebrations at the time of the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 publicly underlined Ireland’s Catholic identity. In a St Patrick’s day broadcast to the United States in 1935, de Valera left no doubt as to the Catholic character of the nation when he declared:

Since the coming of St Patrick, fifteen hundred years ago, Ireland has been a Christian and a Catholic nation. All the ruthless attempts made through the centuries to force her from this allegiance have not shaken her faith. She remains a Catholic nation.2

De Valera’s vision of Irish identity was entirely in keeping with the sentiments expressed in Irish bishops’ pastoral letters, which in turn were influenced by papal encyclicals and pronouncements since Pope Leo XIII’s promulgation of Rerum Novarum in 1891. These were concerned with the adverse consequences of the industrial revolution – resulting from industrialisation, urbanisation and mechanisation. Such ideas were distilled by de Valera again in his 1943 St Patrick’s day broadcast to the Irish people, where his vision was of ‘a people who valued material wealth only as a basis of right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to things of the spirit’.3 The 1937 constitution reflected Catholic ideals and recognised in Article 44 the ‘special position’ of the Catholic Church. For de Valera the logic was simple; in the Dáil he pointed out that ‘ninety-three per cent of the people in this part of Ireland and seventy-five per cent (p.309) of the people of Ireland as a whole … belong to the Catholic Church’.4 As far as he was concerned, the constitution reflected the political and social landscape that prevailed. At the same time he was also well aware that the ‘special position’ clause was not by any means the Catholic ideal as regards the relationship between church and state. It was something of a compromise to suit local political and religious circumstances and conferred no legal status on the Catholic Church.

The two main groupings who might have challenged the prevailing synthesis were the minority Protestant tradition, and the Labour movement. Against the background of successive governments’ pursuit of a nationalist Catholic agenda, the minority Protestant tradition retreated, and for much of the period after independence there was little overt questioning by Protestants of the prevailing Catholic ethos. The Labour Party’s decision not to contest the 1918 or 1921 elections, to allow the electorate to focus attention on the national question, relegated the party to the sidelines of Irish politics. Church warnings about the dangers of communism and socialism further ensured that there was little chance that the Labour Party would make electoral inroads. The French sociologist Jean Blanchard, who conducted research in Ireland in the mid-1950s, wrote of the essential homogeneity of social and political life in Ireland: ‘The family life of Irish Catholic workers and employees, with few exceptions, is steeped in Catholicism … The majority of them support the national parties, rather than the Labour Party’.5 The Irish Catholic Directory bore testimony to this, when it recorded the ‘huge turn-out of trade union organisations’ at the Marian year procession in 1954, which ‘passed through O’Connell Street, where all traffic was suspended for more than two hours as crowds twenty-deep packed the processional route.’6

Cultural theorists point to the importance of rituals, songs, ceremonies and processions in cultivating an ethos. ‘Faith of Our Fathers’, sung in conjunction with the national anthem at all-Ireland football finals, reinforced the dual identity of Irish and Catholic. This, and the fact that the archbishop of Cashel, patron of the Gaelic Athletic Association since its foundation in 1884, threw in the ball at the beginning of the match represented a public ceremonial language, which served to define the community and sustain a way of looking at things. On the one hand such rituals took collective sentiments for granted and they also served to affirm them, thus reinforcing the individual’s social identity within these parameters. The communications media, radio and press played a key role in legitimating the Catholic ethos. The ringing of the Angelus bell broadcast at six o’clock each evening by Radio Éireann and the extensive coverage given to news of Catholic interest by the (p.310) Irish Independent, the newspaper with the largest daily circulation, all signalled the centrality of Catholicism in the Irish way of life.

The first cracks emerged in the church-state consensus during the tenure of office of the first inter-party government 1948–51. The controversy surrounding Noël Browne’s, the minister for health, attempts to introduce free medical care for mothers and children up to the age of 16 regardless of means and the hierarchy’s objections to the scheme – the so-called ‘Mother and Child’ controversy – marked a turning point. The proposals were opposed by the medical profession for their own reasons and by the church on the grounds that they were contrary to Catholic social teaching. Browne believing that he had dealt with the objections of the hierarchy, pressed on with the scheme. But the cabinet refused to support him and he resigned in April 1951. There are more ramifications to the episode and the outcome than are possible to outline here, not least among them the opposition of the Irish Medical Association and Browne’s poor relations with cabinet colleagues and in particular his own party leader Seán MacBride.7 So it would be an oversimplification to present the mother and child episode as a straightforward conflict between church and state, but it undoubtedly raised questions about church–state relations in Ireland and the influence of the hierarchy. It was remarkable for the way that the major players were at pains to profess their allegiance to the Catholic Church. Taoiseach John A. Costello asserted in the Dáil: ‘I as a Catholic, obey my Church authorities and will continue to do so, in spite of the Irish Times or anything else.’8 In his resignation speech, Browne himself declared ‘I as a Catholic accept unequivocally and unreservedly the view of the hierarchy on this matter’.9 That said he sent to the newspapers on the day of his resignation the text of the correspondence that had passed between himself, the hierarchy and the Taoiseach. This was a revolutionary move, which meant that for the first time in the history of the independent state the role of the church was under public scrutiny. Two pertinent observations capture the mood of the debate which followed. On the day after Noël Browne’s resignation, the Irish Times leader writer observed: ‘the Roman Catholic Church would seem to be the effective government of the country.’10 And defending the bishops’ right to intervene in the matter, Dr Alfred O’Rahilly remarked that ‘for a Protestant organ such as the Irish Times to launch an attack on this right’ was ‘plain totalitarianism’.11 Observations by both Costello and O’Rahilly reflected perceptions of the Irish Times as a Protestant organ, and as such not representative, and not entitled to offer an opinion on matters at issue. Later in 1951 in an address to the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland, Archbishop John D’Alton of Armagh expressed his view that ‘we have (p.311) a right to expect that our social legislation will not be in conflict with Catholic principles’.12 This had been the position since the foundation of the state – but from now on this absolute right of Catholicism to be the informing spirit of Irish culture, and supported by legislation, would increasingly be called into question.

The interpenetration of church and state was nowhere as obvious as in the field of education. The importance of education for the transmission of culture had always been recognised by all churches. Concerns in relation to education had been central to the Catholic bishops’ involvement in the political struggles of the nineteenth century, which led directly to their subsequent dominant position in Irish social and political life after independence. Successive governments were happy to leave educational matters to the churches. In so far as successive governments tried to influence policy, their primary interest was the restoration of the Irish language.

Richard Mulcahy put it succinctly in 1956, when he pointed out that teachers, syllabuses and textbooks in every branch of education should be informed by the ‘spirit’ underlying the Catholic conception of education.13 The Council of Education reports on primary education in 1954 and on the secondary school curriculum in 1962 reflected this position. The former report pointed out that ‘a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school’14 and, in the latter report, the dominant purpose of schooling was seen as the ‘inculcation of religious ideals and values’ and ‘the preservation and transmission’ of the cultural heritage.15

As regards the Irish language, by the 1960s it was obvious that the aim of restoring Irish as the first language was not viable and the schools-based revival policy was discredited.16 However there were also more urgent practical educational issues to be faced. In the post-war era Ireland lagged behind Britain, America and mainland Europe in terms of social and economic development. The country had gained independence, but emigration figures, which soared through the nineteen-fifties, made it all too clear that the state had singularly failed to create an economic base that could sustain its own population and education was beginning to be seen as part of the problem. The Programme for Economic Expansion, published in 195817 signalled a decisive shift in Irish politico-economic thinking which, in a matter of years, was to turn the Irish economy around. It highlighted the importance of education, and in particular vocational education, for economic success. An OECD review of Irish education took place from 1962–65 and the result was a historic groundbreaking report Investment in Education published in 1966.18 Whereas religious imperatives had been central to the Council of (p.312) Education’s definition of worthwhile curricular knowledge, a key policy which emerged from the 1966 report was the importance of aligning the school curricula to the needs of an industrial economy. This was articulated by politicians and a variety of vested interest groups from the 1960s and from that time governments adopted a more independent line on education policy making. Over time concepts emphasising the importance of fostering an ‘enterprise culture’ and ‘wealth creation’ displaced religious ideals. This was reinforced and became part of received wisdom as time went by. It represented a profound change in the ideology underpinning education and was set to have a major impact on the definition of Irish identity from then on.

By the 1960s, many social, economic and political developments would cause cracks to appear in the too cosy coalescence between Irishness and Catholicism. Developments in tourism, opportunities to travel abroad and the radically different approach to the church taken by the new Irish television station from 1962 all led to a more open Irish society. Church figures had always been wary of the communications media. From the early years of the state politicians and Catholic Church leaders had been keen to protect Irish society from what were perceived as alien ideas and influences. In his Lenten pastoral letter after the inauguration of the national television station, Cardinal D’Alton expressed his fears: ‘We no longer enjoy our isolation of former days … In this world, through the medium of the press, the radio, and the T.V., we are subject to the impact of views wholly at variance with Catholic teaching.’19 Television from the outset questioned the status quo. In a changing socio-cultural climate the rigid censorship policy was no longer sustainable. Between 1964 and 1967 the minister for justice, Brian Lenihan, carried through sweeping changes, all of which led to more questioning of traditional Catholic thinking and concepts of identity.

But the changes were not restricted to the secular or the local sphere. The Second Vatican Council took place between 1962 and 1965 and after centuries of resistance the universal Catholic Church began to embrace the modern. The church engaged in its own programme of ‘aggiornamento’ and reinvented itself in terms of its image and fashioned a ‘new’ theology. Eternal truths, certainties and traditions which had been handed down in a dogmatic fashion were the subject of disagreement during the council and this called the church’s absolute authority into question. This had profound implications for those who accepted without question the church’s authority, as many did in Ireland. The idea that the church had answers to all the central questions of life was dispelled at the time of the council. It led to a crisis of authority for the Catholic Church. The full extent of this crisis sank home in 1968 when (p.313) Pope Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae reaffirming the church’s traditional teaching on birth control. It was known that he was going against the majority opinion of the commission that had been set up to advise the church on the matter. The monolithic confident church was no more – it was fragmented and seen to be so. Another indication of the failure of confidence was the decline in vocations which made itself felt from the late 1960s.20

The late 1960s was a time of considerable social and political unrest internationally. The Berkeley and Paris student revolts had their parallel in Ireland. The so-called ‘gentle revolution’ took place in the spring of 1969, when students in University College Dublin protested against the manner in which the move to the new campus at Belfield was being handled. Such were the profound changes in the air that in the general election campaign held in 1969, a Labour Party slogan could confidently proclaim that ‘The Seventies will be Socialist’.21 Hitherto this would have constituted political suicide in Ireland. The feminist movement emerged in Ireland about that time and before long it confronted confessional positions in particular relating to sexual morality. Taken for granted ideas about national identity were being challenged from another perspective also in the 1960s. A historiographical revolution had been in progress since the 1930s, whereby received versions of Irish history and identity were challenged by historians.22 Syntheses of Gaelic, nationalist and Catholic were called into question, to be replaced by altogether more complex notions of what formed identity. New paradigms in intellectual and cultural discourse were finding their way into political discourse and by the seventies into the history curriculum of schools.23 When combined with curricular changes and new teaching methods, which emphasised child-centred learning as opposed to the rote-learning hitherto typical of Irish education, it would lead to a more questioning approach to all authority figures, received values and ideas formerly accepted as immutable and sacrosanct. The 1969 election was not as mould-breaking as had been anticipated, but it did see the arrival on to the political stage of Dr Garret FitzGerald as a Fine Gael TD and Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien as a Labour TD, both of whom were to make their presence felt in the following years, as champions of a more pluralistic society. In an article in Studies in 196424 FitzGerald signalled his vision of a new Ireland, which would be the product of the combined Christian, liberal and socialist traditions. The new Irish society, he wrote, would glory ‘in our mixed inheritance, despising none of it, and elevating no part to a position of pre-eminence over the rest’.25 Identity issues were to take on added significance sooner than anyone thought.

(p.314) The eruption of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland in 1969 lent a new urgency to the necessity to continue with such questioning. Southerners were forced to confront received assumptions and uncomfortable realities in relation to identity and allegiance. Partition of the island had profound implications for the political cultures that developed on either side of the border. North of the border the consequences were tragic. Traditional versions of the Irish historical narrative, many now felt, had served to entrench sectarian animosities. In the Republic little thought had been given down the years, by either churchmen, or politicians, to the implications of legislative and constitutional provisions which reflected a Catholic ethos, for aspirations towards national unity, or indeed for relations with the Protestant population of Northern Ireland. In the aftermath of the Lemass visit to the north in 1965, an All-Party Committee of the Dáil was set up to review the constitution. It reported in December 1967 and referred to the prohibition of divorce, noting that it took ‘no heed of the wishes of a certain minority of the population who would wish to have divorce facilities’,26 and regarding the clauses of Article 44, which recognised the ‘special position’ of the Catholic Church and certain other religious denominations by name, it pointed out that ‘these provisions give offence to non-Catholics and are also a useful weapon in the hands of those who are anxious to emphasise the differences between North and South’.27 When the possibility of amending article Article 44 was raised, Cardinal William Conway, archbishop of Armagh, reacted by saying that he ‘personally would not shed a tear’ were the relevant sub-sections to disappear adding that it conferred ‘no legal privilege whatever on the Catholic Church’.28 A short time later after the bishops’ autumn meeting, it was stated officially that the matter had been discussed and that the statement made by the cardinal represented the views of the bishops.29 A referendum proposal to delete the clause relating to the ‘special position’ of the Catholic Church was put to the electorate on 7 December 1972. The proposal was carried by 88.4 per cent of those who voted and the result was very significant at a symbolic level.

That said, the findings of the first major survey into Catholic practice, attitudes and beliefs a few years later, on the face of it, might have suggested that nothing had changed in Irish Catholic culture. But this was not so – whereas surveys of Irish Catholicism in the 1970s and 1980s indicated a very high level of religious practice relative to other countries, they also recorded a decline in practice among younger people, especially males, and the urbanised. It was also found that when it came to moral teaching which had a bearing on how Catholics lived their lives, such as the prohibition of contraception and divorce significant (p.315) numbers of Catholics did not fully accept the teaching of the church.30 The findings confirmed without doubt that the nature of religious identity in Ireland was changing. The term à la carte Catholicism was now being employed by some to capture what was a very new phenomenon in Irish Catholic culture. One of the many symptoms of more liberal and independent attitudes was the fact that in spite of a ban on Catholics attending Trinity College many were ignoring it. At the conclusion of their meeting in Maynooth in June 1970, the bishops issued a statement to the effect that they had ‘decided to seek approval from the Holy See for the repeal of statute 287 of the Plenary Synod’, by which synodal decree ‘for over one hundred years the Irish hierarchy has felt obliged to restrict … the entry of Catholics into Trinity College, Dublin’.31

By now Irish society was more ideologically fragmented and following patterns of secularisation long documented in other countries, but Catholic moral precepts were still upheld in legislation. The issue of access to contraception was to dominate the 1970s. In spite of legislation still in place prohibiting the sale of contraceptives, the Irish Family Planning Association was established in 1969. A non-profiting making organisation, it provided contraceptives and gave advice to patients about the planning of families. The law was challenged by a group from the women’s movement who went by train to Belfast on 22 May 1971 and flouted the law by bringing contraceptives back through customs in Dublin. Thus the momentum for change built up and in 1972 a government-appointed Commission on the Status of Women asserted that parents had a right to ‘regulate the number and spacing of their family’ and that the methods that they chose ‘must remain a matter for their mutual selection and be influenced by their moral conscience’.32

Several attempts were made through the 1970s to change the law relating to contraception, all of which were resisted by the bishops. However they did modify their thinking, maintaining in 1973 that ‘there are many things which the Catholic Church holds to be morally wrong and no one has ever suggested, least of all the Church herself that they should be prohibited by the State’.33 This was a major turning point, but the statement was somewhat disingenuous, as this was precisely what had been expected up to this time. That said, the fact that the Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and six other Fine Gael TDs voted against their own government’s bill in 1974, was a measure of how traditional attitudes held firm. The issue led to a debate on church-state relations, secularisation and the question of Catholic moral precepts being upheld by law. In 1976 Bishop Jeremiah Newman of Limerick stated that his personal position was that ‘the Catholic people of our state have a right – a political right – to the provision of the kind of social framework that supports (p.316) them in the living out of their moral and religious principles’.34 While the hierarchy as a whole were distancing themselves from this position, it was not too far removed from their position in the past. Garret FitzGerald (now minister for foreign affairs in a Fine Gael–Labour coalition government) and Conor Cruise O’Brien (minister for posts and telegraphs) argued that Newman’s position was sectarian. O’Brien defined the secular state as one which takes into account the views of all citizens, whether they adhere to a religion whose members are in a majority, or to religions whose members are in a minority, or those professing no religion.35 Newman rejected outright such a position, stating that ‘we have got to give leadership to the people to stand up against the secular state and those who represent it’.36 But the authoritarianism of the past was no longer acceptable. Attitudes and values were being formed increasingly by more secular, liberal views of morality and the contraception issue forced the bishops to reassess their role in the new Ireland that was taking shape. The Family Planning Act was passed just two months before the pope’s visit in July 1979.37 It represented the first step in the process of dismantling of legislation and constitutional provisions which had underpinned the Catholic ethos in the Republic. The impressive crowds, who turned out at all the venues that Pope John Paul II visited, might have conveyed the impression that nothing much had changed in Ireland – but much had indeed changed.

Throughout the 1970s the situation in the north of Ireland continued to deteriorate. Hunger strikes in which ten republican prisoners died before they were called off on 3 October 1981 further polarised the unionist and nationalist communities. There was a growing awareness in political quarters that major changes would have to be made to develop a more pluralistic society in the south, if stereotypes of the Republic as a confessional state were to be tackled. In the course of a radio interview in September 1981 Garret FitzGerald, now Taoiseach, announced his intention to pursue a ‘crusade’ for constitutional reform, pointing out that in the Republic ‘our laws and our constitution, our practices, our attitudes reflect those of a majority ethos and are not acceptable to Protestants in Northern Ireland’.38 The Anglo-Irish summit took place in 1980 and since then there was a recognition that any possibility of peace and stability in the north would require a development of the unique relationship between Britain and Ireland. This led to the establishment of the New Ireland Forum which began on 30 May 1983. The idea of the Forum was to explore the nature of Irish society, with a view to bringing about the kind of social and cultural changes, which would allow all traditions on the island to live in peace and harmony.

(p.317) However, realising such ideals was not going to be straightforward. The pope’s visit in September 1979 provided the catalyst which led to the consolidation of conservative lay Catholic groups who, from that time, increasingly resisted liberalising tendencies. These groups were fiercely opposed to FitzGerald’s constitutional ‘crusade’. Pope John Paul in all of his speeches was critical of liberal influences, which had come to prevail in Irish society from the late 1960s. At his Mass in Limerick he challenged his audience: ‘Irish people have to choose today their way forward’ whether that be the path of materialism or of ‘the things of the spirit’.39 His remarks echoed de Valera’s 1943 St Patrick’s day speech40 and constituted a direct challenge to the Irish as to how they chose to define themselves. But erstwhile images of Irish identity no longer resonated. In 1973 Ireland had joined the then European Economic Community. Irish society was becoming more secularised like other countries of western Europe, increasingly defined by materialistic values and polarised along rural conservative and urban liberal lines. The extent of the fragmentation became very obvious at the time of the Pro-Life Amendment campaign. In April 1981 an anti-abortion lay pressure group was formed calling itself the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign. Known as PLAC, it campaigned with a number of like-minded groups for an amendment to the constitution which would prevent abortion being introduced. In September 1983, a pro-life amendment to the constitution was carried by a margin of 66.45 per cent in favour to 32.87 per cent against, after a particularly acrimonious and divisive campaign.41 Seen as a victory in some quarters for the more conservative Catholicism of pre-conciliar times, it also indicated a new and deep urban–rural divide in Irish society. Predominantly rural constituencies voted overwhelmingly yes and urban, largely middle-class areas displayed the strongest resistance to the amendment. In Dublin the margin was very close (51.6 per cent Yes and 48.3 per cent No) and five constituencies opposed the amendment. The seamless Catholic culture of the past was well and truly gone.

To a great extent the pro-life amendment campaign overshadowed the New Ireland Forum taking place in Dublin Castle. The Forum gave the bishops an opportunity publicly to address their position in relation to issues which had become highly contentious. Cahal Daly, bishop of Down and Connor and leader of the bishops’ delegation stated categorically that ‘we do not seek a Catholic state for a Catholic people’.42 The Forum Report pointed out that ‘public legislation must have regard for the conscientious beliefs of different minority groups’, and that this called for a ‘deepening and broadening of the sense of Irish identity’.43 This clearly signalled that erstwhile definitions of Irish identity would (p.318) have to be re-formulated to take account of ‘diversity’ and this would involve a radical re-thinking of the relationship between religion, society and the law. The proceedings gave Garret FitzGerald some confidence to press forward with his ‘crusade’ for constitutional reform. His government’s bill to further liberalise the family planning legislation in 1985 passed by a narrow margin in the Dáil. Again it was obvious that there were conservative groups in Irish society, who felt that liberal reforms were threatening their vision of Irish identity. Three Fine Gael deputies and one Labour deputy voted against the bill. The official position of the bishops was to keep to the line they had enunciated in their 1973 statement, but not all bishops were happy to do so. In due course FitzGerald announced his coalition government’s intention to hold a referendum to remove the constitutional ban on divorce on 26 June 1986. He presented the proposed change in the context of his ‘crusade’ for a more pluralist Ireland, which would improve relations with Northern Ireland and also relations between the nationalists and unionists north of the border. Until about a week before the referendum, opinion polls indicated that increasing numbers supported the introduction of divorce. But once again results on the day reflected the resilience of traditional Catholic values – 63 per cent of those who voted rejected the government’s proposal.44 Again, Dublin constituencies voted narrowly in favour of divorce whereas the majority of rural constituencies voted overwhelmingly against the amendment.

Fragmentation along rural conservative–urban liberal lines was set to become an enduring feature of Irish life henceforth, as evidenced in the results of two further referenda on divorce in 1995 and abortion in 2002. By the early 1980s the emphasis was on diversity and the accommodation of different cultural and political traditions. The automatic synthesis of Irish and Catholic was no longer sustainable and would be a thing of the past as the twentieth century came to a close.


(1) R. Fanning, Independent Ireland (Dublin: Helicon, 1983), p. 56.

(2) Irish Press, 18 Mar. 1935.

(3) Irish Press, 18 Mar. 1943.

(4) Dáil Debates, 67, col. 1890 (4 Jun. 1937).

(5) J. Blanchard, The Church in Contemporary Ireland (Dublin: Clonmore and Reynolds, 1963), p. 30.

(6) Irish Catholic Directory (ICD), 1955 (16 May 1954), p. 632.

(7) In 1953, James Ryan, Browne’s successor in a Fianna Fáil government led by de Valera, dealt with objections and introduced a broadly similar (p.319) scheme making health care provision free to 85 per cent of the population, as opposed to the entire population as originally planned.

(8) Dáil Debates, 125, col. 784 (12 Apr. 1951).

(9) Ibid., 125, col. 668 (12 Apr. 1951).

(10) Irish Times, 12 Apr. 1951.

(11) Standard, 20 Apr. 1951.

(12) ICD, 1952 (10 Oct. 1951), p. 709.

(13) Cited in J. Mescal, Religion in the Irish System of Education (Dublin: Clonmore and Reynolds, 1957), pp. 136–7.

(14) Report of the Council of Education on (1) The Function of the Primary School (2) The Curriculum to Be Pursued in the Primary School (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1954), para. 132.

(15) Report of the Council of Education on the Curriculum of the Secondary School (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1962), paras 150, 164, 80, 88.

(16) A. Kelly, Compulsory Irish: Language and Education in Ireland 1870s– 1970s (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2002), pp. 132–41.

(17) Programme for Economic Expansion (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1958), often referred to as the First Programme.

(18) Investment in Education: Report of the Survey Team (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1966).

(19) Irish Independent, 5 Mar. 1962.

(20) L. Fuller, Irish Catholicism since 1950: The Undoing of a Culture (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2002), pp. 167–8.

(21) M. Gallagher, The Irish Labour Party in Transition 1957–82 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982), p. 91.

(22) See C. Brady (ed.), Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1994), pp. 3–31.

(23) L. Fuller, ‘An ideological critique of the Irish post-primary school curriculum: the economic, socio-cultural and political factors influencing its development’, M.Ed. thesis, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, 1990, pp. 124–51.

(24) G. FitzGerald, ‘Towards a national purpose’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 53 (winter 1964), pp. 337–51.

(25) Ibid., p. 350.

(26) Report of the Committee on the Constitution (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1967), p. 43, para. 123.

(27) Ibid., p. 47, paras 134, 136.

(28) Irish Times, 23 Sept. 1969.

(29) Irish Times, 10 Oct. 1969.

(30) See Ten Years of Research and Development 1971–1980 (Maynooth: Council for Research and Development, 1981), p. 51. See also Religious Beliefs, Practice and Moral Attitudes: A Comparison of Two Irish Surveys, 1974–1984 (Maynooth: Council for Research and Development, 1984), pp. 35, 96–101.

(31) For the full background to this decision, see statement by the Irish Episcopal Conference, Maynooth, 25 Jun. 1970, regarding Trinity College, (p.320) Furrow, 21(8) (Aug. 1970), pp. 532–3; Irish Times, 26 Jun. 1970; 7 Sept. 1970.

(32) Report of the Commission on the Status of Women (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1972), p. 225, paras 572–3.

(33) Statement of the Irish Episcopal Conference, 25 Nov. 1973, in Irish Times, 26 Nov. 1973.

(34) See Irish Times, 1 Jun. 1976.

(35) For an insight into this debate and the issues raised, see Irish Times, 29 Mar. 1976; 31 Mar. 1976; 1 Apr. 1976; 29 Apr. 1976; 1 Jun. 1976; 2 Jun. 1976. Refer also to radio interview with Olivia O’Leary, RTÉ, 30 May 1976.

(36) Radio interview with Kevin O’Kelly, RTÉ, 30 May 1976; see also J. Newman, The State of Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1977).

(37) Health (Family Planning) Act 1979, No. 20 in public statutes of the Oireachtas, 1979.

(38) G. FitzGerald, All in a Life: An Autobiography (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1992), pp. 377–8.

(39) See The Pope in Ireland: Addresses and Homilies (Dublin: Veritas, 1979), p. 77.

(40) See Irish Press, 18 Mar. 1943; n. 3 above.

(41) Irish Times, 9 Sept. 1983. See also T. Hesketh, The Second Partitioning of Ireland: The Abortion Referendum of 1983 (Dublin: Brandsma Books, 1990), p. 364.

(42) New Ireland Forum Report, No. 12, Public Session, Thursday, 9 Feb. 1984, Dublin Castle (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1984), p. 2.

(43) Ibid., p. 23, para. 4.13.

(44) See Irish Times, 28 Jun. 1986.