The faith of the Irish

Secularization is taking its toll in newly-prosperous Ireland but there are young voices speaking up again for the old values.
Seamus Grimes | Jan 30 2008 | comment  



The cliches about the land of saints and scholars died years ago as Ireland became an economic powerhouse in Europe. Economic changes have been accompanied by great social change. We spoke with an expert on Irish sociology, Professor Seamus Grimes, of the National University of Ireland in Galway, about the new Ireland.  

MercatorNet: "Ireland" used to be synonymous with "Catholic faith" -- an island of devout belief and nearly universal practice which provided missionaries for the whole world. Now one gets the impression that the last thing Irish people want to be known for is their faith. Why is that?

Seamus Grimes: While this is unfortunately a reasonable generalization to make, one should not underestimate the deep remnants and even a dynamic Christian faith among a significant proportion of the population. The reality, however, is that there has been a strong process of secularization underway for many years. While there are always exceptions to the stances taken by people in public life, generally the tendency is to opt for a very secular style of society, with few politicians at either the national or European levels taking an overtly Christian stance on issues.

The clearest evidence of secularization is the very low number of young people regularly attending Mass on Sunday, and the accompanying poor knowledge of Christian doctrine among many. The main reason is likely to be the failure of families to effectively pass on the faith to their children.

There are emerging young voices in Ireland that are very capable of departing from the dreary liberal consensus so widespread in the media.

Despite this major change in Irish society, there are still very deep signs of a Christian tradition ranging from the warmth of interpersonal relations to the concern for and widespread involvement in the problems of people in poor countries -- as signaled by the famous contributions of Sir Bob Geldof and Bono.

The much less reported work of hundreds of Irish people working on community projects in poor countries should also be noted. A major housing construction programme has been under way in South Africa for the past few years, headed up by an Irish businessman and supported by free labour from many workers in Ireland.

MercatorNet: U2, Riverdance, Irish pubs, books about the dreadful past -- these are among the main cultural exports of Ireland over the past couple of decades. What do they tell us about the Irish? Are we missing some more subtle developments?

Seamus Grimes: Traditionally the Irish have seen themselves more as a nation of poets, artists and creative types, and like most other images, this is partly an exaggeration. In fact the recent economic resurgence in Ireland revealed that Irish people are equally adept at the world of international business as the arts. But the country continues to produce a relatively high level of artistic output, and this may very well be related to its tortured colonial history, where being Irish or Catholic became outlawed, as did speaking the Irish language.

Of course many of the most successful cultural "products" have been marketed exceptionally well and contain a strong commercial orientation to the international marketplace. It would be difficult in particular cases to specify what the Irish content is. It is more a question of successfully branding a country in the global market. The Irish pub which is to be found in most world cities is typical of this branding. At the same time, there is something particular about how Irish people socialize and enjoy each others company, often associated with the consumption of alcohol. Not everything about this cultural practice is edifying, but it does relate to the type of society that has emerged in the country.

MercatorNet: Ireland's economy has boomed over the past 10-15 years and the country has one of the highest standards of living in the world, but family values have taken a beating: divorce has been legalised, the birth rate has plummeted and one in three babies is now born out of wedlock. This is typical of developed countries, but is it inevitable?

Seamus Grimes: Yes materialism and affluence have been accompanied by major social changes. But these changes are similar to what is found in most developed regions of the world. The nature of economic and social change in Ireland has made it one of the most globalised open economies in the world and clearly Irish society is exposed to a wide range of international influences, which have helped to bring about many changes. Some of these changes have been positive, such as improving our economic performance and professionalism. Other changes have been associated with growing affluence, and also considerable inequality within society. Issues like alcohol and drug abuse, criminal gangland violence, and a rising rate of murder have all accompanied the rapid rate of growth and change in the country. An EU survey last year found Ireland has the highest crime rate in Europe.

The pace of change in Ireland has been phenomenal and unexpected and in many cases unplanned. The significant increase in immigration to the country from African asylum-seekers and particularly from Eastern Europe has presented Ireland with many challenges in adapting to change. But equally pressure arising from parents being "forced" to leave infants in child-minding centres while they make long daily commutes to work far away from where they can afford to live, places huge pressures on marriages. In many cases, couples are trying to do their best in the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves. Our economic development success has not come with a neat social model for easy living.

MercatorNet: What benefits have these years of prosperity brought to Irish culture?

Seamus Grimes: There have been major material benefits to the economy and society. Immigration to Ireland came at a time when growth in the Irish labour force was beginning to taper off and immigrants have played an important role in many sectors of the economy supplying much-needed skills. There has also been some exploitation of immigrants in certain sectors such as construction, where they have been paid less than the going rate.

A possibly important benefit, which may take some time to properly evaluate, is the challenge which the diversity of immigrants has presented to an increasingly affluent and perhaps somewhat smug Ireland. There is little doubt of the extent to which our society has been changed very significantly by immigration, and this change has taken place in a very short period of time. There are few towns in Ireland at this stage where there is not a significant presence of both Eastern Europeans and asylum-seekers from Africa.

In most cases Ireland seems to have adapted reasonably well to these changes. Irish people are very aware of how their own ancestors, even in the relatively recent past were forced to seek refuge in other countries, and many now see this as an opportunity for Ireland to become more open-minded and open-hearted to different cultures. The irony in some cases is that congregations of young Poles are taking the place of the younger Irish people in inner-city churches on Sunday, as they rejuvenate older parishes.

MercatorNet: What is driving the secularism that seems to be overtaking Irish life and culture? Are there signs that people are getting over it?

Seamus Grimes: I have already mentioned the influences of materialism and affluence, which can make any society much more arrogant than it was when it had little. One can also point to the diffusion of a global form of liberal ideology through the media which helps to shape the political and intellectual establishment of the country. Radio hosts vie with one another daily to offer the worst forms of voyeuristic journalism. And there is increasing peer pressure on adolescents to discard traditional moral and social values and conform to what is politically correct.

At the same time there is a rising minority of objectors, many of whom are young and well educated, who are articulating very clearly a Christian commitment to life. Recently a surprise development was the election of Ronan Mullin, a young barrister and lecturer who has been clearly allied with efforts to promote Christian values, to the Irish Senate. There are other examples of emerging young voices in Ireland that are very capable of departing from the dreary liberal consensus so widespread in the media. This is probably the most encouraging feature of contemporary Ireland, and it shows that if leadership is present, youthful idealism will follow. The president of the country, Mary McAleese, has provided very strong leadership in terms of Ireland's need to build on its Christian tradition.

MercatorNet: Sex scandals, including abuse of young people, amongst the clergy have been very damaging to the church -- and to people's faith, no doubt. How bad was/is the problem, and to what extent has it become an excuse for rejecting the church and religion?

Seamus Grimes: It could hardly have been worse, but it is important to bear in mind that the problem was not and is not restricted to members of the clergy. However, the damage there has been very significant. The slowness to acknowledge this evil and seek forgiveness did not help either. Obviously issues of justice arise in relation to people being falsely accused which complicates procedures. Progress has been made more recently and no doubt people will move forward despite the huge suffering and disaffection in many cases.

MercatorNet: The Irish Constitution acknowledges the honour due to God and religion. Is this article controversial today? What of its future?

Seamus Grimes: Not really. It is controversial for a minority of liberals who also have problems with the Angelus being played on radio each day and in some cases with the appearance of cribs at Christmas in places like hospitals. We have not quite reached the point where a significant number of people object to these important symbols of our Christian heritage. We are moving in that direction, but I have confidence that despite our many flaws and foibles, that most Irish people will continue to defend what their ancestors fought so hard to preserve.

Seamus Grimes is a professor of geography at the National University of Ireland in Galway.

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