“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell, 1984
Every so often, a story about Ireland appears in the international media which makes reference to Ireland’s transformation from a conservative Catholic nation into something quite different. Indeed, in the space of about two generations, Ireland has gone from being arguably the most religiously observant nation in the Western world – a religiosity which went hand-in-hand with an unswerving conservatism – to its current state. There is now little sign of religion in public life, where any display of faith is increasingly frowned upon. Church attendance has fallen dramatically, and religious vocations remain alarmingly low.
What is most significant can be observed within the overall zeitgeist: the dominant ideas within the political, media and cultural discourse. ‘Catholic Ireland’ now signifies a backward and wretched past existence, the horrors of which can only be imagined, but which are slowly being rectified as we continue on board the unstoppable train of social progress. All that is new is desirable; anything that connects us to the past is to be scorned. Whereas many successful political movements internationally derive strength by appealing to a conservative instinct to preserve tradition, Ireland’s political establishment is resolutely on the side of ‘progress’ – whatever that is taken to mean on a given day. For those tasked with reviving and promoting a Burkean conservatism, this popular aversion to Ireland’s past makes building a successful movement difficult.
The more serious problem however is that this prevailing historical narrative is based on an extremely distorted version of history which bears almost no relation at all to what really occurred. I have no interest in parroting such banal phrases as the ‘land of saints and scholars,’ I merely wish to record that since the conversion of the Irish to Christianity 1,600 years ago by St. Patrick and others, the Church has been the one constant feature in Irish life, the greatest source of community after family, and by far the greatest provider of charity, healthcare and education.
Furthermore, even a cursory study of Irish history will show that the faith of St. Patrick – passed down in an unbroken line from generation to generation – played an enormous role in preserving Irish nationhood. Of the few nations in these islands, only Ireland could not be successfully integrated into the Protestant United Kingdom, and that sense of difference inspired many to struggle to gain their nation’s freedom. The Proclamation speaks of the Irish people “six times during the past three hundred years” asserting their “right to national freedom and sovereignty”, but in truth this was a gross simplification and our history proves it.
For instance, very few people remember historical chapters such as the Confederation of Kilkenny giving its allegiance to the embattled English King Charles I in order to protect Catholicism, or the tens of thousands of Irishmen who later fought to restore King James II to the English throne, as James’s commitment to his Catholic faith guaranteed their freedom to practise theirs. Or the times when our harsh Penal times were ended by our nation’s ‘Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell. And even though he did not free Ireland from British rule, it was O’Connell’s role in ending anti-Catholic legislation which earned him his famous title.
The dearth of historical knowledge on the part of recent Irish generations is shown clearly by the demonstrably false view of history which is come to be believed in by many. Upon gaining independence, the narrative goes, education and healthcare in Ireland were handed over – this term is ubiquitous in media and political discourse – to the Church, who went on to claim complete power and commit gross crimes, after which Ireland finally began to emerge from the Dark Ages.
No commentator ever gives a date for the aforementioned ‘handover’ to the Church, for the understandable reason that none exists. Catholic education, healthcare and charity in Ireland do not merely predate the coming of independence; they predate the coming of the Vikings. After independence, our statesmen were entrusted with the administration of a social service system which depended to a great degree on the combined labour of thousands of priests, brothers and nuns, and they had little difficulty in choosing to continue with it. It is debatable whether such a close attachment of the Church to the state was a good thing – as a Catholic libertarian, I think it wasn’t – but for the state, it certainly provided enormous benefits which we rarely hear about and are instead dwarfed by the social benefits which have long been derived from the various social support initiatives which are in place in every parish in the land.
Older Irish people know this. For millennials however, that first-hand knowledge often is not there, for the reason that the numbers of religious had already fallen considerably by their formative years. Younger people have less historical knowledge by definition, and with the media and academic landscape dominated by those with leftist leanings, there is little hope for a fair reappraisal of Irish history any time soon. Just as in Orwell’s 1984, the process of revisionism is constant, and deliberately undertaken for the benefit of the establishment and the furtherance of the policies which they wish to pursue. Witness the recent furore over a potential Catholic ethos at the new National Maternity Hospital, and the ghoulish spectre of killer nuns which was widely postulated.
This ensures that the popular mindset will be tilted against any instincts towards traditionalism, and towards any idea – no matter how half-baked – which appears progressive. Burke wrote that society is a contract between the dead, the living and those who are to be born. Whole-scale ignorance of the past among living Irishmen and women renders that contract null and void, and could soon have an indirect yet devastating impact on the generations yet unborn, also.
In the hallway leading in to my parish church, a board bearing an inscription hangs overhead. The inscription urges that the reader pray for the soul of:
“The Rev. Michael Harney / Whose mortal remains lie beneath / He was a zealous minister in the vineyard of Christ / Pious and charitable to the poor… / He died of fever on / The 2nd of March AD 1847.”
Fr. Harney was just one of the many priests and nuns who died during the Famine of the diseases which they contracted while ministering to the sick and dying, a feat which the (strongly anti-clerical) historian Tim Pat Coogan pointed to as being worthy of remembrance in his book on that period. The little-read inscription is emblematic of how Ireland has forgotten so much of its past, or has been made to forget.
If conservatism stands for anything, it stands for the remembrance of those things that matter, and the valuing of the ties that bind the fleeting generations of a timeless humanity – the greatest of which is our history. If we must fight to protect that which matters, our first step must be to learn what it is we seek to defend, and why others did so before us. The history of Irish Catholicism needs to be reclaimed; for the sake of truth, and the memory of Fr. Harney and the countless others, living and dead.