In the historic sense, Ireland’s long love affair with the Catholic church was, as Ella Fitzgerald once sang, “too hot not to cool down”. Catholicism was once so all-pervading in Irish life that it seemed a definition of Irishness: but now, according to a survey by the pollsters Red C, the Irish are losing their faith quicker than most: seven years ago, 69% of Irish people described themselves as “religious”: this has now fallen more than 20 points to 47%.
Something had to give, and even before the clerical scandals broke into the public realm – in the 1990s – this intermingling of faith and fatherland was in decline. There was the effect of the 1960s. There was the effect of the pill, which, contrary to legend, was legal in Ireland. There was television. There was modernisation, which the Vatican advanced as aggiornamento. Around the time of Vatican II – 1962-65 – it could be said that in the hills of Connemara they spoke of little else.
But there were a lot of concerned parents, too, writing to the devotional magazines saying that they were in despair because they just couldn’t get their offspring to pray: the family rosary was gone: their son (it was usually their son) wouldn’t go to mass, no matter how much they beseeched. Gradually, you could see traditional Irish Catholicism unravelling. The votive lights placed under the picture of the Sacred Heart were disappearing in country B&Bs. My aunt, who had once felt miserably guilty for absent-mindedly taking a cup of Bovril on a meatless Friday, could relax.