An argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland

Published in Editorial, Issue 4 (July/August 2018), Volume 26

editor

In the longue durée, what significance will historians attach to the recent referendum result? One of the few areas of consensus in an otherwise divisive and polarised debate is that it reflects the ongoing decline of the influence of the Catholic Church. But what in turn does that tell us about the role of the Church in Irish history?

The Church in Ireland has always presented as something of an enigma—at once conservative and subversive (in the context of a Protestant colonising power), authoritarian and popular (as a badge of opposition to foreign conquest). Catholicism was the common denominator in the earliest manifestation of Irish self-government—the short-lived Catholic Confederation of the 1640s and ’50s, an alliance of Gaelic Irish and Old English.

From the Protestant point of view, of course, such political Catholicism (or ‘popery’) represented a threat to liberty. Papists, in thrall to the pope and to their clergy, were incapable of exercising liberty; and so, in order for liberty to flourish, ‘popery’ had to be suppressed, a convenient justification for the anti-Catholic penal laws of the eighteenth century. It was a self-serving position demolished by Theobald Wolfe Tone in his An argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland (1791), an early formulation of what eventually developed into his redefinition of Irish nationality—the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter.

Of course, Tone’s secular vision of unity was not realised in an independent and partitioned Ireland where Catholic influence was not so much a conspiracy as a bad habit. In the short term this seemed to vindicate the ‘anti-popery’ argument, but in the fullness of time (too long, perhaps, in the eyes of many) Tone’s faith in the ability of Irish Catholics to embrace liberty (or, at the very least, positions independent of their religious leaders) has been borne out, most spectacularly in the recent referendum vote.

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