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Easter Weekend Was a Reminder That Half-Assed Catholics Are Holding Ireland Back

While attitudes around some important issues are changing, Ireland's deep-rooted Catholicism and unwillingness to banish its most toxic aspects are keeping the country stuck in the 20th century.

by James Nolan
Apr 7 2015, 6:20pm

A Celtic cross in Knock, Ireland. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Last Thursday, people all over Ireland engaged in what's become an annual tradition: stockpiling alcohol in preparation for Good Friday, one of two days (the other being Christmas) that we can't purchase drink here. With pubs closed, the alternatives include buying a cheap flight and drinking in departures—qualifying under the " bona fide traveler" clause—going to house parties, or, unthinkably, not drinking at all.

Irish people get on with this with a great degree of humor, aware that we're scavenging aisles with the enthusiasm of a town about to be ravaged by a hurricane, all for what's literally one solitary day. But it's become more than that at this stage: an occasion to mark the beginning of summer, an opportunity to dust off the barbecue and huddle around the backyard pretending not to be cold.

Obviously the amount of alcohol consumed in Ireland on Good Friday exceeds the holiday's religious aim. According to the Bible, Jesus died on Good Friday, so it's Catholicism's belief that—because He died for our sins—we should sin less on that day. This can take the form of alcoholic abstinence, something put into law here in 1927.

It's common for Irish people to delight in how far we've come from our Catholicism. Phrases like "I haven't been to Mass since my Confirmation" and "Holy water would burn me" are said regularly. But that we continue talking about ourselves—even jokingly—in relation to it proves it's hardly a redundant force.

Though the idea of going to Mass appalls us, we still rush to the church on occasions like weddings, where, last year, 60 percent of them took place. Furthermore, though the percentage of Catholics in Ireland is at an all-time low—a not insignificant 84 percent—the number who identify as Catholic is at an all-time high: 3.8 million.

This paradox between churchgoing Catholics—estimated by the Archbishop of Dublin at 18 percent—and those who identify as Catholic reverberates out into Irish life. The average person, for example, would regard the church's view of homosexuality as wrong, while, at the same time, not minding that 90 percent of primary schools are Catholic, meaning children who've been christened have priority on places.

The reason most don't mind, of course, is because almost every kid is christened anyway, parents doing it because they believe their child will otherwise face difficulty. Not everyone operates according to this logic—some genuinely Believe—but every Irish parent certainly knows the weight of Catholicism in our schools: morning and afternoon prayers, choir practice, First Communion, and Confirmation.

Catholic advocacy groups like the Iona Institute are also a staple of our media. A " self-appointed" institute—unlike in the UK, the term isn't protected here—its patrons consist of prominent journalists, columnists, and college lecturers, who appear on our state-owned network RTÉ to ask such questions as: "Do you think we should change the Constitution to allow grandmothers and their daughters to marry?" on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Last year, RTÉ even paid the Institute €85,000 ($93,300) out of court when the drag artist Rory O'Neill accused it of homophobia on air, something many felt RTÉ didn't have to do.

That we protest the church by drinking is also ironic—as is the fact that our other "drinking days" are co-opted religious holidays: St. Patrick's Day and St. Stephen's Day—when, though we drink for myriad reasons, the most profound may stem from growing up Catholic, taught in school that everyday emotions are linked with shame and worthy of repression. Thus we drink to process them in a socially acceptable way.

A pro-life rally in Dublin. Photo by Flickr user William Murphy

Today, Ireland is less a country ruled by Catholicism than one tainted by its remnants, one still capable—despite its best intentions—of calling women sluts and men weak. Our views on abortion typify this; although in 2013 a law was passed guaranteeing women the right to have one if their lives were at risk, in reality it was an insignificant step towards ensuring the right to choose.

Most Irish people's views reflect this. The majority believe women should be allowed to have abortions, but only when sick, raped or suicidal. On whether they should be allowed to choose based on their own best interests—as in most other Western countries—the majority think not: 46 percent say no, 39 percent say yes, and 15 percent have no opinion. In another poll, 38 percent say no, 36 percent say yes, and 20 percent say "it depends."

It seems we only recognize a woman's right to choose if she's been martyred somehow: a horrible side effect of an ill-defined philosophy sprung from Catholic shame, one that creates an environment rife with atrocities, where fanatics—and fanatical governments—can engage in practices you wouldn't will on a wild animal.

Even on the issue of Good Friday we're strong in our belief that the drinking ban shouldn't be lifted, half of us wanting it to remain, 36 percent wanting it to be removed and 14 percent wanting it to be relaxed for special events only. This is mind-boggling: Something far more than half of us engage in, we don't want legalized. Are we a country of masochists, keeping laws, governments, and religions around just so we can subvert them and then feel guilty? Or do we just not give a shit, doing all this guilt-free?

Probably closer to the former. We want the glory of defiance but the gift of absolution.

There are signs that the country is changing: On May 22, we'll vote in a referendum to give gay and lesbian people marriage equality, something that should pass fairly easily. Along with the work of tireless campaigners, this can be attributed to the influx of foreign culture into Ireland over the past two decades—the chance to learn what is and isn't civilized behavior via TV and the internet. Though this process isn't finished, May 22 will nevertheless be a cause for celebration.

However, because of our deep-rooted Catholicism and our unwillingness to banish its most-toxic aspects, our journey into the enlightened First World will always be more stilted than it has to be. Rest assured we'll get there eventually, but over the next two decades, when some countries are bounding forwards into an exciting new age, Ireland will be limping and stumbling behind, and this—ultimately—is the biggest shame of all.

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