The National Catholic Review

The location for this year’s Ryder Cup epitomized the triumph of profit in Ireland. The organizers opted for the K Club, a mediocre golf course in comparison with such world-class links as Ballybunion, Lahinch, Portmarnock and half a dozen others. Certainly the infrastructure of the K Club is second to none, but the course itself is dull and disappointing when placed alongside the breathtaking links found elsewhere in the country. It just happens that the tycoon who owns the K Club sponsors the European Open. Money talks in international golf—and also in the new Ireland.

 

We Irish are still fascinated with faith, but our cultural imagination is being undermined by crass materialism. The Irish psyche is shrinking from vast spiritual dimensions to a narrowly materialistic focus. Something beautiful is dying, and it is painful to watch.

Since the 1990’s Ireland has undergone a whirlwind of change. In the 1980’s Ireland was a relatively poor country in European terms, but by the start of the new millennium it had become one of the most affluent. It is still full of patchwork-green fields, but now that Ireland has taken its place at the cutting edge of the digital revolution, the green vales are supplemented by the Silicon Valley of the computer industry. Work takes up more time and offers greater monetary rewards; families have become smaller. The church’s influence has weakened. In 1995 divorce was legalized. A massive influx of immigrants and asylum-seekers has sparked a lively discussion about Irish identity as the country has shifted from a largely monolithic culture to a multicultural one. But the most decisive changes in Ireland have resulted from the effects of the ceasefire and subsequent Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. For years the complex political landscape of Northern Ireland was at the center of the Irish agenda. With the cessation of hostilities, however, the Irish economy has become the new show in town.

This new dominance of economics has blunted and dulled something within Irish identity. For centuries we Irish heroically resisted the best Britain could throw at us. At present we are being colonized by consumerism. The Irish imagination is becoming anesthetized to higher values as a result of a headlong rush into hedonism: we are shopping, spending, borrowing, eating, drinking and sleeping around as never before.

Erasing the Church From History

To justify this new frenzy, the Irish Catholic past is consistently being painted in depressingly dark colors or even painted out altogether. On the opening page of his bestselling memoir, Angela’s Ashes (1996), Frank McCourt wrote, “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” The internationally successful musical “Riverdance,” which has delighted audiences worldwide with its energy and spectacle, begins with the ancient Celtic world and culminates in a cosmopolitan and multicultural Ireland. But its grand sweep of Irish history neglects the seminal contribution of Christianity. The only reference to Christianity in the whole show is an insignificant image of a small church. “Riverdance” presents a picture of Ireland that neglects to acknowledge its Christian heritage.

The Irish Catholic Church certainly has lost enormous credibility in recent years, not least because of the clerical sexual abuse scandals. Scandal is one of the principal reasons the church is bereft of the prophetic strength to stem the hedonistic tide now engulfing Irish culture. Over the last decade, isolated voices expressing some measure of wisdom have spoken. Three exquisitely written books by the spiritual writer John O’Donohue, for instance, resonated with something deep in the Irish spirit—Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (1997), Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Yearning to Belong (2000), and Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (2004). O’Donohue combined elements from ancient Celtic spirituality, the folk wisdom of the common people, and the moving beauty of the Irish landscape to craft a reassuring and uplifting vision of life. Yet the elusiveness of even his lyrical and poetical style contained not only merit but a handicap. While it touched a spiritually hungry chord in the Irish heart, the author’s beautiful language disguised the banality of some of his insights. His dreamy prose promised to connect readers with a deeper level of their being, but gave them little more than a verbal massage at times. His soothing message did not nourish them in the long term.

Catholic teachers undoubtedly gave an excellent all-round education to Irish youth, but failed to form young people in the faith and never introduced them to a relationship with a personal God. Families, too, appear not to have transmitted the faith to their children. It is not surprising that young people have quietly abandoned a Catholicism about which they were taught little and of which they experienced even less in their daily lives. Theirs is a loss the church has passively accepted with hardly a whimper. The level of religious education these young people received before leaving the church was so inadequate that most of them would be hard-pressed to list even five of the Ten Commandments, which are fundamental to Judaism as well as Christianity. By contrast, the giant corporations have been so successful in communicating their message that these same young people endlessly discuss designer labels and know how to exploit every feature of their cell phones.

As for the opinion-makers among the Irish intelligentsia, who pride themselves on being ecumenical and multi-denominational, they have an abysmally low level of knowledge when it comes to religion of any kind. Ask them about the five pillars of Islam or the four noble truths of Buddhism and you draw a blank stare. Try to start a discussion with a journalist who covers religious affairs about the two main characters in the Bhagavad Gita, and you draw perplexed glances before being asked whether these are celebrity customers in some newly opened Indian restaurant in downtown Dublin. It is worse than talking with a sports journalist who has never heard of Babe Ruth or who has no clue how many players are on a soccer team.

Exporting Intoxication

In Ireland talking is often associated with social drinking, and alcohol is indelibly linked in the Irish mind with the welcoming, fun-loving and endearing qualities of the national temperament. We Irish presume a God-given right to periodic bouts of drunkenness. Despite having already established a world-renowned fondness for alcohol, the average Irish adult drank almost 50 percent more in 2002 than was the average 10 years earlier. The drinking habits of young people are now centered on getting intoxicated and binge drinking.

People frequently complain about the “McDonald-ization” of the world, meaning that junk food is being consumed everywhere, making more people obese and damaging health. But what Ireland is exporting is much more destructive. Through the Irish pubs springing up around the globe, Ireland exports binge drinking. Irish pubs present themselves as gregarious fun, as cultural institutions that spread a happy-go-lucky attitude. But pubs glamorize excessive alcoholic consumption by making it appear acceptable and normal. Under the guise of relaxed conviviality, these pubs spread the poison and slavery of alcoholism.

Moreover, in the last four years the use of cocaine, that quintessentially middle-class drug, has increased tenfold in Ireland. Rising levels of addiction have been mirrored in higher suicide rates and a substantial increase in crime.

Of course the news from Ireland is not all bad. There is still a deep spiritual hunger and openness in the Irish people, and epiphanies are unfolding before our eyes. I find tremendous hope for the Christian future of our country in the huge number of immigrants who have arrived on our shores in recent years. They are not as enslaved as we are to consumerism, and they are blessed with a much stronger sense of community—two key ingredients for an Irish future that is less pretentious, more authentic and receptive to a fundamentally Christian vision. Indeed the 160,000 Polish immigrants, who form the largest single group of migrant workers in Ireland, are astounding us with their faith commitment.

In a country seduced by the greed-fest of the Ryder Cup and the siren-call of consumerism, these “new Irish” may open our eyes so that we can rediscover our own soul.

Thomas G. Casey, S.J., an Irish Jesuit priest, teaches philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. His latest book, Music of Pure Love (Templegate), is partly an autobiographical exploration of the search for Go

Comments

Michael J. Weaver, MD | 11/30/2006 - 2:58pm
A very interesting article. It sounds like "Ole Ireland" is becoming just like the USA. Hopefully someday Thomas Cahill (of "How The Irish Saved Civilization" fame) will be able to write a new book: "How The Poles Saved Ireland". Unfortunately, I doubt anyone will ever be able to save the USA!

Walter S Ciciora | 12/5/2006 - 6:32pm
I got behind in my reading and so read the November 27 and December 4 issues in the same sitting. The two cover stories were fascinating. But they seemed to have a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" theme. Would Mexico be better off adopting the policies that led Ireland out of comparative poverty into relative prosperity? Or would Ireland have been better off if it stayed in a Mexico-like economic situation? Mexico is a country blessed with substantial natural resources including energy supplies, a warm climate, fertile lands, a wide access to the sea for trade, and a population that works diligently as demonstrated by their performance when they come to the US. So how can they fail to be prosperous? Comparing Mexico to Ireland, one would expect Mexico to have a much better chance at prosperity. But then, reading the November 27th issue, maybe America Magazine has reservations about a country reaching Ireland-like prosperity. Best regards,

Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D.

Carol Sobeck | 12/3/2006 - 9:31pm
Father Casey states that Ireland's apparent rejection of the Catholic Church and its teachings is caused by teachers who did not teach well,parents who did not pass on the faith, and the new affluence that has finally befallen the poor, long-suffering Irish people. If Ireland is losing its Catholic identity, which I believe is still problematic in its permanence, the causes may be that the teachers and parents themselves never received adequate instruction to be able to fulfill those jobs.

To develop a personal relationship with Christ and to live a deep faith life, one must have experienced good pastoral care that offered spiritual sustenance over a lifetime, and openness to God's abundance grace. If the instruction given to those teachers and parents was based on shame, guilt and fear, there was little room left to develop a deep personal relationship with Christ or deepening of their faith.

Perhaps the bishops of Ireland are guilty of covering up sexual abuse, but also of not fulfilling their responsibility to teach well the Gospel message of love. It is difficult to retain a positive view of the Church and its teachings when they treat their own so badly. The institutional Church often seems to do a better job at judging than loving. Many opportunities to truly teach the Gospel message has been squandered by the Church hierarchy and some priests. The current state of religion in Ireland saddens this great-grandchild of my four Irish immigrant grandparents. But if our despair can be wrapped in Hope, there is still a chance that real faith will again thrive in the hearts and minds of the native Irish as well as its diverse new immigrants. All things are possible for God. Also, no amount of money or affluence can dislodge deep faith and a real relationship with Christ. If it is real, it will not wither.

Carol Sobeck

Mary Ellen Carroll | 11/17/2006 - 12:06pm
Sad to say, I witnessed much of what Fr. Casey writes about Ireland when my family visited Ireland in 2001 and 2003. While I am happy that Ireland is economically doing better and that whole generations don't have to live with the prospect that emigrating is the only way they can survive (as was the case with my husband's family, 12 out of fifteen siblings left Ireland for good to start a new life in Canada, U.S., England, Germany and Australia) the Ireland I saw in 2001 was not the Ireland I fell in love with in 1971.

One of the complaints we hear about Long Island, N.Y. is that it is becoming overbuilt and losing some of its charm. The same thing could be said about Ireland. Even the people are less welcoming and more businesslike, more like the English and other Europeans than the Irish immigrants that I knew and loved in N.Y. in the 1950 and 60s.

The amount of drinking and drug use was sad to see. In Cobh we saw the body bag of a young man who committed suicide, a house being attacked in Dublin because a young person ran afoul of the drug dealer and we were only there 3 weeks. My husband would have loved to see my children live in Ireland, perhaps go to school there. Thankfully, that never happened.

The Church in Ireland was also in a sorry state, almost living in a state of suspended animation. There was no life or joy in the celebration of the Eucharist in any of the Churches we visited. I felt my faith was more alive in the Catholic Church we visited in England.

The Church which could be a force for good has lost the ability to reach so many of the Irish people. Instead of lamenting its losses perhaps now is the time to admit to past mistakes, practice humility and fearlessly reach out to all those it has hurt, and set a good example by embracing poverty as St. Francis did.

We saw many places with some form of desert in the name. Perhaps those who love the Church and Ireland can embrace the concept of the desert that Fr. Ronald Rohlheiser used to describe the situation in the Church today. He said that the Israelites spent a lot of time going around in circles (the Sinai wasn't that big) until the time when they were ready to enter the promised land. Led by the pillar of fire at night they could only take one day at a time, the manna also could only be stored for one day. He said we should expect to only have enough food and light for each day not for 5 years down the road. The prophet, Hosea described the desert as the place where the Israelites experienced their honeymoon with God. Perhaps there is a need for some courageous Irish souls to go back to the desert.

Brian Gogan | 2/26/2007 - 2:04pm
As an Irishman living in Ireland through these somewhat tumultuous years, I regret to say I wasn’t too impressed by the article on today’s Ireland by Thomas G. Casey, S.J., “Jolted by Affluence” (11/27). It is depressingly negative, because it lacks historical perspective, as do the comments of many of the chattering classes he rightly chastises.

Because of the absence of historical vision, both backward and forward, Father Casey fails to talk about what are relatively and historically speaking earthshaking achievements for Ireland, such as ending emigration; achieving full employment; growth in population, bringing us back to 19th-century levels; taking the lower-paid out of the tax net (50,000 more this year); standing on the threshold of an agreement to end 40 years of warfare and 400 years of institutional injustice on an ethnic-cleansing scale; giving away to the third world a larger proportion of national income than does the United States; creating an airline that is the largest domestic carrier in Europe and that has changed the face of modern air travel. Not bad for 12 years!

Of course there has to be a downside. You cannot move that fast without the losses and the failures. We have experienced a level of corruption in business and the professions that would do Japan proud. Or dare I say the United States?

I believe, however, that if we do not recognize and consciously evaluate the relative enormity of what has been accomplished, we will not identify adequately the next steps to be made. All our tomorrows are built on yesterday, aren’t they?

Kieran McGovern | 2/26/2007 - 2:18pm
I am more than a little saddened by the downbeat tone of “Jolted by Affluence,” by Thomas G. Casey, S.J., (11/27) and his reflections on modern Ireland. Can I assure your readers that, as a 60-plus Catholic in 21st-century Ireland, I am proud of my past, my education, my achievements and especially my country, which provided all those things. But most of all I am proud of the young people of Ireland, their soul and their peace process, grown from a legacy sown by us elders and being reaped by our youth. I think Fr. Casey’s measure of the present is a bit too deeply colored by a hankering for what has gone before.

Let me reassure him and your readers: By no means have we turned into the type of nation he describes. On the contrary, our historical hopes are being realized as a free and independent nation. We make no apologies for our achievements, and in so doing we recognize our shortcomings. But we know all too well where we have come from and therefore know where we are going. We are experiencing our resurrection and rely on the hope it brings.

Sean O’Connor | 2/26/2007 - 2:16pm
Ah, the pity of it. I refer to “Jolted by Affluence,” by Thomas G. Casey, S.J., (11/27). The Island of Saints and Scholars is only a single generation removed from penury, the emigrant ship and coercive priests and bishops, not to mention the Magdalene Laundries, the “industrial schools” and the “reformatories,” mostly staffed by religious. And what are the Irish doing with their newfound wealth and freedom? They are enjoying it. Is Mass attendance down? For sure! And why is that, you ask, and quick as a whippet you answer “materialism.”

Not so fast. For most of my own youth in Ireland, 1940 to 1965, Catholics were more driven than led, more threatened than instructed, and this by a clergy who were being rapidly overtaken in education and understanding by their flocks. Throw in the odd sexual abuse scandal and the pathetic attempts at cover-up, and you have a recipe for confusing the messenger with the message. Any hope at all, at all?

Well yes, there is; but it won’t come quickly and it won’t be dependent on Polish immigrants, however pious they be. First there is a terrible need for more good priests, and they don’t need to be Irish-born. Nigerians and Ghanaians will do just fine. A bit of a payback, you might say. Then, as the old bishops schooled in 19th-century clerical dominance die off, their replacements need to believe truly that they are the servants of the servants of God. Given a generation or so, there is a fair chance that the unchurched will be once again churched, but there will be no going back to the good old days of “That’s what Father says; so it is.” So enough of the weeping. There is work to do.

L. B. Hoge | 2/26/2007 - 2:05pm
The description of the emerging state of Ireland, “Jolted by Affluence,” by Thomas G. Casey, S.J. (11/27), is saddening for me. In my lifetime, the story of Ireland and the Irish faith and religion have often been inspiring to me. Now the Irish are descending into the consumerism that has so neutralized the spiritual life of the people of our country.

I struggle with the same consumerism and “need” for all the right things, and I do my best to be content with the simple necessities: enough to eat, pay my taxes, put extra miles on my car.

The plus side of consumerism is that once one is aware of it, it becomes one of the challenges to “be” spiritual, pay attention to God and community in all its needs. In other words, to share the wealth.

(Rev.) William T. Cullen | 2/26/2007 - 1:59pm
The perceptive essay by Thomas G. Casey, S.J., on the decline of Ireland’s Catholic identity, “Jolted by Affluence” (11/27) recalls the disquieting work of the journalist Mary Kenny, Goodbye to Catholic Ireland. If I might add to Father Casey’s analysis, I would say that another important contributing reason for the malaise that currently afflicts the Catholic Church in Ireland has been the severity of the church over the years, often thrusting onerous burdens on a people already bereft and suffering. There was the aloofness of priests that spawned a divide between them and the people, often engendering fear and isolation despite the esteem and respect Irish Catholics held for priests in the past. This uncompromising attitude was pervasive.

The flight of many of Ireland’s young men and women to pursue their vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the United States and Australia during the past century was due not solely to missionary zeal but often to sheer necessity—an untold blessing, of course, for the many who benefited from their noble sacrifices. Unfortunately, the “miserable Irish Catholic childhood” that Frank McCourt decried in Angela’s Ashes carried over into Irish Catholic adulthood for too many, and the church is now reaping what it sowed. My Irish immigrant parents, like most of their generation, were loyal and devoted to the church, but sadly those days are over. Sadder still is the gnawing realization that, for the most part, the church brought this terrible miasma on itself. The church, of course, will rebound, but not in the foreseeable future. During this Advent season of hope, perhaps a counsel attributed to the novelist Victor Hugo might lift our spirits: “Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones, but sleep in peace. God is awake.”

Michael J. Weaver, MD | 11/30/2006 - 2:58pm
A very interesting article. It sounds like "Ole Ireland" is becoming just like the USA. Hopefully someday Thomas Cahill (of "How The Irish Saved Civilization" fame) will be able to write a new book: "How The Poles Saved Ireland". Unfortunately, I doubt anyone will ever be able to save the USA!

Walter S Ciciora | 12/5/2006 - 6:32pm
I got behind in my reading and so read the November 27 and December 4 issues in the same sitting. The two cover stories were fascinating. But they seemed to have a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" theme. Would Mexico be better off adopting the policies that led Ireland out of comparative poverty into relative prosperity? Or would Ireland have been better off if it stayed in a Mexico-like economic situation? Mexico is a country blessed with substantial natural resources including energy supplies, a warm climate, fertile lands, a wide access to the sea for trade, and a population that works diligently as demonstrated by their performance when they come to the US. So how can they fail to be prosperous? Comparing Mexico to Ireland, one would expect Mexico to have a much better chance at prosperity. But then, reading the November 27th issue, maybe America Magazine has reservations about a country reaching Ireland-like prosperity. Best regards,

Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D.

Carol Sobeck | 12/3/2006 - 9:31pm
Father Casey states that Ireland's apparent rejection of the Catholic Church and its teachings is caused by teachers who did not teach well,parents who did not pass on the faith, and the new affluence that has finally befallen the poor, long-suffering Irish people. If Ireland is losing its Catholic identity, which I believe is still problematic in its permanence, the causes may be that the teachers and parents themselves never received adequate instruction to be able to fulfill those jobs.

To develop a personal relationship with Christ and to live a deep faith life, one must have experienced good pastoral care that offered spiritual sustenance over a lifetime, and openness to God's abundance grace. If the instruction given to those teachers and parents was based on shame, guilt and fear, there was little room left to develop a deep personal relationship with Christ or deepening of their faith.

Perhaps the bishops of Ireland are guilty of covering up sexual abuse, but also of not fulfilling their responsibility to teach well the Gospel message of love. It is difficult to retain a positive view of the Church and its teachings when they treat their own so badly. The institutional Church often seems to do a better job at judging than loving. Many opportunities to truly teach the Gospel message has been squandered by the Church hierarchy and some priests. The current state of religion in Ireland saddens this great-grandchild of my four Irish immigrant grandparents. But if our despair can be wrapped in Hope, there is still a chance that real faith will again thrive in the hearts and minds of the native Irish as well as its diverse new immigrants. All things are possible for God. Also, no amount of money or affluence can dislodge deep faith and a real relationship with Christ. If it is real, it will not wither.

Carol Sobeck

Mary Ellen Carroll | 11/17/2006 - 12:06pm
Sad to say, I witnessed much of what Fr. Casey writes about Ireland when my family visited Ireland in 2001 and 2003. While I am happy that Ireland is economically doing better and that whole generations don't have to live with the prospect that emigrating is the only way they can survive (as was the case with my husband's family, 12 out of fifteen siblings left Ireland for good to start a new life in Canada, U.S., England, Germany and Australia) the Ireland I saw in 2001 was not the Ireland I fell in love with in 1971.

One of the complaints we hear about Long Island, N.Y. is that it is becoming overbuilt and losing some of its charm. The same thing could be said about Ireland. Even the people are less welcoming and more businesslike, more like the English and other Europeans than the Irish immigrants that I knew and loved in N.Y. in the 1950 and 60s.

The amount of drinking and drug use was sad to see. In Cobh we saw the body bag of a young man who committed suicide, a house being attacked in Dublin because a young person ran afoul of the drug dealer and we were only there 3 weeks. My husband would have loved to see my children live in Ireland, perhaps go to school there. Thankfully, that never happened.

The Church in Ireland was also in a sorry state, almost living in a state of suspended animation. There was no life or joy in the celebration of the Eucharist in any of the Churches we visited. I felt my faith was more alive in the Catholic Church we visited in England.

The Church which could be a force for good has lost the ability to reach so many of the Irish people. Instead of lamenting its losses perhaps now is the time to admit to past mistakes, practice humility and fearlessly reach out to all those it has hurt, and set a good example by embracing poverty as St. Francis did.

We saw many places with some form of desert in the name. Perhaps those who love the Church and Ireland can embrace the concept of the desert that Fr. Ronald Rohlheiser used to describe the situation in the Church today. He said that the Israelites spent a lot of time going around in circles (the Sinai wasn't that big) until the time when they were ready to enter the promised land. Led by the pillar of fire at night they could only take one day at a time, the manna also could only be stored for one day. He said we should expect to only have enough food and light for each day not for 5 years down the road. The prophet, Hosea described the desert as the place where the Israelites experienced their honeymoon with God. Perhaps there is a need for some courageous Irish souls to go back to the desert.