Blaming others for our woes

Blaming others for our woes
The Church is a convenient scapegoat for Ireland’s historical sins, writes David Quinn


Last week I attended a conference at Notre Dame University in the US. Before proceeding to the main topic of this article, a word about Notre Dame itself is in order. When you visit it, one word comes to mind; majestic.

The university was founded in 1842 by the Holy Cross Congregation and over the last few decades in particular it has grown to immense proportions despite being situated in the small city (by US standards) of South Bend, Indiana.

Notre Dame now has a global outreach which includes this country, which is fitting given that the university has deep roots in America’s Irish Catholic community.

One of its ‘outposts’ here is the Notre Dame Newman Centre for Faith and Reason based at University Church in Dublin and ably headed by Fr William Dailey of the Holy Cross Congregation.

The conference I attended last week (it ran from November 1-3) was organised by the Notre Dame Centre for Ethics and Culture. Its theme was ‘Higher Powers’. It was addressed by some of the top-ranking Catholic (and other) academics around today.

One of them was Prof. Alasdair MacIntyre, now approaching 90 years of age, who is one of the most impactful Catholic intellectuals of the last 50 years.

In his address, called ‘Absences from Aquinas, Silences in Ireland’, he discussed, among other things, the Irish abortion referendum, as did journalist and writer John Waters in his talk the next day.


In their own different ways, both men discussed the massive changes that have swept over Ireland in the last few decades, culminating in the two-to-one vote in favour of removing the right to life of the unborn from the Constitution.

But during the coffee breaks and during meal time, the handful of Irish there were asked for their own opinions about what had happened, and what has been happening in Ireland. Any remaining illusions that Irish-American Catholics might have had about Ireland have now been firmly swept away. There is no doubt left in anyone’s mind that Ireland is a country in very strong rebellion against its Catholic past.

What was clear to attendees was the role the scandals played in turning many Irish people against the Church, quite apart from the sense of disgust they have created in ordinary Mass-going Catholics.

The Tuam Mother and Baby home was mentioned, although a few people at the conference still half-believed that the nuns had killed or let die the 800 babies and put them in a septic tank. Neither of these claims is true, of course, as John Waters pointed out in his talk at last year’s conference.

In any event, conference delegates understood that a big rebellion was underway in Ireland against the Church’s past dominance and the unborn had just paid a very heavy price.

In my own conversations with people I pointed out a few things.

One was that Ireland had, in fact, achieved something extraordinary in managing to maintain a pro-life law for decades longer than any other country in the West apart from tiny Malta. That is not to be underestimated.

While it is true that thousands of Irish women travelled to Britain each year for abortions, our rate was still only about a third of that country’s rate. It is extremely plausible to claim that our law saved many thousands of lives.

But I also pointed out, as I’ve often written in these pages, that the Church has replaced Britain as the national villain in the minds of many Irish people. It is blamed for many of our woes in the same way Britain once was, and sometimes still is.

We have half-convinced ourselves that none of the dark chapters involving the Catholic Church had anything to do with the Irish people themselves.

The Church is regarded as a kind of alien oppressor, its priests and religious as somehow not Irish, its sometimes-dictatorial morals regarded as in no way representative of Ireland itself at the time.


This is a bit too convenient. If the Church was not part of Irish life back then, is it really plausible to suggest that we would have had no institutions, and that unmarried mothers and their children would not have been treated harshly? It is not as though Ireland, or even Catholic cultures were alone in this.

We simply kept the institutions and the harsh attitudes alive for a bit longer than other places.

Maybe that is because we were poor for longer and therefore felt very economically insecure. We could be extremely ruthless towards anything and anyone who threatened what bit of security we had.

Perhaps the fact that we find it hard to blame ourselves as a people when things go wrong is partly due to our history as a colonised people.

We were not in charge of ourselves like other people, say the French or the British, and so it was reasonable to blame the oppressor for our woes.

Even though we put the Church in charge of many aspects of Irish life, we have found it very easy to blame the Church, rather than ourselves, along with the Church, for the often harsh moral attitudes of the past.

In fact, when the economic crash happened in 2008, we blamed the banks to a large extent for our woes, as if they forced the loans on us. So again, we decided we were not to blame as a people, and as individuals, for the property bubble.

Maybe one day in the future, when something else goes wrong in Irish life, we will decide no-one else is to blame but us. But I suspect we have a while more to go before we get to that point. Next time we’ll probably find some other agent to blame for everything. The EU perhaps?