Understanding religion is vital for understanding Ireland, writes Greg Daly
One would think that the obvious theme of Prof. Kevin Whelan’s Religion, Landscape & Settlement in Ireland would be that it’s impossible to make sense of the Irish landscape without considering the role of religion, but this isn’t even the half of it, he says.
“Never mind the landscape, though it’s dear to my own interests, but equally Irish society, Irish culture, Irish history,” retorts the north Wexford-born historian, who earned his doctorate in UCD in the 1970s on the geography of religion and society in Ireland since 1800, subsequently teaching in the USA and Canada and running the University of Notre Dame’s Irish Centre since 1998.
“Try and explain it without understanding the role of religion or the role of spirituality: you can’t do it,” he continues. “I suppose nowadays people tend to get very short-sighted but you need a long-term perspective to understand a culture. In a sense that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Wary of terms like ‘Pagan’ and ‘Celtic’ when discussing the coming of Christianity to Ireland, he’s sceptical too of traditional interpretations of early Irish Catholicism as a kind of Christian anomaly.
“I don’t think that’s a useful way of thinking about it, because if you look at the spread of Christianity, there was no one standard version of Christianity at that time. What you had was a variation – everywhere it went it formed accommodations with the local cultures,” he says.
“The Irish experience was actually normal: there was no standard version of Christianity from which it could deviate. The negotiation between Christianity and what was there already was a fruitful one and it actually helped rather than hindered Christianity. That’s maybe one of the longer-term messages that I talk about in the book: that Christianity flourished in Ireland when there was a close relationship with the culture,” he says.
Later versions of Christianity in Ireland tended to be more standardised and even bureaucratic, he says, arguing that this actually damaged Christianity in Ireland.
“If you look at the earlier periods Christianity was richer precisely because, as Pope Francis would say, the shepherds did smell of the sheep,” he says, adding that the early Irish Christians were remarkable for their confidence about the Faith.
“The Irish Christians were extraordinarily confident. They had no problem whatsoever arguing with the Pope or with the existing system of intellectual power at that time. They maintained a different date of Easter because they said the lads weren’t calculating it correctly. They were incredibly arrogant, and one of the Popes wrote them a letter and said ‘who do you think you are? You’re a pimple on the face of Christianity!’”
Ireland’s position at the edge of the known world was central to this sense of confidence, Prof. Whelan maintains.
“But if you look at it, and ask why the Irish were so imbued with that, it’s because they felt that in the Bible it says go and preach the Christian message to the ends of the Earth, and they saw themselves as being the end of earth,” he says. “They saw themselves as equally important in closing the Christian message as the Romans and Eastern Mediterranean had been in beginning it. That imbued them with an incredible degree of self-confidence.”
It also gave them a great sense of urgency, he adds, with there being a common belief that the Second Coming might happen once Christianity reached the ends of the earth, and with this perhaps influencing the tendency for monks to settle at remote locations on Ireland’s western coast, facing the void in the known world.
“They had a very sophisticated understanding of their own position and a very strong sense of confidence that what they were doing was not something peripheral but actually central to the Christian message. I think the early Irish Church is remarkably confident and remarkably creative,” he says.
At the same time, he says, talk about the speed of Ireland’s conversion needs a measure of caution.
“It’s not necessarily that it caught on all that quickly. If there’s a few hundred people, and there’s kind of incremental change, 2 or 3% a year, it takes about 150 years, so it’s not as if Christianity came and suddenly the light went on and it went everywhere really quickly,” he says.
In fairness, though, it is genuinely remarkable that the spread of Christianity in Ireland was not met with violence.
“A key part of the story, and it’s a cliché, is that the Irish produced no martyrs. Usually when Christianity spread it met intense opposition,” he says.
“It didn’t in Ireland and part of that was to do with the fact that Patrick, who was a slave and was really people-trafficked into Ireland in his period, understood the language and understood the culture to some respect, having been there as a teenager. He had a very strong regard for Irish people. He didn’t kind of come in with the arrogance of ‘I know everything and you know nothing’. I think that from the get-go, Patrick understood that the way to make this happen was to negotiate rather than to be arrogant and dictatorial.”
The result, he says, was a rich hybrid fusion of Irish culture and Christianity.
“Patrick and the people he trained were all very good at finding ways to explain the Christian message in ways that made sense for local Irish people,” he says. “It absorbed things from earlier culture – where they might have said there were multiple gods, they’d say you were on the right track there lads, but this is all the manifestation of a single God, just manifested in different ways. Christianity has that at its core as well, with the idea of the Trinity: the Celts, if you want to call them that, had no problem absorbing that idea either.”
The Christian message Patrick and others brought resonated with existing views and attached itself to the local landscape in a way that gave it tremendous resilience, he says, such that claims that the Faith is on the way out in Ireland are premature.
“Sometimes people think that nowadays what has happened is the collapse of Catholicism, but my argument is that if you look at it in a longer term this is just one more in a very long series of changes – often very quick and seen as revolutionary changes and catastrophic changes – in the way that Christianity developed in Ireland. At the moment we’re in the in-between period, but I think there’ll be another resurgence of Christianity in Ireland. It will be a different version of it – still delivering the same message, but it’ll take on different forms.”
Early Christianity in Ireland has been associated with strong ascetic tendencies, with Christianity priding itself on being a religion of the outcasts and marginalised, but it is difficult to tell how it was experienced by people who weren’t clergy or religious.
“We just don’t know, because the documents were produced by the people at the very centre of the Church. You can’t tell. You can maybe make some informed guesses, but it very quickly can veer into ‘Celtic Christianity’ and things like that which I don’t think are very helpful ways of thinking about it at all. I prefer to say this is something we need to think about – a comparative approach is probably the best one in it.”
It’s worth bearing in mind how small Ireland’s population was at the time, he adds, pointing out that it was probably about half a million, with the major centres of Christian intellectual life at the time tending to be at such Midlands sites as Clonmacnois, Durrow and Kells.
Irish identity is clear in the sources of the time, with Patrick writing of being summoned by “the voice of the Irish”, Columbanus writing to the Pope about “we Irish”, and Columbanus’s hagiographer Jonas even writing a poem about Ireland, and there’s no denying the extent to which Ireland was a clear and distinct culture at the time, says Prof. Whelan.
“It was a very self-sufficient culture, and a very unusual one too, because it was a very pronounced segregation or micro-partition of the country into these small kingdoms, the tuatha, but the culture itself was very unified, the same language and whatever,” he says, adding that the Church played an important role in binding the culture together.
“Christianity brought literacy and brought literacy in the Irish language, and that was island-wide, so even though there was political fragmentation there was cultural unity.
“The Church was a major part of that, because unusually the Churchmen had immunity and had safe passage through the different systems, and I think that was one of the key reasons why Irish culture was homogenous while being politically very fragmented,” he says.
The social and political fragmentation of early medieval Ireland is attested to by the numerous tiny churches that dot the landscape, he explains.
“We know there are something like 5,900 sites from the early medieval period, say from 432 up to the arrival of the Normans, if that’s the breakpoint we want to use, in the 12th Century,” he says, noting that many of these still survive to this day and that there would also have been many wooden churches.
“We know something else as well, which is that these churches were often kin-based: they were for groups of families, probably farming together, who had these little churches and usually kin groups could produce a clergyman,” he says. “Irish society was very kin-based at the time – the political system was very kin-based, the church was very kin-based, so it was relatively straightforward to produce a priest from within that community, and if you look at the burials, the number of burials were quite small in some of the early Christian churches. “
The country’s oldest church testifies to this in an interesting way, he says.
“The earliest dated church in Ireland is one that people should probably know more about and most people would probably never have visited or even heard of, at Caherlehillan in Ivereagh in Kerry. There are only 17 burials there, which suggests to the archaeologists who’ve looked at it that it functioned almost as a family church, what they call elsewhere in Europe a proprietary church. It wasn’t a parish church in the same way.”
Irish Catholicism may change, but Prof. Whelan can’t see it disappearing altogether. “When people say Catholicism is going to disappear or fade off the Irish landscape, I don’t agree with that. I think this is very deeply embedded and the long-run history shows us that there were these moments of redefinition, but the Church re-emerged in different forms and different ways. There’s been many different manifestations of what it meant to be a Christian and a Catholic in this country, and every few centuries there’s been these upheavals.”
The late medieval model of Church in Ireland was strikingly different to the earlier model, he points out, being far more parish-based and episcopally-driven, and later again the country’s Church proved especially ingenious in adapting to persecution and oppression.
“What is really interesting is the defence mechanisms that the Irish Church develops because they become a porcupine to stop themselves being swallowed whole, and they also sacramentalised the landscape – that’s when you get all the holy wells and stuff like that,” he says.
“It’s really clear once you look at it – a lot of things which people tend to think are carryovers from the earlier period are actually a very sophisticated response to how you evangelise and how you keep people Catholic in an external environment which is hostile to your Church? “
Rejecting the idea that the wells were semi-pagan supersitions, he says the sacralising of the landscape was “a very sophisticated alliance between Catholic theology and a vernacular culture in a situation where they can’t have a public expression”. It was around this time, he says, that the calendar was sacralised too with days like St Brigid’s Day and St Patrick’s Day becoming especially important.
“These were not unintelligent people,” he says. “They knew that they faced a major catastrophe and they had to find a way to function in the wreckage. This also served to create a community where the priests and the people were very close together and you didn’t have the option for the priests and the hierarchy to separate themselves from the trials and tribulations of ordinary people.”
When Catholicism became officially respectable from the late 18th Century onwards, he says, it did so in a context where “the Church was the only national institution that was sympathetic to the bulk of Irish people. The British state was in ways hostile or antagonistic to it, and a lot of British state institutions were not sympathetic to Catholics, so the Catholic Church was forced into becoming a welfare agency, forced into education, and did a tremendous job.
“The creativity of people like Edmund Ignatius Rice and Nano Nagle was amazing. They were meeting a social need at the time, and were hugely important in strengthening the backbone of Catholicism in the 19th Century because they created an education for poorer people which would have been denied them in other circumstances,” he says.
Problems set in, he said, when the new State was established in which that antagonism – that tension– as Pope Francis might put it – wasn’t there, and there was an expectation that Church and State, as expressions of the same overwhelmingly Catholic people, would sing from the same hymn sheet, with Church leaders expecting the people as whole simply to be obedient.
“You could say the Irish Church was immensely powerful in the period after independence, but I think it wasn’t. I think it was weakening itself all the time, because it became a pious Church rather than a spiritual Church and a Church which was aligned with anti-intellectualism such that when the challenge came in the 1960s it just collapsed with incredible rapidity,” Prof. Whelan says.
“I don’t weep any tears for the end of that model of Church, but if you look at it long term, this was a collapse of a particular model of Catholicism, and out of that will emerge something different,” he continues. “Because there’s no cultures in the world yet which have found a way to be entirely secular because the questions that religion answers and the questions that spirituality addresses don’t go away.”
Religion, Landscape & Settlement in Ireland is published by Four Courts Press.