We Irish have a peculiar attitude to Faith in public

We Irish have a peculiar attitude to Faith in public Anglican Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally

Sunday was a tale of two different countries and two very different ceremonies. In London, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II presided at commemorations to mark the centenary of the Armistice that brought an end to World War I (1914-1918). The prayers were led by the female Anglican Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally.

In Dublin, meanwhile, Michael D. Higgins was inaugurated as President of Ireland for the second time. It was a fairly drab ceremony overall with some traditional Irish music and the reading of a couple of poems. Just like London, there was a religious character to the Dublin ceremony. Prayers were led by the Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, his Church of Ireland counterpart, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, a former president of the Methodist Church in Ireland, a priest of the Romanian Orthodox Church, a member of the Religious Society of Friends, a Jewish rabbi and an Islamic cleric. A member of the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) also read out a statement extolling the virtues of humanism.


Back in London, the ceremony at the cenotaph was decidedly Anglican in character. It was attended by a Catholic bishop, leaders of the various Christian denominations and representatives of other world religions. For the first time, there was also a humanist representative. All stood in reverent silence while the Anglican bishop presided.

Notwithstanding the fact that Anglicanism is the established Church in England, it was a poignant ceremony crafted to ensure that it was inclusive of everyone while not losing the character of Anglican liturgy.

In Dublin Castle, the religious elements were so disjointed as to render that part of the inauguration almost meaningless.

What are we to make of this? Is Ireland more diverse religiously than the UK? Is Britain by-and-large an Anglican churchgoing population?

The answer is, of course, ‘no’ on both counts. But, what is at play is that the British are confident enough in their own identity and also the shared idea of Britishness that they feel no need to render their ceremonials meaningless in a bid to be inclusive of everyone. Even though Anglicanism is in sharp decline in Britain, it remains the most natural way to conduct religious commemorations.

Not so in Ireland. Even though the religious landscape is changing rapidly, the vast majority of people still identify as Catholic. You’d never know it from large sections of the media, but about a third of Irish people go to Mass every Sunday morning.

The religious ceremony preceding the inauguration of President Higgins screams of a society uncomfortable with its Catholic roots. Cut adrift from Catholicism, there is a mostly well-meaning desire to try to be inclusive of everyone.

This is a peculiarly Irish phenomenon and it’s almost as if the mandarins who organise such ceremonies are embarrassed to have them remain Catholic events, but lack the imagination to give them a secular character. The compromise? Try to make it meaningful to everyone, and in so doing render the ceremony meaningless to the vast majority of people. Why not follow Britain’s example? Why not have a religious ceremony at which everyone is present and respected but is decidedly the ritual of one tradition or the other? In reality, Sunday’s inauguration was a haphazard mishmash of toing and froing that ended up being neither one thing or another.

Ireland in 2018 is a peculiar place when it comes to faith: not religious enough to want it to mean anything, but not faithless enough to send religion packing.