Why the ‘Vanishing Irish’ didn’t actually vanish

Why the ‘Vanishing Irish’ didn’t actually vanish Mary Kenny (right) pictured with long-time friend Sabina Coyne Higgins at the launch of her new book from Columba Books. Photo: Alexis Sierra
The Way We Were: Catholic Ireland Since 1922
by Mary Kenny
(Columba Books, €19.99/£17.99)

Mary Kenny’s new book is of great importance, and in its arrangement will enlighten many about what has become a controversial aspect of our recent past. The first section deals with the course of Irish history, basically since the founding of the Free State

She was inspired by a hope of giving Catholic culture in Ireland since about 1922 a fairer view than is now usual. This is an important thing to do.

No one can form a true opinion without hearing all sides: as she remarks of the Jesuit tradition of debate, we often learn most from our opponents.

If the rural Irish continued to emigrate at the rate they did, and refused to marry and have families, they would soon be gone”

Thinking over the theme of her book, some images came into my mind that seem to have been passed over. They may seem symbolic in ways, but I think they are revealing. As I am mentioned and quoted in it, it is difficult to review this book in the ordinary way. But I have some comments to make on it.

Nowhere does she refer to a once famous landmark text, but then she is not alone in this. The book, published in 1954, is The Vanishing Irish, edited by the American Catholic journalist John A. O’Brien, a well-known publicist of the day. It was a collection of essays by writers such as Paul Vincent Carroll, Shane Leslie, Sean O’Faolain and others, addressing “one of the strangest of modern phenomena, Ireland’s declining population”. The Irish some predicted then in all seriousness were destined for cultural extinction.

If the rural Irish continued to emigrate at the rate they did, and refused to marry and have families, they would soon be gone.

But back in 1954 the “better life” for many hundreds of thousands of Irish people was simply not to be found in the Ireland that Mary Kenny wants to celebrate.

This is not my opinion, but the opinion of those who left Ireland, and those who then never wished to marry, the “Diaspora” as so many now call it, made their choice, an “American wake” and the boat to “Philadelphia in the morning”.

First production

In playwright Brian Friel’s play Gareth O’Donnell was from rural Donegal, but Ireland also lost a multitude of graduates as well. Only in the years after its first production in 1964 did emigration begin to decline and then reverse, the populations at last began to expand. Something happened that needs explanation. Ireland in the decades before Vatican II had already changed.

The other item that came into my mind is a photograph of a modern church in Co. Clare, showing the single males, who in those days often kept to the back of the church, leaving second Mass on a Sunday, the men in their caps and 30-year-old best suits in a sharp contrast to the walls of glass, light steel, and concrete. My father had got this from his friend Michael Scott to show to students in one of his classes in the American University where he then taught in the School of Architecture. It became for me, when I found it among his papers, a symbolic tableau, of the very Ireland Mary Kenny is writing about. The contrast between the ultra-modern and the very traditional is striking.

Germany had gone through a physical and moral catastrophe”

What does this image mean?

The modern style of the new Irish churches of the period derived from Germany. There, and in other European countries, churches destroyed in the war had to be replaced. Their “modern style” became the latest thing.

But with the new post-war churches came a new post-war theological style. Germany had gone through a physical and moral catastrophe. The old theology had somehow failed to provide against the dynamic rise of Hitler. The changes we think of as “post Vatican II” were in fact in train some decades when they came. Not everyone in the Catholic institution in Ireland could see this; but many others were already under the influence of new ideas from Germany.


Those men without children coming away from Mass would find the caps they wore would not fit the growing children they left behind in the church. Indeed in what new church would they find themselves at ease?

It was in this period too that the some in the Church in Ireland (I am thinking of psychotherapist Fr Eddie O’Doherty of UCD), were made conscious of the need to pay more attention to the psychological and psychosocial needs of priests. His writings such as the Priest and Mental Health (1962) and Religion and Personality Problems (1964) were ripples showing how the current was running at this time.

Here I think we can see that already some were aware that the mental and sexual health of the clergy needed reordering. Alas in due course the bishops were content to ignore what he had to say about priests involved in later crimes. Mary Kenny talks about Prof. Tony Clare, but not Fr O’Doherty. But then one author cannot cover everything.

The reality is that the answer to John O’Brien’s book was that the Irish of the kind he and others thought of as “Irish Catholics” did vanish, and were replaced by what other have come to see as “the true Irish” who had no problems increasing the population.

Just reading what she thinks is needed will surprise many readers”

Having been part of some of what she describes, I think that Mary Kenny’s book will be very revealing to a younger generation. It is a sign of our times that she provides between the two parts of the book, a glossary of terms which she feels young readers will be aided by. Just reading what she thinks is needed will surprise many readers.

The first part of the book is an historical narrative; the second part a selection of biographies of influential Catholics active in the period who often reflect aspects of Ireland we hear little about, such as Danny La Rue. Thus she manages a neat combination of treatments that actually tell her readers more than some recent histories do.

Her last words on the history of the period sums up in petto the whole book. “A central tenet of Catholic Christianity has endured as an everyday reflection: that every person has, within them, the spark of the divine and the tramp who sits next to you in a crowded city church is just as valuable in the eyes of the Lord as a glitteringly successful individual who has been bestowed with worldly benefit. Life is unfair, but everyone matters.”

You can purchase Mary Kenny’s The Way We Were: Catholic Ireland Since 1922 published by Columba Books here.