2016 marks the centenary of the Irish ‘Easter Rising’ that paved the way for much of the island to win independence from Great Britain. But, commemoration of the event is exposing sharp differences in modern Ireland about how the influence of Catholicism is being marked.
Whilst the uprising was a failure from a military point of view, it inspired a whole new generation of activists who engaged in a guerrilla campaign that saw 26 of the country’s 32 counties win effective independence in 1922.
But, a century on from that uprising, there is tension in how the event is remembered and how the history of 20th century Ireland is recorded.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the role of the Church and individual priests both around the events of Easter Week 1916 itself, and ecclesiastical influence in the nascent Irish State.
Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has expressed frustration that the outreach of individual priests during the week-long rebellion, and the role of clergy in ministering to the rebel leaders ahead of their executions, is being forgotten.
In a foreword to a new book 1916 – The Church and the Easter Rising, edited by Catholic journalist Greg Daly, Martin writes that “the men and women of 1916 were men and women of faith. The Proclamation [of the Republic] is prefaced ‘in the Name of God’.”
“Each of the leading figures had a personal story of faith which accompanied them along their journey,” the archbishop said.
Yet official ceremonials around the centenary have tended to play down the Catholic nature of the Rising.
For Daly, Catholicism is key to understanding the Rising.
“Time and time again we read of ordinary rebels going to Mass, receiving Communion, and making sure their Confessions were heard before they left their homes for perhaps the last time,” he writes.
“The atmosphere of the Rising was one drenched in Catholicism, the rosary the soundtrack to rebel activity wherever it took place. We’re right to acknowledge that not every rebel was Catholic, but if we focus on the few who weren’t we lose the woods because we’re squinting at individual trees.”
“Given how the rebels attempted to justify their Rising in terms of just war theory, and deliberately wanted an Easter rebellion to signify national resurrection, it could even be argued that for most of the rebels of 1916 the Rising was theologically justified, liturgically timed, and devotionally experienced,” he adds.
Irish President Michael D. Higgins has used the centenary of the Easter Rising to speak of the need for “ethical remembering”, by which he means a form of remembering that takes account of all the different ideas and traditions at work in the events of that seminal year in our history.
In a recent speech, Higgins spoke of “the overlapping loyalties and passions held by the men and women of the time, the influences of the Enlightenment, romanticism, mysticism, suffragism, socialism, pacifism.”
Noticeably absent from the president’s recollection of influences of the insurrection is religious faith.
According to David Quinn, who runs the Catholic think tank The Iona Institute, “that is a very big oversight, given the very deep religiosity of many of those who took part in the Rising.”
But, why the reluctance simply to name what is factually true? Quinn believes that disputes over the influence of the Catholic Church in post-independence Ireland are crucial.
Higgins referred to “a restrictive religiosity” that he believes marked a lot of 20th century Irish Catholicism.
While Quinn admits, “yes, there was a very repressive side to religion as it was found in Ireland, but millions of Irish people took enormous comfort from their faith, including many of the rebels of 1916.”
When the independent Irish state emerged, the Catholic Church was the only organization with anything like a cohesive national structure. It was able to run – and staff – a network of schools, hospitals and other charitable institutions.
A number of punishing judicial reports in recent decades have highlighted abuse and mistreatment in many of these institutions and a harshness that now beggars belief. The reports, and some over-the-top reactions from politicians, strained Church-State relations to the breaking point, and Ireland even briefly closed down its Vatican Embassy.
Arguably, no Church leader has done more to confront the horror of abuse within the Church than the Dublin archbishop. He’s even provoked criticism from some priests who have felt that he has been too strong in his denunciation of the past.
But, Martin clearly sees the need for the Church to pause and reflect on the past if it is to have a credible and viable future that will lead to a nuanced understanding of the role of Catholicism.
Taking up the president’s theme to remember ethically, Martin told a recent gathering “he [Higgins] has made reference on a number of occasions also to the negative role played over the past 100 years by an, at times, narrow and over-dominant Church within Irish political culture.
“Like every other component of Irish society, the Catholic Church in Ireland also is called to carry out an honest appraisal of its place in Irish society in the future,” Martin said.
Martin went on to refer to a recent dramatization of the Easter Rising on Irish television. The archbishop said the impression had been given that the Church’s only concern during the event had been to defend its own interests.
“When the fictional presentation flies flagrantly in the face of easily verifiable historical records, then one would be reasonably entitled to wonder if the search for truth might be being second-guessed to partiality,” Martin said.
According to Gabriel Doherty, an historian based at University College Cork, the onus is on the Church to challenge “lazy narratives” about its past.
“It’s one of the lessons of the last 10 to 15 years in terms of the number of damning external reports, that if the Church doesn’t appraise its own role in an honest, open and transparent way, then others will do so for it.
“That’s not to say that those external agencies shouldn’t continue to monitor what the Church is doing, and the Church itself should act as a monitor on those other agencies, including the State itself,” Doherty said.
Insisting that “lazy narratives absolutely do exist” about the Church in Ireland, the historian and lecturer also urged the Church “not to accept the received wisdom from journalists and other commentators who very frequently have contemporary axes to grind, and only look at the most objectionable aspects of what has gone in the past rather than the past in the round.”
“The onus must be from within the Church to produce that degree of honest appraisal,” he said.
Daly hopes his new book will contribute to just such an honest review.
“When I began my research,” he recalls, “it was clear to me that very few people seemed to know anything about the role of the Church in the Rising.
“The Rising was an overwhelmingly Catholic rebellion. It’s impossible to miss this as you work your way through the myriad first-person accounts of the Rising, whether in books and magazine articles, witness statements, or even letters and diaries from the time,” Daly insists.
Michael Kelly is Editor of ‘The Irish Catholic’ newspaper. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelKellyIC.