There’s a curious amnesia in contemporary Ireland about religious persecution. Two anecdotes to illustrate that claim:
Past generations of Irish people, especially in the wake of independence, were reared with these stories of persecution, and with a powerful awareness that the current freedom of Catholics to worship was hard won. Those who fought for that right were regarded as national heroes, above all Daniel O’Connell, ‘the Liberator’, whose statue dominates Dublin’s main thoroughfare. What has changed, then? How has this story of liberation from oppression been forgotten?
One possible reason for this radical change is that the old story was somewhat exaggerated. In his new book, The Best Catholics in the World, Irish Times journalist Derek Scally investigates this tendency of early- to mid-twentieth-century Ireland to place a simplistic account of religious persecution at the heart of its self-understanding. With the help of historians, he explains that the Penal Laws, for all their ferocity on the page, were applied unevenly, and a great deal depended on the attitude of local grandees. When revisionist scholars began pointing this out, the old story of continuous persecution and courageous resistance was bound to be questioned.
Even allowing, though, for sensible scholarly re-assessment, the popular amnesia concerning religious persecution seems disproportionate, and a fuller explanation must be sought. It’s not just that we have left behind our national story, rather, we have replaced it with another national story. In the old version, the struggle for liberation and national self-definition was one fought by oppressed Catholics against the English Crown, over several centuries. In the new version, it is the twentieth-century Catholic Church that is the oppressor, and the struggle for liberation and national self-definition is identified with more recent social battles (over divorce, contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage). Those who adhere to this new story struggle to deal with the reality of past persecution of Catholics. It doesn’t fit the new narrative and so, it must be deliberately forgotten. Into the Memory Hole!
One of the consequences of this amnesia is the loss of a vivid sense of the possibility of religious persecution today, and the concomitant loss of active commitment to religious freedom. Other examples of past persecution now interest us, other forms of freedom now engage our support.
This is the case in post-Catholic Ireland, but I submit that the phenomenon is perhaps being repeated, with variation, elsewhere. Is secularisation undermining our awareness of the importance of religious freedom? Are post-Christian generations, who are little aware of the religious dimension of life, less likely to notice religious persecution, less likely to be enthused by religious freedom?
These are questions for others to answer. For its part, the Irish Church is beginning to develop a grassroots response to this loss of memory. Around the country, parishes and prayer groups are, without being prompted, promoting local awareness of ‘Mass rocks’, remote places where the Eucharist was celebrated during times of persecution. It is perhaps by visiting these places – silent, eloquent witnesses to real persecution and real faithfulness – that contemporary Irish people will regain a proper commitment to religious freedom.