Yesterday and today. The memory of persecution and religious freedom in Ireland

Yesterday and today. The memory of persecution and religious freedom in Ireland

There’s a curious amnesia in contemporary Ireland about religious persecution. Two anecdotes to illustrate that claim:

  1. I was celebrating a wedding in a medieval church in the Irish midlands. The landscape there is dotted with such churches, but this is one of the few that is in use today as a Catholic church. Chatting to one of the guests, I mentioned that it was a very important friary at one point, and that it was wonderful to see the same friars resident there after a long period of absence. This guest, an educated man in his 30s, looked puzzled, and asked: “Why did they leave?” Then it was my turn to look puzzled. “Because of the Reformation. The Dissolution of the Monasteries. Henry VIII and all that”. He nodded, but it was clear that he didn’t know what I was talking about. Later in the day I surreptitiously tested another few guests to see if this man was just a strange anomaly. Astonishingly, none of the younger guests I spoke to had any clear awareness of this massive turning point in Irish history, when sixteenth-century English monarchs expelled religious orders from their monasteries and priories, and dispossessed them of their goods and property.
  2. I was asked to give a tour of ‘Catholic Dublin’ to a group of students from a Catholic school situated outside the capital city. My focus was on our Dominican priory – of course! – but I planned to include also the site of a number of ‘Mass houses’, places in the city where Mass was celebrated illegally in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As I discussed these sites, it was clear to me that the children were entirely unaware that Catholics during that period had limited rights. They had never heard of the ‘Penal Laws’ which limited the rights of Catholics to own land and horses, adopt children, set up schools, and, of course, to attend Mass. As I began to inform them of all this, I noticed that the children were fascinated, but that their teachers were progressively less pleased. At the end of the tour, their thanks was perfunctory, even frosty. This was not the story they wanted their students to hear.

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.


Conor McDonough


The material complements the project: Laboratory of Religious Freedom. Realized on its own.

Autor: Mateusz Ruta
Date: 30 November 2021
Financed from the means of the Justice Fund, administered by the Minister of Justice.
Pro Futuro Theologiae Foundation
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