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Ministering to All

Thomas Fitzgerald
Freedom and the Fifth Commandment: Catholic Priests and Political Violence in Ireland, 1919-21, by Brian Heffernan, Manchester University Press, 290 pp, €19.99, ISBN 978-1526106520 The most remarkable change in Irish life over the past thirty years has been the collapse of the influence of the Catholic Church on society. A particularly common narrative has since emerged which suggests that independent Ireland amounted to a theocracy in which people’s lives were minutely controlled. In this view of things whereas once, like Stephen Daedalus, Ireland previously had two masters, independent Ireland had just one. While this narrative of control has been found attractive, it is potentially misleading in one crucial respect: most people until relatively recently were proud of their Catholic identity and were happy to adhere to Catholic teaching. The reason for this has something to do with the fact that Catholicism was structurally embedded in the last four hundred years of Irish history. From the plantations onwards most aspects of Irish life were caught up with Catholicism – debates and tensions over land ownership, education and the right to representation in parliament all turned on the social and political status of Catholicism and its adherents. Significantly, the final divisions between the old Gaelic Irish and the Norman Irish were washed away in a shared resistance to Protestant hegemony. One result of this dynamic is that Irish nationalism as it emerged became explicitly linked to Catholicism and this link extended into the twentieth century. Heffernan notes that Catholic imagery was heavily present in Irish republican propaganda. IRA leader Séamus Robinson, in his memoir, frames his resistance to the British state in Ireland in explicitly Catholic terms. Another IRA leader, Liam Deasy’s, memoir is full to the brim with references to his Catholic faith. The Irish state that such individuals helped set up was one that developed close links with the Catholic Church. Éamon de Valera, a leader of the anti-treaty republican movement from 1917  to 1927 and thereafter leader of Fianna Fáil, created a constitution in which the Catholic Church was given a special place. Some republicans did resent the Church, but they were the exception to the rule. If Irish nationalism – with the exception of the case of certain often prominent nationalists ‑ became associated with Catholicism, it would be incorrect, however, to assume that all Irish Catholic nationalists shared the same political outlook. Indeed a variety of political…



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