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La sécularisation en Irlande

Paul Brennan


Secularisation and ideology in the republic of Ireland

Joseph Ruane

Texte intégral

1Abstract : Irish society is undergoing secularisation but in an ad hoc and increamental way. An assessment of contemporary Irish ideologies shows that support for an ideology-driven secularising project is very limited. Indeed its adoption could well slow the process of secularisation by provoking a counter-secularising campaign.

2Résumé : La sécularisation de la société irlandaise est en marche mais d’une façon empirique. Le soutien pour une séparation entre l’Église et l’État est faible en raison de l’absence d’un soutien idéologique solide pour ce concept, du refus de la part des élites de l’État de mener une action d’envergure en ce sens, et du danger que représente une éventuelle campagne d’opposition à la sécularisation.

  • 1 By secularisation I mean the differentiation of society into sacred and secular spheres, including (...)
  • 2 David Alvey, personal communication.

3Church and state are constitutionally separate in the Republic of Ireland ; in practice there is enormous overlap. Secularisation is taking place, but the process is slow and Ireland remains one of the least secular societies in Europe1. Apart from one small pressure group, Campaign to Separate Church and State (CSCS), there is no organised movement seeking more rapid or more radical secularisation. Significantly CSCS argues its case on grounds of pluralism and minority rights, and seeks to effect change primarily through the courts2 since the 1970s the courts have indeed played an important role in changing society.

4The low level of support for secularisation demands an explanation. It is tempting to attribute it to the continued strength of religious belief or to the legacy of Catholic nationalism. But contemporary Ireland is ideologically much more diverse than this implies. There is considerable variation in religious beliefs and values, and new versions of nationalism have emerged. Other ideological concerns, notably socialism and feminism, have also become important. If we wish to understand the lack of support for secularisation we must explore the complex terrain that Irish ideology is today, and examine the range of positions which now compete in the public domain. I argue that the weak impetus toward secularisation derives from the fact that only a small number of contemporary Irish ideologies actively favour secularisation, and they have limited support in society and at the level of the state.

Secularisation in contempory Irish ideology


5Contemporary Irish nationalism is multistranded. There are five variants : traditional, liberal, revisionist, neo-traditional and decolonising. Traditional nationalism derives from one of the strands of the Catholic nationalism that was dominant in earlier decades. This ideology developed during the 19th century and crystallised in the early 20th ; it achieved hegemonic status in the new state after independence and retained it until the end of the 1950s. In its understanding, Catholic and Irish were interchangeable. Its imagined history stressed in equal measure the persecutions which Irish Catholics experienced because of their faith, and the destruction which English domination wrought on the Irish economy and Gaelic civilisation. By the same token, Irish independence had a religious as well as a secular meaning : it gave to Irish people the power to shape their society according to their political and religious values.

  • 3 For a discussion of Catholic nationalism, see Terence Brown, Ireland, A Social and Cultural Histor (...)

6Since the Irish nation was essentially Catholic, it followed that its laws and practices should reflect Catholic values, and that the Catholic church – the articulator and custodian of Catholic values – should hold sway in the areas that were its divinely ordained preserve : the family, sexuality, education. There was also a historic debt to be paid : that owed to the church for its contribution to the Irish nation during its darkest hour – defending tenants against eviction, supporting the struggle for freedom, providing education. So totalising an ideology left little room, conceptual or political, for secularisation. Catholic nationalism has been in retreat since the 1960s and its two strands – political and religious – have undergone differentiation. Traditional nationalism today is based on the political strand, but some of the older religious attitudes and attachments linger on. In particular the church retains much of its symbolic power as a representative of the Irish nation. Secularisation is an attack on the church, and ultimately therefore on the nation ; it would be resisted3.

  • 4 Liberal nationalism is the underlying ideology in such works as, Garret Fitzgerald, Towards a New (...)

7Liberal nationalism has its roots in the postwar years, a period of increased international economic, political and cultural integration and one in which the more extreme nationalisms of the prewar, were anathematised. In Ireland it was a period of economic and demographic crisis and of increasing impatience with the axioms of traditional nationalism. The “new” nationalism developed as a more modern and liberal version of what was already there, rather than as something dramatically new. The goals remained the rebuilding of the economy, the protection of Irish sovereignty, the achievement of Irish unity, the restoration of the Irish language and the fostering of a distinctive Irish culture. But they were now conceived and pursued in a realistic, pragmatic, and outward looking way4.

8Liberal nationalism acknowledges the deficiencies of traditional Catholic nationalism and the ideological excesses of the new state. But it does not reject it totally or unsympathetically ; criticism is measured and there is a concern to retain what was valuable in that tradition ; a certain emotional affinity remains. There is a pluralist concern not to identify Irishness with Catholicism, an acceptance that Irish nationalism became too closely identified with Catholicism. Satisfaction is taken in the contribution of Protestants to the new state, and there is a desire to make amends. But the Protestant tradition is largely hidden to it, and the construction of “Ireland” and the “Irish” experience remains recogniseably Catholic. The need for greater separation of church and state in Ireland today is acknowledged, but it is not fuelled by emotional or principled anti-clericalism ; the historic role of the church in defending and educating the people during the dark days of the past should be remembered, even if a new situation now obtains. The form that church-state separation takes, the pace at which it proceeds, how far it goes, are largely pragmatic questions to be dealt with as the question arises, and with regard to the rights and sensitivities of all concerned.

  • 5 Fintan O’Toole, “Light Rain and Governments Falling : Ireland in the Eighties”, A New Tradition : (...)

9Revisionism dates from 1970s and 1980s, and was a response to republican violence in the North, and in the South to economic crisis, the inadequacies of the political system, and the continued strong influence of the Catholic church on social legislation. It is distinctive for its highly critical view of the society that emerged in Ireland after independence and the role of Catholic nationalism in shaping it. The Ireland of the ‘20s to the ‘50s is seen as a dark and repressive place, impoverished materially and spiritually, inward looking and puritanical, ruled by obscurantist politicians, a harsh and restrictive church, and Gaelicising ideologues. There has been considerable improvement since the 1960s but much more needs to be done ; by international standards Ireland remains economically, politically and culturally backward. Only radical change will suffice : “start again, make it new, make it better”5.

10There is a strong antipathy among revisionists to the Catholic church as an institution. They depict it as authoritarian, repressive, intrusive, and rigid and uncaring on the human problems associated with sexuality, divorce, contraception, abortion. For revisionists the church’s powerful position in Irish society makes it a major barrier to the liberal, pluralist, secular, cosmopolitan, and modern social order they seek to create. Its organic links with traditional nationalism and refusal to support integrated education in Northern Ireland means that it bears major responsibility for the conflict there. Some of the hostility is directed beyond the institution of the church to the religion itself. Protestant values are extolled, frequently in an idealised way. Revisionists strongly support the separation of church and state ; many would welcome a deeper and more farreaching secularisation.

  • 6 For neo-traditional nationalist themes, see Desmond Fennell, The State of the Nation, Swords, Ward (...)

11Neo-traditional nationalism is also a development of the 1970s and 1980s. It is a response to what it sees as the negative aspects of the changes of the past 30 years : the uncritical absorption of external influences and of liberal values in the moral and social sphere, overly-harsh criticisms of the Catholic Church, the excessive power of the new media-based cultural elites, the decline in the commitment to nationalism. These changes were underpinned ideologically by an excess of liberalism and, more recently, by revisionism ; neo-traditional nationalism seeks to contain or to reverse them by affirming and renewing the authentic tradition of Irish nationalism, retaining and developing what is of value in it, purging it of its more dated features6.

  • 7 Desmond Fennell, The State of the Nation.

12Neo-traditional nationalism is not simply reactive and its position on some issues – the Northern Ireland conflict or the Irish language – represents a significant departure from traditional nationalism. Its position on secularisation is mixed and ambiguous. Some commentators do not deal with the issue at all ; others give principled support to the need to reconcile Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. Still others, in particular D. Fennell, advance views that are at times indistinguishable from traditional Catholic nationalism. Fennell stresses the centrality of Catholicism to Irish identity and culture to the point of arguing that the abandonment of Tridentine and traditional Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council “denationalized” Ireland7. Taken as a whole neo-traditionalism offers at best conditional and ambiguous support for secularisation.

  • 8 Examples of the decolonising approach are Raymond Crotty, Ireland in Crisis : A Study in Capitalis (...)

13A new strand of nationalism emerged in the 1980s that gives primacy to the colonial nature of Irish development and stresses Ireland’s resemblence to Third World societies. Decolonising nationalism owes much to the influence of missionaries, political activists, and academics who went to work in the Third World, were radicalised by the experience, and on their return sought to apply the same diagnoses and remedies to Ireland. It sees the conflict in Northern Ireland and economic problems and inequalities in the Republic as symptoms of the same underlying problem, Ireland’s unresolved colonial past. These problems remain because dominant interests, North and South, profit from the colonial legacy and have little interest in undoing it8.

14Decolonising nationalism is deeply critical of Irish society, North and South. Like revisionism, though with different ends in mind, it advocates root and branch reform. It focuses on questions of social marginality, inequality, poverty, violence in all its forms, cultural dislocations and oppressions ; so far it has shown limited interest in the issue of secularisation. In the face of such severe social problems, the important questions concern, not the precise nature of church-state relations, but how to achieve radical economic and political change.

Religious (Catholic)

15Catholicism, like nationalism, has differentiated during the past three decades. I distinguish five strands : traditional, neo-conservative, liberal, radical, and post-Catholic secular. Traditional – pre-Vatican II – Catholicism survives today, not in the orthodox practices of the church, which changed radically after Vatican II, but in the private rituals and devotions of the middle aged and old. Its influence can be seen in the presence of religious statues in many houses, the carefully tended local grottoes to the Blessed Virgin throughout the country, the interest in pilgrimage and pattern days, the surge of interest in “moving statues” in 1988. Traditional Catholicism once enjoyed unquestioned dominance in Ireland ; today it is aware of its own political and religious marginality. But it has not disappeared as a political force and can be mobilised to try to block changes of which it disapproves – the introduction of divorce or abortion, threats to the position of the Catholic church or the place of religion in public life.

  • 9 This strand of contemporary Irish Catholicism emerges clearly in the article by Michael P. Hornsby (...)

16Liberal Catholicism dates from the 1960s and the process of renewal launched by Vatican II. It has three features : a continued concern with the sacred and with the religious and moral dimensions of existence, voluntary conformity to the forms of worship recommended or prescribed by the church, the exercise of personal judgement in theological belief and moral judgement. These form a general pattern around which there is considerable variation – between the more and the less spiritual, churchgoing and independent in belief and judgement. There is loyalty to Catholicism as a religion and to the church, but much criticism of the institution and of individuals within it : for its overconcern with sexuality and uncaring and uncompassionate response to individuals in difficult situations, its insufficient attention to wider issues of civic and public morality, its continued restrictions on lay and female participation, its authoritarian and dogmatic style of leadership. Liberal Catholicism is open to, although far from pressing for, the institutional separation of church and state ; however it opposes secularisation at the general cultural level9.

  • 10 For an example of this approach, see Doris Manly, Loretta Browne, Valerie Cox, Nick Lowry, The Fac (...)

17Neo-conservative Catholicism is a development of the 1970s and 1980s and is part of a wider international movement within Catholicism. Many of its leading figures are professionals, educated and well-travelled, with links to neo-conservative groups abroad. It owes much to the views of Pope John Paul II, and his attempt to halt or reverse the process of liberalisation initiated by his predecessors. More immediately it is a response to the threat to the position of Catholic values and the institutional position of the church in Ireland. It strongly supports the church’s role in education and health provision, and advocates a highly restrictive approach to divorce, contraception, abortion. It opposes secularisation, pluralism and moral relativism, advancing its arguments on grounds that are moral-theological (the will of God as made known through His Church), social (the good of society) and political (the will of the majority in the society)10.

  • 11 For examples, see Sean Healy and Brigid Reynolds, Ireland Today : Reflecting in the Light of the G (...)

18Radical Catholicism, also a development of the 1980s, derives its inspiration from liberation theology and from socially radical thinkers, and from the experience of working among the poor and marginalised. Theologically it seeks to give meaning to the message of the gospel in terms of social justice. Politically it is committed to radical social change to address the needs of the most deprived, particularly where deprivation can be traced to structural causes. Culturally it offers a critique of the values – consumerism, the concern with status and power, social indifference – which underpin unjust and dominatory social structures. It says little about the separation of church and state, not because it is opposed to it – in general it is not – but because it does not see its immediate relevance to questions of social injustice, poverty and unemployment11.

  • 12 For an example, see David Alvey, Irish Education, The Case for Secular Reform, Dublin, Church and (...)

19Secularism has emerged in recent years as an ideological option for Catholics who have lost faith in their religion, an increasing number in the 1990s. For some the loss is a source of personal distress and they rear their children as Catholics ; others view their loss of faith in positive terms and rear their children as far as possible in a secular way. It is this latter group who embrace secularism as an ideological option. The attitudes of the two groups to the secularisation of Irish society differ accordingly. The former show little interest in it and may even oppose it ; the latter favour it strongly, particularly in areas where they feel their rights as secular people are infringed – for example, to a secular education for their children12.


  • 13 For different strands in Irish feminism, see the Reports of the Council for the Status of Women, a (...)

20Irish feminism has developed as part of the wider international feminist movement, and has evolved with it. It contains two main strands : a liberal one concerned with advancing and defending women’s rights and interests but without posing too fundamental a challenge to existing structures or relationships ; and a radical one that seeks a profound reshaping of gender relations, society and culture around non-patriarchal principles. Whether liberal or radical, it has concentrated its critical analysis on a very wide range of issues, including violence against women in the home and in the public domain, child-rearing, education, employment opportunities, sexual harassment in the workplace, the representation of women in the arts and the media13.

21Feminism has focused critically on Irish Catholicism. It stresses the patriarchal assumptions of Catholic theology, the oppressiveness of the images of women promoted by the church, the subordinate status of women within the church, the ways in which Catholic theology and social teaching have reinforced patriarchal tendencies in Irish culture and Irish law. Though the latter points perhaps to the desirability of greater church-state separation the issue as such has received little attention. The primary goal appears to be to reform Catholic teaching and practice, and the church as an institution, in line with feminist principles.


  • 14 According to Michael Gallagher, the pre-1960s Labour Party was in many ways the most clericalist o (...)

22Historically most Irish socialists have been practising Catholics, loyal adherents of a church which saw private property as founded in natural law, was suspicious of an expanded state role, and for a long time identified socialism with “atheistic communism”. Even those who personally dissented from such views were aware of the influence of the church and wary of opposing it. There have been two major variants of socialism in Ireland : a reforming one seeking improved conditions for workers through industrial bargaining, legislative reform, a mixed economy, and state welfare ; a revolutionary one seeking the overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement by public ownership of the means of production. Only the latter, very weak, tendency saw the church as an impediment to its long term goals and developed any serious secularising tendencies. The attitude of the former to the church was one of nervous deference14.

23As the 1960s developed all strands of socialism became less fearful of church sanction, in part because the church itself adopted a more positive view of the state’s social role. Revolutionary socialists became more openly secularist, reflected in the stances taken by the Workers Party in the 1980s. The Labour Party was more divided, but it was now the least clericalist of the mainstream parties and the most open to a secularising politics. The disintegration of the revolutionary tendency at the end of the 1980s has left the field to the reformers. On balance they are open to greater separation of church and state, but do not see it as a priority.

24Table 1 classifies the ideologies discussed in terms of their support for, or opposition to, secularisation.

Table 1 - Ideological Support for Secularisation

Table 1 - Ideological Support for Secularisation

Contemporary ideologies : popular support

25The implications of a particular ideology for secularisation as a process depends on its relative political importance. This depends on two things : its popular support, and its relationship to the state. Assessing popular support is difficult for several reasons. There has been no detailed research into Irish ideologies and interpreting electoral support, referenda results and opinion surveys is perilous. There are also problems of a more theoretical kind. Few individuals define their world-views carefully, systematically or precisely. They do not observe closely the fine distinctions or logical imperatives insisted on by ideologists or theorists. They may be exposed to one set of views at an early age and later to another ; the new may overlay the old rather than completely replacing it. They may therefore hold contradictory ideologies at different levels of self-awareness. They may oscillate between two different ideologies according to the flow of events and their changing interpretation of their society. They may feel alienated from all prevailing conventional views. The following assessment is therefore merely suggestive ; but it points to a relatively low level of popular support for ideologies favouring secularisation.

26Liberal nationalism is now the dominant nationalist ideology (as it is throughout the western world). For the large majority of the population it “simply makes sense” that Ireland should try to develop its economy by combining indigenous and foreign industry, try to retain its population rather than see it emigrate, protect its national language and cultural traditions but be open to the wider world, be concerned about the well being of the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland and support reform, aspire to Irish unity if it can be achieved by consent but be willing to compromise if this will bring about peace, seek reconciliation with Britain while remaining mindful of the problems still to be resolved, protect its sovereignty but aspire to play its full role as a modern nation in Europe and the United Nations.

  • 15 Sunday Independent, 27 February 1994.

27The other strands of nationalism have minority support. Traditional nationalism is a component in both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael electoral support ; it cannot be judged therefore by the 2 % support which Sinn Fein receives in elections in the South, or even the 6.1 % that Fr Paddy Ryan received in the Munster constituency in the European Parliament elections of 1989. A better guide might be the proportion willing to impose a united Ireland without the consent of a majority of the population of Northern Ireland : 13 % in one poll15. Support for neo-traditional and decolonising nationalism is very difficult to assess. Representatives of both strands were prominent in opposing the Maastricht Treaty. The 30.9 % vote against the treaty cannot be taken as a measure of their influence – traditional nationalists also voted against Maastricht as did many for quite other reasons – but it suggests that their message reaches a significant minority.

  • 16 Irish Political Studies, 5, 1990, p. 151.
  • 17 Some commentators see in Mary Robinson’s presidential victory in 1990 evidence of widespread suppo (...)

28Revisionists vary in their self-presentation from embattled minority to the exponents of views that the majority secretly holds. Their high media profile exaggerates their strength. Agreement on some issues – for example, the bleak and repressive nature of post-independence Ireland – is undoubtedly high. But support on the core issue of opposition or indifference to Irish unity is low ; the numbers opposed to Irish unity hover around 15 % (for example, 17 % in a poll in 1989)16. The evidence of voting behaviour is difficult to interpret. The vote of the two parties most identified with revisionist views is very small ; the Progressive Democrats received 4.7 % of the first preference vote in the general election of 1997, Democratic Left received 2.5 %. On the other hand, revisionism is one component in support for Fine Gael whose vote in 1997 was 27.9 %17.

  • 18 Sunday Press, 31 May 1992.
  • 19 Irish Independent, 17 February 1992 ; Sunday Press, 24 May 1992. See also Michael P. Hornby-Smith, (...)

29Irish Catholicism in all its strands remains very strong. In a 1992 survey 93 % described themselves as Catholic ; only 2 % said they were atheists or did not have a religion of any kind18. Undoubtedly many more than 2 % live wholly secular lives ; but the weekly mass attendance of at least 80 % suggests that the category “post-Catholic secular” is small. The range of views on such subjects as heaven, sin, and life after death, attitudes on issues such as contraception, divorce, abortion, and on institutional reform within the church, suggest that the dominant strand in Irish Catholicism today is the liberal one19. Support for neo-conservative Catholicism is very difficult to assess, but seems to be limited ; neo-conservatism’s political strength derives from mobilising traditional Catholics and the more orthodox among the liberals. The radical stream has impacted on the thinking of the wider Catholic population, but the numbers identifying with the position as such are very small.

  • 20 Irish Political Studies, 1993, p. 193.

30Twenty years of campaigning by liberal and radical feminists has generated a wide penumbra of support for liberal feminist ideas, particularly when presented in a moderate and indigenised way (Mary Robinson’s “Mná na hEireann”). Mary Robinson’s first preference vote in the 1990 presidential election (39 %) gives some idea of its current extent. Support for more advanced feminist positions is significantly less, but far from negligible. Availability of abortion on demand has long been a key radical feminist demand ; public support in 1992 ranged from 16 to 19 %20.

31Support for revolutionary socialism has always been very small and is now virtually nil. The Workers Party was in the revolutionary socialist tradition until it embraced social democracy in 1989 ; it received 3.8 % support in the general election of 1987. Support for a reformist socialism has always been much higher, though still low as the traditionally weak position of the Labour Party indicates. However this may be improving ; the party raised its share of the first preference vote from 9.5 % in 1989 to 19.3 % in 1992 but then fell back to 10.4 % in 1997.

The state and ideology

  • 21 For an empirically dated but still valuable theoretical approach to the Irish state, see Michel Pe (...)

32The relative importance of the different ideologies depends also on their relationship to the state. In general the state elite is attracted to, accomodates and reinforces those ideologies which support its goals and give it maximum freedom in the selection of its means21. Its goals are far from radical. The post-independence state elite consisted of revolutionaries with a radical project : to reconstruct the national economy, to build new political institutions, to decolonise the national culture and consciousness. Today’s state elite consists of career politicians and civil servants who combine crisis management with incrementalist development and modernisation policies.

33This starting point conditions the state’s reponse to the ideologies which press on it from the civic sphere. Liberal nationalism is by far the most congenial of the nationalisms. Its liberalism and pragmatism on economic issues gives government maximum freedom in the selection of ends and means; its nationalism is sufficient to secure the state’s legitimation without being too demanding ; it is critical of past policies but endorses unconditionally the state’s independence project ; its moderateness makes it uncontroversial. The other ideologies are less appealing. Revisionism’s opposition to Irish unity and wish to pressure northern Catholics into accepting the Northern Irish state could provoke legitimacy problems for the southern state and destabilise relations on the island ; traditional and neo-traditional nationalism’s support for a strongly interventionist role in Northern Ireland’s affairs could have the same outcome. Both revisionism and decolonising nationalism want the state to embrace a more radical project than it now entertains ; neither appeals to a state committed to pragmatism and incrementalism.

34Similar considerations underlie the response to the different Catholic ideologies. The easy and intimate relationship that existed between the church and state elite during the decades after independence has become edgy and mistrustful. Clerical control of key areas of health and education at a time of increased state financing has led to conflict on resource allocation. Governments have become sensitive about external criticism of Irish legislation on social and moral issues, particularly in the European Union. A politically assertive and influential lay Catholicism has emerged, with stronger views on some issues than the hierarchy itself, and with the capacity to disrupt government priorities and policies.

35In this difficult situation liberal Catholicism is by far the most appealing (and the least demanding) of the religious ideologies. Its combination of individualism, pragmatism and liberalism is in tune with the state’s own aproach to policy making ; it is the least likely to engender social and political divisions in the society. It accepts in principle the separation of the religious and the political spheres, giving the state room for manoeuvre in areas of potential conflict with the church. On the other side, pressures from neo-conservatives on matters affecting the family and sexuality have created major headaches for the state. Post-Catholicism seeks radical change in church-state relations unpopular with the electorate. Radical Catholicism dissents from the state’s fundamental economic philosophy and wants it to address the needs of the poorest in society in a manner that provokes conflicts with powerful interest groups.

36Finally, the Irish state (like other western states) explicitly recognises the rights and concerns of women and workers. Meeting the moderate demands of liberal feminists and welfare socialists is relatively easy – and makes it all the easier to ignore the demands of their more radical counterparts.

Increasing support for secularisation

  • 22 So far the behaviour of Irish Catholics has confounded the predictions of secularisation theorists (...)

37Direct ideological support for secularisation is relatively weak. It is a primary concern of post-Catholic secularists, and an important aspect of revisionism ; neither position has major support in society or at the level of the state, or the prospect of rapid growth in the near future22 The potential for increased support depends on developing it among the strands that are now ambivalent or neutral about it. Liberal nationalists are one possible group. They aspire to a united Ireland ; secularists can argue that the radical separation of church and state in the Republic would increase the possibility of achieving it. They are committed to modernisation ; secularists can argue that progress is impeded by the Catholic church. They place a value on pluralism ; it can be argued that this is incompatible with the overwhelming domination of one particular faith. However too much should not be expected from such arguments. Liberal nationalists are committed to Irish unity, but in the long term ; they seek modernisation but some see the church as making a positive contribution to that ; they value pluralism, but their concept of it is closer to benign tolerance than a principled acceptance of difference.

38Liberal and radical Catholics are another possible target group. Secularisers can argue that the spiritual renewal and institutional revitalisation of Irish Catholicism would be facilitated by freeing the church from its present quasi-state church role ; more pragmatically, they could argue that the attempt to impose purely Catholic concepts of personal morality will in time alienate the middle classes who remain the bedrock of its support. Some liberal and radical clerics now hold such views. However most believe that their spiritual and material task is made easier by the protection and support of the state and its legal framework, and that a weakening of its role in education and related areas would undermine its strength and influence in the long term.

39There is potential to develop a stronger feminist commitment to secularisation. Feminism confronts patriarchalism in both state and church. Arguably, the overlap between the two makes its task more difficult and their separation would make it easier. Many feminists already take this view. However the core group of feminists is small, and their success depends on attracting support from a wide section of the population. Declaring secularisation to be a goal would alienate those with different views on this issue and those who do not see it as a priority area for Irish feminists. Socialism also offers some hope for building support for secularisation. Little remains of the tiny revolutionary socialist movement, but there are secularising voices in the Labour Party which could become stronger. Ironically the recent growth in the party’s support means that it is unlikely to embrace actively so controversial an issue.

40There is a final constraint on developing support for secularisation – the possibility that a serious attempt to do so would provoke a counterattack. Neo-conservative Catholics are strong, combative and effective at pressure group politics. They have an easily mobilisable constituency in traditional Catholics. They could appeal to traditional nationalists – and to some liberal nationalists – not to abandon a church that stood by them in the past. Feminists and socialists are beyond their reach, and they have alienated some liberal, and especially radical, Catholics by their tactics. But neo-conservative, liberal and radical Catholics all form part of the one institutional church and have common concerns and interests.

Ideology and secularisation in Ireland

41Secularisation has been occurring in Ireland, but in an ad hoc manner, largely in response to organisational problems arising from the overlapping spheres of church and state. There is ideological support for state-church separation but it is weak. There are four reasons for this.

42First, few contemporary Irish ideologies give priority to secularisation ; most are at best ambivalent about it. Second, the ideologies favouring secularisation have minority popular support. Third, the state elite has little interest in embarking on an autonomous state-led secularisation project. Finally, the potential to develop greater support is limited and, if tried, could provoke a counter-secularising campaign. For those who wish to see a more secular Ireland, it may be better strategy to allow the current process of slow, ad hoc and incremental secularisation to continue.


1 By secularisation I mean the differentiation of society into sacred and secular spheres, including separation of church and state, and the increasing cultural importance of the secular relative to the sacred sphere. I am concerned here with the relationship between secularisation and ideology. For recent surveys of secularisation as a cultural process, see in J. Goldthorpe and C. Whelan (eds), The Development of Industrial Society in Ireland, Cambridge University Press, 1992 : Tony Fahey, “Catholicism and industrial society in Ireland”, p. 241-263, and Michael P. Hornsby-Smith, “Social and religious transformations in Ireland : A case of secularisation ?”, p. 265-290.

2 David Alvey, personal communication.

3 For a discussion of Catholic nationalism, see Terence Brown, Ireland, A Social and Cultural History, London, Fontana, 1981. Traditional nationalist (political) themes today may be found in such writings as Kevin Boland, Under Contract with the Enemy, Cork, Mercier Press, 1988 ; John M. Feehan, Bobby Sands : the Tragedy of Northern Ireland, Cork, Mercier, 1984 ; Jack O’Brien, British Brutality in Ireland, Cork, Mercier, 1989.

4 Liberal nationalism is the underlying ideology in such works as, Garret Fitzgerald, Towards a New Ireland, London, Chales Knight, 1972 ; Joseph Lee, Ireland 1912-1985 : Politics and Society, Cambridge University Press, 1990 ; Tim Pat Coogan, Disillusioned Decades : Ireland 1966-1987, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1987 ; Hilary Tovey, Hal Abramson and Damian Hannan, D : Why Irish ?, Dublin, Bord na Gaeilge, 1989.

5 Fintan O’Toole, “Light Rain and Governments Falling : Ireland in the Eighties”, A New Tradition : Irish Art of the Eighties, The Douglas Hyde Gallery (ed.), Dublin, Douglas Hyde Gallery, 1990, p. 11. Revisionists themes may be found in such writings as John A. Murphy, “The Misguided Claim”, Sunday Independent, 7 October 1990 ; Dermot Bolger, “Why I don’t want a United Ireland”, Sunday Press, 26 January 1992 ; F. O’Toole, The Southern Question, Dublin, Raven Arts Press, 1987 ; Conor Cruise O’Brien, “He’s gone – but is it the End of GUBU ?”, Irish Independent, 1 February 1992 ; Eoghan Harris, “Hide and Seek”, Making Sense, January, 1989, p. 20-21. Revisionism, often viewed as “anti-nationalist” is best seen as a nationalism centred on the Republic of Ireland ; see Fintan O’Toole, “Defending and defining Irish nationalism”, Irish Times, 6 July 1991.

6 For neo-traditional nationalist themes, see Desmond Fennell, The State of the Nation, Swords, Ward River Press, 1983 ; Heresy, The Battle of Ideas in Modern Ireland, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1993 ; Anthony Coughlan, Fooled Again ? The Anglo-Irish Agreement and After, Cork, Mercier Press, 1986 ; Dealtün O Ceallaigh, Sovereign People or Crown Subjects, Dublin, Leirmheas, 1993.

7 Desmond Fennell, The State of the Nation.

8 Examples of the decolonising approach are Raymond Crotty, Ireland in Crisis : A Study in Capitalist Colonial Undevelopment, Dingle, Brandon, 1985 ; Carol Coulter, Ireland between First and Third Worlds, Dublin, Attic Press, 1990 ; Declan Kiberd, “The Elephant of Revolutionary Forgetfulness”, in M. Ni Dhonnchadha and T. Dorgan (eds), Revising the Rising, Derry, Field Day, 1991, p. 1-20.

9 This strand of contemporary Irish Catholicism emerges clearly in the article by Michael P. Hornsby-Smith, op. cit.

10 For an example of this approach, see Doris Manly, Loretta Browne, Valerie Cox, Nick Lowry, The Facilitators, Brandsma Books, n. d.

11 For examples, see Sean Healy and Brigid Reynolds, Ireland Today : Reflecting in the Light of the Gospel, Dublin, Justice Office, Conference of the Major Religious Superiors, 1985 ; Peter McVerry, “A Social Project for the Churches in the Republic”. Studies, 75, 300, 1986, p. 441-448 ; Peadar Kirby, Is Irish Catholicism Dying : Liberating an Imprisoned Church, Cork, Mercier, 1984.

12 For an example, see David Alvey, Irish Education, The Case for Secular Reform, Dublin, Church and State Books, 1991.

13 For different strands in Irish feminism, see the Reports of the Council for the Status of Women, articles in Ailbhe Smyth (ed.), Irish Women’s Studies Reader, Dublin, Attic Press, 1993, and the LIP Pamphlets of Attic Press.

14 According to Michael Gallagher, the pre-1960s Labour Party was in many ways the most clericalist of all the parties. See Michael Gallagher, Political Parties in the Republic of Ireland, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1985, p. 89-91.

15 Sunday Independent, 27 February 1994.

16 Irish Political Studies, 5, 1990, p. 151.

17 Some commentators see in Mary Robinson’s presidential victory in 1990 evidence of widespread support for the revisionist position on Northern Ireland. However Robinson’s electoral appeal was not limited to one ideological strand. The Brian Lenihan debacle tapped into revisionist sentiment (not least its strong dislike of Charles Haughey and the Fianna Fail politics of the 1980s), but the desire was for a new politics in the South, not a new policy towards Northern Ireland.

18 Sunday Press, 31 May 1992.

19 Irish Independent, 17 February 1992 ; Sunday Press, 24 May 1992. See also Michael P. Hornby-Smith, op. cit.

20 Irish Political Studies, 1993, p. 193.

21 For an empirically dated but still valuable theoretical approach to the Irish state, see Michel Peillon, Contemporary Irish Society : an Introduction, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1982.

22 So far the behaviour of Irish Catholics has confounded the predictions of secularisation theorists. See Tony Fahey, op. cit., and Michael P. Hornsby-Smith, op. cit.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1 - Ideological Support for Secularisation
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