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La sécularisation en Irlande

Paul Brennan

Une sécularisation problématique

Secularisation amongst Irish catholic migrants and their descendents in Britain

Mary Hickman

Texte intégral

1Abstract: This study insists on the fact that no society is completely secular and underlines how, in certain situations, disadvantaged minorities use religion as a cultural rallying point. In order to illustrate the social function of religion she shows its importance for the Irish catholic minority in Britain. In spite of its growing opposition towards the church the continuation, in the 1990s, of the articulation between Catholicism, social class and national identity, means that one must be careful when studying secularisation within minority communities.

2Résumé : Cette étude, insistant sur le fait qu’aucune société n’est complètement sécularisée, souligne combien, dans certaines situations, des minorités désavantagées ont recours à la religion comme point de ralliement culturel. Puis, pour illustrer la fonction sociale de la religion, elle souligne son importance pour la minorité catholique irlandaise en Grande-Bretagne. Malgré l’opposition croissante de cette dernière envers son Église, la continuation, dans les années 1990, de l’articulation entre le catholicisme, la classe sociale et l’identité nationale impose une grande prudence sur toute conclusion sur la sécularisation en ce milieu.

  • 1 B. S. Turner, Religion and Social Theory, London, Heinemann, 1983.

3Theories of secularisation are essentially 19th century theories of “modern” society which posit the destruction of older forms of community by industrialisation and urbanisation. Secularisation is depicted as an integral aspects of this process and is measured in terms of declining church attendence, loss of ecclesiatical prestige, the disappearance of religious control of education and the encroachment of secular knowledge in the private and public domain. Secularisation is thus a concomitant of the transition from a rural stable communitas to an urban technical society1. This thesis defended by Turner has always been subject to challenge from two directions. On the one hand by those who challenge the assumption that pre-industrial society possessed a “moral” community within which religious beliefs could be taken seriously. And on the other hand the secularisation thesis is questioned by those who point to the self-evident fact that no society is entirely secular, that is, devoid of symbolic reference points, and that in particular religion continues to exhibit remarkable strength in situations where politically disprivilaged groups turn to religious differentiation and difference as a cultural rallying point.

4It is the latter point which is of interest here. B. S. Turner considers that in many nations religion has an important social function in the preservation of ethnic cultures and mediation between the host community and the migrant group. Thus the diversity and pluralism of industrial societies is not so much resolved by religion as expressed and reinforced by it. The central paradox of secular society for the sociology of religion is to reconcile the irreducible facts of secularisation with the centraliy of religion to political oppositions. For 200 years Irish migrants have formed an essential element of the labour force in Britain and estimates of those of Irish descent are upwards of six million. Throughout this period Irish Catholics, the vast majority of all Irish migrants, have formed part of a religious minority in Britain. A critical element in all accounts of Irish experience in Britain has been the relationship of the Catholic Church to the immigrant community. This paper will examine the place of religion in Irish experience in Britain and critically assess accounts of Irish assimilation and secularisation.

5A Catholic sub-culture is generally recognisd to have existed in Britain until the 1950s. This is usually associated with the traditional Irish areas. For example, the Church of England’s report “Faith in the City”, published in 1986, which is an indictment of the failure of the Anglican Church in the inner cities offers the following analysis of the factors which caused the Catholic Church and the Catholic working class to stick together :

  • 2 R Darwen, “Why the Church Fails the City”, The Month, vol. 19, n° 7/8, July/August, 1986, p. 268.

Its English history after the Industrial Revolution is quite different because of the influence from the mid-nineteenth century onwards of the large migrations from Ireland to many English cities. For many of the migrants from Ireland (where the ruling class was mainly English and Protestant) Roman Catholicism seemed to be in tune with Irish nationalism and to be marked by a pastoral presence among the poor... For the Irish immigrant to England therefore, the Roman Catholic Church with its quota of Irish priests, was a natural focal point for communities in poor housing and with poor job security in an urban environment, and facing in addition the threat of the loss of cultural identity. As Roman Catholics felt themselves becoming accepted in the wider community, secularisation took its toll and religious practice declined. Irish migration, however, was a process continuing at various levels over more than a century. The lapsation from practice was therefore marked by a periodical reinforcement of the Irish community – a reinforcement which is now largely in decline2.

  • 3 M. Hornsby-Smith, Roman Catholics in England, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

6“Faith in the City” implies that the assimilation/fading away of the specifically Irish Catholic experience has led to secularisation. Whereas M. Hornsby-Smith3 argues that assimilation has resulted in normative convergence with English Catholicism.

7In fact it would be possible to interpret the evidence about the Irish in Britain differently. The intention here is to : examine the secularisation thesis in relation to past migrations of the Irish in Britain in the light of recent research ; and to suggest the ways in which the significance of secularisation for the recent phase (1980s) of Irish migrants to Britain might be explored. There seem to be four issues to address. What was the basis of the relationship between the Irish in Britain and the Catholic Church ? Was there an Irish Catholic sub-culture and has it disappeared ? If it has disappeared has the consequence for the Irish immigrants and their descendents been assimilation as English Catholics or secularisation ? Will the new young Irish migrants who have emigrated to Britain in their thousands since 1985 reinforce the Catholic church as their ancestors did ?

Historical Background

8The basis of the relationship between the English Catholic church and the Irish communities in Britain was forged between the 1830s and 1860s. In that period the Catholic church gradually accepted that its main hope of expansion lay with Irish immgrants and their children. This presented the Church with a dilemma. This dilemma has been best summed up by Sheridan Gilley :

  • 4 S. Gilley, “The Roman Catholic Mission to the Irish in London, 1840-1860”, Recusant History, vol. (...)

The priest who espoused the political aspirations of his people divided his church ; and the priest who denied the popular voice might destroy the respect which the people paid him and risk the salvation of Irish souls4.

9This dilemma existed for the church because of the background and experience of Irish migrants. The mass exodus after the famine is usually cited as having ensured that Irish nationalism would be a potent force throughout the Irish diaspora. This is undoubtedly true, but the evidence is that long before the famine the Irish in Britain were politically active in support of Irish national issues and, when not active, this is where their sympathies lay. In these circumstances the Church had to make some compromises or lose its best opportunity for growth. Writing in 1890, Cardinal Manning stated :

  • 5 D. Gwynn, “The Irish Immigration”, in G. A. Beck (ed.), The English Catholics 1850-1950, London, B (...)

The million of Irish Catholics in England are not only alienated from our laws and legislature, but would upset the ink-bottle over the Statute Book. So long as this habit of mind lasts we shall never have a Civil priesthood ; and so long as our priesthood is not Civil it will be confined to the sacristy, as in France, not by a hostile public opinion, but by our own incapacity to mix in the Civil life of the country ; and this incapacity hitherto has sprung from hostility, suspicion and fear. A capacity for Civil and public action needs, of course, a training and education, but it springs from a love of our country. The Irish have this intensely for Ireland, but can hardly have it as yet for England5.

  • 6 A. Archer, The Two Catholic Churches. A Study in Oppression, Dublin. SCM Press, 1986.

10Changing this situation became the goal of the Church and was to involve the encouragement of a perspective whereby true Irishness was represented by being a good Catholic. According to A. Archer, the increased use of Irish priests by the end of the 19th century was crucial to the ultimate success of this policy6.

  • 7 J. L. Altholz, “The Political Behaviour of the English Catholics 1850-1867”, Journal of British St (...)
  • 8 D. Gwynn, op. cit.

11Many of the traditional Catholics, both laity and clergy, wedded to a specifically English Catholicism, were alarmed at the arrival of Irish Catholics. They might share the same religion, although some doubted this, but differences of class and nationality were overriding. For J. L. Altholz, the political leadership of English Catholics was drawn from “a squirearchy which except for religion was indistinguishable from the class which had governed England since the Glorious Revolution”7. When English Catholics contemplated Irish Catholics, possibly at mass, packed into the standing-room area at the back of their churches, or traversing the countryside on their way to the next harvest, they were confronted with people who were distinguishable from themselves on every count except one, their religioius denomination, Roman Catholicism8.

  • 9 M. C. Bishop, “The Social Methods of Roman Catholicism in England”, Contemporary Review, vol. 29, (...)
  • 10 E. R. Norman, The English Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1985

12Both J. Bishop and B. Ward9 show how derogatory views of the Irish and their religious practices were common among English Catholics. E. R. Norman10 comments that the “Old Catholic” gentry had settled their opinion of Irish Catholicism long before the increase in migration from Ireland in the mid-19th century. One member of the Catholic gentry, Sir John Throckmorton, wrote in 1806,

  • 11 Ibid., p. 21.

The religion of the low Irish forms a strange assemblage of strong faith and much superstition11.

  • 12 J. D. Holmes, More Roman than Rome : English Catholicism in the Nineteenth Century, London, Burns (...)
  • 13 E. R. Norman, op. cit.

13The attitudes of English Catholics to Irish migrants were similar to Protestant members of their class and nationality. These attitudes were transfused with an extra caution in the case of English Catholics. Their quest for legitimacy and respectability began rather than ended with Catholic emancipation in 182912. Indebted though they were to the Irish campaign for the extension of Catholic political rights, English Catholics regretted that emancipation became largely an Irish issue and the presence of Irish migrants in Britain was not welcome13.

  • 14 Ibid.
  • 15 A. Archer, op. cit.

14The anti-Irish hostility which was a crucial element in English Catholicism was at odds with the fact that it was the migration of the Irish which afforded substantial expansion of the Church in Britain. It was the Ultramontane clergy who were in a position to attempt the resolution of this contradiction. The Ultramontanes were no less committed to demonstrating their loyalty to the British State, but their vision of what the Church should be more readily included the notion of a “dutiful and religious” Irish congregation under the umbrella of Rome14. In this context the Irish responded more to Ultramontanism. This was not only because Ultramontane Catholics were active proponents of “missions to the poor” but also because their fidelity to and championing of Roman authority was more acceptable to the Irish than an aristocratic English Catholicism15.

  • 16 J. Bossy, The English Catholic Community, 1570-1850, Dalton, Longmans, 1975.
  • 17 J. F. Champ, “The Demographic Impact of Irish Immigration on Birmingham Catholicism 1800-1850”, in(...)

15Others, like J. Bossy16, insist that the character of the Catholic Church would have changed without Irish migration, from a small secluded rural institution of gentry farmers, agricultural labourers and rural craftsmen into a larger urban-based Church of labourers, handicraftsmen, tradesmen and business and professional families. This may well be true, but without the Irish migration the Catholic Church would have remained a relatively small institution. The arrival of Irish migrants transformed the social-class profile of Catholic congregations in urban areas17, and without this migration the Church would not have developed its reputation as the only one of the major denominations with a close relationship with its working-class membership. It was the migration of large numbers of Irish Catholics to Britain which resuscitated the Catholic Church as an institution. New parishes had to be established, many churches and schools built, and large numbers of priests recruited in order to cater for the rapid expansion of the Church’s membership. The “mission to the Irish” had been underway in a spasmodic and patchy fashion since the 18th century. However, from the 1830s onwards it became more systematic and was increasingly directed by an Ultramontane episcopacy.

16The synominity of Irishness and Catholicism in 19th century British popular culture posed problems for the Catholic church. For example, its Irish congregation were willingly mobilised to defend their parish churches from anti-Catholic riots but the Church aimed to discourage mobilisations on the Repeal/Home Rule question. The combination of these factors ensured that the Catholic Church had its own agenda concerning the Irish that involved the stemming the “leakage” of the immigrants from the Church and the transformation of the Irish into loyal British citizens. Two strategies were developed : attempting to make the Church and its organisations the focus of Irish communities and the masking of Irishness by Catholicism (eg. through Catholic education). With the first generation migrants the former strategy was central and with the second and subsequent generations the latter strategy was the key.

  • 18 D. Fitzpatrick, “A Curious Middle Place : the Irish in Britain, 1871-1921”, in S. Gilley and R. Sw (...)

17The fact that the Catholic Church encountered in its parishes Irish communities with a “mature identity” and with alternative foci for organisation and identification (for example, the public house, political organisations) meant that the Church had to meet these challenges if it was to be successful. David Fitzpatrick18 argues that to the extent that the Irish became a community it was a Catholic community, forged by the Catholic church. More accurately, the Church should be perceived as one player, albeit a very powerful one, in a contested field. Given the history of Catholicism in Ireland, its association with struggle against British rule in Ireland and given the anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish hostility in 19th century British society the odds were always on a measure of success for the Church. However, it is arguable that the success was not attained until the 20th century and even then was only partial in nature.

18Robert Darwen has made the point that typical members of the Irish Catholic sub-culture might have been men who fitted the following description :

  • 19 R. Darwen, op. cit., p. 268.

As soon as they leave school they ceased to practise ; true they were members of the Catholic club, drank Catholic beer and used the Church when they wanted to celebrate and grieve. They certainly were loyal, they would fight the Protestants ; they would not dream of going to a non-Catholic Church ; they would encourage their wives to pray to St. Anthony. It was a folk religion that endured while they felt culturally alienated from the English19.

19There is some evidence that women were more likely to remain actively involved with the Church. Darwen’s description was written about a parish in one of the main Irish areas of Liverpool, a city which throughout the 19th century had particularly low mass attendence figures. Ironically, Liverpool was known as the most Catholic city in England. Generally mass attendence figures were not high in that period, although without question higher amongst the Irish than any section of the indigenous working class.

  • 20 A. Archer, op. cit., p. 56.

20Further factors enter the picture if we consider the response to the often active opposition of the church to Irish political activities. A. Archer argues that if the clergy took up a political position contrary to Irish interests (opposing Fenianism, for example), this could be disregarded, for, as officials of a sacred religion, they had no business to be involved in politics and “their meddling pronouncements did not serve to undermine the symbolic function of the Church”20. There is undoubtedly some substance to Archer’s remarks and they demonstrate that the Irish were by no means the parish fodder of some accounts.

  • 21 M. J. Hickman, Religion, Class and Identity. The State, the Catholic Church and the Education of t (...)

21An Irish Catholic sub-culture undoubtedly existed but it was complex in its origins and its expressions. It would appear that the history of Irish experience in Britain shows that religion can provide a cultural rallying point, a means of preserving ethnic culture. However, the segregation and differentiation of Catholics was not due solely to elective action on the part of the Irish or the Catholic Church. An examination of the origins of Catholic State education shows that State policies in a context of active anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish hostility also ensured the segregation and differentiation of Irish Catholics. Within the schools the Catholic Church pursued its policy of denationalisation towards the second generation. This involved the strengthening of Catholic identity at the expense of Irish identity21.

Contemporary Irish Community in London and Liverpool : the meaning of Catholicism ?

  • 22 M. J. Hickman, A Study of the Incorporation of the Irish in Britain with Special Reference to Cath (...)

22In research, undertaken on the basis of this analysis, I established the meaning of Catholicism in Catholic schools22. The general hypothesis was that the different meanings attached to Catholicism might be related to variations in the concept of national identity. The historical analysis indicates that the Catholic Church developed a strategy to win its Irish congregation to a version of Catholicism which entailed denationalisation, substituting a religious identity for the Irish national identity which constituted the hallmark of Irish communities in Britain.

23This exploration of the meaning of Catholicism for Irish emigrants and their descendents took place in the context of a wider research project, designed to examine the relationship between the British State, the Catholic Church and Irish immigrants in Britain. The focus was on the role of Catholic education and identity in shaping the experience of those of Irish descent in Britain. Over a hundred teachers and pupils in four schools in London and Liverpool were interviewed, amongst many other questions they were asked some which specifically explored the significance of Catholicism in their lives. The London sample were predominantly second generation, with some first generation amongst the teachers. The Liverpool sample were mostly third, fourth and fifth generation Irish.

24In this chapter I want to examine the responses to one particular question : what does being a Catholic mean to you ? The responses the interviewees gave about the meaning of being a Catholic fell into three categories : Catholic communality, family, and religious practices. “Catholic communality” entails a “sense of belonging” to a specific community which is embracing. The responses grouped under the heading of “family” are those where the meaning of Catholicism is directly linked to being brought up a Catholic within the family. A final group of respondents detailed the practices and beliefs of Catholicism as representing its essential meaning.

2585 % cent of the pupils interviewed stated that their religion was meaningful to them (table 1), that is, 88 % in London and 82 % in Liverpool. What divergence there was between the samples lay in the reasons given for the relevance religion had in their lives. 73 % of the London pupils stated that their religion was important to them in terms of a communal or family identity. In Liverpool, the equivalent responses were given by 56 % of the pupils. However, in Liverpool, 28 % indicated that it was the religious beliefs and practices encompassed by Catholicism which were most meaningful to them. In London, the equivalent response was given by 15 % of the pupils. These differences are not statistically significant, but there is a suggestion that they might be worth following up in a larger sample.

Table 1 - Pupils : Personal meaning of Catholicism (%)

Table 1 - Pupils : Personal meaning of Catholicism (%)

26When the samples were examined separately the main variation was discovered in the London sample. 52 per cent of the pupils in London who selected an Irish identity as primary said that it was a communal identity which rendered their religion meaningful to them (table 2). In contrast none of the pupils in London who selected either a regional or British/English identity gave this reason. Despite the small numbers involved this difference is significant at the.05 level (zero in cell). In London, the tendency to perceive Catholicism in terms of community meanings rather than as a religious entity is accounted for by the responses of those who chose an Irish identity as most significant for them. There were no other significant differences in either sample.

Table 2 - London pupils : personal meaning of Catholicism according to identity (%)

Table 2 - London pupils : personal meaning of Catholicism according to identity (%)

27The strength of Catholicism for 62 % of the whole sample, therefore, lies in the fact that it is intertwined in their family and/or community identification. The quotations below are examples of what pupils who emphasised Catholic communality stated :

Catholicism is my identity ; I have a fellow-feeling to all Catholics. It’s quite important, I’d have quite a lot in common with a Catholic, background and that.
I go to church, it’s quite important for most Irish isn’t it ?
I’m not a very strict Catholic, but it sticks with you. I’d always argue back if anyone put the Catholic faith down and I’d look twice at anyone Orange.
I go to church every week. Round here, old-fashioned Liverpool, it’s very Catholic. I like being a Catholic, belonging to it.

28The strong sense of connectedness to either their immediate community or to Catholics as a body is clear in these statements. Catholicism has had to embrace both aspects if it was to become rooted in the Irish working-class areas which have formed the majority of Catholic parishes in Britain.

29When the teachers were asked the same question, an interesting variation from the pupils responses emerged. The more strongly the teachers were Irish identified the less likely they were to give Catholic communality as the meaning of Catholicism. However, the largest category of response to the question, 59 %, were those teachers who stated that the meaning that their religion had for them was Catholic communality ; 23 % cited the beliefs and practices of Catholicism as what constituted the personal meaning of Catholicism for them. The main impression gained, from the responses to this question is that, for this sample of teachers, just as with the pupils, their religion is of significance in their lives and the chief reason given for this is : Catholic communality. This suggests that an important basis of Catholicism’s appeal is the sense people have of being part of a “community” :

Still means something, it’s not just ritual, it’s a cultural experience as well, gives continuity in my life. I feel an immediate kinship with Catholics or second-generation Irish.
A social thing, tied to it, feel part of a group especially as I went into teaching and stayed in Liverpool. Spiritually it means very little except I still find some inspiration in the ideal of love and Christ and still find the traditional music and service are beautiful.
Sense of belonging, sense of family – it focuses my beliefs and is something to rebel against, a sense of security.

30Thus my research in an Irish area synonymous with the 19th century migration, Liverpool, and one typical of the 1950s emigration, London, shows that Catholic communality remains the prime reason given for the meaning of Catholicism. This has a number of implications for the argument about secularisation being developed here.

Secularisation or Assimilation ?

  • 23 M. Hornsby-Smith, Roman Catholics in England, cf. note 3 ; M. Hornsby-Smith, Roman Catholics Belie (...)

31M. Hornsby-Smith has written extensively that there no longer exists a persistent and distinctive sub-culture of Irish Catholicism in Britain23. A critical aspect of the assimilation of Irish Catholics is seen by him to comprise the normative convergence of Irish Catholics with English Catholics. Hornsby-Smith argues that normative convergence occurs in the first generation. In particular, he cites convergence of non-creedal beliefs eg : on moral issues such as abortion, contraception and divorce. The implication is that on migration the Irish move more quickly to a rejection of the church’s teaching in these areas than if they had stayed in Ireland.

32M. Hornsby-Smith reviews the literature that exists on inter-marriage and Irish Catholics in England. By the 1970s, 70 % of the marriages contracted by Irish Catholics were exogamous. Hornsby-Smith argues that if the marriage partner is not Irish then the Irish spouse is more likely to expereince social mobility ; and if the marriage partner is a non-Catholic, then the Irish spouse is more likely to experience cultural assimilation, this entails convergence to the norms of English Catholics by the second generation. An important caveat to Hornsby-Smith’s interpretation must be that marriages between a migrant from the Republic and someone from Northern Ireland figure in the statistics as Irish/non Irish marriages, as do marriages between an immigrant from the Republic and someone of Irish descent born in Britain. Such marriages cannot necessarily be viewed as exogamous ; the extent of “out” marriage therefore may not be as high as the data appears to suggest.

33M. Hornsby-Smith does not view secularisation as the appropriate concept to interpret the contemporary relevance of Catholicism for Irish emigrants, rather he describes a process whereby meaningful belonging for English Catholics has been transformed from a religio-ethnic identity to a voluntary religious commitment. His view is that prior to the 1950s Catholics differentiated relatively little between creedal beliefs and non-creedal beliefs and that there was less questioning of priestly authority. He also argues that the decline in Mass attendance figures since 1950s of 25 % does not necessarily indicate that Catholicism in England is losing its social significance ; rather that Catholic identity has shifted from the involutary “collective-expressive” form to the voluntary “individual-expressive” form, with the growth of a rational-pragmatic world view amongst Catholics. At one and the same time, therefore, Hornsby-Smith is both claiming that a specific Irish Catholicism has disappeared and that secularisation is not a useful concept to explain developments within Catholicism during the past quarter century.

34My own research would question Hornsby-Smith’s conclusions for the following reasons. The communal sense of belonging noted above as the predominant meaning attached to Catholicism by those of Irish descent suggests that a religio-ethnic identity remains strong. This is especially the case in London where the majority of respondents were second generation, the children of the 1950-1960s Irish emigrants. In Liverpool the attachment to community also remains strong, though less explicitly linked to a sense of an Irish community, although that is a significant part of the oral history of the local culture. This is over a century the Catholic Church has been pursuing a strategy of denationalisation and that in Liverpool the strategy has been pursued for a number of generations.

  • 24 A. O’Grady, “Irish Migration to London”, Irish Studies Centre Occasional Publications Series, Poly (...)

35What, however, my findings do suggest is that a “collective-expressive” form remains a lynch-pin of Catholicism in Irish areas. Both new and old. The experience of the 1940-1960s Irish immigrants is not documented in anything like the detail of those of the 19th century. However, evidence available suggests that the Church and Catholic organisations were a central feature of the chief areas of Irish settlement24. Significantly, the vast majority of Irish people in the 1950s-1970s continued to send their children to Catholic schools. It is the children of that phase of Irish immigration that are the second generation today.

  • 25 K. T. Kelly, “The Eldonian Community in Liverpool”, The Month, vol. 21, n° 7. July 1988.

36These findings (of which only a small section have been examined here) concern those who are actively involved in Catholicism. What of those who are not ? Unlike Hornsby-Smith, I think the evidence does point to a degree of secularisation. The crucial variables are probably social class and identity. For those of Irish descent who are socially mobile and become middle class, the likely routes are secularisation, convergence with English Catholicism or retaining a collective-expressive basis to the meaning of their Catholicism. The stronger the Irish identity, the more likely that the first or the third path will be chosen. For those who are secularised their critique of the Church is not necessarily based on the Church’s teaching on moral issues (this form of critique is encompassed within English Catholicism), but is possibly also based on a critique of the role of the Church in relation to the Irish community : for example, criticisms of the lack of teaching about Ireland and/or the Church’s stance on Northern Ireland. For working class Catholics of Irish descent the likely paths are either secularisation or retaining a strong “collective-expressive” meaning to Catholicsm, still linked stongly to their Irishness for the first genereration25.

  • 26 S. McGlacken, unpublished research project, Irish Studies Centre. University of North London, 1992

37The other factor in any account of secularisation amongst the Irish in Britain is the new arrivals of the 1980s. Two small studies suggest that social class may also be a significant variable in understanding this experience. Sinead McGlacken26 in a study of contemporary Irish migrants and their attitudes towards Catholicism had some interesting findings. Her respondents were all recent migrants in their 20s and 30s who left Ireland without third level education. In detailed interviews with 14 such respondents five describe themselves as atheists, five respondents described themselves as agnostic, three described themselves as lapsed Catholic and one respondent described himself as Catholic. Attenance at Mass by the three respondents, who attended Mass often before migration, declined immediately after emigration. Four of the five respondents who attended Mass on celebratory occasions before emigration have never attended Mass since migration.

38The overall picture which emerges is one of overwhelming disagreement with the teaching of the Catholic Church on sexuality, abortion and divorce. However, asked if they would send their children to Catholic schools, four respondents said yes, five respondents said possibly and four respondents said no. What emerges is that nine out of the thirteen respondents would consider sending their children to Catholic schools. The reasons given by these nine respondents for considering sending their children to Catholic schools are overwhelmingly centred on the idea that Catholic teaching goes hand in hand with academic achievement.

39Contradictory sentiments about Catholicism emerge from the responses. Many of the respondents make a direct link betwen Catholicism and unhappiness and bemoan the impact they perceive Catholicism to have hadon their own lives and on Irish society as a whole. But the majority of respondents said they would defend Catholicism on the strength of their Irish identity. It would appear that although the majority of respondents have jettisoned their adherence to Catholic beliefs, they recognise that Catholicism has had a part in shaping their Irish identity. These responses prompt the speculation that the respondents have a strong sense of Irish identity as apart from Catholicism, but that Catholicism touches on their lives because of its place in Irish society and politics and the role it plays in the Irish community of which they are now a part.

  • 27 M. Kells, “Ethnic Identity amongst young Irish Middle Class Migrants in London”, Irish Studies Cen (...)

40Mary Kells27 has carried out research into identity amongst young Irish middle class migrants in Britain. One of the findings is that all her respondents whether from the North or the South find Britain “shockingly secular” and all cited a sense of spirituality, although not necessarily attachment to organised religion, as an important marker that differentiates the Irish from the English. None of Kells sample described themselves as an agnostic or an atheist. Kells sample was markedly more middle class than McGlackens, and although both samples are small they suggest that further research in this area would be fruitful. Research needs to be carried out on the changing role of Catholicism, as part of Irish national and cultural identity, against a backdrop of the secularisation of Irish society and its repercussions for the Irish community in Britain.


41This paper has suggested that in Britain religion has been, and continues to be, significant in differentiating the largest ethnic minority, the Irish, from the indigenous population. Religion has been a cultural rallying point for a working class Irish population whose political aspirations for much of the 19th century were viewed as potentially treasonous. Religion, has also been, through the agency of the English and Scottish Catholic Churches, an instrument of incorporation and denationalisation of the Irish Catholic minority. In the changed political circumstances of the second half of the 20th century the Catholic church remained a significant institution for the new migrants of the 1950s but is viewed more ambivalently, if not with hostility, by the 1980s migrants. However, the continuing articulation of Catholicism, national identity and social class is such that, in England at least, assumptions about the secularisation or assimilation to English Catholicism of Irish Catholics have to be explored with care.


1 B. S. Turner, Religion and Social Theory, London, Heinemann, 1983.

2 R Darwen, “Why the Church Fails the City”, The Month, vol. 19, n° 7/8, July/August, 1986, p. 268.

3 M. Hornsby-Smith, Roman Catholics in England, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

4 S. Gilley, “The Roman Catholic Mission to the Irish in London, 1840-1860”, Recusant History, vol. 10, n° 3, 1969, p. 123.

5 D. Gwynn, “The Irish Immigration”, in G. A. Beck (ed.), The English Catholics 1850-1950, London, Burns Oates, 1950, p. 267.

6 A. Archer, The Two Catholic Churches. A Study in Oppression, Dublin. SCM Press, 1986.

7 J. L. Altholz, “The Political Behaviour of the English Catholics 1850-1867”, Journal of British Studies, vol. 4, n° 1, 1964, p. 90.

8 D. Gwynn, op. cit.

9 M. C. Bishop, “The Social Methods of Roman Catholicism in England”, Contemporary Review, vol. 29, 1877 ; B. Ward, The Sequel to Catholic Emancipation 1830-1850, 2 vols, London, Longmans Ltd., 1915.

10 E. R. Norman, The English Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1985.

11 Ibid., p. 21.

12 J. D. Holmes, More Roman than Rome : English Catholicism in the Nineteenth Century, London, Burns Oates, 1978.

13 E. R. Norman, op. cit.

14 Ibid.

15 A. Archer, op. cit.

16 J. Bossy, The English Catholic Community, 1570-1850, Dalton, Longmans, 1975.

17 J. F. Champ, “The Demographic Impact of Irish Immigration on Birmingham Catholicism 1800-1850”, in W. J. Sheils and D. Wood (eds), The Churches. Ireland and the Irish. Studies in Church History, vol. 25, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1989.

18 D. Fitzpatrick, “A Curious Middle Place : the Irish in Britain, 1871-1921”, in S. Gilley and R. Swift (eds), The Irish in Britain 1815-1939, London, Pinter, 1989.

19 R. Darwen, op. cit., p. 268.

20 A. Archer, op. cit., p. 56.

21 M. J. Hickman, Religion, Class and Identity. The State, the Catholic Church and the Education of the Irish in Britain, Avebury, Gower, 1995.

22 M. J. Hickman, A Study of the Incorporation of the Irish in Britain with Special Reference to Catholic State Education : Involving a Comparison of the Attitudes of Pupils and Teachers in Selected Catholic Schools in London and Liverpool, unpublished PhD thesis, University of London, 1990.

23 M. Hornsby-Smith, Roman Catholics in England, cf. note 3 ; M. Hornsby-Smith, Roman Catholics Beliefs in England, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

24 A. O’Grady, “Irish Migration to London”, Irish Studies Centre Occasional Publications Series, Polytechnic of North London, 1988.

25 K. T. Kelly, “The Eldonian Community in Liverpool”, The Month, vol. 21, n° 7. July 1988.

26 S. McGlacken, unpublished research project, Irish Studies Centre. University of North London, 1992.

27 M. Kells, “Ethnic Identity amongst young Irish Middle Class Migrants in London”, Irish Studies Center Occasional Papers Series, University of North London Press, London, 1994.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1 - Pupils : Personal meaning of Catholicism (%)
Fichier image/jpeg, 106k
Titre Table 2 - London pupils : personal meaning of Catholicism according to identity (%)
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k


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