CATHOLICISM AND THE IRISH
The Old World Heritage
The American tourist who visits Ireland today finds the place remarkably quaint, an odd mixture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is also struck almost as soon as he begins to roam around Ireland that the place is very small, not as large as the state of Ohio, 32,595 square miles. Yet Ireland today appears to be very rural; people often gather in small villages at night. But they live on farms, frequently in the often depicted thatched roof cottages, most of which are over two centuries old. If one is Irish in origin, he is aware, as was John F. Kennedy when he visited his family's home at New Ross in Wexford, that had his family not migrated, he might still be living in such a cottage, working in the fields by day, gathering in the pub by night and moved by the predominant force in the Irish peasant's life, the Roman Catholic Church, represented by the local parish priest.
This was his tradition, passed on in a tight, clan-like social structure. To deviate from it generally turned one into an outcast with no real alternative in cultural or religious life. .....
Right or wrong, an Irishman was born into a very close community, reinforced by all sorts of social and religious pressures and formed by a tradition in which he placed great pride. Yet this pride, or independence, seems almost ludicrous in the face of the poverty in which, at least by American standards, the Irishman lives today and which surely must have been the starkly real fact of life of his ancestors of a century ago.
Whence came this odd paradox -- pride in the face of poverty? To be sure, it came from belonging to an Irish version of the Roman Catholic Church, linked with a special fidelity to the Roman Pope who was seen as an alternative to any form of domination by a temporal king. Added to this was the influence of the climate. The constantly changing sky, the proximity of the sea, and the short life expectancy of the Irish peasant in Ireland made him very much aware of another world, the one he hoped for after death. There he trusted he would become rich in the goods of beatitude. This aspect of the world view of the Irishman in Ireland might be termed the faith component. It may well have been totally incomprehensible to those of the last century who would contempt or oppose him; it could be totally lost by those who do not have that same vision but who so frequently try to write about him today. For example, Leon Uris in his book Trinity.
In any case, to separate Irish culture from Irish Roman Catholicism is to miss the very core of the self-understanding of the Irish immigrant who came to America. It would appear that .....(continued next page)