In saying that Marcus Tanner’s Ireland’s Holy Wars is predictable I don’t want to give readers the impression that it is a bad book, because it is not. Its topic is five hundred years of religious strife in Ireland, from 1500 to the present. It is readable, well–researched, and has the journalist’s eye for the telling anecdote. The author is former foreign editor of the London Independent. He appears to have an interest in parts of the world torn by religious strife. His previous book, Croatia: A Nation Forged in War, was, like his current one, an account of how religious division forms national identity.
Tanner does not come down on either the Protestant or the Catholic side in his book, but he probably doesn’t deserve much credit for this because it is doubtful whether such a temptation existed for him in the first place. Tanner views Ireland through the lens of the liberal Enlightenment. It is not hard for such a person to avoid taking sides between Catholicism and Protestantism since he will be attracted to neither of them.
At the same time, and to be fair, Tanner does not rage against religion. He doesn’t want to see it crushed. It will do to tame and domesticate it. In other words, he is fairly moderate in his secularism. Unfortunately, though, his choice to view Irish history through this lens makes the book predictable. Most books about Irish history, culture, and society these days are written from a secular, liberal standpoint. In this view, Irish history provides ample confirmation that religion is mainly a source of intolerance, hatred, and violence.
It is Tanner’s central thesis that the main cause of the conflict in Ireland is religious rather than political. This is presented as though it is an original thesis, a revelation, but it is strikingly unoriginal. It is also highly open to question because the conflict in Ireland between rival identities predates the Reformation. Even before then, Ireland was engaged in a struggle to prevent its separate identity and culture from being destroyed by England. Parts of Ireland were already being settled by England before the Reformation, and this resulted in tensions between Catholic Englishmen on the one hand and Catholic Irishmen on the other. The Reformation added considerably to these tensions, but even if it had not occurred, there still would have been a deep division between English settlers and their descendants and the native Irish.
This tension would have existed quite independently of religious considerations because while one group would have wished to live under the English crown, the other group would not. In Northern Ireland today, the main cause of tension is the irreconcilable wish of the Catholics to live under the Irish flag, and of the Protestants to live under the Union Jack.
In commentary on the Northern conflict, the word “nationalist” is often used in place of “Catholic,” and “unionist” in place of “Protestant.” This is fitting, because it indicates how the conflict is at least as much about rival nationalisms as it is about rival religions. One group wants to become part of the Irish nation, while the other wishes to preserve the union of Great Britain and Ireland. Take out religion, and this fact remains.
After all, if religion were the main source of the conflict then one might wonder why the leadership of the nationalist community has not wavered in its cause while it has become more secular. In fact, within the fiercely nationalistic IRA and Sinn Fein there are many people who are avowedly anti–Catholic and always have been. On the Unionist side there are also secularists in positions of leadership, and their allegiance to the Crown is no less strong for that.
Even if Northern Ireland became as secular as Sweden, there would remain a conflict of national identities. Meanwhile, south of the border, the process of secularization is already far advanced. Tanner presents this process as being, on the whole, a good thing. Not that he is explicit about it. He simply takes it for granted that the loosening of the Catholic grip upon Irish life has been a positive development.
His narrative runs roughly as follows. Following independence in 1922, the Republic of Ireland became a confessional state. The Constitution recognized the “special place” of the Catholic Church in Irish society. Politicians paid obeisance to the bishops and to Rome. Famously, when a left–leaning government was elected in 1948, it felt obliged to send the Pope a message assuring him that it wished only “to repose at the feet of your holiness.” Protestants were required to know their place, and the Church controlled almost all elements of civil society. Freedom of thought was discouraged, and books were censored. Enemies of the Church were ostracized or crushed. Bit by bit, with the advent of television, the opening up of Ireland to the world, the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and the clerical scandals of the 1990s, the Church was chopped down to size.
This narrative has a hero, the Socialist Minister Noel Browne, who served in the aforementioned government of 1948, and a villain, Dublin’s long–serving archbishop, Dr. John Charles McQuaid. McQuaid worked tirelessly to maintain the power of the Church in Ireland, and Browne worked equally hard to break it. Although it is the case that in one famous clash between the two Browne was forced to resign as Minister for Health, in the long run it was Browne’s view of the proper place of the Church in a secular republic that prevailed.
What this narrative tends to ignore is that if Ireland was indeed a confessional state post–1922, this is because the vast majority of people wanted it that way. The dominant role of the Church in Ireland was not some kind of alien imposition. At one level it enabled Ireland to tell the British that they had failed to make them conform. As the years passed, people felt less need to assert their independence from Britain by aggressively asserting their Catholicism, and so the power of the Church waned. The Irish people became willing to listen to other voices, including and especially voices critical of the Church.
The irony is that Irish culture is today increasingly a blend of America and Britain. We may retain political independence (although that is being increasingly ceded to the European Union), but our cultural independence has already been all but lost. A further irony—and it is lost on Tanner—is that the old Catholic monolith has been replaced by a new, secular one. This new secular orthodoxy is by no means accepted by all the people of Ireland. But it is accepted by almost everyone of influence, as well as by the urban middle class and most young people. The new orthodoxy clothes itself in the virtues of tolerance and pluralism, and presents itself as a reaction against the intolerance and closed–mindedness of the past.
An even greater irony is that this new secular orthodoxy is much more like the old Catholic orthodoxy than it might care to think. It is as intolerant of dissenters, for example, and arguably more so. Today, anyone who defies the politically correct nostrums currently in fashion risks being attacked on radio, television, and in all of the major newspapers. Such a person will be pilloried and made an object of contempt. Recently, a priest who called Islam a “heresy” was attacked on consecutive days on a popular talk–back radio show. The power of the crozier has been replaced with the power of the microphone and the printing press.
Secular Ireland also canonizes its heroes in the way Catholic Ireland once did. Biographies of Noel Browne and our former president, Mary Robinson, read like Lives of the Saints. Those it hates, like John Charles McQuaid, are demonized. In addition, modern Ireland has its equivalent of Rome. If former generations of politicians reposed at the feet of the Holy Father, most of the current generation are happy to kneel at the feet of Brussels. EU statements are treated with the greatest reverence, and it is taken as a sign of virtue to meet with its approval.
Tanner concludes his book by telling us that for the first time in its history Ireland is experiencing immigration from such parts of the world as Africa and Asia. In his view, the rise of a multiracial Ireland “will do what decades of ecumenism have failed to achieve, render the struggle between Catholics and Protestants for the soul of Ireland redundant once and for all.”
He is mistaken. What will do that—and what has been doing that—is secularism. Secularism is forcing Catholics and Protestants to find common cause in a battle for their own survival, and against a secularism that promises a happiness and salvation it cannot deliver. This is our new “Holy War,” and it is a story that has yet to be told by someone sympathetic to Christianity in Ireland.
David Quinn is editor of the Irish Catholic, a columnist for the Sunday Times (Ireland edition), and a broadcaster.