Ireland’s Cold War


Henry Farrell in The Boston Review (Photograph: National Library of Ireland.):

Ireland’s real Cold War was the episodic struggle over the power of the Catholic Church. After Irish independence, Catholicism had secured a stranglehold on the major institutions of social, political, and economic power. For many decades, the Church effectively controlled most of the schools (the main exception being a separate, smaller network run by the Protestant Church of Ireland) and hospitals, even though they were nominally provided by the state. It fought even the mildest social reforms for fear that change might dilute its influence.

Until the 1970s the Church also held a tight grip on key university departments such as philosophy and political science, to ensure that atheism and communism didn’t corrupt vulnerable youth. Trinity College—the traditionally Protestant university—was outside the Church’s grasp, but Catholics were discouraged, and in some cases forbidden, from attending. The national broadcasting station was closely monitored for smut and moral turpitude. When a guest on a popular talk show hinted that married couples might not always wear bedclothes, the statement provoked denunciations from a bishop and enormous political scandal.

But by the late 1970s, it was clear that the Church’s power couldn’t be sustained much longer. Religious conservatives turned from offensive to defensive tactics. They pushed through a referendum to introduce a ban on abortion in the constitution because they feared that without such a ban, legislation to legalize it would be introduced in a decade or two. They succeeded in defeating a referendum proposing a limited form of divorce. But the health minister (who later became a legendarily corrupt prime minister), Charles Haughey, responded to pressure to legalize contraception by introducing what he described as “an Irish solution to an Irish problem.” Contraception would only be legally available to people who could get a prescription from their doctor. This would allow married couples to regulate their fertility, while preventing unmarried couples from enjoying the delights of sin without the costs.

Such worldly compromises culminated in an extended period of confessional Brezhnevism. When my generation grew into adulthood in the 1980s, the culture of Catholicism seemed strong, if you didn’t look at it too closely.

More here.