Ireland and the Catholic Church in the 1940s – an Englishman’s insight
21 August, 2014
My recent reading has been the diaries of James Lees-Milne, which are interesting on a number of levels despite (or maybe because of) his snobbery and social-climbing. He was a friend of the Earl of Rosse of Birr Castle in County Offaly and, during a visit thereto in 1948, he wrote the following about Ireland in his diary:
“I wish I could define properly what it is I do not like about the climate, the people and the scenery. My dislike is almost intuitive, certainly temperamental and racial. I fear the native hostility under the mask of deceit.”
Lees-Milne, who had converted to Catholicism, continued:
“At Mass the church here is so crowded that one cannot worship. Irish Catholicism is like a vice, crushing the congregation like nuts. The Irish God is not loving. He is a tyrant. The people are tight within his grasp. Unlike Latins they are subdued by the Church, not elevated by it. They derive from it no inspiration, recreation or romance. Here it is grey and puritanical.”
He was writing 66 years ago, but some of the noxious influences he detected are still at play in this country. The current case of the young non-national girl who had been raped and was denied an abortion despite being suicidal is shocking, and it exposes the extent to which our law is still influenced by tyrannical and absolutist Roman Catholic dogma.
As an aside, on a visit to Ireland 3 years earlier, Lees-Milne had met a “Lord X” – thought to have been Lord Killanin – whose views gave rise to this diary entry:
He says the priests are so bigoted and politically minded that he fears there will be a strong reaction against Catholicism in Ireland within the next generation. Most of the priests are peasants’ sons, with no true vocation. They become priests because it gives them social status. He blames Maynooth College. A generation ago the neophytes went to Rome. Now they are totally nationalistic and provincial in outlook. The Cardinal [probably Joseph MacRory] is positively chauvinistic. Lord X blames the Vatican for not taking the Irish hierarchy in hand. The people are kept in great ignorance, as in Spain.
The problems within the Catholic Church in Ireland, and the problems caused by it, are not a recent development. An English Catholic aesthete witnessed them all too clearly in the 1940s.