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Conscience Magazine

Ireland: When the Church Is State

By Ailbhe Smyth April 25, 2016

Viewed from the outside, Ireland looks like a contra­diction in terms. Which is also exactly what it feels like to me as an Irish woman and a lesbian, feminist and prochoice activist. On the one hand, on May 22, 2015, a large majority of the Irish electorate (62 percent) said “Yes” (we do) in a same-sex marriage refer­endum—taking ourselves, and the world in general, rather by surprise. This meant that Ireland became the first country in the world to achieve equal marriage rights for lesbian and gay people by popular vote. This stunning victory has been described as a “social revolution,” even by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin—one, he says, “that didn’t begin today.”

Secular State, Catholic Country

Ireland has been seen as something of an outlier on the European map, most notably in sociosexual matters, seeming to remain a traditional, devout and god-fearing nation far longer than our Euro­pean counterparts. While there is some truth in this, the pace of change in Ire­land, socially, economically and politi­cally has vastly accelerated over the past 30 years or so. The country I grew up in as a girl is a historical curiosity to younger generations. (“You mean you couldn’t buy contraceptives?”)

While officially a secular state for more than four decades, Ireland is still a predominantly Catholic country. In the most recent census (2011), just over 84 percent of people defined themselves as Catholic. However, respondents identi­fied with a growing diversity of other religions, and more than a quarter of a million people defined themselves as being of no religion. The latter category has more than doubled since the 2006 census, indicating a very marked shift towards a more pluralistic society.

On the other hand, we have one of the most restrictive and punitive abortion regimes in Europe (a status shared with Poland and Liechtenstein, where abor­tion is also narrowly circumscribed, and with Malta and Andorra, where it is illegal on all grounds). The Eighth Amendment inscribed in Bunreacht na hEireann, the Irish Constitution, fol­lowing a plebiscite in 1983, gives the fetus an equal right to life with a thinking, feeling woman. Currently, abortion is illegal in all cases except when doctors believe the life of the pregnant woman is at risk. The abortion ban extends to preg­nancy following rape or incest and also to cases of fatal fetal anomaly. Having an abortion or helping a woman have an abortion is a criminal offence, punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment. This includes women who obtain abortion pills through the Internet and those who supply them. But this severe prohibition does not prevent abortion. Approxi­mately 10–12 women leave the country every day to have an abortion abroad. Although Ireland is now changing, our struggle is different than that of many other countries. The writing is writ large on the wall for the deeply con­servative Catholic hierarchy, but its members have not gone away, and they still behave as if it is their right to be the social and moral arbiters of the nation, especially where sexual and reproductive rights are concerned.

The Politics of the Church


Catholicism as an institution has deep roots in Ireland and its struggle for national independence. In the 19th century, the church provided a crucial, if basic, social as well as moral support system for a people living in poverty. This was due largely to the tacit acquiescence of the British ruling powers, who saw church control of the populace as a means of containing the likelihood of rebellion. The Catholic church in Ireland was nationalist (although officially opposed to violence), conservative and highly authoritarian. During the 19th century, it became the dominant force shaping people’s experiences and understandings of community, family, sexuality and gender relations. It would be hard to overestimate the immense power of the church over the daily lives of ordinary people. As Tom Inglis, professor of sociology at University College Dublin, wrote:

“The power of the Catholic Church meant that it structured not just the religious life of the Irish people, but their social, political and economic life as well. Consequently, the strategies through which Irish Catholics struggled to gain cultural, social, political, economic and cultural capital were linked in with living a good Catholic life.”

Significantly, the first Constitution of the Irish Free State, enacted in 1922, prohibited discrimination on religious grounds and asserted the freedom of conscience and of worship. But when Eamonn De Valera came to power as prime minister in 1932, he drafted a new Constitution (voted in by a narrow majority in 1937), with a pronounced Catholic ethos and heavily marked by so-called natural law. As well as asserting the special relationship between the Catholic church and the state (only for­mally ended by referendum in 1972), it granted special protections for the family as the “natural primary and fundamental unit-group of society” and as the “basis of social order.”

The New State’s Old Partnership

The newly minted Irish State and the Catholic church existed in a close, even symbiotic relationship, and social policy, in particular, was formulated on the basis of that partnership.

The church retained a tight grip on key areas, including education, health and social welfare. Women were subjected to especially intense surveillance and con­trol through laws regulating marriage and family, property rights, labor, censorship of sex (through books, information and later, films)—and through prohibition of reproductive rights.

Although Ireland is now changing, our struggle is different than that of many other countries.

Women were constitutionally and legally discouraged from working outside the home. Abortion was prohibited under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (a legacy of British rule in Ireland) and punishable by life imprisonment. The importation and sale of contraceptives was outlawed in 1935, and strict laws gov­erning dance halls,  as well as censorship laws, were also imposed at this time. Clearly, married sex was the only kind officially sanctioned, and women were subordinate, house-bound and definitely not permitted to control their fertility or their lives. The social, moral and legal penalties for disobedience were severe.

Challenging the Status Quo

The early 1950s was marked by the advent of the “Mother and Child scheme,” a free healthcare program for women and children. This initiative was vehemently resisted by both the Cath­olic church and the medical profession, in part because of the provision for family planning counseling. The Mother and Child campaign marked an important turning point in church-state relations, demonstrating that challenges to the existing regime could work.

Economic transformation in the second half of the century created a rift between urban and rural Ireland. Greater relative prosperity, wider educational access, growing media and communica­tions channels, European Union mem­bership and increased travel, among other factors, all contributed to widening the gulf between “traditionalists” and “modernizers.”

Shifts in gender relations both sharp­ened and accelerated with the advent of the women’s movement at the beginning of the 1970s. Women were challenging patriarchal forms of social control, asserting their independence and refusing to follow subordinating laws and restric­tive moral codes, and this created shock waves throughout the state.

Firstly, and perhaps most tellingly, women refused to obey. So, although contraception was against the laws of both church and state, women got ahold of the pill. Eventually, after many years, it was legalized, and the church in Ire­land now rarely refers to contraception as sinful—or indeed refers to it at all.

Secondly, women began to break the silence in which our lives had been shrouded. We began to dredge up painful histories and to speak about experiences of cruelty, violence and abuse at the hands of individual men and by institutions. As a consequence, a whole society began to explore the reality and the legacy of the abuse it had experienced at the hands of the Catholic church, often with the col­lusion of its symbiotic partner, the state.


Revelations of clerical sexual abuse emerged in Ireland in the early 1990s—the first major case became public in 1994—and had a massive impact on people’s relation to the Catholic church.

There were other shocking revela­tions. In 1992, the media revealed that a well-respected bishop, Eamonn Casey, had a child with an American woman, Annie Murphy, and that he had directed funds from his dioceses towards the cost of his son’s education and upkeep in the US. The funds were repaid soon after the revelations, but Annie Murphy’s prime­time TV appearance had a lasting effect on Irish women’s feelings of betrayal by the male clergy.

Once begun, the revelations of mal­treatment and brutality to women and to children in Mother and Baby homes, in orphanages, in laundries and in industrial schools during the 20th century did not stop. Secrets that had been kept for decades began to be told in public, scandal after scandal: the 30,000 women who were treated like slaves in Magdalene Laundries run by religious orders; the estimated 60,000 “banished babies” of unmarried women sent by the Catholic church for adoption, many to the US; the remains of about 800 babies buried beneath a Mother and Baby home; the estimated 1,500 women who were subjected to symphysi­otomy operations against their will from the mid-1940s to the mid-1990s. As jour­nalist Bette Browne put it: “Ireland seems to be constantly traumatized by its mis­treatment of unmarried mothers and their babies—those whom poverty or family abandonment consigned to the margins of society to suffer unimaginable pain in religious-­­run, state-funded institutions.”

Ironically, the church’s failure to acknowledge or to understand the harm it had done, much less to apologize, ended up wounding it severely. This inclination of the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland (as in Rome) to run for cover and to deny wrongdoing, criminality, dishonesty and profound disregard for human beings in its care—it has gravely undermined the church’s authority and credibility.

The Last Hurdle

“The Irish Church’s failures have caused its people to choose secularism over faith.” This was the dramatic headline on the May 25, 2015, edition of the Catholic Herald (UK) after the same-sex marriage referendum victory.

Although the large majority of people in Ireland continue to define themselves as Catholic, it is a very different kind of Catholicism from the traditional form that held us enslaved for so long. It is more individualistic, more independent, more rational. As Prof. Tom Inglis observed, we’ve become more Protestant. Irish people are no longer prepared to follow the diktat of the church in sociosexual matters. While Ireland may in some respects still be “culturally Catholic,” that culture is increasingly and manifestly tempered by a sophisticated and cosmo­politan perspective.

A great deal has changed in a relatively short time, so that what we’re seeing in Ireland at present might be called a pro­cess of “compressed secularization.” It’s as if the pent-up challenges of well over a century and a half of enforced submission to an authoritarian church have suddenly begun to burst the banks and are flowing now with an unstoppable momentum.

Nonetheless, we still have a major struggle in front of us: to obtain the right to safe, legal and, ideally, free abortion in Ireland. Wresting women’s freedom, autonomy and bodily integrity from the hands of patriarchal power—and none more patriarchal than the Catholic hier­archy—is an urgent and still daunting task. Abortion has always been the most diffi­cult issue: It is the unmentionable, the most stigmatized, the most profoundly silenced. Political leadership is still very weak and inconsistent on women’s issues, and the large majority of politicians haven’t the courage to tackle the issue of abortion.

The forces of traditional Catholi­cism—both church and laity—are already massing for the battle, as they have done so many times before at the decennial abortion referendums held in 1983, 1992 and 2003. But they are on ever-shrinking and increasingly precar­ious ground. Poll after poll taken over the past decade shows a steady increase in the numbers in favor of increased access to abortion in Ireland. There is now a growing and prominent move­ment for the repeal of the notoriously unworkable (and fatal) Eighth Amend­ment. A 2015 poll found that 64 percent of farmers favored repealing it. The Catholic church’s most traditional sup­port base—rural communities—has taken a dramatic liberal turn.

Young people are massively prochoice, and they are not interested in a washed-out institution that has failed to respond to their needs and challenges. They want a different, more open and nonjudgmental Ireland. They voted overwhelmingly for that vision in the marriage equality refer­endum, and they’re not going to stop now.

Nothing ever fell out of the deep blue sky: We have struggled and strategized and campaigned every step of the way, edging the Catholic hierarchy to the side­lines, pulling our political leaders up by their reluctant bootstraps, pushing them towards stronger democracy and respect for human rights, equality and freedom. Increasingly, we are making up our own minds about sexuality and about abortion. And we’re going to keep doing it.

In this historical process of fighting for our rights and freedoms, we are shaping a truly secular and pluralist state. It is not the business of the Catholic church, or of any religion, in Ireland or anywhere else, to lay down the law of the land. It is cate­gorically not the role of the Catholic hier­archy—still 100 percent male—to tell women what to do with our bodies.

Ailbhe Smyth
Ailbhe Smyth

former head of women’s studies at University College Dublin, has been a prochoice campaigner for more than 30 years. She is convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment in Ireland.