The empty seats in the RDS at the opening of the recent (fiftieth) Eucharist Congress, and the c. 50,000 hardy souls who attended the closing ceremony at Croke Park, stood in marked contrast to the million-plus who participated in the thirty-first in glorious sunshine in 1932. Looking back we can now see that this marked the highpoint of a Catholic hegemony rendered inevitable by partition and the creation of an almost homogenous Catholic state in the South.
This was a process that was inexorably bound up with the demographic catastrophe of the Famine and its aftermath, which saw the Irish population halve between the 1840s and the 1960s, mainly through emigration (the majority women). Moreover, the flexible marriage market of the pre-Famine years, facilitated by ready access to land, albeit in tiny sub-divided potato plots, collapsed and gave way to a restricted one where the increasing consolidation of land into larger holdings meant that often only the eldest sons of farming families were in an economic position to marry (and usually well into middle age.) In response the remainder either emigrated, joined the clergy, or went insane (post-Famine mental illness rates quadrupled). Thus was forged the demographic template of a high rate of emigration, a high rate of vocations to the clergy, and a low rate of marriage. A quarter of the population missed the marriage boat completely.
The Catholic Church was not the cause of this state of affairs but it was certainly the beneficiary, partly through simple arithmetic: it now had more clergy ministering to fewer people. Moreover, the Church could provide the moral framework to police the harsh new demographic realities—people embraced the Church’s moral teaching because it literally made virtue of their necessity. (Nor should we underestimate the spiritual comfort the Church gave to a traumatised people.) How else can we account for the remarkable fact that, in a pre-contraceptive age, when marriage opportunities were contracting, the Irish rate of illegitimacy went down by 50%? Not only were a quarter of adults unmarried, but clearly the bulk of them were also celibate.
In time (the 1960s) the demographics changed and it is surely no coincidence that from then on the decline in the Catholic Church’s fortunes began to become apparent. Nowadays it is fashionable to see the exposure of clerical sexual abuse from the 1990s onwards (and the scandal of its systematic covering up) as the catalyst. It certainly didn’t help but in truth the process was already well under way. But there seems little point in dancing on the Catholic Church’s grave—the challenge for Irish society is to forge a new moral framework in tune with current demographic and economic realities.