Unholy Catholic Ireland
Religious Hypocrisy, Secular Morality, and Irish Irreligion
Hugh Turpin




—Graffiti at the entrance to a Dublin church, 2011

I found the slogan “You have 100% failed humanity” spray-painted in bright yellow in the doorway of a Catholic church near the docklands in Dublin. It was 2011, two years after the release of the Murphy Report, the results of a government commission tasked with investigating the clerical sexual abuse of minors in the Archdiocese of Dublin between 1974 and 2005. The report concluded that “the Dublin Archdiocese’s preoccupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid-1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the State.”1 The Murphy Report also revealed that two-thirds of the 325 cases investigated by the commission took place as recently as the 1990s and 2000s.

Disclosures such as these have profoundly altered the image of the Irish Catholic Church. For many of the public, the figure of the priest—still thought by a dwindling few to be the alter Christus through whom Christ himself can acthas become psychically enmeshed with the pedophile, modern society’s most diabolical pariah. Beyond the culpability of individuals, the institutional Church has widely come to be viewed in a dim light for its role in enabling and covering up such abuses. Further revelations concerning the Catholic past, such as those revolving around repressive institutions including mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries, and industrial schools, have been added to the disclosures of clerical abuse and its concealment. Rightly or wrongly, the Church has absorbed most of the blame for the oppressive, puritanical culture and copious abuses of the post-independence period. Surveys suggest that many now feel compelled to distance themselves from the Church and from the legacy of the deferent Catholic past. Religious attendance has declined rapidly. Catholic morality has been publicly repudiated in referenda on marriage equality and abortion. At the same time, the Church remains widely embedded in social institutions (most notably the education system), and a large majority of the population continue to describe themselves on census forms as Catholic. How do people justify their stances toward Catholicism in a society where what was once the guardian of public morality has toppled so far from grace that it can be felt to have “100% failed humanity” while nevertheless remaining almost inextricably intertwined in everyday life? How do people cultivate—or indeed salvage—virtue under these circumstances?

Ireland is now almost three decades into what might be termed the age of scandal. This period, defined by the collapse of the Church’s moral status, began most notably with the 1992 media revelations of the clandestine affair of a prominent bishop. Layer upon layer and year after year since then, the scandals have grown ever darker. Indeed “the scandals” can seem like a wan euphemism for what is a vast and complex tapestry of moral violations associated with Church policies, personnel, state influence, and institutions. Wider society is also deeply implicated. It is now quite commonplace to encounter the belief that, historically, Irish Catholic culture itself was pathological: in the grip of a morality so rigorous that it failed to be humane and yet tacitly permitted sin in its most extreme form among religious elites. The desacralization of the Church has had profound implications, not only for the institution itself but also for contesting Irish representations of what it means to be a “good” or “moral” person. Over the period that this new image of the past has been formed, the number of Irish people claiming to reject religion outright has increased rapidly. According to some measures, over a quarter of the Irish population now does not affiliate with any religious tradition, and a great many of these people were once at least nominally Catholic, or their parents were. But this is rarely nonreligion of the apathetic variety found in a range of other European societies. Declaring oneself an ex-Catholic or nonreligious in Ireland is often a moral gesture of defiance against a pitch-black vision of the post-independence past, although many Catholics abhor the dark legacies of that era.

The causal links between growing Irish nonreligion and the proliferation of religious scandal are not as direct and simple as is sometimes inferred. As in any secularizing society, a complex web of factors has caused many Irish people to drift away from religion. As Ireland grew more prosperous, it would have been a miracle indeed if the country had not followed the rest of Western Europe into secularization, whether the scandals had happened or not. And so, even though growing disaffiliation is not simply a result of disgust with Ireland’s clericalist past and the abuses it enabled, this factor is nevertheless critical to how Irish ex-Catholics view themselves and their position in history and society, with scandal coloring how “not being a religious person” manifests in an Irish context. In this book I chart the relationships between widespread perceptions of religious hypocrisy and the emergence and character of religious rejection among a growing subsection of the Irish “ethno-Catholic” majority. Drawing on anthropological and psychological insights into the complex constructs that we call religion and morality, I examine how this nonreligious stance is locked in interaction with various other Irish orientations toward Catholicism, ranging from loose and fairly indifferent cultural affiliation to devout commitment. In the process I consider how and why people adopt the different stances they do toward a “contaminated” religious tradition and how these stances influence one another. This involves looking in detail at the rhetorical strategies, personal narratives, capitulation to institutional impediments, and everyday behavior that are deployed to support these stances in a country where, as one recent immigrant discerningly phrased it, “A lot of life is lived in the unsaid and the words held back can be more important than the ones actually spoken.”2

I never discovered the author of that yellow graffiti: whether they had been one of the thousands who had suffered directly at the hands of abusive religious, whether they had been a relative of one who had been abused, or whether they were simply an outraged member of the public. But the slogan’s message was clear: Considerable numbers see the Irish Catholic Church as a hotbed of self-interest and perversity. Although voices from the pulpit had determined what it meant to be a “good Irish person” for decades during the twentieth century, that damning Vatican-yellow graffiti captured the contrast between the image of the Irish Catholic Church at its zenith 60 years earlier and its sullied counterpart in 2011. Over the course of about three decades, Catholicism had not just become increasingly peripheral, though this also had happened. A completely different picture of its moral value had been adopted by a large segment of the population. For growing numbers the Cross had become inverted. Holy Catholic Ireland had been turned on its head.

Decades before, during the height of the Church’s authoritarianism, submission to the Church was a source of pride in a small, humbled postcolonial country with little else to its name. Post-independence Ireland was an Atlantic rock of faith, an isolationist bastion of religious purity defended with fervent zeal against Western European secularism and permissiveness. Much like some governments in Eastern Europe today—namely, Poland and Hungary—Ireland’s political and ecclesiastical rulers were preoccupied with defending tradition from the liberalizing cultural trends that were sweeping through other European societies. One thing preoccupied the Church more than any other: sex. Sexuality in Catholic Ireland was a minefield of baffling contradictions and hypocrisies, public pieties, semiprivate subversions, and willful, or fearful, blindness and doublethink.3 It can be difficult today to fully comprehend just how much the obsession with the sins of the flesh exerted a hold on Irish society. Desire was coupled to damnation, and, paradoxically enough, sex was in one way or another ever on the mind. Today, the contradictions between the pulpit-stoked prudishness of the Catholic past and the clerical sexual transgressions of that time are jarring in the extreme. Dedicated specialists have done excellent work unpicking the dense network of institutional, social, theological, historical, and psychological factors that combined to produce a clerical culture that was at once outwardly unchallengeable but inwardly dysfunctional.4 It is also hard not to speculate on whether the sex-maddened fulminations delivered from Holy Catholic Ireland’s more extreme pulpits simply terrified people or provided a sublimated version of erotic titillation. Most likely both are true, depending on how much the circumstances of one’s life and birth put one at risk of ostracism for “giving scandal.”5

What exactly was the relationship between this sexually repressive, sex-obsessed culture and the abuse and oppression that it produced? And who is to blame? These historical questions are beyond the scope of this book,6 but they form an important part of its background and should be borne in mind going forward. They represent how a contemporary collective representation of the moral system of Holy Catholic Ireland at its 1950s zenith (and for some decades before and after) became widely entrenched as an anti-model of how people should relate to sex, religion, and one another. This anti-nostalgic shadow image, and the role it plays in the modern rejection of religious affiliation and institutional influence, is what will primarily concern us here.

But Holy Catholic Ireland did not wake up one day and find itself suddenly gone, with socially liberal orthodoxies sprouting like snowdrops in its place. A buffer zone of sorts filled the space between the Holy Catholic “then” and the zealously liberalizing “now.” By the early 1990s Irish society had largely reoriented toward materialistic priorities that eclipsed Catholic nationalism and religiously inspired sexual purity. The Church still had great influence, but it had had to exist in the preceding few decades within a state no longer interested in economic and cultural isolationism. Beginning in the 1970s the Church toned down the fulmination and projected a more tolerant and loving image. My own interest in the subject stems from coming into adolescence as an ostensible Catholic in the 1990s at what felt like the liminal crux of this national transformation. It was a confusing time that seemed full of ambiguity and contradiction as I witnessed the attitudes and behavior of peers and strangers change around me with a peculiar kind of acceleration, a frantic mental costume change carried out behind the ever more translucent screen of increasingly nominal Catholicism.

Growing up in such a time, mine was an upbringing of mixed signals. In my immediate family it was tacitly understood that Mass was something we did to placate the aged. My father was a somewhat scornful “Catholic atheist” who nevertheless loved going on architectural pilgrimages to Rome (and who, like James Joyce’s character Stephen Daedalus, considered Catholicism both suffocating and yet, in its continental manifestations at least, infinitely superior to what he believed was the aesthetic dourness of Protestantism). Once a year he went to Mass at Christmas in Dublin’s Pro Cathedral “for the music,” as he told us—to go for the sermon would have been embarrassing. Religion was not something my mother, probably best described as a wavering agnostic, felt comfortable talking about; her experience of it in the past had been repressive, and yet she could not let it go, much as she sometimes seemed to want to. Somehow, she was reluctantly fused to it. Her version of Catholicism was utterly different from my father’s; it was regretful, even resentful, and yet it offered some conduit to an inalienable, if at times reluctant, sense of the supernatural. So, instead of facing these irreconcilable feelings, she stayed at home and basted the turkey.

By the time I was at university, fortress Catholicism had been thoroughly penetrated by globalization and it was crumbling, without having quite reached the levels of collapse witnessed from the late 2000s onward. I saw the last residues of Holy Catholic Ireland’s former rigor preserved in my grandmother, a self-abnegating middle-class Irish Catholic to her very core. She went to Mass every day, and her austere religious outlook was tacitly treated as an anachronism by my family but also as something so brittle that we were obliged to tolerate it at all costs. I remember well, when we were children, her vicelike grip around our wrists as she dragged my brother and me onto a dual carriageway and into oncoming traffic so we could get across the road to Mass on time—and this was only on a Tuesday morning. Her faith was strong—strong enough to bring the cars screeching to a halt. Later, she succumbed to Alzheimer’s just before the Church’s scandals truly got underway.

In my lifetime, as Catholicism further softened, it also weakened. At home and at school, I saw religion atrophy in real time in a way that would have disturbed my grandmother, had she been privy to it. In the early 1990s, at secondary school—“a school for the sons of Catholic gentle men” as it proudly billed itself, though rugby was its true creed—any efforts by our religion teacher to steer conversations toward matters of faith would be met with glazed eyes and demands to watch another episode of The Simpsons, something that we often got to do as a treat (at religious instruction’s expense). The man, a child of the 1960s, was palpably uncomfortable carrying out the Church’s work of “faith formation” and generally acquiesced. Yet any skeptical questions on religion were met with hostility, not from the teacher, who was always an understanding and benevolent man, but rather from the other students. In the attitude of those boys, the tacit makeshift social ethos of that time of transition was crystallized. It was OK to be inwardly bored by Catholicism because it had grown irrelevant (or “naff,” as we put it), but it was still not really OK to question it out loud. If Holy Catholic Ireland had become a paper-thin charade, it was also a social faux pas to pick at the wallpaper.7

This has long since ceased to be the case. The apogee of the Church’s loss of control came between 2015 and 2018, the period of my doctoral fieldwork in Dublin, where I was examining whether there was a relationship between religious scandals and declining Catholic affiliation and what that relationship might be. As Ireland’s bond to Catholicism continued to weaken with the results of public referenda that incrementally excised Catholic morality from the Constitution8 and just as some felt that “the scandals” were finally becoming an exhausted thing of the past, the Church’s image faltered yet further in 2017. In March of that year, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes confirmed that a “significant amount” of infant remains had been discovered in the subsurface chambers of a disused sewage system at a former mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway. This home had been one of a network of such institutions run by religious congregations where women who became pregnant outside of marriage were effectively imprisoned and hidden away in shame until their babies were delivered. Many children were then given up for adoption by the nuns, frequently to Catholic families in the United States, in return for substantial cash donations to the religious order, with the mother’s consent often obtained through coercion, if at all.9 The commission had been established following the pioneering efforts of local historian Catherine Corless, whose research was picked up by national and international media in 2014. Her investigations had uncovered that almost 800 babies and young children had died at the Tuam home run by the Bon Secours Sisters from 1925 to 1961, and she raised suspicions that many had been improperly buried in the defunct sewage system at the back of the home. Despite statements from the Gardaí in 2014 that “these are historical burials going back to famine times” with “no suggestion of any impropriety,”10 the 2017 announcement confirmed that the remains indeed dated to the period of the Bon Secours home. Tests furthermore indicated that the children had ranged in age from 35 fetal weeks to 3 years—they had undeniably been the socially stigmatized “children of sin” consigned to the nuns’ care.

For decades, the news had been so dominated by clerical child abuse, ecclesiastical cover-ups, the uncooperativeness of the Vatican, and the Church’s evasion of compensation for victims, that Irish people had perhaps become somewhat detached from their own roles in the scandals, or the roles of their ancestors and the political parties they still voted for. But in the late 2010s, in the media and from the conversations that I heard around me, the re-examination of Holy Catholic Ireland’s repressive institutional infrastructure was growing, along with interest in the twin thorny issues of culpability and widespread social complicity. After all, many had known that these institutions existed, and everyone involved had been Irish. Some unquestionably bore more responsibility than others, but these gradations threatened to be elided by the political construction of an ambiguous, vaporous receptacle into which all levels of culpability (including that of the state) could be decanted and combined: “past society.” In 2021 these discussions were activated once again following the publication of the Mother and Baby Homes Report, which detailed an “appalling level of infant mortality” that was double the rate in the general population. The report also confirmed that children in the homes had been subjected to medical experiments, being used in vaccine trials without parental or guardian consent. Between 1922 and 1998, when the last home closed in Cork, 9,000 children had perished in the 18 institutions investigated by the commission. Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s response to the report in the Dáil drew criticism for emphasizing that the commission’s findings should be a generalized source of shame for all of Irish society rather than for the Catholic Church, the implicated religious orders and, perhaps more important in the context of Martin’s speech, the state itself. Shortly after his address, Martin’s apology was criticized in the Dáil on these and similar grounds by Catherine Connolly, independent Galway West TD (Teachta Dála, a member of the Dáil), whose own counterspeech on the subject was viewed more favorably in the media. Connolly criticized the report’s conclusions that there was no compulsion for women and girls to enter the homes or to give up their babies for adoption, despite the fact that this “bears no connection to the testimony given,” which makes clear “the role of the priest, the role of the Church, the role of the County Council.”11 This somber grappling with the past, however, is only one stream of discourse in a country with a tarnished religious past. The fact is that many people have found their own far more irreverent ways of coping with Catholicism and its legacies: mocking its pieties and profanities and further trampling its already long-sullied claims to authority while often still participating in a nostalgic, expedient, or instrumental manner when it suits them.

The flipside of the decades-long revision of the past, then, is that people have unconsciously adapted to the slow piecemeal pace of its terrible revelations. Consternation, for some, may have even been eclipsed by a habituation bordering on apathy. People grow inured to political performances of contrition offsetting the shame of the past. Since the late 1990s, Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen, Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar, and Micheál Martin—that is, all of Ireland’s taoisigh—have waxed lyrical on the same repentant note, and it is regarded in some quarters as more than a little ritualistic (whereas many others simply do not listen to Dáil speeches or the 9 o’clock news).12 Ireland today is in some ways reckoning with itself. But for all its secularizing referenda, it has also developed the jaundiced attitude of a post-religious abuse society, replete with post-traumatic black humor that would have given my grandmother a stroke. Many people have learned to live with a deeply contaminated religious institution, and some may even relish how statuses have been reversed. When I was writing this book, someone who had just come back from his lavish but largely socially placatory church wedding (which he justified as follows: “Look, she would’ve gone spare if it hadn’t happened sooner or later, her aul one was down our necks, and I’m not one for passing up a hooley in Marbella!”) told me the following joke:

Why is a priest like a pint of Guinness?

I don’t know.

Because he’s in black up to the neck, has a white collar, and if you get a bad one he’ll rip the hole off you.

When this informant returned intact from Marbella, he told me that the Spanish priest had in fact turned out to be quite pleasant.

In the field, I found that ex-Catholicism was often just as much a position taken against such complex positions of detached lingering affiliation as it was a stance of opposition to the Church itself. As the spotlight of abuse has intensified, the ostensible complacency of “cultural Catholicism” has been dragged into conscious scrutiny. In some circles the laissez-faire relationship of Ireland’s post-1990s “à la carte” Catholicism to what is increasingly framed as a morally bankrupt religious institution has become an object of disdain, described by some as an immorally amnesiac tolerance for the crimes of a humbled Church—so long as it remains in its place as a convenient service provider of children’s rites of passage, weddings, funerals, intergenerational harmony, and a source of inspiration for light television comedy.

Arguably, the driving animus of this stance is not only the Church’s sins but also the fact that they have taken place amid a series of tensions relating to secularization. Once, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid could tacitly dictate state moral policy,13 but today the Irish Church has declined in power, eclipsed by a quintessentially neoliberal political elite that is eager to look socially progressive, entrepreneurial, and global but that is also saddled with a clientelist political system and the duty of placating the piety of older and more conservative voters. By hook or by crook, the Church has clung onto what it has left, particularly through hegemonic control of the education system and, until recently, certain reproductive issues. But its institutional grip is slipping fast, though not as fast as some would like. Under these circumstances, the fact that a large swath of the population—whether or not they actually agree with the Church—continue to affiliate for purely cultural or ethnic reasons has become an object of increased secularist critique.

Although it would be a stretch to call the Republic of Ireland a divided society, the tensions implicit in the situation feel closer to the surface now. Some sectors of Irish society dream of it being a paragon of purity again, but this time a progressive secular one: Wholly Woke Ireland, a cosmopolitan and caring prefect of modernity. Others disagree, seeing in the construction of the “new morality” the atomizing, capitalistic destruction of a traditional way of life under an imported and imitative smokescreen. Still others are happy right where things are. And when it comes to religion, many are like the figures in Graham Knuttel paintings, which came to typify the interior décor of Dublin’s Celtic Tiger–era restaurants: keeping poker faces but looking sidelong at one another, judging and fearing judgment, aware that social status is in play.14

The scandals enter this picture as an affordance in a struggle over moral and social reorientation. They have changed the moral status of “being religious” in Ireland but have not led to the growth of Irish nonreligion by directly causing disaffiliation among previously devout Catholics. The story is more complex than this. As I show in the following chapters, religious hypocrisy and its relationship to Irish ex-Catholicism must be understood in the context of a background of waning culturally Catholic socialization, entrenched religious influence on laws and institutions, openly habitual yet seemingly inescapable affiliation, increasing wealth and cultural globalization, and the kind of reorientation toward progressive social trends visible in many affluent Western capitalist societies. The emergence of Irish people who consider themselves not belonging to a religion is fueled not only by the tension between contrasting religious and secular aspirations for society but also by the tension between secular moralism and a condition of mass religious indifference that has grown quietly inside the outer shell of Catholic affiliation. In some ways, the explicit rejection of Catholicism is another manifestation of Ireland’s preoccupation with Catholicism. Even if circumstances present no other option, to position oneself in opposition to something is also to focus on it and allow it be a deep part of one’s life.

In this book I have sought to describe Irish ways of being nonreligious during a particular time period (2017–2021), focusing on their relationships to the peculiarities of Irish history, Irish society, Irish scandal, and Irish secularization. This has involved over four years of surveys, interviews, ethnographic fieldwork, and innumerable conversations with anyone who would talk to me. As is standard anthropological practice, I have used pseudonyms wherever possible to maintain informant privacy, with the exception of high-profile public organizations and individuals that are too distinctive to conceal in this manner.

Each chapter in this book contributes to a portrait of the everyday moral dispute around religion in Ireland that has given birth to what I call the ex-Catholic stance. In Chapter 1, I lay out the background and context of Irish nonreligion, situating it within a complex scene of secularization and fragmenting consensus about what being a Catholic involves and who gets to decide. I also describe the decades-long scandals that have undermined the moral credibility of the Church, greatly strengthening the hand of secularists and massively weakening the already waning social standing of religious conservatives.

It is one thing to claim that Irish ex-Catholicism bears some relationship to the desacralization of the Church and that the Irish baptized-but-now-unaffiliated have been numerically underestimated, but it is another to provide evidence for this. In Chapter 2, therefore, I present findings from a small but in-depth representative survey of 248 baptized Catholics. Among other findings, the data suggest that the number of ex-Catholics has been underestimated because of natalist responding and that the rejection of Catholicism is highly morally motivated. Associational data vividly demonstrate that the swiftest association with the Catholic Church for ex-Catholics (who make up one-third of the sample) is pedophilia, followed soon after by conservativism and corruption. Among other things, the data show, first, that ex-Catholics are exceptionally distrustful of the clergy, judging them as less trustworthy than bankers and politicians; second, that they tend to have been brought up in households with little parental religious socialization; and, finally, that they tend to be more morally progressive and younger. But this strong religious antipathy cannot be explained by clerical abuse scandals alone, as these are a global phenomenon. The taint of clerical abuse has interacted with a complex social setting, and the subsequent ethnographic chapters illuminate how responses to clerical abuse operate within this scene of moral conflict. Using the 2018 papal visit as an example, I set the ethnographic scene at the end of Chapter 2 by drawing the reader’s attention to the growth of two prominent, quietly antagonistic social stances: religious antipathy and religious apathy.

From Chapter 3 onward, the book is purely ethnographic. One key element in the decline of Irish Catholicism is the degree to which participation had already become a matter of almost open social conformity rather than spirituality or religiosity for a growing number of the population. The scandals did not arrive in a Catholic society at the zenith of its piety. This, in part, explains their power in an Irish context: People were ready to spurn the Church; they were fed up with its demands. In Chapter 3 I examine qualitative data drawn from an intergenerational sample of informants from two Dublin parishes. The data depict how Catholic socialization has been transformed, particularly in the home. Catholic doctrine and practices, if encountered at all, are now generally quarantined to experiences in the school system and swiftly abandoned afterward. From this perspective, the cultural and liberalized forms of Catholicism described as emerging in the 1990s can be reconceptualized as a transient and increasingly inertial connection: the sacred canopy of Holy Catholic Ireland has become flimsy and peripheral. This dissolution of relevance foreshadowed the rejection that was to come by replacing an omnipresent, if frequently oppressive, experience of religiosity with one that was vague and disconnected from everyday routines and concerns. As one religious commentator phrased it, for the majority, Irish Catholicism had become something “for emergency use only” before the scandals even arrived on the scene. It is often also openly instrumental and sometimes nakedly tongue in cheek.

However, thin as religious Catholicism has become, the growth in Irish nonreligion is not without its impediments, even among those who actively deride the Church and scorn religious participation. Much of this links to all those aspects of Irish Catholicism that are decidedly not religious and therefore have relatively little to do with the Church and its moral collapse—that is, the deep importance of “Catholicism” as a symbol of local, familial, and national identity. Far from being sheep-like or unaware, cultural Catholic stances that absorb the perception of a morally tarnished Church have emerged. In Chapter 4 I focus in more detail on a case study that illustrates one particularly extreme form of cultural Catholicism encountered in the field: concealed cultural Catholic atheism among working-class self-identified Catholic men. These men primarily construct Catholic doctrine as “a load of shite,” consider the Church a hypocritical and power-hungry business enterprise, and maintain that they participate in Catholic rituals and practices primarily out of a desire to ensure social harmony by preventing distress to weaker members of the community who need the crutch of religion to get by. In the context of what one informant described as “a tradition that is expected and has to be respected” and against which one “has no argument,” atheism emerges as a private matter that should not be allowed to interfere with traditional social ties. This ethic of harmony, and the manner in which it has already successfully assimilated Church scandal, is likely a considerable impediment to the missionary objectives of purist ex-Catholicism.

The moral battlefield of Irish secularization, however, shows signs of generating new collective representations of what it means to be a “good Irish person.” These secularization battles have become particularly heightened since 2014, leading almost to what might be described as an Irish culture war around the intertwinement of church and state. The Church holds on tenaciously to its influence at an institutional level, constituting a kind of progress-inhibiting structural force that exacerbates the antipathy of the nonreligious and other secularists. In the ensuing public battles to sway the more ambiguous middle, newspapers, broadcast TV and radio, social media, and the streets are filled with rhetoric around the turpitude of the Church. Therefore in Chapter 5 I draw on field data from various rallies and marches in Dublin and on interviews and secondary and online sources to describe the tense social dynamics of the lingering institutional influence of Catholicism, particularly in the educational realm and, until recently, in legal restrictions over abortion. The ideological field is dominated by secularist and traditionalist actors who vie for influence over a more blasé culturally Catholic middle in order to retain or eradicate Church influence on social institutions and laws. Religious conservatives describe a culture that is hostile to faith and make such statements as “Church-bashing is the new Brit-bashing.” Secularist rejoinders focus on hypocrisy and admonish antagonists to “look up the dictionary definition of persecution . . . before passing judgment on people legitimately criticizing religion in the public sphere.” Scandal has altered the moral stature of these two antagonists. The entrenched nature of Irish Catholic identity, perceived by some as another layer of Irish Catholic hypocrisy (given how little it relates to orthodoxy or moral commitment), continues to frustrate secular activists, particularly as baptism and census affiliation are used by religious conservatives to argue that Catholic institutional influence has numerical support. This conflict has led to a powerful secularist moral narrative that taps potent preexisting tropes around Ireland as a plucky underdog fighting its way toward a long-deferred but deeply romanticized dream of liberation. This allows the construction of public representations of secularization as a kind of new Irish freedom struggle.

Ex-Catholics are those who have most emphatically embraced this new normative vision of what it means to be a responsible Irish citizen in the 2020s. In Chapter 6 I describe ex-Catholicism in detail, drawing on key informant testimony and discourse in a number of real-world and online secularist communities to illustrate how it is primarily oriented around the moralized repudiation of both the Catholic Church and the cultural Catholic default presumed to keep it in power. Ex-Catholics often position themselves in opposition to cultural Catholics—whom they frequently construct as irresponsible, inauthentic, and complicit enablers of a corrupt and harm-causing institution—and describe themselves as a minority who bravely resist the easy comforts of low-cost social conformity. As one ex-Catholic informant said of her religiously apathetic sister after the baptism of her niece, “I am disgusted. . . . Surely baptizing your child is a vote to keep the reins in the hands of the Church?” Scandal powerfully amplifies this stance, and it becomes more pronounced and more socially active when there is a scandal outbreak. These dynamics are described through the example of the Tuam mother and baby home scandal of 2016–2017 and the reactions it generated. Overall, ex-Catholics are often best described as adhering to a normative stance that I describe as anti-nostalgic moralized authenticity: The past is a bleak hellscape of clericalist Catholic oppression; people have a moral obligation to rid the present of the Church’s lingering influence; and one’s religious status ought to be determined individualistically by one’s beliefs rather than relationally by what one was born as.

In Chapter 7 I turn to an examination of how the moral taint has affected devout Catholics, beginning with priests and then moving on to members of the laity. Overall, although scandal draws secularists together and empowers cultural Catholics to seize a position of greater autonomy, it also exacerbates underlying tensions as the devout grapple with a new situation in which the moral rectitude of their close ties to the Church can be openly challenged by those who are “anti-Church, anti-God, anti-everything for the sake of being anti,” as one informant put it. This has created an inward turn in devout Irish Catholicism: It has become withdrawn, self-conscious, broken up into increasingly idiosyncratic subcultures, and far less suitable for intergenerational transmission. The scandals have ushered in a fragmenting process as Catholics pursue a variety of idiosyncratic methods of salvaging moral status. Some cope with the taint by localizing it in a rival Catholic faction. Others quarantine it to direct perpetrators, and some counter-weaponize it by deflecting to experiences of personal victimhood and portraying secularists as opportunistic aggressors unmotivated by genuine moral concern. But in the face of a powerfully reinforced and coherent secularist moral narrative, it is unclear how much intergenerational traction these fragmented Catholic stances will have. On the other hand, the process of secularization has moved on from highly emotive issues such as abortion to the more complex and less powerfully affective issue of Church educational control. The intensity, success, and duration of Ireland’s coming secularization battle around education remains impossible to predict. And at a larger level, fragmentary geopolitical forces at work in the British Isles may, in time, reopen old wounds and reactivate Catholicism not so much as a religion but as an ethnic designation. As a result, the future distribution of nonreligion and cultural Catholicism remains impossible to foresee. But for all this uncertainty or perhaps because of it, Ireland is one of the most complex and compelling places in the world today to study the moralized rejection of religion.


1. Molloy, 2009.

2. Parkins, 2020.

3. Ferriter (2009) is a particularly thorough treatment of the sexual culture of Catholic Ireland. In the work of James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, John McGahern, William Trevor, Tom Murphy, and numerous others, twentieth-century Irish literature also derived much of its transgressive energy from exposing the warping, hypocritical tug-of-war between the hollowness and judgmentalism of Irish public piety and the ineluctable fact of human sexual desire.

4. Any number of contrasts can be drawn, for example, between what was acceptable for the laity to read and what behavior seemed to be acceptable, or at least ignorable, for a member of the religious elite. Until quite a long time after its publication in 1922, booksellers were afraid to openly sell James Joyce’s Ulysses in Dublin. Because of its sexual content, the book was sold under the counter in a brown paper cover; but, if you were an Irish Christian Brother, you could strip a boy in front of his peers and cane him until his buttocks bled and, by some accounts, experience a dark, enraged sexual gratification while doing so. When it comes to a cogent, deeply nuanced analysis of the various cultural, institutional, and personal factors that predisposed some priests to abuse, Marie Keenan’s peerless Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church is invaluable (Keenan 2012).

5. Topics of sex preoccupied many Irish clergy. From the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, Redemptorist priests in particular would tour from parish to parish, their mission to reinforce people’s faith through rants about fire, brimstone, and fornication. In his essays the writer John McGahern describes how such priests were brought in to “purify through terror,” but, in his experience, they were often instead “evaluated as performers and appreciated like horror novels,” with satisfying Redemptorist performances being those that would “raise the hair on your head” (McGahern, 2009: 138).

6. Historians, rather than an anthropologist such as myself, are far better placed to offer more detailed accounts of how such high levels of clerical control, social compliance, and coercion were actually obtained in the past, as well as their limitations. Although I do provide simple overviews of what such scholars have written to set the tone, I would advise readers who are looking for greater historical context to consult some of the scholars referenced in the early sections of Chapter 1. As an anthropologist, though I cannot ignore history, my focus must reside on the vision of the past in the present and the work that it does in contemporary social interaction.

7. To a far more limited extent, this faux pas still occasionally manifests. On a national level rather than a classroom one, there are moments when certain ecumenical and uncontroversial iterations of public Catholicism are treated with a kind of pious poker face. For example, despite their prominent role in exposing the failings and hypocrisies of the Church, the Irish press and the national television network RTÉ continue to prominently carry pious stories of religious significance, projecting an image of robust national religiosity. This arguably happens at the expense of other, perhaps more widespread, cultural trends. On Good Friday in 2017, for instance, RTÉ’s 9 o’clock news featured solemn coverage of devotees following the Catholic and Anglican archbishops around Dublin’s Phoenix Park in an ecumenical procession. However, the news neglected to report a quite different national story: The previous day, Ireland’s off-license alcohol sales had achieved a historic spike. It had been widely leaked that 2017 would be the final year of the religiously motivated Good Friday ban on alcohol sales and pub openings, which had been in place since 1927. Over the years the ban had counterproductively created a transgressive annual festival of alcohol hoarding and home drinking, and the Irish public was determined to give the vanishing tradition an exuberant last hurrah.

8. A constitutional amendment to permit same-sex civil marriage was approved by a 62% majority in the referendum of May 2015. Amendments abolishing the offense of blasphemy and allowing the government to legislate for abortion were approved in the October 2018 referendum by 65% and 66% majorities, respectively.

9. The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes could not find documented evidence of illegal adoptions at the homes, and this finding was met with considerable controversy and public consternation, including at least one High Court challenge, which was still ongoing at the time of writing. See O’Faolain, 2021.

10. Dalby, 2014.

11. Connolly also drew attention to the fact that the report had not been shared with mother and baby homes survivors in advance of being released publicly, despite government assertions to the contrary. The exchange can be seen at (accessed April 29, 2021). The historian who brought the Tuam babies’ fate to light, Catherine Corless, was also dissatisfied with the taoiseach’s apology until it was joined by another issued directly from the Bon Secours nuns the following day.

12. Meskill, 2021.

13. John Charles McQuaid was the Catholic Primate of Ireland and Archbishop of Dublin from December 1940 to January 1972. McQuaid is famous for the repressive control he exerted over Irish society and the level of influence he held over Irish governmental policy.

14. During the Celtic Tiger economic boom, somewhat garish and generic paintings by the artist Graham Knuttel and his nephew Jonathan Knuttel proliferated throughout hip Dublin cafés and restaurants. These were invariably imbued with themes of status and suspicion. The figures in the paintings had haughty, masklike faces that were captured in the act of making sidelong glances loaded with judgmental anxiety and resentment. Although Celtic Tiger–era Dublin was splashed out on a number of flashy monuments, including a Calatrava bridge and a Libeskind theater, Knuttel’s images of nouveau riche social unease and status competition are the truest cultural symbols of boomtown mid-2000s Dublin.