Studying irreligion in Ireland

Nov 21, 2023 by

By Tim O’Sullivan, Mercator.

Unholy Catholic Ireland. Religious Hypocrisy, Secular Morality and Irish Irreligion
By Hugh Turpin. Stanford University Press. 2022. 325 pages.

One has to brace oneself before plunging into yet another account of the troubled history of Irish Catholicism, and particularly of its abuse scandals, repressive institutions, religious hypocrisy and dramatic recent decline. Nor is one’s mood helped by provocatively catchy titles like The Moral Monopoly, The Best Catholics in the World, or Unholy Catholic Ireland – the book under review here from an Oxford-based researcher. It sometimes seems as if a thriving new industry has grown up around the depiction of Irish Catholic decline!

These remarks are intended neither to disregard grave scandals nor to deny the process of decline, but to express some discomfort about the endless re-telling of the downfall of Irish Catholicism (or at least about its re-telling without much acknowledgement of the good that the Church has done and continues to do).

Turpin’s account of the decline in Chapter One follows a well-worn path of describing “centralised control, Roman devotions, regular practice, sexual abstinence and intense clerical supervision.” The nineteenth-century cardinal, Paul Cullen, gets special mention:

Cullen’s mission from the Vatican was to bring popular Irish Catholicism in line with Roman best practice under one of the Church’s most conservative pontificates.

Some sociologists have highlighted the persistence of religious faith in Ireland, even in a context of decline. This book focuses on the important topic of the views of the nonreligious or ex-Catholics (sometimes called the “nones”) during the time period 2017 to 2021. It also includes a chapter on the views of committed Catholics. The book is extensively researched, drawing on survey data, an “ethnographic vignette” on the Papal visit of 2018, fieldwork for a year in two Dublin Catholic parishes, and over forty in-depth interviews.

Read here.

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