The Magazine

Irish Stew

Where abortion and national identity collide

Apr 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 28 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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The State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.

This family-based political order may be a noble alternative to lowest-common-denominator twentieth-century consumer capitalism and twenty-first-century credit-card capitalism—to say nothing of the fascism and communism that were spreading their influence in the year that Irish constitution was written. But it has not been to everyone’s liking. Many forces worked to corrode it. A constitutional convention has recently been seated to expunge it. The outside world, with its hip-hop and pornography and Viagra, could not be kept at bay forever, particularly since the relative poverty of Ireland encouraged emigration to more liberal societies that, being richer, looked more successful. In the 1990s, the late novelist Maeve Binchy told me that Ireland was changing because “almost everyone has a kid who works in a bar in Rome.” By 1995, Ireland had gained legalized divorce in a referendum (“Hello Divorce, Bye-Bye Daddy,” read one campaign poster), although it was a close-fought battle. 

At first, there were plenty of non-Catholics in Ireland. The rich, elegant, well-traveled Protestant elite—centered in what is now the postal code of Dublin 4—eventually opened to people of Catholic background, but never changed its philosophy, which was built on a fear of being saddled with the lifestyle and worldview of the peasantry. The journalist and memoirist John Waters laid out this elite’s culture in his 1991 book Jiving at the Crossroads, as he described the winning presidential campaign of the human-rights lawyer Mary Robinson, Harvard Law School’s gift to Ireland. Dublin 4, Waters wrote, was made up of people 

who had pulled themselves away from their roots, who had scraped the last trace of cowdung from their souls. They were well-educated and had been to university and studied concepts like dialectical materialism, positivism, gradualism, and democratic centrism. They had long been appalled at the fact that their own country refused to reveal itself in terms of the learning they had accumulated.

Irish progressives’ sense of what is right has usually come from abroad. They perennially warn that Irish institutions and opinions are not “keeping pace” with international norms. They are at odds with the traditions of the state, at least as they were understood by Éamon de Valera, the state’s conservative founding father, who towered over Irish politics until the 1970s. De Valera did not believe that the setters of the world’s “norms” necessarily had Ireland’s best interests at heart. In his wake, conservatives, not just in the church, have found it easy to depict Dublin 4 as un-Irish, self-loathing, contemptuous of Irish ways and Irish common sense. The traditional code was not perfect, conservatives argued, but it met the minimum standards of self-respect and cultural self-preservation.

Two developments in the 1990s changed that. First, Ireland’s politicians appeared to discover a way to bring the country undreamt-of prosperity. They lowered corporate tax rates, invited Apple, Dell, and Intel to set up headquarters and assembly plants, encouraged borrowing, and sent real estate prices through the roof. It was only an illusory prosperity, we can see now, but by the time the illusion was dispelled many of Ireland’s institutions had been changed forever to accommodate it. 

Second, the sexual misconduct of Ireland’s Catholic priests began to be uncovered in the mid-1990s. The powerful Galway bishop Eamon Casey, with his secret American family, was the leading symbol of clerical shenanigans. There was an interesting episode in 1994 when a priest fell down dead of a heart attack in a Dublin gay pickup joint and the two fellow patrons who tried to revive him both turned out to be priests as well. In Ireland as elsewhere, pederasty became the church’s most serious problem. Whether or not the offenses were more severe than in other countries, the scandal was worse because priests in Ireland were a political power. For years the state had been set up so that all parents, not just believing Catholics, had to deliver their children into the church’s care at one time or another. Priests and nuns ran schools and hospitals, yes, but also “industrial schools,” where wayward, lower-class kids were sent to be taught morals and virtues, and then—in dozens of cases revealed in graphic detail by the so-called Ryan Report of 2009—sexually abused. 

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