GERARD HOWLIN: Abortion is the final nail in our old identity’s coffin. Who are we now?

Until recently, we equated values with religion, but have swapped all that for public opinion, writes Gerard Howlin.

THE move-on yesterday to introduce abortion is that we are finally in a matter-of-fact, empirical world.

The “sacred” no longer has a significant public place.

A foundational myth of the Irish state was that because it was Gaelic and Catholic, mystically it was a continuation of what had been at the Flight of the Earls. The new State couldn’t, however, heal the linguistic and social rupture caused by the Famine, which, by 1922, was two generations old.

Gerard Howlin argues that in shifting our identity, abortion is comparable to the loss of the Irish language after the Famine.

Gaelic Ireland proved to be a shibboleth. Nearly everyone paid lip service to a language that almost no-one spoke.

In Catholic Ireland, nearly everyone practised a religion that, there is reason to suspect, almost no-one really believed in.

In shifting our identity, abortion is comparable to the loss of the Irish language after the Famine, and to the rejection of organised religion, as prescribed the Catholic Church, over the past 40 years.

I can’t think of another instance, in so short a time, when pillars of identity as fundamental as language and religion were as completely cast aside. Ireland is as defined now by what it walked away from as what it stands for.

January is called after Janus, the two-faced god, because it looks to the future and the past. The custom of opening doors, letting in the new and out with the old, comes from his rite.

In between our loss of language and religion, Irish nationalism provided an interlude. It was based on notional adherence to a language that the new State failed to revive.

The State’s union with a religion that enjoyed overwhelming allegiance excused it from having to develop a social project itself. The aftermath of famine was so traumatic that almost an entire people ceased to speak their own language within a generation.

What seemed indelible Irish themes of emigration, depopulation, and economic decline continued almost uninterrupted, with only brief periods of remission, to the end of the 1980s.

Economic recovery, in the 1990s, transformed the Irish story from that of emigration to immigration. The 1970s and 1980s had already seen the expansion of second-level education.

The 1990s and noughties saw the expansion of third-level. There was a remaking of what Ireland is, to the greatest extent since the Famine.

Shock produced profound change. Language and church, one after another, were orphaned by a population which, just before, had held both as central to its identify.

What we listened to yesterday was not just the announcements of abortion, but, for those who can remember, the salutation of “Hibernia semper fidelis” — “Ireland always faithful” — by Pope John Paul II in 1979.

The lesson of history is that the indomitable Irishry stands for itself, only. Causes come and go, but the alacrity with which they are made redundant here is a particular phenomenon. It hasn’t been so much a matter of throwing out the baby with the bathwater as selling the bath as well.

If Gaelic Ireland was hardly more than mist after 1922, Catholic Ireland was solidly established. The myth, recited with increasing fervour now, is that it was the creation of that state.

Certainly, it developed in its institutional reach and denominational influence. But what we call Catholic Ireland sprang from the dislocation of famine and the gnawing search for security and respectability.

It was deeply entrenched by 1922. Lest we are overwhelmed by a sense of change by the introduction of abortion, we must not forget that there were very few unwanted children in Irish homes before.

What has changed completely is the power of agency. Curiously, what continues unabated is the sense of righteousness.

Everything changes, but, tonally, I imagined I heard the strains of ‘A Nation Once Again’, or some such anthem, yesterday. There was bellicose pride on-air.

Measuring the distance travelled since 1979, what seemed then the greatest triumph, a monster meeting in the Phoenix Park, to outdo all the Liberator’s meetings combined, was actually the moment it was already over.

So busy were they running vast organisations that not just overlapped the State but outbid it, it is understandable that the clergy had so little time for religion.

Bishops were local chieftains. They were, in so far as there was one, the only social project in existence. It was a project, which for so long as it suited, enjoyed the support of the vast majority.

Legal abortion is the continuation of that same system, by other means, in other hands. Apparently, it’s the morals that matter. Actually, what really counts is who gets to tell you what they are.

Soon, perhaps in little more than a decade, what we call the church will no longer be here to kick around.

Catholicism will continue, but the panoply of the institution will collapse within a decade, under the demographic pressure of an aging clergy.

The parish system, indelible with our sense of place, since it was established in the latter half of the 19th century, will simply disappear. The kicking-out from under the roof of a pillar whose foundations are already crumbling will leave a bigger void than indifference to closed churches.

The real void opening up is of the centenary of the State’s foundation. We are a hybrid of church and state, public and private, civic pride and routine aberration of responsibility by citizens in the political choices they purposely make.

Irish nationalism, as imagined at independence, was implicitly abandoned in the Good Friday Agreement. Staying in a European Union, even without a United Kingdom, marks a commitment to a deepening pooling of sovereignty in ways that may prove to be partly unpalatable.

Apart from speechmaking in small circles, there was never a commitment here to either a social Europe or to its foundational, peace-making narrative from the 1950s. It was small print we didn’t read.

We are mid-Atlantic, Anglophone, open to immigrants, but deeply desirous to close the door on a recent past in which we are uncomfortably implicated.

Until very recently, we equated values with revealed religion, but have now swapped all that for public opinion. That was the move-on yesterday.

It is a project that is, I suspect, just beginning, and far from fully defined. It defies definition, because it is about opinion, not principles.

It could be the premise of a great Irish revival, based around taking on responsibilities, which, until recently, were subcontracted. There might be an inspiring social project of housing, healthcare, care for children and support for the elderly. It could reimagine the Irish identity. Ironically, this is what religious orders were established to attempt.

The appalling vista is that we pay them the compliment of perfectly imitating their failure.


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