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Edtorial / Spring 2008
The Irish family is not in crisis, but neither is it in full health. There are social and ideological currents that affect all of us; if we try to understand them, we will have a better grasp of what is happening, thus lessening our chances of being helpless and hapless victims of change
Many of us want to be seen as “progressive” in relation to all current trends, whatever they may be; conservatism remains deeply unfashionable. So, we are shy about voicing our doubts about some of today’s ideologies. One disconcerting, but pervasive and decades-old trend in Western (including Irish) thinking can be summarised as follows: “The family is oppressive, marriage is a trap and children are a burden”. Public opinion does not seem to agree, but such thinking, when combined with a conviction that religion should be confined to the private sphere, affects all of us and leaves us ill-equipped to deal with modern problems in the family. We are expected to be open to anything, but sure of nothing.
Parents lament the diminishing length of childhood and the difficulties of bringing children through their adolescent years in an over-sexualised society. The consumerism now fundamental to our culture makes their task even more difficult, as does the anti-institutional and the anti-hierarchical spirit of our times.
A prevailing negativity gives public voice to those who are against whatever is seen as “established”, be it the family, the government, business, and, of course, the churches. Marriage and fatherhood have both been devalued in Western culture, so vast numbers of children have been brought up in confused and insecure environments, at a time when the West has never been richer. These developments, and their multiple effects, are deplored, but commentators are hesitant about analysing the underlying causes. Therefore, they are uncomfortable with the present Irish government’s clear recognition of the role religion plays in society. This is seen as so regressive that it is better not mentioned at all, whereas it is, in fact, an attempt to address a very important facet of our culture.
The Sixties (which actually began in the 1950s and did not reach completion until well into the 1970s) brought many welcome developments, not least the refusal to accept authority at its own valuation, but the era also exalted unlimited individualism and enshrined the concept of unlimited choice, combined with the illusion that youth is everlasting. This has led to a doctrine of personal convenience, so that everything, including the birth and rearing of the next generation, has to suit the temporary needs of the individual.
The prevailing “commitment phobia” has weakened every form of permanence. Permanence itself is seen as undesirable. Cohabitation, in this mindset, becomes admirable, rather than the impoverishment, both emotional and economic, which it is for many. Unselfishness is reinterpreted as stupidity; any form of self-denial thus becomes incomprehensible. Gratification must be immediate.
Children pay the price of our selfishness. Concern for the welfare of children is often, and rightly, proclaimed, but the rights of the child are usually forgotten whenever the rights of the couple are being debated. Several decades ago, psychologists first identified “the search for the absent father” as a major factor in the lives of those who lack a father figure. Large numbers of people are now permanently in search of their origins. We forget that all children crave stability.
In the contemporary Irish situation, we can still question current Western trends and be dubious about the presumption that secularisation is inevitable and that it, somehow, is the answer to our problems. Our culture continues to be based on Christian values, which allow us to wonder what a child-friendly Ireland would look like, to ask what vision of the family we really endorse and to ask immigrants what attracts them in our society.
Studies of our immigrants are nearly always based on questions about their economic rather than their social or religious expectations. There is also the unspoken expectation that, eventually, they will pack up and go home, so their ideas about family and religion are of little interest. The real challenge will come when we realise that many of them are here to stay. We will then have to pay closer attention to their ideals rather than merely to their earnings.
Editorial by Fergus O’Donoghue, SJ
Edtorial / Summer 2008
In any Irish government, the Minister for Education and Science has a public profile second only to the Minister for Health, proof of our interest in education. Vast amounts of time and money are invested in primary and secondary education; grind schools are so popular that they are now a sub-section within the secondary sector; daily newspapers publish weekly education supplements.
With all this effort, secondary education may be seen, in the harrowing race for points, merely as a preparation for university; primary education, in this perspective, could become a Cinderella.
The current British obsession with “faith schools” is reflected by some Irish commentators, who, overlooking the distinctly different characteristics of Irish society, make regular and hostile references to the “Catholic Church’s control of education”. Terms such as “educational apartheid” are used, because it is presumed that church schools are divisive, support privilege and exploit the State, which is, equally, presumed to have complete control of education. Government ministers and other politicians, whatever their own religious convictions, become unnecessarily defensive as they seek commentators’ approval. Such criticism does not, usually, include Irish Protestant schools, because that might be seen as politically incorrect.
In reality, the education system in Ireland is State-supported, rather than State owned. Since 1966, State involvement has meant that far more children have gone on to secondary education, using school systems largely founded by the churches. The variety of these schools has been their strength; it is always a mistake to regard them, or their patrons, as homogeneous. The French secular tradition, usually lauded in this context, would be a bad graft onto Irish society, especially in education.
Teachers are accustomed to getting lots of unwanted advice, not least from people who have never faced a classroom. They have a right to be both angry and depressed whenever they are seen merely as delivering a service or presenting a product, with no hint that they pass on an incalculable amount of wisdom.
One of the objections to church schools is that they teach disproved doctrines and transmit outdated worldviews. From this perspective, the best education is rational and scientific, though the notion that science can be totally independent of its cultureis truly risible. Putting ourselves at the top of the evolutionary tree is presumptuous and leads to hubris, whereas history, ancient or contemporary, shows that we are all too ready to behave irrationally. We need religion as part of our society. The majority of Irish parents recognise this and want a religious aspect to their children’s education. They are not troubled by diversity in the student body. They are very keen on local education (hence their enthusiasm for national schools). Their commitment to the transmission of religious beliefs is, however, less obvious.
So, though frequently reported only when there is failure or controversy, Irish primary and secondary education is characterised by commitment and creativity. There is an admirable capacity for coping with limited finances, an increasingly diverse student body, inadequate buildings and slow implementation of the government’s own policies, i.e. of integrating immigrant children, which is still more theoretical than practical, as, for example, in the lack of adequate language support.
The Joint Managerial Body unites the four hundred Catholic and Protestant voluntary secondary schools. It is a remarkable example of unity between two groups that once hardly knew each other. Its existence points to the role of secondary schools as integrating forces in Irish society.
The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference published a Pastoral Letter on Catholic Education in May 2008. Vision 08: A Vision for Catholic Education In Ireland is a broad and encouraging plan for education in the whole of Ireland. The real challenge is outlined on page 4: “Religious Education and Prayer”, because religious instruction in Ireland (despite many good programmes) has been so fragile for so long that many parents have little idea of what they are supposed to believe and are somewhat uncomfortable in any overtly religious context. First Holy Communion and Confirmation are now established as rites of passage for many, rather than steps forward in faith.
Many of us now lack the vocabulary to express our beliefs, beyond a vague good will about God. The ageing clergy and religious are regarded by many Christians not so much as responding to a calling, but rather as the professionals, guardians of a tradition that impacts on daily life only at times of crisis. There is a danger that the basics of our Christian beliefs and culture will not be passed to those now at school. This comes, in part, from a lack of interest and/or a presumption that schools can give adequate religious instruction, irrespective of what the children are taught, or not taught, at home. If this comes to pass, not only will our society be weakened and changed for the worse, but our past and our culture will become almost incomprehensible to our youngest citizens.
A vague, sentimental attachment to Christianity, as a cosy folkloric religion, is not what Ireland needs.
Editorial by Fergus O’Donoghue, SJ
Edtorial / Autumn 2008
The wet spring and summer of 2008 was a time when several Irish fantasies ended: the dream of being an infinitely prosperous nation, of being able to rely on the absolute security of property values, of being exemplary Europeans and of being well governed.
The iconography of the period was simple: we were accustomed to seeing countless photographs of politicians socialising with property developers, but this could not convey the strangeness of a time when a Taoiseach was forced from office, when most politicians expected us to vote for the Lisbon Treaty on their word alone and when a well- known writer equated Ireland in the 1950’s with Russia under Stalin.
There was also a sense of history having repeated itself: in 1977, the Republic’s largest political party bought a general election with policies we could not afford, thus leading to ten years of economic misery. In 2007, the same party, this time in coalition, had guaranteed its re-election by spending the State’s entire surplus and promising that prosperity would be permanent. Arrogance peaked when people’s fears were not addressed and we were told, more or less, to shut up and vote “Yes to Europe”.
National self-definition as the “Island of Saints and Scholars” and “My Four Green Fields” had been replaced by belief in permanent prosperity. We, in the Anglophone West, felt so happy that we needed to read accounts of other people’s unhappy childhoods, thus creating a new literary genre: “misery lit” (sales have declined recently by over thirty per cent). Self-definition is dangerous (Britain once boasted of ruling “the largest empire the world has ever seen” and Spain called itself the “spiritual reserve of Europe”), but we are drawn to it, somewhat compulsively.
Who actually takes part in the discussions about national identity? Panellists on RTE radio and television talk shows are usually middle aged and middle class, with a south Dublin bias. Radio phone-ins are usually filled with complaints. Newstalk 106FM and local radio offer a wider perspective, but this is an area where writers could offer very original viewpoints.
Writers, however, have to make a living. Very few Irish writers can live by writing alone. Some become internationally famous; some write very popular fiction, which is ideal for film adaptation; others find security in academic life, particularly in the United States. Exile is now a lifestyle choice rather than a statement of ideological independence, whilst emigration has faded as a theme in Irish life and literature. Adaptations of classics and writing detective stories may be lucrative, but are not innovative and are unlikely to be lasting.
We need help in making sense of our present. Demonising the past is a waste of time, as we face rising levels of violence, drug abuse and alcohol consumption. Unlike some far more important countries, we have never fallen victim to the corrosive effects of national pride. We have managed, however inadequately, to sustain two very dissimilar languages. We are still involved in the drama of belief and unbelief, even though our intelligentsia is largely secularised and harbours some pockets of frenzied anti-Catholicism.
Where do we get a sense of belonging and what are our sources of self-respect? In a very sudden shift, we discover that property can be a burden and that very large cars invite contempt rather than envy. As, once again, we revise our self-image, some of the best tools for reflection are found not in novels, but in contemporary short stories, such as Ann Enright’s new collection Taking Pictures (which evokes modern urban Ireland from a feminist perspective and shows far more insight than the dreary novel which won her the Booker Prize) or Claire Keegan’s depiction of modern rural Ireland in Walk the Blue Fields (2007), in which the title story brilliantly revives the stock fictional figure of the Irish priest.
Reading good short stories is not the worst way of passing gloomy times.
PDF Editorial by Fergus O’Donoghue, SJ
Edtorial / Winter 2008
The Christmas shopping season began very early this year, not only in Ireland, but in most of Europe. We were not really enthused by having the Christmas lights switched on during the early days of November, but recognised it as part of a desperate effort to encourage commerce, and maybe even some comfort shopping.
We are, however, bewildered by the swift change in our economic situation, angry with our government and unable to understand exactly what has gone wrong. Self-congratulation has been replaced, almost overnight, by national self-denigration. Last year’s prophets of gloom were lonely and were treated with scorn; they have been proven right.
If we are absolutely honest, we will admit that our government suffered from a very strong commitment to our own new Credo: complete trust in the construction industry and utter faith in the inherent benevolence of market forces. In the midst of all the current negativity, it helps when we remind ourselves that the mistakes we made are international, rather than uniquely ours, that Spain is even more depressed than ourselves and that Iceland’s uninhibited love affair with international banking has led to disaster.
When the Celtic Tiger was roaring, we became distracted. The homeless and drug addicts do not vote, so we forgot about them. The response to crime was to lock criminals up, rather than try to rehabilitate them. We needed immigrants to keep the economy moving, but we ignored the presence of people who were “trafficked” here. Trafficking involves the smuggling and exploitation of people from poorer countries. It is an international scandal and is the downside of globalisation. It is grimy and not very newsworthy, so it receives little attention.
The celebration of selfishness, expressed in the building of gated communities and in advertising campaigns that appealed to our egoism, briefly became a national characteristic. The ideal Irish man or woman was portrayed as young, expensively dressed and groomed, self-centered, fast moving, forgetful of and/or contemptuous toward the past, devoted to consumerism and contentedly godless.
Godlessness is basic to this worldview. It is fashionable and fits into the mainstream of contemporary European thought, which emphasises that religion is private as well as personal. Green policies become a substitute religion, even to the extent of regarding humanity as a polluting rather than a sinful entity.
As the recession began to bite, during the summer of 2008, our government went on holiday and then returned to work, uttering prophecies of doom. A rushed Budget then hurt the oldest and the most vulnerable amongst us. The ensuing uproar took everybody in government by surprise. How can our politicians have become so remote from the rest of us?
Our Green Party is usually regarded, and seems to regard itself, as being above criticism. Its leaders are given some of the attributes of living saints, but all its Dáil deputies stood to applaud a very unjust Budget, thereby showing that they may have sold their souls for power.
As jobs vanish and many mortgage holders find themselves with negative equity, appeals to patriotism are hollow, not least when they come from people who live in great comfort. There is, of course, no longer any appeal to religious motivation. Our continued commitment to Third World issues, even when we have been at our most materialist, is proof of the fundamental decency which it the stance of the vast majority of Irish people. It is this trait, rather than any other, on which our leaders should rely.
Fergus O’Donoghue, SJ
Edtorial / Summer 2009
One hundred years ago, John Redmond was by far the most famous living Irishman. Today, he is almost forgotten: streets, buildings and institutions are not named after him. Redmond is regarded as representing a dead end in Irish history.
One hundred years ago, Nano Nagle was overlooked, though the Presentation Sisters were working in nearly every large town in Ireland. Nine years ago, she was voted the Irish Woman of the Second Millennium.
John Redmond and Nano Nagle were committed Christians. Most of us, like them, were brought up believing in God, but nearly all of us were brought up to believe in progress. Believing in the constant betterment of humanity has been part of the Western intellectual tradition since the Enlightenment, making sin and redemption less attractive concepts. This attitude has survived the dreadful Twentieth Century, the most violent in human history. Uncounted millions died in warfare and in revolutionary or post-revolutionary violence. The collective memory of such misery and loss was blotted out in the consumer boom that began in the 1960s and stopped only recently. The one exception to the desire to forget was the Holocaust, which was studied seriously from the 1960s onward, after the initial horror had been absorbed. Nano Nagle would not have been surprised at human depravity. John Redmond, who lived in a calmer age, might have been more optimistic.
Very few lives have happy endings, but we continue to fool ourselves about this very grim reality and go to films where all ends well, or watch television series where desperate situations can be resolved within an hour. The daily struggle and the blessed monotony of life do not sit well with the “happily ever after” mindset, so we are open to becoming consumers: of things, of time, of each other.
The collapse of communism in 1989 left no challenges to the belief that our destiny is to possess and that our aim in life should be self-fulfilment. Western democratic capitalism was seen as the perfection of human history, rather than the latest (and therefore temporary) manifestation of human endeavour. Atheism seems both logical and sensible in such a situation: we are in charge of our destiny and, if we pull together, everything will work out for the best. We respect religion, but we should not be bothered by it, other than when it provides rites of passage. Its claims to truth may be discounted, because all truth is relative and my desires are the only things of which I can be sure.
Needless to say, the hubris that comes from the latest Western Zeitgeist is challenged by those who refuse to regard our culture as the pinnacle of human history, who do not admire our lifestyles and who look at our empty churches with dismay.
In Ireland, we usually come late to the feast, so we became wholehearted consumers just as Western Capitalism began to falter. Knowledge of history has weakened, being replaced by a fascination with genealogical research (which may tell us a lot about our ancestors, but less about their culture and religious beliefs). We have no general sense of how we arrived where we are, nor of the people and groups whose endeavours led us here.
Reflection does not come easily to us Irish people; we are much better at literature and drama than we are at theology and philosophy. Given our slowness to reflect, we are liable to accept the very latest thinking, but would be stronger and much wiser if we remained proud of our roots.
There are two traditions in Irish nationalism, but one is often emphasised to the almost total exclusion of the other. Constitutional and revolutionary nationalism both arose as an enraged response to systematic injustice; one can only be understood in relation to the other. The churches played a fundamental role in creating the country we have, but today there is a widespread opinion that a secular Ireland would be a much happier place. Religious orders built much of the medical and educational infrastructure of Ireland, but they are characterised, without exception, as being oppressive and exploitative.
There is often an uneasy feeling that we are accepting a one-sided interpretation of the past, but we are unable to articulate our discomfort and, instead, murmur something about the good priests, nuns or brothers we have known. We need occasions, such as the many local commemorations of the 1798 Bicentenary or the celebration of the Easter Rising anniversary in 2006, if we are to express our real feelings. Patriotism is wonderful, except when evoked by cash-strapped governments.
A healthy democracy is assured only when we accept our many-sided past and have a critical attitude towards our present. Our current crisis reminds us that the best politicians are those who respect us and who show it by offering us no slogans and no easy answers.
Editorial by Fergus O’Donoghue, SJ
Edtorial / Autumn 2009
We should have realised the true extent of our national crisis in October 2008, when the Minister for Finance invoked ‘patriotism’. For about thirty years, our country had been discussed as ‘an economy’; politicians spoke of what was ‘best for the economy,’ invoked ‘the needs of the economy’ and established Social Partnership between employers and trade unions ‘for the good of the economy.’
The economy and the country were synonymous. Most of us were lulled into the belief that there was money for all, and no foreseeable shortage of it.
Our government has shown itself to be inept and inadequate. Serious mismanagement of government finances has left the country deeply in debt and facing misery. There is a possibility of social unrest, as we move into a grim autumn and winter. It is not surprising, therefore, that some trade union figures see themselves as national figures, competent to decide on national policy, rather than representatives of their union membership and of nobody else.
British leaders often speak of their country’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States, which hides its real status as a client state. The Irish position is much the same – the Taoiseach makes a form of homage in Washington every St. Patrick’s Day. We are part of the regional American economy and have been somewhat slow to appreciate our European roots; a country less overcome with naivety and economic fundamentalism would have been able to take fuller advantage of our geographical position as a Western European and Atlantic country and our electorate would not have said ‘No’ to Lisbon One.
We are now rueing the years of housing madness, when we privileged markets over society. People and the houses they bought became commodities, not citizens buying homes. This commodification has yet to disappear: one justification for our new colon cancer screening programme was not simply that early diagnosis would save lives and avoid much suffering, but also that it would preserve a patient’s productivity in the workforce. That attitude is a relic of the days of crony capitalism, whose staleness still pervades the air.
The Ryan Report proved that we have a national ability to shut our eyes to what we do not want to see. Asylum seekers were given a better quality of life because the churches were alert to their needs and worked on their behalf. Their misery was described as ‘sponging’; a Tanaiste told an Oireachtas committee of their ‘cock and bull stories.’ There was no official effort to integrate them – undeclared racism being a possible factor. Immigrants from other EU countries were seen, in our time of economic boom, as economic units rather than people who would contribute to our national life. Economics was esteemed above culture. Solidarity was ignored.
Our current mindset forbids any explicit appeal to Christian values, but we might follow them implicitly, by appealing to social solidarity and the common good. We could help each other through the coming hard times by remembering that a higher Gross Domestic Product is not the only guarantee of the quality of our lives. An emphasis on solidarity might awaken many of our politicians from their torpidity, reconfigure our politics and revitalise our national life.
Fergus O’Donoghue, S.J.
Editorial by Fergus O’Donoghue, SJ
Edtorial / Winter 2009
How do we really value those amongst us who are coming to the end of life? It would be easier to write “the end of their lives”, as if death were something that is not going to happen to me. About twenty years ago, an Irish newspaper article on longevity had to remind us that “mortality is, eventually, 100%”. Acceptance of personal mortality seems to come early in middle age. It is a shock, but it is also an awakening to reality. Some of us die in accidents or because illness takes us before we have completed what our society regards as our normal span, but we are living a lot longer than most of our forebears.
Death itself cannot be discussed freely in contemporary Western society. Our ancestors were far more comfortable with the idea of death: both the event itself and its rituals. Nowadays, we have a lot of euphemisms to describe death: “passed on”, “passed away” or, simply, “passed”. All of these are ways of not saying the obvious: that a person has died. Modern longevity has increased the tendency to avoid talking about death. Youth has become such an unquestioned value that the wisdom of age is largely discounted. The greatest compliment is to be told that “you don’t look your age”, so it is hardly surprising that there is a vast industry devoted to helping us look younger than our biological age. It is not surprising that many of us are so uncomfortable with our mortality that we cannot make a will.
Older people, therefore, are to be avoided, not least because their decline, which brings increasing dependence on others, is an unwelcome reminder of our own future. It is, therefore, impossible for our society to look steadily at death. This is an aspect of our broader disengagement from illness and from death: we do not have time and we do not wish to be disturbed. We prefer it when the chronically ill and the dying are kept out of sight. We have an unspoken assumption that all illness can be cured, and medical dramas on television give us nightly reassurance about the almost limitless powers of modern medicine.
Dying and death should be part of our everyday lives, rather than isolated and privatised. All of us want a good death and most of us want to die at home. We do not want to die alone, in pain or in the midst of strangers. Our society has the resources, even in a recession, to offer that to us. It is, as always, a question of priorities. Standards of care and accommodation can be improved. We have to ensure that our health services exist for the patients and that formulated policies are not subverted by existing systems.
“We only get one chance at death”, so let us get it right. In Ireland, unlike some other Western countries, we are very good at funerals. We have to rediscover our traditional acceptance of death itself.
Fergus O’Donoghue, SJ