A New Ireland: Viral impact of Catholicism

Ireland turns out to greet 21st century Pope Francis. Pictures by Bill Heaney

Book review: Niall O’Dowd answers US friends asking what happened to Catholic Ireland

By John Cooney

Book Title:  A New Ireland: How Europe’s Most Conservative Country Became Its Most Liberal.  ISBN-13:  978-1510749290 Author:  Niall O’Dowd  Publisher:  Skyhorse  Publishing  Guideline Price:  €25.00

The coronavirus pandemic offers a chilling metaphor to describe the fall from grace of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The lethal virus provides the epitaph for an authoritarian hell-fire clericalism that was implanted in Ireland from nineteenth century Romanisation under Cardinal Paul Cullen which reached its mid-twentieth century zenith with the imperious Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

This complex legacy is chronicled in Niall O’Dowd’s coherent and well written narrative of Ireland’s priestly paedophile crimes and the equally shameful cover-up of their crimes by bishops and religious superiors. It is the first book to attempt a comprehensive account of that phenomenon and may be the only one for the foreseeable future. O’Dowd, who was born in Co Tipperary but grew up in Co Louth and is an American citizen and publisher-journalist in New York, explains that the book occurred because of many Americans who asked him “what on earth had gone on in Ireland with so much radical change in recent years.”

His exposition is populated by American analogies with John Wayne shotgun accuracy of goodies and baddies

The pillars for O’Dowd’s account are the contrast over four decades between the triumphalist 1979 visit to Ireland of the hardline Polish Pope, Saint John Paul II, and the low turn-out, mixed with protests from victims of clerical abuse in 2018, which met the penitent and more forward-looking Argentine, Pope Francis.

Best described as quality tabloid, New Ireland is structured in three parts with 42 short chapters. His exposition is populated by American analogies with John Wayne shotgun accuracy of goodies and baddies: his hero is Monsignor Edward Joseph Flanagan, founder of Boys Town, in Nevada immortalised in the Spencer Tracy film. From Roscommon, Flanagan was a lonely voice when in the 1940s he returned to inspect “lockdown” facilities treating orphans and needy children which appalled him. Alongside Monsignor Flanagan in O’Dowd’s “New Ireland Pantheon” ranks Mary Raftery as a Celtic Joan of Arc producing RTÉ documentaries in the 1990s which exposed the clerical paedophile skeletons.

In a chapter, “Come Walk among Us, Patrick”, O’Dowd surveys the golden age of Irish Christianity in the sixth century featuring towering missionary figures such as Saint Colum Cille, Saint Kevin , Saint Brendan and St Kilian, who spread the gospel, preserved manuscripts, and lived aesthetic lives in 150 monasteries all over Europe.

Playfulness is detectable in O’Dowd’s quoting Brendan Behan that the foundation stones of the English Reformation were in “the bollocks of Henry the Eighth”

O’Dowd is generous in recognising the work of others, not least for “uncovering the Annie Murphy-Bishop Eamonn Casey affair by Irish Times US correspondent, Conor O’Clery, a legendary figure known for getting it first and getting it right”, as testified in the “excellent memoir”, Up with the Times, by Conor Brady.

Playfulness is detectable in O’Dowd’s quoting Brendan Behan that the foundation stones of the English Reformation were in “the bollocks of Henry the Eighth” and that the nickname for King James II at the Battle of the Boyne was “Seamus a Cacha – James the Shit.”

The book gallops through the centuries saluting the United Irishmen founded by the Anglican-born Wolfe Tone, Daniel the Liberator O’Connell, population decimation and emigration caused by the Famine and onto Cardinal’s Cullen’s detestation of the Fenians, the conservatism of the 1916 Easter Rising and the foundation of the Irish Free State before coming to the 1932 Eucharistic Congress and “the Unholy Alliance, de Valera and McQuaid”.

Snappy headlines drive the story on, such as “Miss X Case”, “Here’s to You, Mrs. Robinson”, “No Sex in Ireland before Television” and “Edna O’Brien Rebel Heart of the Sexual Rebellion”. These nimbly cover weighty issues such as the 1983 Pro-Life referendum, Mary Robinson’s 1990 presidential victory, Oliver J Flanagan’s timeless tirade against Gay Byrne and the Late Late Show. Dr Noel Browne is cast as “the doctor who defied McQuaid”, while Mary McAleese deplores abuse in orphanages and reformatories as “atrocious betrayal of love.”

On the way, O’Dowd traces how the music of Tommy Makem, the Chieftains and Seán Ó Riada brought joy into Irish Life, with Riverdance responding gleefully to Mary Robinson’s invitation to Ireland: “Come dance with me”.

In his race to the finishing line O’Dowd deals with the marriage equality referendum of 2015, the tragic death of the pregnant Savita Halapannavar, and the “quiet revolution” of 2018 when 66 percent of the electorate reversed the 1983 anti- abortion referendum.

O’Dowd concludes, that in the years between the two papal visits “All changed, changed utterly”, in the words of WB Yeats.” However, as the late John Prine noted, black and white on video turns into shadow. A more nuanced picture would consider the place in Irish intellectual history of theology journals, “The Furrow” under the editorships of Canon Gerry McGarry and Fr Ronan Drury, and “Doctrine and Life” under Dominican friars, Austin Flannery and Bernard Treacy, as well as theologians Enda McDonagh, James Mackey, James Good, Sean O’Riordan, Gabriel Daly and Sean Fagan.

Tellingly, O’Dowd also concludes: “Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, who had been primate of all Ireland during the pope’s visit, was the last Irish cardinal to pass with an unsullied reputation. His successors, Cardinal Cahal Daly and Cardinal Sean Brady, had been unmasked for their roles in covering up for the archpaedophile and psychopath Father Brendan Smyth”. By then, too Eamonn Casey and Fr Michael Cleary, the cheer leaders of Pope John Paul, were long dead and discredited.

Yet, conservative critics will argue that O’Dowd’s account is too black and white and that Covid-19 is driving the lapsed back to the Faith of the Fathers. Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh has sought the nation’s protection from coronavirus with the Virgin Mary. Similar pleas for mercy to the deity were made in 1918-19 when the Great Flu epidemic claimed the lives of more victims than did World War One. History demonstrates that that epidemic accelerated secularisation and materialism, not a return to religious certitude.

The story which Niall O’Dowd tells so spiritedly remains unfinished.

  Just as scientists are seeking a vaccine for coronavirus, so the head physician on child protection measures, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, is preparing to vacate his Palace in Drumcondra as an arch-hero, soon to be succeeded, most likely, by Monsignor Ciaran Carroll, biographer of “Paul Cardinal Cullen, Portrait of a Practical Nationalist”.

The book’s New York launch on March 10th was stalked by Coronavirus which upset plans for Irish and UK editions. This delay may prove providential as an Irish edition requires adaptation given that the narrative is all too recently familiar to us. This edition will need a bibliography and an index. This would draw on important recent literature such as Bishop Edward Daly’s memoir which includes an insider’s account of the visit of john Paul II in 1979, and the recent RTÉ documentary, “Redress Board: Breaking the Silence”, which highlighted the continuing injustices inflicted on abuse victims by its draconian demands of secrecy: the programme contrasted how Judge Mary Laffoy resigned in protest against the decision of Education Minister, Noel Dempsey, to prevent her naming victims; her replacement, Judge Sean Ryan examined a representative sample of cases. The story which Niall O’Dowd tells so spiritedly remains unfinished. Such is the nature of “histories of the present”.

John Cooney, a former Religious Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times, is author of John Charles McQuaid, Ruler of Catholic Ireland. He is preparing biographies of Cardinal Desmond Connell and the Eclipse of Catholic Ireland and Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, Ireland’s Lost Peacemaker.


  1. surely matt coopers how ireland went bust is a far more relevant book to review ,a lot more factual . Thr decline of one church org ought to have been balanced by the sudden rise in congregation numbers of the Episcopal cof E church across the Island and increase of attendence in other minority churches also . Finally the world Council of churches has followed the opening of dozens of new churches not previously available to the local population . Church planting across Brazil and dozens of other South American countries fed up with the RC church and the “icecream” licking exercises for young boys has driven by the tens of millions catholics to other Christian Churches where preaching the word takes priority ,not repetitive showcased mass rituals .

  2. What a simply answered question ! Ireland ,like the rest of Europe was summarily dumped following a significant and huge majority of the people on this island and looking at the billions the Eu has had to raise 260 billion on the 10th May then a further 540 billion extra just a week later and following their own rules that states and cities cant have any assets , they are paying well over the odds for these huge sums as they have nothing to back them up with other than future taxes ,which will mean huge cuts in services for years to come .

    Reality crashing in ,Thank the Lord we got out just when we did , The Eu’s main currency is teetering into crisis already and was shaky enough before .

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