Holy Smoke

Goodbye to Catholic Ireland

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Rarely has a religious culture collapsed more rapidly than that of Catholic Ireland, which just 30 years ago seemed indestructible. Incredibly, it looks as if the Irish Church will have ordained more bishops than priests in 2020. It goes without saying that the Irish abuse crisis has hugely accelerated the process of secularisation in what was once the most Catholic of countries. Young people in Ireland now refer to the clergy with a withering disdain verging on hatred.

My guest today, the celebrated Irish journalist, broadcaster and playwright Mary Kenny, offers a more nuanced analysis of the powerful and paradoxical world in which she grew up: one in which Catholic clergy and lay people could be simultaneously fervently pious, warm-hearted and yet paralysed by petty snobbery. She talks about how the Irish Free State handed far too much power to bishops and priests. In effect, they replaced the disappearing Anglo-Irish nobility as the new aristocracy of rural Ireland, exercising an authority over people's lives that could be generous or malevolent and sometimes a mixture of both. I think it's a gripping interview, full of the little details that make Irish short stories so compulsively readable.