Gaelic Catholic State, Making of

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Gaelic Catholic State, Making of

Independence was followed by few institutional or social innovations—the main exception was the increased prominence given to traditional Irish or "Gaelic" culture and to the Catholic religion in public life. Given the extent to which the independence movement was inspired by ideas of cultural and religious identity, this was understandable, but the result was apparent state adherence to an exclusive interpretation of "Irishness" that embraced only the majority community.

Gaelic symbolism was extensively used in the formal and ceremonial aspects of government and traditional forms of art and entertainment were encouraged, but the greatest effort was devoted to the cause of reviving the Irish language. Language enthusiasts believed that the best hope for this endeavor lay with the primary (or "national") schools. Beginning in 1922 the government implemented a policy of requiring all instruction of infant (elementary) classes to be in Irish. In the higher grades, as much instruction as possible was to be in Irish, and every incentive was offered to increase the total amount of Irish taught. Fianna Fáil Minister for Education Tomás Derrig was dissatisfied with the rate of progress in the national schools, and beginning in 1934 he reduced the time allocated to other subjects. Secondary schools were not subjected to the same requirements, but Irish was given significant prominence. In 1925 it became necessary to achieve a passing grade in Irish in order to pass the Intermediate Certificate, an examination usually taken at age 16. In 1934 the same regulation was applied to the final school examination, the Leaving Certificate. Secondary schools were also assessed for state grants according to the amount of instruction in Irish.

By the 1940s, teachers' organizations had become critical of the fact that there was little educational development other than that motivated by language revival, but the public and their representatives rarely discussed dissatisfaction. This may have been due to a commitment to the cause of language revival, or more negatively, a reluctance to be seen to be antinational. It may also have been because many jobs in the public service were reserved for Irish speakers. The one significant source of discontent was the Church of Ireland, whose members often felt culturally alienated and practically disadvantaged by the language policy. It was not easy for Church of Ireland schools to find teachers competent in Irish, and the general decline of educational standards made it more difficult for students to gain admission to universities or to secure jobs outside Ireland.

The state's commitment to the Irish language was largely confined to the schools, but the influence of Catholicism was more pervasive, if in some ways more subtle. Cumann na nGaedheal, the party in government from 1922 to 1932, had a close relationship with the Catholic hierarchy, which had contributed to establishing the government's legitimacy during the Civil War. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Fianna Fáil was no less anxious to display its Catholic credentials. Notwithstanding the formal separation of church and state, state occasions were imbued with Catholic ritual, and Catholic moral and social ethics had a profound effect on social policy. The state had inherited a denominational education system and all political parties accepted that they should not interfere with this arrangement. Catholic social teaching of the period was deeply suspicious of the power of the state, particularly in areas of education, health, and family welfare. Successive Irish governments were content to minimize their involvement and to permit the development of a concept of social services that was heavily dependent on voluntary organizations. This arrangement led to a destabilizing conflict of interests when these services were reorganized in the postwar period.

Perhaps the most obvious and controversial influence of Catholicism was in the area of public morality. In 1925, after consultation with the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, the government took steps to circumvent the power to grant divorces that had devolved on the Irish parliament from Westminster. Given that courts were not empowered to grant divorces, either, this meant an effective ban on divorce in the Free State. Though some Protestant clergymen and lay people supported the measure, others argued that because divorce was permitted by their churches, the measure represented the removal of an existing civil right. The matter provided the occasion for a speech in the senate by the poet W. B. Yeats in which he famously set out the achievements of the Anglo-Irish community, claiming that "we against whom you have done this thing are no petty people" (Brown 1985, p. 131).

Yeats and many of his fellow writers were also in the vanguard of opposition to the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929. This act was not draconian in its inception—it was intended mainly to prevent the free circulation of publications relating to contraception, an international concern at the time. However, the zeal of the Censorship of Publications Board established under the act led to the prohibition of many of the greatest works of modern Irish and world literature. These included Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Samuel Beckett's More Pricks than Kicks, and James Joyce's Stephen Hero. Until its liberalization in the 1960s the severity of Irish literary censorship was internationally notorious.

Cumann na nGaedheal failed to address two of the greatest sources of anxiety to the Catholic hierarchy: the widespread growth of unregulated dance halls and the question of contraception. In 1935 Fianna Fáil responded to these concerns with a regulatory Public Dance Halls Act and a Criminal Law Amendment Act that absolutely prohibited the importation and sale of contraceptives. It was a measure that was widely applauded, but one that also drew criticism from those who believed the power of the state should not be used to enforce Catholic values in matters of public health and private conscience.

The creation of a Gaelic and Catholic state reached its apogee in Eamon de Valera's 1937 constitution, which established Irish as the first official language of the state and recognized the "special position" of the Catholic Church "as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens." The Catholic ethos of the constitution was not purely symbolic: The text was deeply imbued with Catholic social theory and traditional values. The family was recognized as the fundamental unit of society, entitled as such to protection from the state. The family was also recognized as the primary educator of the child, and the state was relegated to a secondary role. In the context of family values the constitution recognized the support given by woman "by her life within the home" and stipulated that no law permitting divorce would be enacted.

In the 1920s and 1930s opposition to the increasing identification of the state with Gaelic and Catholic culture was muted, sporadic, and unorganized. It is inaccurate to regard these measures as motivated solely by a desire to establish an exclusive national identity; nonetheless, that was one of the results. Perhaps the most overt example of the confusion of nationality and majority culture is found in the preamble to the constitution, which acknowledges "all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial." This was not simply a statement of Christian piety, but an understanding of the nature of the state in the context of a specific historic tradition.

SEE ALSO Constitution; de Valera, Eamon; Divorce, Contraception, and Abortion; Eucharistic Congress; Language and Literacy: Irish Language since 1922; Jewish Community; McQuaid, John Charles; Mother and Child Crisis; Politics: Independent Ireland since 1922; Protestant Community in Southern Ireland since 1922; Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891; Secularization; Primary Documents: Letter on the Commission on the Gaeltacht (4 March 1925); From the 1937 Constitution; Letter to John A. Costello, the Taoiseach (5 April 1951)


Akenson, Donald Harmon. A Mirror to Kathleen's Face: Education in Independent Ireland, 1922–60. 1973.

Brown, Terence. Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922–1985. 1985.

Coolahan, John. Irish Education: Its History and Structure. 1981.

Farrell, Brian, ed. De Valera's Constitution and Ours. 1988.

Kelly, Adrian. Compulsory Irish: Language and Education in Ireland, 1870s–1970s. 2000.

Keogh, Dermot. The Vatican, the Bishops, and Irish Politics, 1919–1939. 1986.

Whyte, John H. Church and State in Modern Ireland, 1923–1979. 1980.

Susannah Riordan

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Gaelic Catholic State, Making of

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