Fr Kevin Hegarty
OCTOBER 8, 1967 was a day of celebration in the Finglas West Parish in Dublin. Its new Church opened on that day. It was a massive structure with space for 3,500 worshippers. To get some idea of its size it is instructive to compare it with Galway Cathedral, the biggest in Connacht. It has a capacity for 2,000 people. Earlier this month news emerged that the Finglas Church is to be demolished and replaced with a more modest building for 350 people. In the early years the Church was regularly packed to capacity at weekends. Mass attendance in Ireland has plummeted from 91 percent in 1971 to 35 percent in 2012. The decline is most acute in city parishes. Now only between 800 and 900 attend weekend Masses in Finglas West. So the Church now has a huge surplus capacity. It is also in poor repair. According to Fr Richard Shannon it ‘is impossible to heat, there is water seeping in and the congregation is elderly’.
Rather than facing the cost of renovation it has been decided to replace it with a building that meets current needs. The plan also provides for meeting rooms, a coffee/tea dock and offices. It also envisages the provision of social housing, a welcome contribution to the alleviation of Dublin’s acute shortage.
The Finglas proposal is a further indication of the decline of the Irish Catholic Church. For 50 years after the foundation of the State, the Catholic Church was the dominant force in Irish society. The novelist, John McGahern, who lived through many of these years, once wrote: “I grew up in a theocracy in all but name. Not to attend Sunday Mass was to court ostracism, to be seen as mad or consorting with the devil, or, at best, to be seriously eccentric.” After independence, Church and State became inseparable with unhealthy consequences for both. The Church grew even more powerful and authoritarian.
Winds of change
It controlled all of education, and through its control of hospitals, practically all of health care too. The right to divorce was taken away from minorities. The special position of the Church was even inserted into the constitution. A kind of utopia was inscribed in the national psyche. It was, as if suddenly, the heavenly world of all eternity had been placed down on the 26 counties, administered by the Church and the new class which had done well out of independence.
Though it was not immediately obvious, by the time of the opening of Finglas Church, Catholicism in Ireland had begun to decline. The winds of social, political and cultural change had started to flow through the country with devastating consequences for an autocratic church. After Seán Lemass succeeded Eamon deValera as Taoiseach, he embarked on a policy of foreign investment and industrialisation. Rapid urbanisation drew people away from their rural Catholic heartlands. His Minister for Education, Donagh O’Malley, introduced free second level education. It helped to create an educated class, less willingly to accept the dictatorship of the pulpit, especially on sexual matters. The foundation of RTÉ was crucial in opening Irish minds. Topics, once taboo, were discussed on The Late Late Show. Television, as the sociologist Tom Inglis has written, brought to an end the long nineteenth century of Irish Catholicism.
Feminism began to enter the national conscientious. Women, for long the loyal and silent backbone of Irish Catholicism, were now less likely to accept the teaching of a Church that treated them as second class citizens. Entry into what is now the European Union opened up new vistas of cultural experience. Church leaders, used to the primacy of hierarchy and schooled in authoritarian ways, were at a loss in a world where dialogue, discussion and freedom of speech were the norms.