Time was, in the not too distant past, when a standard milestone of the liturgical year was the Lenten Pastoral. The Pastoral was a kind of a state-of-the-union address, issued by every Catholic bishop to his flock, in which matters of faith and theology were blended with denunciatory warnings on the world, the flesh and the devil.
The Pastoral was read at every Mass in every church on the designated Sunday, and would be dutifully reported in full in the local papers as a matter of obedient routine. Nothing if not long winded, the pastorals often necessitated delivery in two instalments, with no latitude for editing or summarising.
The common theme of the pastorals was the depravity of modern trends and the threat to faith and morals of alien practices and values at odds with the inherent uprightness of the Irish nation. Chief among the targets of censure were dance halls, cinemas, evil books and literature, immodest dress, pagan music and other evils of the flesh. Noted for their blunt tone, their Lordships spared nothing when wielding the crozier, nor was there the slightest protest at what they had to say.
Thus it was that Dr Morrisroe, Bishop of Achonry, lamented that sad stories had reached his ears of what was happening in those dens of iniquity – dance halls. Those who ran these amusements for private gain were, he said, deliberately creating occasions of sin. Wherever there was an objectionable dance hall – and he himself was of the view that every hall run for private profit was of such a type – he would desire his priests to appeal to girls to give such places a wide berth.
In addition, he said, “the harmful custom of masked men visiting houses on wedding nights should be sternly suppressed.”
His confrère in Tuam, Dr Walsh, picked up the theme, denouncing the dangers and abuses connected to dances which went on until the early hours, fraught with obvious spiritual dangers. “If one finds that a dance hall is a proximate occasion of mortal sin, one is under grave obligation to avoid such a hall,” he warned, before issuing an edict that all future dances in the diocese would finish at midnight in winter, and an hour later in summer.
The threat to the moral rectitude of young women was of particular concern to their Lordships. Dr Gilmartin of Tuam, in the mid 1930s, observed that while the great majority of Irish girls inspired respect by their reserve and modesty, “we have also a few – and more than just a few – who are the daughters of Eve, prepared to eat the forbidden fruit and to sell their good name for base sensual pleasure.”
Even the culinary skills of Irish women could not escape clerical disapproval. Canon Davis of Galway took to the pulpit to opine that ‘poor home cooking was driving men to drink’. Why, he asked, were so many working men driven to the public house? The reason is that, after work, they come home to dirty houses and badly cooked food and, because of that, leave again for the public house.
Irish girls, he went on, are unfit to make the best use of God’s gift of food, citing his own experience the previous week while walking at Salthill. There, he said, he came across a French family gathering periwinkles off the rocks. On enquiring with the father, he told him that the periwinkles would make splendid soup.
“Where are the Irish girls who could make soup that way?” he asked, as a thousand pairs of female eyes no doubt were turned away in shame.