To say that the Catholic Church was a net winner from the Great Famine may not have been the most diplomatic way of putting it, but then historians are not necessarily noted for their diplomacy. And when Professor Mac Suibhne of NUIG was thus quoted in a recent lecture in Cork, some observers were slow to appreciate the reasoning behind the apparently disparaging assertion.
What the good professor was explaining was that the aftermath of the Famine had seen a complete reversal of the role of the Church in Irish society. Put simply, the urban Catholic class which had largely survived the Famine were more likely to be regular Mass goers than the largely rural poor who died out, thus enabling the church to assert its influence in every aspect of Irish life. The ten counties of Ireland with the highest famine mortality rates, and Mayo was the highest, all had predominantly rural, poor populations.
The catalyst for the upsurge in the influence of the hierarchy had been the disappearance with the Famine of the rural poor – the small tenant farmers, the cottiers and landless labourers, making it easier for the Church to implement the reforms needed to eradicate the backward, ‘folk’ religion which had traditionally formed the basis of rural beliefs and practices. Up to then, in rural areas, religion was neither chapel centred or clerically directed. Sunday Mass was not important (attendance was as low as 30 percent). Religious practice revolved around holy wells, seasonal festivals, pattern days and pilgrimages. Priestly intervention was confined to baptism, marriages and the administration of the Last Rites to the dying.
The historian, Tom Higgins, in his book, ‘Through Fagan’s Gates’, deals authoritatively and in great detail with the transition of the ‘home’ religion of pre-Famine times to the religion of the chapel. Religious practice, pre-Famine, was more earthy. The rituals were about weddings and wakes, patterns and pilgrimages. They were also the only social occasions for young people, so that these celebrations of piety also involved singing and dancing, drinking and merriment, a mixture of the sacred and the profane. The most famous pattern days were those of the ‘Long Station’ in Balla, attracting over 5,000 people. There, when the prayers and incantations were over, it was time for enjoyment; booths were set up to sell whiskey and beer, there was drinking and dancing and courting and revelry.
But that was all to change from the 1850s onwards. These rural, half-pagan, practices were frowned on by a hierarchy which advocated rigid adherence to Rome and to conformist ways. Redemptorist missionaries – the storm troopers of the Church – were sent into the countryside to preach hell and damnation, to condemn the wakes and the patterns, and to bring funerals, weddings, and baptisms back into the chapel.
By the end of the century, all had changed. The new reforms of a more disciplined church took hold quickly among the better off farming classes and the more respectable urban middle classes. A new generation of Catholic clergy, mainly drawn from the more conformist middle classes, took charge. The old folk practices were abandoned in favour of a more rigid, chapel centred Catholicism.
The Church reforms of the second half of the century produced what was critics described as ‘an Anglo Saxon Protestant Catholicism’. New churches were built, vocations to the priesthood doubled even while the population halved.
And, by 1901, (in sharp contrast to the position today), the number of parochial clergy had risen to one for every 1,000 of the population.