Change is inevitable. Over time, it just tends to happen. Throughout the history of this island, our pace of change has been slow; it’s been generational.
There is no doubt that I have grown up in a very different Ireland to that of my parents and my grandparents. So much has changed. When De Valera supervised the drafting of Bunreacht na hÉireann - our now much-amended constitution - with Archbishop McQuaid quite literally looking over his shoulder, Irish society would be almost unrecognisable to somebody growing up in the 21st century. That constitution could not have been a better reflection of the Ireland of the day. This was little more than a church state, with the unsettling and unusual influence of the Catholic Church over the governance of the State obvious but unchallenged.
I can’t imagine what life was like for Irish women at that time. They were viewed by their own country as second-class citizens, even as vessels to carry the unborn. A woman’s primary function in the eyes of the State was that of a homemaker and caregiver. I’m sure those looking in from the outside world would be shocked to learn that Article 41.2 of our constitution still states that a woman’s place is “within the home”. Abortion was illegal, as was contraception. Divorce was banned. LGBT rights were also non-existent, with homosexuality and same-sex activity not legal in Ireland until 1993.
Despite its failings and shortcomings, Bunreacht na hÉireann safeguards our democracy, vesting the power to amend the constitution in the people. I am glad that, over time, the Irish people have taken full advantage of that power. Ireland is on the brink of a new epoch; we undoubtedly live in an increasingly liberal and progressive nation. We legalised contraception in the 1980s, and we passed a referendum, albeit close, to legalise divorce in 1995. The last couple of years saw unprecedented levels of progress, with referendums to introduce marriage equality and to repeal the Eighth Amendment passing by stunning margins. It may seem as though we have little left to do, but that is certainly not the case.
Last month, a TV ad for Tampax, which was developed following findings that almost half of women do not insert tampons correctly, was banned in Ireland following complaints of it being “crude”, “vulgar”, “unnecessary” and more. I’ve obviously never experienced a period, but I know there’s nothing “crude” or “vulgar” about something that is a part of life for women everywhere. The controversy surrounding the ad is a reminder of a darker period in our history; a period in which discussion of women’s bodily functions were considered taboo, and in which the State alienated women for ‘crimes’ like sex outside wedlock, hiding them away and shaming them. For every two steps forward, we seem to take one step back. Time and time again, the underlying cultural conservatism in Irish society raises its ugly head, as was the case with the bizarre Tampax controversy. Enter, old Catholic Ireland.
It’s fair to say that Irish people have a complicated relationship with religion. Census figures state that just over 78% of us identify as Catholic. Even if that figure has dropped, it’s still remarkably high. The vast majority of us in this country were baptised and confirmed, and still tend to take Communion and recite the ‘Our Father’ and ‘Hail Mary’ on the rare occasions we go to Mass. Many of us may not be particularly religious, or even believe in God at all anymore, but Catholic sacraments are still the done thing. In a peculiar way, it’s almost ingrained in our culture.
These ingrained norms should not surprise us. The vast majority of primary schools in Ireland today - a whopping 90% - are Catholic ones. Parents across Ireland, mainly in rural areas, are faced with a lack of choice when it comes to choosing a school for their children, as, in many cases, the only local school is under the patronage of the Catholic Church. While of course the option of religious schools should be there for families, there is a severe lack of multi-denominational institutions in this country.
Like the majority of Irish people, I was educated in a Catholic primary school. While I enjoyed my time there, received a good education and had excellent teachers, it is only now that I realise the lack of an education I received on certain topics under the Catholic ethos. The relationships and sexual education we receive in Ireland is completely inadequate. In fact, it fails young people, leaving many unprepared for what is ahead of them. The way a child is educated about sex and about forming relationships at school will, in many cases, influence their outlook on the subject for life. Regardless of the ethos of the school, it is essential that children receive factual, unbiased and objective sex education that includes same-sex relationships, gender identities, contraception, consent, sexual health and more. Mental health must be discussed, as well as the identification of abuse and unhealthy relationships. It needs to be about so much more than simply biology and the physical act of sex, and reform is long overdue.
In addition to the advances I previously outlined, Ireland removed blasphemy as a constitutional offence (which had not been prosecuted since 1855) in 2018. Yes, the State actually viewed "publication or utterance of blasphemous matter", originally only applicable to Christianity, as an offence. In 2015, when Stephen Fry appeared on RTÉ’s The Meaning of Life, he was asked what he would say to God if the two were to meet. “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault”, Fry replied. “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” His response clearly ruffled a few feathers, as Ireland’s blasphemy laws led to Fry’s comments being investigated by the Gardaí (to no avail) following complaints from viewers. Fry later said that the controversy was “extraordinary” and “the oddest thing”.
And that’s exactly what it is. Ireland’s relationship with religion, and with the Catholic Church, truly is the oddest thing. As hard as we worked for Repeal and more, it seems that was the easy bit. Old Catholic Ireland, although somewhat mitigated, has not gone away. To quote then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on the occasion of the visit of the Pope to Ireland, “the time has come to build a new and more mature relationship between the Catholic Church and the Irish State - a new covenant for the 21st century”. A more secular Republic, with clear and respected boundaries between Church and State, must be our goal if we are truly to become the modern nation we claim to be.
Luke Corkery is an 18 year old student of International Relations in Dublin City University, and a member of Fine Gael.