If you have read either of this blog’s previous entries, you will be aware that it is concerned with the culture of intolerance that exists in Ireland towards the well being of our minds. This intolerance has led to the entrenchment of a mental health problem in the country. Such problems always produce side effects. I have already discussed our love affair with alcohol and how we rely on it for social interaction. Yet the alcohol problem seems to offer more escape from, as opposed to ignorance of, the darker side of our personalities. It didn’t take long for me to think of two of our more open obsessions. Obsessions that we have openly embraced and championed. Obsessions that we have sought meaning and purpose through whilst we tried to smother our more sensitive sides.
The degree to which the Catholic religion once permeated the lives of Irish people cannot be quantified. From baptism to the deathbed, the auspices of Catholicism were ever present throughout most Irish lives. Religion was everything and it was everywhere. The angelus bells still ring twice a day on national radio and television, just as they have since 1950. Our urban skylines are dominated by church spires whilst the countryside is dotted with grottos. The children of Ireland have been schooled through religious institutions. Their history lessons inform them of Ireland’s proud heritage as a stubborn Catholic rock in the waves of reformation. A lesson re-enforced by the troubled North, where sectarian conflict echoed our oppressed past. Independent Ireland was founded on our identity as a Catholic people. De Valera’s 1937 constitution references the Holy Trinity in its preamble. The legal ramifications didn’t stop there. Legal Divorce has only existed since the mid nineties and remains a complicated procedure. Abortion remains prohibited and until 1993, homosexuality was classified as illegal by Irish law.. Other religious checks on personal freedom came through Pastoral enquiry into why a married Catholic woman wasn’t having children as well as demanding the details of the layperson’s guilty conscience through confession.
Today, Catholic Ireland is a shadow of its former self. Despite the fact that mass attendances have seen a revival since the beginning of the recession era, the church remains fledgling and increasingly out of touch. The last 15-20 years has also seen a tide of almost unending revelations of clerical abuse of children, as well as an alarming culture of denial and deceit on the part of the Irish hierarchy. This week, Pope Benedict has drawn the ire of abuse victims and the public at large for failing to apologise outright for the suffering of countless victims. Ireland’s past obsession with Catholicism has been replaced with an uncertainty. Religion is no longer the fabric of our society. Strict adherence to its principles is few and far between. In fact, the Church’s survival probably hinges on an a la carte Catholic laity which picks and chooses what it likes and what it dislikes about religion. ‘I like the going to heaven part but I don’t like the no sex before marriage part’.
Ireland’s divorce from religious obsession was, for a long time, softened by the excesses of prosperity. It was convenient that the Church’s descent from the role of social conditioner happened in tandem with the swelling of our wallets. Financial power probably made us feel less dependent on religion. Before, it was God who gave us all we needed. Money, on the other hand, could buy us all we wanted. Just like religion before it, money was everywhere. We were in awe of ourselves and our mighty Celtic Tiger. The repression and banality of old Ireland was replaced by the indulgence and false confidence of the new one. The Celtic Tiger was like the perfect drug, providing Ireland with a monetary high that eclipsed our strange religious upbringing. Its effects are now wearing off and uncovering a sober reality. With nearly half a million people unemployed, still having a job has become an achievement. The Government has just cut €4bn from its expenditure to save us from financial meltdown. If the Celtic Tiger was a drug, then this is the comedown.
What now? Do we turn back to religion? Put it back on the pedestal to which we looked in absolute devotion? Whatever your theistic or non-theistic persuasion, I think we can all agree that even if there is a God, it hardly needs that much praise. It couldn’t be that vain, or insecure. And if the human side of religion is rife with corruption, then surely faith is better expressed in smaller, personal and more humble ways. Bertie Ahern once warned of the dangers of 'aggressive secularism'. Yet anything of the sort couldn’t possibly be as damaging as the pseudo theocracy that previously existed in Ireland.
Waiting with bated breath for another Celtic Tiger would also be a futile exercise. Since the recession began, much has been made of how we have lost our self-belief and confidence as a people. However, if our self esteem hinged on our fickle economy, it was hardly that well founded in the first place. And that, perhaps, is where the problem lies. Have we ever been confident? Have we ever had belief in ourselves? Did Catholic Ireland allow us to develop a notion of self worth? Was the excess of the Celtic Tiger a release from all the penance of Catholicism? Did we merely replace one obsession with another? And if so, then why do we need to obsess at all?
Such ideas might help explain why we have shunned our emotional and mental health for so long, and watered it down with lots of numbing alcohol. Our enjoyment and fulfilment in life hinges not on what God what we believe in, nor on loads of money. It depends on our perceptions. How do we see the world around us? How do we see the people in it? Most of all, it’s contingent on how we see ourselves. The stigma attached to psychological issues in Ireland indicates that we are omitting probably the most crucial element in our vision of ourselves. If there’s a part of us that we are uncomfortable with and feel that we cannot communicate, it will fester. It will not be silenced within us. It will not be escaped from. Instead, it will establish itself as an integral part of our personality. One that presents unnecessary amounts of pressure, stress, anxiety, depression and suicide. It will not be placated with regressive religion, superficial wealth or whatever obsession we happen to have next.