(Published in Village Magazine, April 2016)
Michel Aflaq (1910-1989) was the principle ideologue of the pan-Arabist Ba’ath Socialist party still ruling Syria and previously Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Although born Christian he believed Islam to be proof of Arab genius and allegedly converted before his death in Baghdad.
The Arabs were a motley collection of illiterate warring tribes inhabiting the Arabian Peninsula until the Prophet Muhammed (570-632 CE) and his successors built an enduring empire with extraordinary speed. The early Muslims were not only successful warriors conquering territory from Spain to Persia but also projected a ‘soft’ power allowing them to convert subjugated peoples. The era brought great advances in philosophy, art and mathematics and was marked by a tolerance unknown under Christendom.
The Qu’ran itself was the first book written in Arabic, and according to the historian Albert Hourani Muslims believe Arabic is revealed in it; it certainly ushered in a great era of literacy. It is perhaps unsurprising that contemporary Arabic political movements have expressed themselves in the idiom of Islam however diverse that inheritance is.
Furthermore the failures of Arab nationalism especially under Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-70) appeared to make Political Islam the answer to the project of throwing off the economic and cultural shackles of imperialism, and confronting Israel. The brutalisation of the Middle East through internal repression and outside intervention has shaped the emergence of ISIS, but its unsophisticated ideology has an historical trajectory.
Likewise Christianity has had a lasting influence on the idea of Irishness: first because Christianity’s arrival in Ireland brought with it literacy (ogham script hardly qualifies) that generated a seismic cultural awakening; second, and another source of pride, Irish Christians performed vital missions in restoring Christianity to Britain and other parts of Europe; third, the Reformation in Britain occurred simultaneously with its second wave of colonisation of Ireland creating an effective method of creating a ruling caste; fourth, the decline of the Gaelic language left Catholicism as the only obvious point of cultural differentiation between the Irish and English.
Thus in George Moore’s novel The Lake Father Moran opines: ‘religion in Ireland was another form of love of country, and that, if Catholics were intolerant to every form of heresy, it was because they instinctively felt that the questioning of any dogma would mean some slight subsidence from the idea of nationality that held the people together’ He continues: ‘Like the ancient Jews, the Irish believed that the faith of their forefathers could bring them into their ultimate inheritance’.
Moore himself eventually renounced Catholicism, just like the main character in the novel Father Gogarty who says: ‘my moral ideas were not my own. They were borrowed from others and badly assimilated’. Gogarty bemoans the Church’s attitude to women recalling how ‘at Maynooth the tradition was always to despise women.’
Well before Irish independence in 1922 the Catholic Church held a firm hold over Irish society especially in the crucial sphere of education. Maynooth was established in 1795 and Irish primary education had become increasingly denominational by the end of the nineteenth century. To some extent this suited the British administration as it recognised the Church as a force of conservatism that would protect private property against social revolutionaries.
James Joyce also violently repudiated Catholicism. He wrote to Nora Barnacle in 1904: ‘Six years ago I left the Catholic Church, hating it most fervently … Now I make war upon it by what I write and say and do. I cannot enter the social order except as a vagabond.’ In Portrait he resolves: ‘I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile and cunning.’
It took artists of the stature of Joyce and Moore to escape their Catholic upbringings. Unfortunately most of the revolutionary generation rapidly conformed and thereby stamped out the pluralism, feminism and even vegetarianism that animated the more free-thinking period before hostilities began. One of the most powerful ministers in the first government Kevin O’Higgins remarked: ‘we were probably the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a revolution.’
That it should have been an Easter Rising that kicked off the affair is revealing. There was an obtuse connection drawn between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and the blood sacrifice and emergence of an Irish nation state. Remarkably, in the wake of the Rising such illustrious revolutionaries as Roger Casement, Countess Marckieviez and James Connolly converted to Catholicism.
The Civil War between two children squabbling over the spoils of a new state had no relevance to the relationship with the Church. Observers were already noting the ‘sombre bodyguard of priests’ surrounding de Valera as he ascended political platforms in the early 1920s; and the first Cumann na nGaedheal administration (1922-32) alienated many erstwhile progressive supporters, including W.B. Yeats, by bringing in a ban against divorce in 1925.
We now know that the Catholic Church was virtually untouchable in its position of power in Ireland until the 1990s when the staggering effect of sexual repression and a culture of impunity became apparent. The same sex marriage referendum last year affirmed that the once vice-like grip was no more: only Roscommon voted against the proposal despite the Church’s opposition. It remains firmly entrenched in education but such is the prevailing distrust for priests in particular that this situation is unlikely to endure much longer.
Moreover, Irish people are no longer drawn to the priesthood or convent as they were in droves. The Church simply does not have the personnel to project its message any longer. Of course there are residuals defenders of Catholic Conservatism in the Iona Institute and the broader Pro Life movement. But the abuse scandals seems to have changed the bulk of Irish people’s outlook and the Pro Life movement now looks more like a pale shadow from the US Tea Party. Considering the margin of victory – the vote in favour was 62% – in the same sex marriage referendum it seems likely that even the eight amendment will eventually be repealed.
But we may ask what is left when we throw away the chains? If Irish politics is anything to go by Irish people are quite lost at this point electing parties that oversaw the countries delivery into the hands of the Church, and then the IMF, alongside a raft of vacuous independents. The Far Left is a shrill irrelevance and the nationalist left fatally compromised by direct participation in atrocities during the Northern Troubles.
Could something be recovered from Ireland’s longstanding relationship with Christianity? Might the revolutionary ideas expressed in the Gospels and the lives of the saints rejecting materialism, promoting equality and pacifisms – and even containing seeds of environmentalism in the legacy of St Francis – actually inform a new political consciousness.
The Irish people are increasingly mired in neo-liberal confusion, which could be linked to the spiritual void in most of our lives. Increasingly Eastern thought is turned to for assurance and contemplation; but perhaps we have native idioms more comprehensible to us in our midst.
I do not write this as a spiritual person but as one who wishes to see a change of heart in the country which will allow us to realise a society that it is fairer and more sustainable. It seems to me that the language of religion conjoining poetry and prophesy speaks to people in a more powerful way than empiricism. Even Marx acknowledged the elixir.
One does not have to Believe in order to believe in its effect, though perhaps a measure of faith helps. As the philosopher Bartholomew Ryan puts it in his book Kierkegaard’s Indirect Politics: ‘There is no completion, but for pointing towards the elusive faith, but that faith remains incommensurable and we forever falter when we try to talk about it (otherwise it would not be faith).’
People sometimes grow nostalgic about Pagan Europe. At a musical festival you might be urged to embrace your pagan spirit. But life was often pretty brutish in pre-Christian Europe. Here is an account of human sacrifice by an Arab traveller to Scandinavia in the tenth century:
Then the girl was pulled into the tent and the men started to beat on the shields so her screams could not be heard. Six men entered into the tent to have intercourse with the girl, after which they put her onto her master’s bed. Two men grabbed her hands and two men her wrists. The angel of death put a rope around her neck and while two men pulled the rope, the old woman stabbed the girl between her ribs with a knife.
Undoubtedly worse atrocities even have been committed in the name of organized Christianity from Cortez to the Crusades but those acts were utterly at variance with the ideas expressed in the gospels, rather than a component of ritual or doctrine as in many Pagan practices. In particular by dignifying each life Chrisitianity was crucial to the demise of slavery. Ireland, as a land of saints and scholars helped extend that idea, and early Irish nationalists drew on this as a source of inspiration. We should be loath to dispense with it peremptorily.
There have been many powerful critiques of organised Christianity not least from Edward Gibbons who wrote that: ‘The pure Deism of the first Christians … was changed, by the Church of Rome, into the incomprehensible dogma of the trinity’.
One of the most savage attacks on the Church of Rome came from Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose omniscient Idiot exclaims: ‘In my opinion Roman Catholicism isn’t even a religion, but most decidedly a continuation of the Holy Roman Empire, and everything in it is subordinate to that idea, beginning with faith. The Pope seized the earth, an earthly throne and took up the sword; and since then everything has gone on in the same way, except they’ve added lies, fraud, deceit, fanaticism, superstition, wickedness. They have trifled with the most sacred, truthful, innocent, ardent feelings of the people, have bartered it all for money, for base temporal power. And isn’t that the teachings of the Antichrist?’ But Dostoyevsky was a deep believer and his novels invariably invoke the redemptive power of a Christian faith removed from temporal power.
Frederick Nietszche went much further opining that: ‘Christianity has been up till now mankind’s greatest misfortune’. In response the Irish poet-philosopher John Moriarty writes: ‘As though the Europe he grew up in was purely idolatrous Mexico and he a Cortez who came ashore. Nietzsche proceeded to smash and roll Christianity down the steps of its own pyramid temples. In its place he set up actuality, recurrence and will to power.’ And ultimately Nietzsche’s vision is associated with madness and Fascism.
Moriarty proposes that: ‘It is as necessary that we realize a past out of which to grow as it is to realize a present and future into which to grow’. In his Dreamtime he paints an ecumenical mythological inheritance out of which this growth in individuals and across a wider society might be realised. The Christian experience is reclaimed and reordered.
It seems that just as the key to defeating the doctrine of ISIS will emerge from within Arab-Islamic idiom rather through sustained bombing campaigns, similarly the key to creating a more compassionate, thoughtful and proactive Irishry may lie in re-engaging with our mythical inheritance, and that includes a re-imagined Christianity.