Throughout most of the 20th century, Christianity and particularly the Catholic Church was strongly identified with Ireland at all levels of society from education to entertainment to politics. The first (1926) census after the foundation of the Irish Free State showed Christians accounted for 99.7% of the population with the Catholic Church having the most followers at 92.6%. The remainder were mainly Protestants (7.1%) with the Church of Ireland (Anglican) being the largest such denomination at 5.5%.
In 2016 approximately 85% of the Irish population identified as Christians with 78.3% Catholic.
However it was not just about numbers and percentages. Religious faith was deeply felt amongst ordinary people and observed in so many aspects of their lives. As late as 1990, 81% of Catholics went to mass at least once weekly. The Corpus Christi procession was the biggest festival event in the annual social calendar of many towns and villages; houses along the processional routes were painted and spruced up to look their finest.
From the cradle to the grave, religious devotion was conscientiously expressed by the faithful. Baptisms, holy communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals officiated at by clergy were central to family life as were prayers at mealtime and bedtimes. The daily call to prayer of the Angelus bell was a sound that rung out from every parish church across the country. Pilgrimages to holy sites in Ireland attracted huge numbers of people. Many parents fervently hoped that, when they came of age, one of their sons or daughters would become a nun, religious brother or a priest and go overseas to work as missionaries in Africa or India or to serve amongst the Irish expat communities in Britain, USA or Australia.
But there was a happy social and community side to religion. Dressing up in one’s finest clothes and attending weekly Sunday mass was a welcome opportunity to meet with friends, cousins and neighbours to share stories and catch up with all the latest gossip. Community entertainment for all ages came in the form of concerts, fairs, travel excursions, fetes and ‘sales of work’ organised by the local churches often as fund raisers for church building repairs, to build schools overseas in the developing world or for charitable organisations such as St. Vincent de Paul.
With such a loyal following amongst the population at large, the influence of the church reached out far beyond family and social life. In a poverty stricken country where state welfare and assistance was low, the religious orders provided and staffed the schools, hospitals, orphanages as well as charitable institutions and social services that were so needed by the citizenry.
This involvement in so many aspects of Irish life gave the churches, particularly the bishops and parish priests, strong political power. Not only did the laws of the land reflect the Catholic ethos but clergy were treated for so long, by both state and the majority of the ordinary people, as if they were ‘above suspicion’. This attitude sadly allowed the abuse of children particularly in orphanages to go unpunished until the last decade of the 20th century.