The impact of religion in Ireland

The established church

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, British colonial rulers had attempted to enforce Protestantism and established the Church of Ireland as a counterpart to the established Church of England. Thus Protestant worship became associated with the relative wealth and status of the landowners.

Traditional Christian practice had included giving a tenth, or ‘tithe’, of one’s income in support of the church. However, this was regularised in Ireland as a tax to be paid to the Church of Ireland by every inhabitant, even though the great majority was Catholic and thus worshipped separately, as well as supporting their local Catholic priest. In the 1830s poor farmers revolted against paying this Tithe Tax for the Protestant clergy, but a change in the law meant that payments were simply added to the rents they owed landlords instead. Only in 1871 was the Church of Ireland disestablished, allowing Catholics to worship and support their own church as they pleased.

The role of the priest

The (usually Catholic) church played a huge role in Irish life, and consequently the local parish priest was greatly respected, as evidenced by his honorary title: ‘Father’. He was a key figure in the celebration of everybody’s rites of passage – birth/baptism, marriage and death. Social activities were focused on the church and the presence of the priest acted as a constraint on lax moral behaviour. The priest might be expected to guide his flock in the political arena, as well as being involved in local education, regularly visiting the village school (and many Irish schools were run by members of religious orders) and giving special instruction to able pupils (as Father Flynn does to the narrator in The Sisters).

As the recipient of his parishioners’ confessions, there was little the local priest did not know about the goings-on of the area. And he wielded huge moral influence, particularly through the preaching of weekly sermons, against which people would find it hard to object. Since Catholic priests were called to be celibate, ladies of the parish frequently took on caring roles, providing food, laundry and cleaning services so as to free up the priest to concentrate on his pastoral duties. We see this undertaken by Father Flynn’s sisters in The Sisters, whilst the narrator’s aunt regularly sent the priest a gift of snuff.

Irish Catholicism and the ordinary believer

Image of a RosaryIn the early 1900s (when Dubliners was set, written, and published), the majority of Irish people would identify themselves as Roman Catholic and practised some form of religious observance. This might vary from daily attendance at Mass to going to the confessional only once a year. In Grace, Joyce summarises this in the attitude of Mrs Kernan:

      Religion for her was a habit .. She believed steadily in the Sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions.     

He thereby communicates the talismanic attitude of many Irish Catholics of the time, rather than demonstrating true devotion. However, respect for the church was inculcated from one generation to the next.

The political ferment of the last quarter of the 1800s led to more overt questioning of the Catholic Church. Many Nationalists felt betrayed when their cause was hindered by the church’s withdrawal of support from the Nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, criticising his personal morality. People felt more able to question the behaviour of church officers, such as the criticism of Father Flynn voiced by Old Cotter in The Sisters. However, this was muted by superstitious fear of what might happen to one’s soul if the church was totally eschewed.

Joyce and religion

Jesuit influence

Joyce was educated by Jesuits. The Society of Jesus is a Catholic order that historically has focused on providing education and training. From the perspective of the established Catholic Church they were sometimes regarded with suspicion as they encouraged students to think issues through rather than just to accept papal orthodoxy, whilst their reputation for practicality meant that they often espoused humanitarian and political rights for the disadvantaged. However, from the perspective of a pupil, this may not have been evident. Like any schools of the time, Jesuit establishments were strict and the education was rigorous.

A rejection of Catholicism?

As he grew older, Joyce began to question his faith and, ultimately, gave up any regular religious practice. He resented the way in which the church sought to impose its authority through strict teaching and rules (a tendency which had strengthened in the years following the Irish Famine. Holding, as the church did, such sway over culture and education, Joyce felt that it diverted intelligent students into the priesthood rather than furthering their aspirations to shape the world beyond. By this means and others, Joyce believed that the church as a whole kept society ‘backward’ compared to the social and philosophical developments being made in the rest of Europe. Certainly he tends to represent priests in Dubliners as figures who did not deserve the reverence with which they were treated.

However, many commentators feel that a Catholic sensibility continued to shape Joyce’s thinking. Personal letters testify that he continued to attend Catholic Mass as well as Orthodox services, particularly in the week leading up to Easter. This may have simply reminded Joyce of the practices which he was seeking to represent in his writing or may have served to fulfill some personal need.

The dominance of religion in Dubliners

Rather than eschewing the religious aspects of the lives he portrayed in Dubliners, Joyce makes it a major theme (see Themes). However, he often satirises the respect given to the clergy and the Pope by juxtaposing such views with ignorant attitudes or superstitions. In Grace for example, Father Purdon is praised for being a ‘Fine, jolly .. man of the world’, which is the opposite of godly behaviour outlined in the New Testament (see Romans 12:2, Matthew 6:19-21)!

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