July 2014        

The anti-clericalism of the chattering classes


The recent revelations regarding the finding of up to eight hundred infant bodies buried in what were the grounds of a children’s home in Co. Galway hit the headlines and led to much ill-informed speculation, spurring renewed anti-clericalism by the establishment media.
      While the numbers and the causes of death are still not clear, this has not prevented the state-controlled RTE and the corporate media from engaging in wild speculation.
      The churches, both Catholic and Protestant, certainly have much to be held accountable for over the decades, including the protection of child-abusing clerics and others in authority, the savage abuse meted out daily in industrial schools, and their control of children’s homes, such as the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam and Kincora Boys’ Home in Belfast.
      But what is missing is any criticism of the ideological and political role allocated to the churches, both Catholic and Protestant, north and south, by the Free State government in the South and by the Orange state in the North.
      The Free State government instituted a policy—carried on by Fianna Fáil and all other governments—of handing over complete control of education, health and social services to religious institutions. This control spread beyond these central areas into culture, sports, and practically every other aspect of people’s lives.
      They adopted the instruments of control established by the British state to control the people. For centuries the British government in Ireland used religious tensions to sow division and prevent the emergence of a united opposition to occupation and colonialism.
      The Catholic seminary at Maynooth was established by the British state in 1795 to ensure that Catholic priests would be trained under their influence and control, rather than in Spain or France, Britain’s traditional enemies—particularly France after the Revolution, where democratic ideas had developed and had become a powerful force. This ensured that by the mid-1800s British-approved Catholic clergy and hierarchy had secured a firm grip. After the Great Famine of 1845–1852 this grip was tightened even further.
      Mainly, though not exclusively, operating in the north of the country, the Orange Order was established in 1795 and encouraged by the British so as to shackle the Protestant people and to secure the domination of the established church, allowing them to whip into line all dissenting congregations and winning the allegiance of sections of the Protestant people with beneficial contracts for supplying the burgeoning British empire.
      Orangeism was not just for oppressing Catholics but also for controlling the Protestant people. All local lodges had to have the Protestant clergy as part of their management structures. At the annual 12th of July celebrations the platforms were dominated by the local clerics, rubbing shoulders with Stormont politicians and Orange bosses. When the Northern statelet was established in 1921 all social, cultural and sports events had to conform to the Protestant and Orange ethos.
      Unionism was happy to see education under the control of the Catholic Church in the North, as it knew that the church was only interested in producing conforming Catholics—as it did under direct British rule: it was not going to turn out republicans for the educational system. The Catholic Church did little if anything about the repression and discrimination against Catholics, as this reinforced its grip on the Catholic community. That is why the Catholic hierarchy had little interest in, and did not support, the civil rights movement.
      When the British state formally withdrew from Ireland in 1922 it left behind a network of control, which was easily modified and adapted by both political entities.
      The Irish Free State was politically and economically weak, while the Northern statelet, though economically stronger, was also politically weak and was shaped by what it considered the Catholic “enemy within.”
      The Free State used the Catholic Church to batter down all and every expression of opposition and dissent. Anti-communism took the form of clerical reaction, and the people’s religious beliefs were exploited for crude anti-communism. Under this ideological onslaught and the consolidation of partition, many ran for cover, including almost all trade unions, the Labour Party, and the overwhelming majority of republicans.
      For decades the Communist Party bore the brunt of these attacks and the resulting marginalisation. Then, as now, anti-communism was not just for isolating communists but for isolating all the left.
      The scandals that have emerged, and will continue to emerge, about the industrial schools and mother-and-baby homes are a product of the class nature of the two political institutions that the British state imposed on our people.
      The industrial schools were prisons for the children of the poor, established to oppress, subdue and discipline the working class. The mother-and-baby homes were internment camps for the daughters of the working class and the rural poor, many of whose pregnancies were the result of rape or domestic abuse, when thousands of young women could find work only as domestic servants in the homes of wealthy business people or were exploited day and night by big farmers who saw them as of less value than their livestock.
      These institutions also had the political purpose of beating women back. Women had played an important role in the struggle for national independence; many understood that their liberation was linked to the achievement of national freedom.
      The Irish capitalist class, both nationalist and unionist, treated working people with contempt. The mass media, which have suddenly discovered clerical abuse, were cheerleaders for past and present economic and social policies; they were promoters of the ideology that poverty and inequality were and are the natural order. None raised their voices, as it was not in their class interests to do so, when the Catholic Church was a real power in the land, when it was central to the needs of the ruling class.
      And all this new-found anti-clericalism is just an attempt to cover their own complicity in the reign of terror that had its roots in partition: as James Connolly put it, the partition of Ireland would lead to a “carnival of reaction,” north and south.
      No, the Irish Times, Irish Independent, RTE and the rest of the establishment media can keep their crocodile tears.
      If instead you look through the papers published by Irish communists since 1921 you will find many articles about the industrial schools, the baby homes and orphanages; you can read the sharp words, the passion and the anger against these institutions and their paymasters. You will not find crude anti-clericalism but instead the defence of the working class and opposition to the class war waged, then and now, against the Irish working class, north and south. [EMC]

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