In the wake of the same-sex marriage referendum, there has rightly been a lot of attention given to the decline of the once-dominant Catholic Church in Irish culture. Side by side with this, though, is the long-term decline of the massive Irish influence on English Catholicism.
Compared with America or Australia, the Irish influence has never seemed as overwhelming in England. Partly this is because the Irish who went further abroad were building new countries rather than trying to fit into an established society. Another side, though, was the extraordinarily talented wave of cultural figures, many though not all converts, who came to define Catholicism for many outsiders. Ronald Knox and Graham Greene, GK Chesterton and JRR Tolkien, were all profoundly Catholic but none was remotely Irish.
Digging a little deeper, the Irish influence has always been strong, though perhaps not so well noticed because it has been further down the social scale. One of the turning points in the development of Catholic social teaching was Cardinal Manning’s involvement with the London dock strike of 1889, where the upper-class convert Manning taking up the cause of the mainly Irish dock workers symbolised the marriage of the English and Irish elements in the English Church. Three major demographic groups, the old recusant families, the converts and the numerically dominant Irish, between them set the tone for English Catholicism for much of the past 200 years.
The rebirth of English Catholicism in the period roughly bounded by the lifting of legal disabilities by the Catholic Relief Act in 1829, and the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850, took place in a context where the Church was not only emerging from the shadows but also rapidly becoming at least as much Irish as it was English. One factor was the Industrial Revolution, attracting Irish immigrants to work in the new industries springing up in England; and later the Great Famine acted as an enormous spur to emigration, continuing for most of the following 150 years, to the point that Ireland’s population today, possibly uniquely in the world, is lower than it was in 1840.
There has also been a North-South divide in operation. Of course, Liverpool is exceptional in that it has long been essentially an Irish city, which was still sending an Irish Nationalist MP to the House of Commons as late as 1929. But the traditionally high recusant population in the North of England, together with mass Irish immigration to the industrial cities of Lancashire and Yorkshire, has historically gone hand in hand with a sectarianism not as fierce as that of Ireland or Scotland, but still strong in recent generations in a way that hasn’t been the case in London or other southern cities. But it does remain the case that, while England’s old rivalries with France or Spain are mostly forgotten, its tradition of anti-Catholicism has been inseparable from its often unhappy relationship with Ireland.
What came to be seen as ghetto Catholicism, however, wasn’t as negative as it has often been portrayed. Immigrant communities are often marked by strong religious observance, as they face upheaval, economic pressures, hostility from the surrounding population and anxiety over loss of their roots. In those circumstances, traditional religion offers not just a sustaining faith but also the comfort of a supportive community.
In the long term, especially with society as a whole becoming more secular, observance tends to decline as a community becomes wealthier and more assimilated. Recent studies of Jewish life in the United States have shown that, outside of the tight-knit ultra-Orthodox communities, religious observance is in rapid decline.
Something similar has been happening with Irish Catholicism in England, especially since in recent decades many of the popular observances that set Catholics apart from the surrounding society have disappeared. But it’s not hard today to see the Irish background influence. Even if England is no longer importing its priests from Ireland, which can’t ordain priests in enough numbers even to sustain the clergy at home, the surnames of priests and bishops very often betray an Irish background. Indeed, that may underestimate the Irish influence, as it used to be common for Italian or Polish immigrants to marry Irish women.
But we may be approaching a time when the strong Irish Catholicism that used to define so many English cities seems as remote as Newman and Manning. Today, much of the Catholic community is Irish in a sentimental way, and, at the risk of stereotyping, it could be that the Irish love of alcohol and football survives longer than the old religious allegiances.
As is often the case, the problem is one of secularisation, and the familiar story of an immigrant community becoming more assimilated. In a more secular, multicultural environment, English Catholicism may find all sorts of cultural resources to help it revive. The traditional Irish influence may well be one of these, though it is unlikely ever to be as dominant as it once was.
Jon Anderson is a freelance writer
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (05/6/15).