In the aftermath of the Second World War, governments across Europe began the task of creating their first universal health care systems and welfare states, spurred on by the demands of working class people determined to ensure that the poverty and unemployment of the 1930s, which provided such fertile ground for the rise to fascism, would never again be repeated. Even by the standards of a continent that had been ravaged by Nazism and six years of total war, Ireland’s standard of living for the majority of people was appalling. Its infant mortality rate was the worst in Europe. In 1949, one out of every 16 children died before they reached the age of five.
In 1950, in a bid to reverse Ireland’s abysmal public health record, Clann na Poblactha Minister Noel Browne introduced the Mother and Child Scheme, a programme that aimed to provide free health care to all mothers and children up to the age of sixteen. It was a modest proposal when compared to the British National Health Service, introduced by Aneurin Bevan two years earlier. The Mother and Child Scheme came up against the determined opposition of the Catholic Church, which hysterically claimed that free health care was “communist”, an “invasion of family rights” and “would constitute a readymade instrument for future totalitarian aggression”. In April 1951 John Charles McQuaid, the Archbishop of Dublin, penned a letter to then Taoiseach John A Costello outlining the Church’s disapproval of the scheme. Such was the power the hierarchy had over elected governments in Ireland, the bill was immediately scrapped and Browne was forced to resign. Universal free health care was never achieved in Ireland. The bishops cared greatly for the spiritual well being of the poorer sections of Irish society. They would ensure that their souls were well nourished and cared for; their physical bodies, on the other hand, were free to succumb to sickness, hunger and disease.
The success of the Yes side in last Friday’s referendum marks a continuing shift in the attitudes of Irish people towards the Catholic Church, with appeals from priests and bishops for people to vote No going largely unheeded, particularly among the urban working class and the young. Considering that homosexuality was only decriminalised in Ireland in 1993 and the prohibition of divorce wasn’t repealed until 1996, the overwhelming endorsement of same sex marriage is an impressive victory for progressive forces in the country. It was a welcome defeat the likes of the Iona Institute who revel in spewing hatred against people based on their sexual orientation or anyone who dares to diverge from their Victorian definition of what they believe constitutes a ‘family’.
Although this victory is an important step towards becoming a more equal and progressive society, Ireland still has a long way to go. Hospitals, although publicly funded, are still controlled by the church and religious institutions, including the Bon Secours nuns who were responsible for the appalling abuse that saw 800 dead babies buried in a septic tank behind a Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway. Schools continue to be controlled by the church, with systematic job discrimination practiced against LGBT and atheist teachers.
The equality espoused by the Fine Gael/Labour regime and business groups during the referendum campaign represented a distinctly neoliberal vision of equality. Their equality is one in which everyone can equally compete in the marketplace without hindrance. Their equality doesn’t extend to the 138,000 Irish children living in poverty or those forced to sleep on the streets because of landlord vermin charging extortionate rents. The Irish regime only supports equality providing it doesn’t negatively impact on the interests of capital.
Equality in Ireland also does not yet apply to women, who continue to forfeit control of their own bodies to the state once they get pregnant. Life-saving abortions are denied because the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution equates the life of a foetus with the life of a woman. As a result of this amendment, “pro-life” Ireland allowed Savita Halappanavar die of septicaemia rather than abort a miscarrying foetus. “Pro-life” Ireland denied Miss Y, a rape victim, access to abortion. Instead, she was forced to undergo a caesarian section against her will.
The Irish Constitution, a key author of which was Archbishop McQuaid, displays a medieval attitude towards women. Article 41.2 states that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” It continues to say that: “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.” To the Catholic hierarchy, the bodies of women are special arenas for church control. They are mere vessels, whose role in life is to marry, have children and tend to housework. Historically in Ireland, childcare was seen as the sole responsibility of the mother – a worldview that proved convenient for a state that refused to properly invest in public services. The life of the mother was to be defined only by childbearing, drudgery and mass on Sunday. Any hint of diverting from the Church’s puritanical decrees on when and how she could engage in sexual activity would see a woman condemned to the Catholic slave camps known as the Magdalene Laundries. If a child happened to be born out of wedlock they were cast into the mother and baby homes, segregated from society and branded “illegitimate”. The Church’s fixation on the sex lives of others arguably reached peak creepy when, following intense discussions among some of the most senior of bishops in Ireland, a ban on tampons was issued in the 1940s, with Archbishop McQuaid expressing concern that they “could harmfully stimulate young girls at an impressionable age”.
Just as opposition to social progress in Britain– votes for women, the creation of the NHS, the introduction of minimum wage – stemmed from the Conservative Party, the bulwark of reaction in Ireland was the Catholic Church. This institution denied Irish people access to universal free health care; it physically and sexually abused children in a systematic way; it supported fascism and condemned those who fought against it; it told gay people they were evil and perverted, leading to thousands of LGBT school children having to endure horrific bullying; it practiced industrial scale slavery in the Magdalene Laundries and it dumped at least 800 dead babies – starved, neglected and abused – into a septic tank full of shit. All of these horrors were allowed to occur in Catholic “pro-life” Ireland.
This “Catholic” Ireland, with all its ingrained sexism, misogyny, violence, cruelty and creepiness, is fading away, but not fast enough. The victory of the Yes side last week is just another step towards us achieving a socially just, secular society, free from the domination of religious establishments weirdly obsessed with sex. Only a small minority of Irish Catholics attend mass every Sunday (11%), compared with 1984, when over 90% of Catholics did so. Working class communities, who suffered the lion’s share of the Catholic Church’s brutality throughout the twentieth century, last week resolutely rejected their message of bigotry. The Church’s hold on our country is weakening.
Long may its demise continue.