A note of warning from G.K Chesterton should be heeded by anyone wishing to learn about Christianity in Ireland or anywhere else “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried”.
n his substantial new publication The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland, Professor Crawford Gribben states that his book “does not provide a history of the Irish Church, or of its theological achievements, but sets out to investigate the ways in which religious belief and behaviours have been lived out in the Irish experience of Christianity”.
Nevertheless it provides an erudite, important and detailed account of the major developments in Irish religious history from the earliest times until the present day.
Professor Gribben, from Queen’s University Belfast, has come a long way from his early upbringing as a member of a Co Antrim family “with a long commitment to the so-called Plymouth Brethren” and he has written a fascinating survey of religion in Ireland over many centuries.
This is an eminently readable book, and the author has a page-turning clarity which too few academics possess. He provides a consummate analysis of St Patrick, that most likeable of “Irish “ saints, who was actually a Roman “West Briton.” He quotes liberally from Patrick’s autobiographical “Confessio” which provides a valuable insight to the Ireland of his day, and also shows him to be a fine, humble Christian — though in my own research for various books on our “patron saint” he emerged to me as surprisingly street-wise.
Professor Gribben also sets in context the considerable contribution of St Columba, and the publication of this book coincides with the 1500th anniversary of his birth, and also the 100th anniversary of the partition of Ireland. The author takes in the broad and yet detailed story of the rise of Christian Ireland, but it is the demise of this same “Christian Ireland” which provides an all too familiar picture.
Gribben claims, rightly, that, “the Irish experience of secularization was sudden, shocking and decisive. On both sides of the border, the tipping-point may have occurred in the mid-1990s”.
He notes that in Northern Ireland “the peace process led to sustained efforts to de-politicize religious identity” and that weekly church attendance declined from over 60% in 1968 to just over 40% in 2004. Church attendance in the Republic also dropped dramatically from 91% attending Mass in the 1970s, as the grip of Catholic social teaching began to relax, and the scandal of clerical child sex abuse and sexual profligacy led many people to lose their respect for formal religion and many of its so-called “representatives”.
However it was not just the child-abuse monsters like Father Brendan Smith or the “secret “ children of Bishop Eamonn Casey or Father Michael Cleary that put people off.
It might seem that Christianity is doomed in the long-term, but it has shown remarkable resilience over many centuries, and Professor Gribben is not without hope.
In this exceptional and significant book he states “after the failure of religious nationalism, what looks like irredeemable failure, might actually be a second chance. For the old Augustines still point to a heavenly kingdom, as new Patricks shape the rise of another Christian Ireland”.
(Professor Gribben’s book is published in hardback by the Oxford University Press, at £25)