Ireland's Child Care Institutions during the 20th. Century. Fo'T: The most vivid and passionate stories - banished babies, cruel orphanages, old abuses of power - have concerned things that went unnoticed, or at least unarticulated, at the time. News has often had to be redefined, not as the latest sensation but as that which everybody knew all along yet could not say.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A PENNY FOR A PENANCE by Eddie Holt

... Connect: It's 55 years since the "penny catechism" was first published. Sometimes known as "McQuaid's catechism", the green-covered book "approved by the archbishops and bishops of Ireland" has sold 32,000 copies since its re-publication 10 years ago. Like the Faith of Our Fathers CD that became a bestseller a decade ago, the catechism appeals to traditionalists and nostalgics.

In 1951, when it was published, Eamon de Valera and Winston Churchill were returned to power as taoiseach of Ireland and prime minister of Britain. Ireland's Ernest Walton and Britain's John Cockcroft won the Nobel Prize for physics. An Austin A40 car rose £31 in price to £685. In Europe, the final Nazis convicted of war crimes were hanged. It was the year too in which the US condemned Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to execution for spying. JD Salinger had The Catcher in the Rye published and Britain's youngest Tory candidate in that year's general election was 26-year-old Margaret Roberts. She married Denis Thatcher that year too as her still war-damaged country held its Festival of Britain. The BBC proclaimed: "People do not like momentous events such as war and disaster to be read by the female voice."

Clearly, it wasn't only Ireland that was a different country then. But more than a half century later, Ireland appears even more transformed than Britain, Europe or the US.

Instead of promises of "indulgences", we hear, for instance, guff about "tracker mortgages". In that sense, of course, perhaps little has changed. In 1951, the catechism assured us that for making and saying the sign of the cross, we were guaranteed "an indulgence of 100 days". Made and said using "holy water", the indulgence was tripled. An Act of Contrition yielded "an indulgence of three years" or "a plenary indulgence if recited daily for an entire month". Few people under 50 will recall the distinction between "plenary" and "partial" indulgences. ("Plenary" meant remission of the entire punishment whereas "partial" commutes only a portion.) Few people over 30 will know that a "tracker mortgage" is one where the interest rate is variable but will always be a fixed percentage above the European Central Bank (ECB) base rate. (At least, I didn't and had to seek a definition.) Yet, despite today's irritating, gushy and breathless hard sell of financial "products" - when, if anything, they are "processes" - there are other notable differences between Catholic Tiger Ireland in 1951 and current Celtic Tiger Ireland. Question 249 in McQuaid's catechism illustrates the point. "What is forbidden by the fifth commandment?" it asks. Answer: "The fifth commandment forbids murder and suicide, and all other acts that inflict bodily injury on ourselves or on others."

Whoa! Whoa! What about "mortifications" and sundry practices of flagellation - self and others - that were revered and encouraged at the time? What about the savage beatings in schools, particularly in industrial schools? Question 251 asks "What are they bound to do who have caused bodily injury to others?" The answer makes clear that "they who have inflicted bodily injury on others are bound to make good the loss they have caused". This isn't, of course, always possible. But even when it is, do you really believe the "archbishops and bishops of Ireland" have attempted to conform to the words "approved" by their often hypocritical predecessors? Have they seriously tried "to make good the loss" their Church has caused?

Perhaps some have but as a body, the hierarchy has seemed excessively consumed with protecting itself. It continues to be too. Anyway, from Question 1, "Who made the world?" (answer: "God made the world") to the final question (443) the green penny catechism allows us to see a country that was, in effect, a theocracy. Along the way, such arcane matters as limbo, actual grace and sacramentals are defined. Perhaps their equivalents today are those absurd financial "products", return risk and APR. The "Paddy and Mary Solemns", who attended weekly confessions, practised penance and amassed indulgences are mostly dead now. They have been replaced by people who not only understand but presumably believe ardently in tracker mortgages, return risk, APR and the rest of the advertising guff.

The theocracy that was Ireland has been replaced by an economy. Half a century from now - say in 2056 - are we likely to view the tracker mortgage crowd as we now characteristically view, with a certain scepticism and arguably even mild disdain, the amassing of indulgences? Who knows? But as banks get bigger and wealthier while churches lose congregations and even close, it's as well to be aware of the transitory nature of ideologies. Written on the back of the penny catechism is the phrase " . . . what is most deplorable of all, how tranquilly they [ cultured and knowledgeable people ignorant of religious 'duties'] repose there . . ."

In today's Ireland, where the currency is loot not indulgences, will people not come to laugh at and be embarrassed by this age of gushy flogging of financial "products"? Make up your own mind.