Popular Catholicism in 20th-Century Ireland

Locality, Identity and Culture

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Síle de Cléir
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , October
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


While the title of this book—Popular Catholicism in 20th-Century Ireland: Locality, Identity and Culture—denotes a study of all Ireland, the content focuses on Limerick. As a native of this city, author Síle de Cléir explains her focus. She elucidates the strong devotional emphasis concentrated among its fifty thousand citizens, where, between 1920 and 1960, only one in fifty were non-Catholic. Compared with other urban enclaves in the young nation, Limerick’s industries enabled many of its residents, often rural-born, to secure steady employment during difficult economic times. A compact municipal center, with its diocesan parishes and its churches run by religious orders, schoolchildren, strollers, and workers were able to stop in a sanctuary for prayer during their day. Ethnographer de Cléir challenges the stereotypical notion pervasive in her homeland that the city of Limerick stands only for grimy facades, criminal elements, and poverty as popularized in Frank McCourt’s bestselling 1996 memoir Angela’s Ashes.

De Cléir excerpts generously from Críostóir O’Flynn’s judicious There Is an Isle: A Limerick Boyhood, which came out in 1998, two years after McCourt’s cutting account. Supported by interviews with those who grew up in the same generation as these two raconteurs, de Cléir documents the popularity of rituals through which Limerick’s faithful conveyed the ambiance of constant religious activity beyond habitual Sunday mass.

De Cléir applies a dynamic of “meaning-making” to her fieldwork. She takes neither a reductionist nor an essentialist perspective in her presentation of religion, highlighting its “events, objects, or feelings” emanating from its complex formulations labeled “spiritualities” (19). De Cléir relies upon everyday experiences rather than extraordinary moments in the routine of the dozen believers she listens to and records. They provide both commentary and critique through their frank disdain and nostalgic reveries. As elders, they remain the last participants in a pre-conciliar Catholicism, which dominated their lives at home and in their education, occupations, and recreation. Rosaries were carried about the city openly, some factories hosted occasional services, and the regimen of sodalities, novenas, confraternities, and myriad associations for good works afforded bored students, restless teens, harried mothers, and weary fathers all a chance to get away from crowded flats to socialize. 

This fraternal energy countered the “palpable sense of fear” which some of de Cléir’s informants recall vividly. Peer pressure and diligent scrutiny in dense neighborhoods discouraged anyone who contemplated open defiance against the norm. A “culture of affliction” permeated this Irish Catholic mentality (123). Young women who learned by chance—if vaguely and confusingly—about the facts of human reproduction scurried to confession; one girl, after her collation (light snack) during a period of fasting, was chastised by a priest after she ate three biscuits instead of the one permitted with her evening cocoa. Yet clerical guidance, in a society without therapists, dispensed common sense in (at least some) conversations, and spiritual succor by absolution.

Mapping a deep network of mores, de Cléir scours three decades of the lost-and-found sections of archived local newspapers. Her diligence rewards readers, who learn how the mundane became sanctified by where people were and at what time their observance occurred on their errands or breaks from worldlier duties. De Cléir tracks two women who lost rosaries, placed notices, and had one of their pairs of precious beads given to the wrong woman—these identical predicaments happening about the same time and place. De Cléir charts May Eve bonfires, the massive 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, and pilgrimages to Croagh Patrick or Lourdes, which demonstrate the solidarity of a “native Irish” polity, caricatured or patronized by some of its heirs.

While de Cléir never diminishes the damage done by ecclesiastical scrupulosity, she relates lively celebrations at Christmas, Easter, and jubilees. She captures the aesthetic and sensual creativity of the long mid-century as channeled into textiles, song, art, and, best of all, subversive wit: a congregants’ stratagem such as “manipulation of ritual language” to poke fun by nicknames inserted into hymns, or jibes mocking papal or priestly pomp. Not all of the humor is harmless, though, as slights against Protestants and the city’s small Jewish community surface through the evidence of “robust” anecdotes. 

Overall, Síle de Cléir strives within this scholarly text to season her academic theory with thoughtful recollections, drawn from the twelve interviews, catechisms, prayer books, and ephemera. These are well framed within a wide range of Irish scholarship. 

Although de Cléir’s title will cause audiences to expect a nationwide survey, her localized purview makes Limerick a synecdoche for the supposedly long-sainted island. Her conclusions reiterate the themes to which these oral, written, and created sources attest. An alert laity crafted parallel, grassroots responses to the mandated religious observances of the Church. Some of these amplified Catholic discipline, some ameliorated its austerity. Sly cleverness remains a leitmotif throughout this book; folks supported the living and the dead with invention and imagination. Communal challenges to devotional tedium or imposed authority eased the burdens on conscience, obligation, and body placed on everyday parishioners. One of them sums up this vanished realm: “it was our whole life, it was like breathing in the air” (193).

About the Reviewer(s): 

John L. Murphy is Humanities Coordinator at DeVry University.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Síle de Cléir is a Lecturer in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Limerick, Ireland.


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