It needs saying again: Irish Christianity/Catholicism is not, and never has been, like that of any other nation. Its roots do not lie really within the Roman Empire, but has other influences, many entirely its own.
It has long been suggested, with a pretty fair degree of certainty, that there are strong links with Egyptian monasticism. This makes enormous sense to me, and explains so much. It explains the strong penitential tradition, for instance, and it also explains the unliturgical expression of the faith.
When St Anthony the Abbot walled himself up in the old fort at Pispir for twenty years, has it never occurred to anyone that he must have gone those twenty years without once receiving Holy Communion or even attending Mass? Those early monastic communities expressed their faith in extreme asceticism, in the recitation of the psalms. They were not coenobitic monks, but hermits or at least ideorhythmic monks, and this is the idea that they took to the far coast of Ireland.
St Patrick was educated as a child but abducted before that education was complete; he never went on to study philosophy, and so Irish Christianity developed its own outlook on the world; free of that platonic distrust of lowly matter it embraced the material world and loved it as God's (albeit fallen) creation.
Ireland never really developed that Imperial system of dioceses and bishops; many think that Ireland never even had a secular clergy until the coming of the Normans. There were simply monks, and there were lay folk. Enormous monasteries might have had one priest to do the sacramental things: it is not impossible that this one priest may even have been in Episcopal orders; at any rate, the bishops were monks living under the authority of the abbot. When Columbanus set up a monastery in Gaul, the local bishops were spitting feathers because of his amused disregard of their authority; he clearly saw his own authority as greater than theirs.
And then there's the liturgy. Have you ever looked at any of the most ancient Irish monastic sites? There are churches, but it would be more accurate to call them tiny little chapels. For the most part, these buildings could have just about accommodated an altar, a priest and a server. Where did the laity go? Where, even, did the monks go? In those early days, did they go to Mass much at all?
With the coming of the Normans, churches got a bit larger, but not much. An Irish Cathedral (outside Dublin anyway, or the Pale) was a small affair. And for the most parts, the Anglo-Normans assimilated to the Irish culture rather than the other way about.
So, if not in the parish church, where was the locus or perhaps focus, of the faith of the Irish? Well, for one thing, it was in the home. Like that of the monks, even the Irish laity's spirituality was ideorhythmic; rosary, holy wells, saints, pilgrimages, penances (Lough Derg, Croagh Patrick), and enthusiastic going to funerals, even those of strangers. They learnt to go to Mass, surely, and developed a love for the sacraments, but an Irish congregation at Mass is a very different thing to a congregation in any other land. They pray, fervently, at Mass, but I do not think, in general, and surely there must be exceptions, that they could be said to pray the Mass itself, even now. The Mass is something that is done in their presence, but even now any idea of direct communal participation is foreign. The responses are muttered by each person at his own speed, the Creed or Gloria being a sort of subterranean murmur that begins, and vaguely ends. People stand, kneel, sit, more or less at random. Mass is rarely more than Low Mass, celebrated quickly. 'High Mass' is a low Mass with a choir singing hymns; it's a very rare parish where the congregation would join in.
Foreign visitors are often shocked at this. But it would be a profound mistake to read into it—as far too many do—that the Irish are entirely unserious about their religion. That is absolutely not the case; it is just that the accent is (very) different to most other places.
And it is not without its advantages; for the Reformation to (largely) succeed in England, it was necessary only to change the liturgy. For English Catholics, 'it is the Mass that matters', and to deprive them of the Mass was to deprive them of the faith. For the Irish it worked differently. The churches were all taken, the liturgy changed, as in England, but people still carried on much as before. Their faith had enough sustenance coming from where it has always come: they continued to go to holy wells, say the rosary, go on pilgrimages, and, when they could, attend Mass at a Mass rock. They educated their children in the home or in hedge schools, just as they had done for generations.
The religion did not depend on the priest: in some ways, one might say that the priest was more of a political figure; a sort of alternative jurisdiction in an occupied country. I'll say more about this in another post.
Suffice it to say that Irish Catholicism has it in itself to survive this present crisis. But for something like a hundred and fifty years people have been badgering the Irish Catholics to adopt the Liturgical Movement. In the last forty years, all the things that have kept them going through the ages have been decried. I was at St Kieran's Well in Co Meath a few weeks ago; my elderly aunt commented sadly to me that when she was young, there were always crowds of people there; on that day it was only she and I. To some extent, the Irish themselves have been keen to abandon all this. For centuries this stuff has been dismissed as 'peasant religion', fit only for uneducated people, and if there is anything true, it is that the Irish value education. That charge, though, would be a telling one, particularly as there are aspects of this 'folk religion' which really do tend to the superstitious.
I have a lot more to say on this, but I'll leave it till the next post.