This is getting to feel a bit like surfing. The longer one stays on this particular wave, the less secure one feels. But be that as it may, I think there is still more to be said.
One element in Irish Christianity to which I have alluded is what one might call the folk element. I watched a programme on the Electric Television some months ago. Three men shared a boat in Ireland; one of them was Dara O'Briain, the other two were British—Griff Rhys Jones, I think, and an irritating Rory. Somewhere in the sticks they came across a holy well, and there was by it a sight familiar to those who frequent such places. A tree stood hard by, festooned with rags of cloth. One of the Englishmen opened his mouth to say something caustic, but was forestalled by Dara O'Briain who said 'I want to mock that, but I don't want you mocking it.'
Here we have the Irish paradox. Ireland is a country that is intensely proud of its own culture, not least that it has managed to keep it alive under the most unpropitious circumstances. It is highly tenacious of it, but also aware that other cultures have despised it, and non-Irish educated people these days are at best patronising about it. Irish people, especially intelligent and educated Irish people (and there are still plenty of Englishmen who think that that is an oxymoron) feel this tug within them. The same Dara O'Briain, when a guest on that smugfest quiz Q.I. was asked by the host Stephen Fry to comment on various patron saints, among superior chortles from guests and audience. O'Briain got right up on his hind legs and objected to what amounted to the racism being expressed. He is not, I understand, a practising Catholic, but he is very sensitive to the fact that the chattering classes are allowed to be as patronising and contemptuous as they wish about Catholicism and Irishness without the slightest need to devote any energy to understanding what they are criticising. Both are self-evidently beneath contempt.
'But, but……' —I can hear people protesting right now—'surely Irishness has never been so popular. Look at all those Irish pubs, look at Riverdance, look at Enya, look at 'Celtic Spirituality'. This kind of Disney view of Ireland, sometimes called 'Oirishness' has substituted in many (non-Irish) people's minds for the real thing. A charming, out of touch, mediæval cute little land of leprechauns, shillelaghs, and Guinness keeps people from engaging with the reality of a land whose people are peculiarly articulate, with high standards of education (in everything but religion) and a unique and valuable culture which is itself in danger of being Oirished out of existence.
The Irish are keenly aware of how they are viewed, and it makes them somewhat allergic to the somewhat stranger manifestations of folk religion, like rag-festooned trees (and yes, I know that in the past, and even here and there today, such things could and can also be seen in England). This in itself distances the educated Irish from Catholicism, because the dearth of serious catechesis in the last 40 years has exposed them to the stranger elements of folk religion without the intellectual apparatus to understand the real depths of the faith. All they have got has been weak hymnody, poor sermons, inadequate religious instruction—and now clerical child abuse and irresponsible bishops.
That is one result. There is another, which is no less dangerous. I don't think that the Irish have any problem at all with the spiritual dimension of things. It was what (real) Celtic spirituality brought to Catholicism in general. The drive of the Platonic element in Christianity, vitally important though it is, tended to create an attitude to the material creation that was ambivalent at best. Matter was at the other end of the spectrum to Spirit, and the closer one wanted to draw to God, the more one should despise matter. The great Christological crises of the first centuries centred mostly around this strange fact that God, pure Spirit, could take a material nature without diminishing what He was.
I alluded in an earlier post to the (probable) fact that St Patrick never studied Plato in any thoroughgoing way. His education stopped in his mid-teens, and only restarted when he trained for the priesthood in Gaul. At any event, the Irish have never seen any problem with finding God in the material. They have seen wonders all around them, all the time. Sacraments make total sense. The old Celtic gods were primal forces in nature, unpredictable. Christianity (which spread throughout Ireland without any real opposition within a single generation, it is said) gave a whole new meaning to the world around them, and the introduction of the Latin script gave the a means to articulate this joy. The introduction of Egyptian-style penitential monasticism to Ireland was also deeply creative. The desert is a tough place to live, without much to look at, but Ireland is deeply beautiful. Even that monastic rock in the Atlantic, Skellig Michael, lifts one's mind to God. Imagine looking at a sunset from there and not wondering at the might and glory of God who could create such a thing. St Kevin stood up to his neck in the freezing water, but he did so at Glendalough, a truly lovely place. The Christian Romans didn't really look much at scenery, (many pagans did, though—think of Horace, or the villas around the Bay of Naples) but the Irish enjoy looking at everything and everyone with a perpetual and vivid curiosity and see nothing wrong in it.
What I'm trying to get to is that, deprived of proper orthodox catechesis, many Irish people will continue to look around them for the spiritual, because they expect to find it in the world around them. So they will hare off to Ballinspittle to look at moving statues, they will go to Achill Island to hear the latest message from God through Christine Gallagher, they will listen to John Bird's latest predictions concerning the end of the world……
So, there are two results from the atrociously poor catechesis of the last fifty years. The first is a tendency among the more highly-educated elite to throw everything to do with Catholicism over (though with a rather uneasy conscience, because the Irish are naturally spiritual). There's no fear of them becoming Protestants, because that would be to deny their own history. The other result is to flee after signs and wonders.
To believe nothing, in other words, or to believe anything.
For God's sake, for the people's sake, serious catechesis, well adapted for the intelligent, inquiring, mind in the modern world must be reintroduced without delay. But how, and by whom? There is a long path ahead.