Religion and Society

In 1904, religion played a much greater role in Irish society than it does in 2004. The 1901 census showed that the vast majority of Irish people were professed Roman Catholics, with a Protestant majority only in the north of the country. There was some conflict between the two traditions. The autobiography of Sean O'Casey shows how the divide was present at every level of society, from earliest childhood and upwards, when little Johnny is told that Protestant boys don't sing Fenian songs.

Education was one of the areas where each church wished to keep control; not just at the political level of the on-going University Question, finally resolved in 1908 with the Universities Act, but even more at the level of National School appointments. A contentious case in Tyrone in June 1904, had its roots in conflict over the assignment of a Catholic teacher to a school in a mainly Presbyterian area. The religious, in fact, took on much of what is now considered the State's responsibility in education, and often provided the opportunity for children to break out of the cycle of poverty.

The influence of the religious was even more pervasive in the case of the voluntary charitable institutions, which looked after the poor, the ill and the old in society, a society which provided no social welfare as we know it today. The religious orders ran most of the dozens of orphanages and other charitable institutions in the country and thousands of people benefited from their care.

Title page of 1912 Bible owned by Samuel Beckett

The Holy Bible, containing the old and new testaments, translated by His Majesty's special command. Appointed to be read in churches, Oxford, printed at the University Press, and sold by the Association for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 37, Dawson Street, Dublin, no date. The bookplate is pasted on the verso of the front free endpaper of the Bible, and reads: 'This premium was adjudged to Samuel Beckett for diligence and attendance at Tullow Sunday School, 13 of December 1912, Rev. Geo: W.N. Clark.' Tullow was Beckett's local parish at Foxrock and Beckett was 6 1/2 years when it was awarded to him. The Bible contains 6 coloured maps at the end and mention is made of maps like these in his play 'Waiting for Godot'.

Dublin City Public Libraries
Title page of 1912 Bible owned by Samuel Beckett
Dublin City Public Libraries

Title page of 1912 Bible owned by Samuel Beckett

The Holy Bible, containing the old and new testaments, translated by His Majesty's special command. Appointed to be read in churches, Oxford, printed at the University Press, and sold by the Association for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 37, Dawson Street, Dublin, no date. The bookplate is pasted on the verso of the front free endpaper of the Bible, and reads: 'This premium was adjudged to Samuel Beckett for diligence and attendance at Tullow Sunday School, 13 of December 1912, Rev. Geo: W.N. Clark.' Tullow was Beckett's local parish at Foxrock and Beckett was 6 1/2 years when it was awarded to him. The Bible contains 6 coloured maps at the end and mention is made of maps like these in his play 'Waiting for Godot'.

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This involvement with so many aspects of society gave the religious, and in particular the priests, a certain level of political power. A visiting Redemptorist in Limerick, Fr Creagh, whipped up the populace to such an extent that there was a virtual pogrom against the Jewish community in that city in 1904. In Joyce's Ivy Day in the Committee Room, one of the characters mentions that he is sure he has secured a vote because he dropped the priest's name; and, in 1907 when the scandal of The Playboy of the Western World broke out, the priests were at the forefront of those denouncing the play as immoral.

But there was a further element in the role of religion in society. This lay in religious observance; each church was effectively a centre of the community, where everyone met on a weekly basis. In the Catholic Church, attendance at mass, at retreats and benediction, at the annual Corpus Christi processions, was both a way of meeting people in the community and an entertainment in itself. In addition, the bazaars, fetes and concerts which were constantly held as fund-raisers for charitable institutions run by both the Catholic and Protestant churches provided social activity for every level of society.

During the summer of 1904 these fetes included the Mirus, which was held in the Royal Dublin Society in aid of Mercer's hospital; the Titania, held at Blackrock and opened by Sir Horace Plunkett on 17th June, and the Iona Bazaar in Glasnevin which was held in aid of St Columba's Church. St Columba's was one of the many new Catholic parishes which were established during the early years of the 19th century and included Holy Cross, Clonliffe, St Patrick's in Ringsend and Our Lady of Dolours at Dolphins Barn. Joyce gives a great sense of the anticipation of a child going to such a bazaar in his story Araby and uses the fireworks from a bazaar as the backdrop of the Nausicaa episode in Ulysses.

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