Pondering our religious past... and God’s role in future Ireland

If all religious practice was banned would it have a beneficial effect? So asks John Arnold in his weekly column
Pondering our religious past... and God’s role in future Ireland

SACRED: An army operation at Mount Melleray Abbey in 1956. John Arnold recalls visits there in the 1960s.

I WAS wondering there lately, if all religious practice was banned would it have a beneficial effect?

Long ago, when the English Government wanted to get rid of the Irish language and fully ‘Englishify’ this country, children caught speaking Irish were punished. When a state system of National Schooling was introduced into this country in the 1830s, one of its main aims was the teaching of English and the ‘normalisation’ of that language. Children in National Schools were strongly discouraged from speaking Irish. A ‘stick without a carrot’ method was used!

The ‘tally stick’, or as ‘twas called in Gaeilge, the ‘bata scoir’, was introduced. Children, who generally came from native Irish speaking homes, attending the schools had to wear a wooden stick on a piece of string around their necks. Each time they used an Irish word or phrase, a notch was cut into the stick by the teacher or assistant teacher. At the end of the day, the child would be punished according to how many notches they had on their stick. It was a well thought out policy to try and further subdue ‘ the wild Irish’.

Did the policy work? It’s hard to say really as just over a decade later came the awful Famine of the 1840s which saw a million Irish die of starvation and as many leave the shores of their native land — most of them never returned.

The dual effects of compulsory English and the Famine should have wiped out the language but it lingered and survived, though never again really flourished.

In the 1901 Census, my great-grandfather who was born in 1843, just before the Famine began, recorded that he could speak ‘Irish and English’. Strangely, ten years later, in the 1911 Census he has only ‘English’ recorded. My aunt Josie (Johannah) was born in that Year of Our Lord, 1911, and often told me that when she was a child in the 1920s, visiting her maternal relations in Castlelyons, she used to hear Irish spoken but only by “the old people and only when they’d be talking in hushed tones about some matter not suitable for young listners”.

So, in the case of Irish, a blanket ban didn’t succeed. However, while we magnificently honoured Pearse and his brave comrades of 1916 recently, we still haven’t taken on board his philosophy “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam” — a country without a language is a country without a soul.”

There are two reasons why I am presently contemplating the future of religion as we have known it — and wondering if indeed ‘all’s changed, utterly changed’.

One is because of a book I read and the second reason is a visit I made to a so-called sacred spot.

Firstly, the book. It must be in our house with years but over Christmas I found or re-found a beautiful little 96-page book The History Of Mount Melleray Abbey by Stephen J. Moloney, O. Cist. The author traces the arrival of the Cistercian Order (named from Citeaux in France) in Ireland in 1142 when the first monastery was founded in Co. Louth and given the name Honey Fountain — ‘Mellifont’ in Latin.

In 1817, the ancient Cistercian abbey of Melleray near the town of Chateau-briand in Brittany was restored to the Order, having been suppressed during the French Revolution of 1789. The restored abbey flourished and by 1827, close on 200 monks were in the community. Of this number more than 70 were Irish, amongst them the Prior, Waterford- born Fr Vincent Ryan.

Fr Vincent had a longing to set up an Irish foundation from the French monastery. He travelled to Ireland in 1831 seeking a suitable tract of land and in June that year leased a farm of 150 acres near Rathmore in Co Kerry.

Meanwhile, a change of government in France saw monastic suppression once more. The Melleray monks faced imprisonment or deportation and 64 exiled Cistercians arrived at Cobh. They travelled to Rathmore but were disappointed that the farm was in no way spacious enough to accommodate and provide work for them.

Meanwhile, Fr Vincent continued in his quest for a more suitable ‘home’. An offer was made of 600 acres of mountain land by the owner Sir Richard Keane of Cappoquin. The landlord and the Cistercian monk agreed terms and Fr Vincent took possession of the gamekeeper’s lodge at Scrahan. Unlocking the door, he said aloud ‘In nomine Domine’ (In the Name of God). Soon, the Cistercian community arrived from Rathmore and Mount Melleray had begun.

The monks toiled to reclaim the land and make it into a farm. They transformed a mountain, added more land and since 1833, Mount Melleray has been a Cistercian Monastery. Its community grew so much that from Melleray groups of monks were sent to set up new ‘foundations’ all over the world.

I remember in the 1960s when my grandmother used spend maybe a week in Melleray during the summer and we’d collect her at the end of her stay. The place was a hive of activity with the farm, secondary school, guest house and the seemingly endless procession of monks on their way to the church.

I still love to visit Mount Melleray, it’s a haven of solitude and calm in a busy, busy world.

The closing sentence of the little book is as follows: “And so, as we approach the closing decade of the 20th century, we thank God for all his blessings, enabling the community to continue to sing His praises in Mount Melleray down through the years, and we look forward with confidence to the future.”

The Mount Melleray Cistercian Community is small now, reflecting the lack of vocations to all forms of religious life. The bicentenary of Mount Melleray is but 15 years away and no-one can be sure what the future holds.

The visit I made recently to what I deemed a sacred spot is only a few miles from here. In the townland of Ballinterry in this parish, a share of land reclamation work is presently going on. The farm contained at one stage what could be deemed an ‘episcopal residence’.

I stood last week just near the site of what was probably a mud-walled thatched cabin — one can still trace what was probably one gable end of the house. Be that as it may, it was here around 1738 that Fr John O’Brien, parish priest of the United Parish of Castlelyons and Rathcormac, came to live. It was during the Penal Times and, just like the attempt in the 1830s to wipe out Irish, a huge effort was made under to suppress the Catholic faith.

In spite of dungeon, fire and sword, the ‘old religion’ survived and after Catholic Emancipation, flourished once more.

John O’Brien was a native of Kildorrery in North Cork and when seminaries were not allowed in Ireland, he, like hundreds of other clerical students, went to Europe for his sacred studies. Two hundred and seventy years ago this very month, in January, 1748, he was appointed Bishop of Ross and Cloyne — these two physically separated Dioceses having been spiritually ‘united’ some years previously.

Not alone did Bishop O’Brien have to minister under the strictures of the Penal Laws, but he also faced huge problems in his own Church. Priests were straying far from the tenets of obedience, charity, sanctity and chastity. In many cases, temporal power seemed more important to priests than spiritual values.

It was a Church in disarray — we talk of ‘Church scandals’ in recent times, sure they are nothing new at all!

Those were dark days in Ireland with huge uncertainty especially as to the future of the Catholic Church — very like the situation that pertains today.

No-one can tell the future. We can safely say that religion will probably continue to be practised, but perhaps in a far different manner from what we knew in the past.

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