Category Archives: Religion

Happy Blogiversary: Five years, 500 posts

This is my 500th post since I launched the blog on 22 July 2012, with the goal of publishing “research and writing about Irish and Irish-American history and contemporary issues.”

This post also coincides with the publication of my latest story for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It’s about Ireland’s Great Famine, based on several letters written to a Catholic priest in 1847.

The Published Stories section of the blog contains all of my Irish-related work for outside newspapers, magazines and websites since 2000. Best of the Blog contains my annual round up of each year’s most significant stories, and other favorites exclusive to the site. See the list of St. Patrick’s churches I’ve visited, and check out other Irish interest places to visit.

Angie Drobnic Holan, my wife, has lovingly contributed to this effort as webmaster and editor. She has been unfailingly supportive, including the many evenings when she implored, “It’s time to turn off the computer and come to bed.”

I also want to thank my readers, especially those who subscribe to the blog via email. I appreciate the “Likes,” shares and re-tweets on social media. Sure, this blog doesn’t get the traffic of commercial sites, but l am grateful to everyone who stops by for a look, especially readers in Ireland.

Himself, at Carrigafoyle Castle, North Kerry, 2012.

In pursing my Irish history interests, I’ve been fortunate to visit numerous archives and libraries, where I obtained much valuable assistance. Among some of the places I’ve been able to visit:

My research also has benefited from the always-expanding menu of online resources. My laptop has become a time machine. It has whisked me back to 19th century Ireland and America through digitized documents and letters, newspaper archives, maps, photographs and vintage video.

Thanks again for reading the blog and supporting my work. Please keep coming back.

Northern Ireland ‘Journey’ nears critical bend in road

“The Journey,” a fictional “imagining” of the real-life partnership between unionist firebrand Dr. Ian Paisley and former IRA man Martin McGuinness, recently debuted in Washington, D.C., as part of its wider U.S. release.

The movie isn’t as awful as early reviews suggested last fall, though there is merit to that criticism. It’s worth seeing for those who follow Northern Ireland politics. The long, twisted history of the Troubles, and the actors’ thick accents, are probably too much for more casual viewers.

A line near the end of Colin Bateman’s screenplay caught my attention and could prove to be prescient in the coming weeks. It is spoken by McGuinness (Colm Meaney) to Paisely (Timothy Spall) as they are about to agree on the power-sharing deal that resulted in the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly:

This is our only opportunity to build something that will last, at least for our lifetime.

The real-life duo got the Assembly off the ground and developed such a close working relationship that they become known as  the chuckle brothers. Peace and progress flourished in Northern Ireland. But Paisley died in September 2014, and McGuinness died in March.

Now, the suspended Belfast Assembly is facing a 29 June deadline to reorganize, or the north could return to direct rule from Westminster. This matter is complicated by the Paisley-founded, pro-unionist DUP entering a Tory coalition to control the London Parliament, which will put Irish republicans on the defensive. This comes as the U.K. also begins to negotiate its exit from the European Union–Brexit–which threatens the return of a “hard border” between the north and the Republic.

At the same time, the annual Orange Order marching season, in which Protestants celebrate a 1690 military victory over Catholics, is getting underway and approaching its 12 July peak. The season always raises tensions between the two cultural and political communities in the north.

What could possibly go wrong?

What you need to know about Knock’s vision visitors

The Virgin Mary recently appeared–believers say–in the sun and clouds above Knock, the County Mayo village where she first presented herself to the faithful in 1879. Unlike that 19th century debut, viewed by 15 witnesses on a rainy evening, the latest vision at Ireland’s national Marian shrine is documented in video and photographs, quickly and easily disseminated around the world.

According to Catholic Online:

The sun appeared as an elongated shape in the videos, not as a circle. Rays of light were also captured on camera. As clouds passed before the sun, filtering out the brightest light, people were able to look directly at the vision. They reported the vision moved, and spun, a classic miracle of the sun, often associated with apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

Among the handful of secular news outlets that covered Our Lady’s alleged appearance, the tone was more skeptical, even cheeky. “Clouded vision,” said the headline in the U.K.’s Daily Mail.

This wasn’t the first digital-age sighting of the Virgin at Knock. Scores of videos claiming to show Mary’s image are posted online, in addition to sympathetic histories and pilgrimage travelogues, including a trailer for the 2016 independent film Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village.

The pilgrimage business is good for the West of Ireland. Knock airport’s 9.1 percent first quarter growth–more than 134,000 total passengers–was the highest year-over-year gain among five airports in the Republic, The Irish Times reported. Monsignor James Horan, the late priest who built the airport in the 1980s on the “foggy, boggy site” near the shrine, must be smiling from about the same altitude as the latest Marian appearance.

The 1879 apparition at Knock was a crowded affair, with the Virgin Mary joined by Saint Joseph, Saint John the Evangelist, the Lamb of God (representing Jesus Christ) and adoring angels appearing on the gabled wall of the local church. This didn’t get much immediate press attention. Word of the vision and miraculous cures spread quickly among believers, however, and published accounts began to appear by a year later. The Irish Examiner reported crowds of up to 20,000 were trekking to the village.

“A deeper and more touching outpouring of sincere faith and religious fervour it would be impossible even to conceive than what I witnessed at Knock,” an unnamed “pilgrim” wrote in a 25 September 1880 letter to the newspaper.

The same year, The Nation carried advertisements for “The Illustrated Record of the Apparitions at Knock,” a free booklet that included witness depositions, a list of miraculous cures and six images. A 1 3/4-inch diameter medal also was available for sixpence, plus postage.

Pope John Paul II visited Knock in 1979. He said:

Since I first learnt of the centenary of this Shrine, which is being celebrated this year, I have felt a strong desire to come here, the desire to make yet another pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Mother of Christ, the Mother of the Church, the Queen of Peace. Do not be surprised at this desire of mine. It has been my custom to make pilgrimages to the shrines of our Lady, starting with my earliest youth and in my own country.

John Curry was the last of the 1879 witnesses to die. In 1943, at the age of 68, he was buried without a headstone in a communal cemetery plot owned by the Little Sisters of the Poor on Long Island, New York. Recently, he was re-interred at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan.

“What you choose to believe is up to you,” Dan Barry wrote in a lovely piece for The New York Times. “This is merely the story of an Irish immigrant who died without means in Gotham obscurity, then rose to such post-life prominence that, amid considerable pageantry, the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, will celebrate his requiem Mass and pray over his new earthly home.”

I visited Knock not long after the 2001 terror attacks in America, during a month-long journalism fellowship that took me to both sides of the Irish border. I arrived at the shrine on a rainy Monday afternoon, “the busloads of believers nowhere in sight,” I wrote in my Oct. 1 journal entry. As a believer, I said the requisite prayers, but there were no apparitions that evening. In fact, my “sincere faith and religious fervour” was exhausted from having hiked to the summit of Croagh Patrick the day before. No visions up there, either, but a fantastic view and fulfilling experience.

I slept well that night at the Belmont Hotel in Knock and awoke to a bright day. I bypassed a second visit to the shrine and pressed on to my next appointments. I am glad that I made the pilgrimage, however, and followed in the footsteps of John Curry and John Paul, and millions of other believers; past, present and future; with or without digital recording equipment; with or without seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Undated photo of the original church at Knock where the apparition appeared in 1879.

Irishmen registered for U.S. draft 100 years ago

One hundred years ago, on 5 June 1917, the United States conducted its first military draft to support the war in Europe it entered two months earlier. Many Irish-born or Irish-American men lined up to sign up, including my grandfather, Willie Diggin, and his future brother-in-law, John Ware, both emigrants of Kerry. Below is an edited chapter of my book, “His Last Trip: An Irish-American Story,” about draft day in Pittsburgh. MH

***

The United States tried to isolate itself from the war that erupted in August 1914, but American industry was closely tied to events in Europe. Pittsburgh steel mills operated around the clock to meet the demands of the unprecedented military buildup on the continent. Carnegie Steel alone hired 8,000 additional workers in 1915 as Willie began his career as a streetcar motorman, two years after his arrival from Ireland.

When America finally entered the war in April 1917, Congress quickly authorized a draft to build the military. The first round of registration set for June 5 required men ages 21 to 31 to sign up, including non-citizens. This presented a conflict for Irish immigrants with strong nationalist views who had openly supported Germany against England, Ireland’s historical oppressor. Such a position now became treasonous.

Only a few people openly opposed the war in Pittsburgh. In the final days before the draft four men ages 19 to 21 were arrested and charged with treason for distributing fliers opposing the conscription. Churches asked the mayor to close bars so that “young men under the exhilaration or depression of the day may have removed from them the temptation of drink.” The president of the liquor retailers association promised his members would voluntarily go dry for the day because “it was the least we could do and patriotism demanded it from us.”

Willie Diggin, undated.

Willie registered at the Hazelwood Police and Patrol Station at the corner of Hazelwood Avenue and Lytle Street. The two-story brick building was located a half mile west of the streetcar car barn where he worked. Uniformed police officers bustled about the station, enhancing the military atmosphere. American flags snapped in the breeze as showers and thunderstorms raked across the city. News accounts reported that most registration lines were “orderly and cheerful.”

Nearly 3,200 men registered in Hazelwood between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., a pace of 228 per hour. Many of the men were workers from the nearby B & O Railroad switch yards and J&L steel mill. They shuffled through the lines with smudged faces, dirty hands and soiled clothing. Willie was joined in the line by other streetcar men in their Pittsburgh Railways uniforms.

Continue reading

Is Leo Varadkar Ireland’s first post-Catholic leader?

Leo Varadkar has secured the leadership of the Fine Gael party and is now in line to replace Enda Kenny as Ireland’s next taoiseach, or prime minister.

Much is being made of the fact that Varadkar is openly gay and just 38, making him the Republic’s youngest leader. He is also the son of an Irish mother and Indian father. (Remember that Éamon de Valera, who spent several terms as Irish leader over a long stretch of the 20th century, was the American-born son of an Irish mother and Spanish father.)

The New York Times and other media noted that Varadkar comes to power two year after Irish voters approved same-sex marriage. The Times barely conceals its glee that Ireland “has rapidly been leaving its conservative Roman Catholic social traditions behind” and that Varadkar, though raised Catholic, does not practice the faith.

The U.K. Independent used a similar “once-staunchly Catholic country” formulation in its lead story, while initial coverage from RTE, BBC, NPR, CNN, The Guardian and other outlets did not mention religion.

Leo Varadkar is the new Fine Gael leader. Image from RTE.

Writing in The Irish Times, Miriam Lord observed that Fine Gael voters:

…patted themselves on the back for not making a big deal of the fact that Leo Varadkar is a gay man or that his father is an immigrant from India. Because it isn’t a big deal. Smiling at the way news outlets all over the world were announcing Catholic Ireland’s “first gay prime minister” when, sure, nobody paid a blind bit of difference to that at home, because why would they?

But, she concluded, “it was this very indifference to ‘origins and identity’ that made them feel very, very proud.”

Varadkar’s confirmation as taoiseach is expected–but not assured–later this month. He has said that he is committed to holding a referendum next year on whether to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion, which has already bolstered the secular narrative of a post-Catholic Ireland.

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth

John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy was born 29 May 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts, near Boston, a year after the Easter Rising and a month after the U.S. entered World War I.

In 1960, Kennedy was elected president of the United States. He was not the first Irish American to win the nation’s highest office, but he was the first Catholic. Three years later, JFK made a triumphant return to Ireland, land of his ancestors. Five months after, he was assassinated in the U.S.

The end of May brings the official opening of numerous centennial celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth.  The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, and the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., have partnered for a series of events and initiatives, including the “JFK 100: Milestones & Mementos” exhibition.

Here are some other links to JFK-related content, starting with my own work on the blog:

Here are other external links of interest:

John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, Boston (boyhood home)

The Kennedy Homestead,  Wexford, Ireland (ancestral home)

John F. Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. (centennial celebration)

Official White House biography

University of Virginia Miller Center (essays, etc.)

RTÉ Archives and The Irish Times (coverage of the 1963 Ireland visit)

 

JFK’s triumphant return to County Wexford, Ireland, land of his ancestors.

Rome and Ireland: the latest chapter of a long story

UPDATE:

Following their meeting in Rome, Higgins has raised the prospect of Pope Francis visiting Northern Ireland when he visits Dublin next year, according to RTÉ.

ORIGINAL POST:

Irish President Michael D. Higgins will meet with Pope Francis, 22 May, in Rome, two days ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s more attention-grabbing visit to the Vatican.

Higgins and the pontiff will discuss “issues of regional and global importance,” according to a press statement. They are also sure to talk about Pope Francis attending the August 2018 World Meeting of Families in Dublin.

The pope’s trip to the island of Ireland has fueled speculation of a possible side visit to Northern Ireland, which would match or surpass the historic 2011 state visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Republic. Her trip came 100 years after her grandfather, King George V, became the last British royal to travel to what became independent Ireland after the island’s 1921 political partition. Higgins reciprocated the Queen’s visit in 2014 when he became the first Irish president to make a state visit to the United Kingdom.

Pope John Paul II visited the Republic in 1979, but he did not travel to the North, then in the thick of sectarian violence known as the Troubles. One can only imagine what sort of reception he would have received at the time from the late unionist firebrand Rev. Ian Paisley.

“I denounce you, Anti-Christ! I refuse you as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist with all your false doctrine,” Paisley yelled at the pontiff in a 1988 visit to the European Parliament. Paisley eventually entered a power-sharing government with Catholics, including former IRA man Martin McGuinness.

Six years ago, Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny criticized the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, and narcissism” of the Catholic Church for its handling of clergy abuse of children in Ireland. Rome recalled its papal nuncio to Ireland, reporting at the time to Pope Benedict XVI. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs closed its embassy in the Vatican, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure. It reopened in 2014.

Kenny, who just announced his resignation, met with Pope Francis in November 2016 and offered his “full support” for next year’s World Families visit. The lesson here seems to be that whatever is true of today’s political dynamics, they most likely will change in the future. The pontiff and Trump might even patch up their previous disagreement.

For an exploration of an earlier rift between Ireland and the Vatican, read my piece about the troubled founding of St. Patrick’s Church in Rome during the Irish Land War period of the 1880s.

Higgins’ itinerary also includes a visit with Irish clergy and lay staff working at the Vatican during a reception at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome. Founded in 1628, it is the last of the many Irish Colleges that were once scattered over Europe when it was not possible to educate priests in Ireland, the college website says.

The Irish tricolor hangs from the balcony of its embassy to the Holy See in this April 2017 photo during my visit to Rome.

The troubled foundation of St. Patrick’s in Rome, 1888

ROME — The foundation stone of St. Patrick’s Church in the Eternal City was laid during a critical period of Irish history and the eve of a low-point in the country’s relationship with the Vatican.

I stopped by the church, plain by Roman standards, as part of my ongoing project of visiting as many St. Patricks as possible. As it turned out, the church’s foundation date of 1 February 1888 (St. Brigid’s Day) also dovetailed with my interest in Ireland’s late 19th century nationalist struggles and land war.

St. Patrick’s Church, Rome, April 2017. Mosaic of St. Patrick below Celtic cross.

The morning of the foundation ceremony, a delegation of three archbishops, 10 bishops and 300 other pilgrims from Ireland, America and other nations with significant Irish immigrant populations met with Pope Leo XIII. The visitors gave the pope “a magnificent chalice of Irish workmanship,” a photo album of “sights, churches and principal monuments” of Dublin and a nearly £16,000 donation to the Vatican exchequer. The pontiff blessed the trowel to be used in that afternoon’s building site ceremony and handed each of the guests a coin commemorating the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination.

The pope addressed the group in Latin, according to The Nation, which reproduced his text with an English translation. He assured the visitors that he had viewed Ireland “with paternal care” since the start of his pontificate 10 years earlier.

“We were moved by her many claims upon us, but most of all by the integrity of that Catholic faith which, established by the labors and the zeal of St. Patrick, was preserved by the unconquerable fortitude of your ancestors, and transmitted to you to be guarded as a sacred inheritance,” he said.

The mosaic above the sanctuary is by Rodolfo Villani and depicts St. Patrick converting the High King Laoghaire at Tara, using the shamrock to explain the Trinity. The banner UT CHRISTIANI ITA ET ROMANI SITIS (“Be ye Christians as those of the Roman Church”) — is from the writings of St. Patrick.

The pontiff also briefly discussed the “present state of affairs” in Ireland, noting that a year earlier he dispatched Archbishop Ignatius Persico to investigate the country’s troubles. At the time, tension between Irish tenant farmers and absentee landlords had been stoked by a protest strategy known as the Plan of Campaign, which sought to reduce rents by withholding payments. If tenants got evicted, the Plan called for peer-enforced social ostracism, or boycotting, to prevent others from leasing the land. Some Catholic clergy were tacitly supporting the movement by joining the simultaneous nationalist efforts to secure Irish political autonomy, called home rule.

Persico began his mission to Ireland in 1887 just as the Times of London published a sensational series of stories linking agrarian unrest to Irish leader Charles Steward Parnell. The prelate’s presence generated mixed reactions among the Irish hierarchy, according to their letters to Tobias Kirby, rector of the Pontifical Irish College, Rome, who acted as their representative to the Vatican. In July, Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin wrote that he was “very edified” by Persico’s mission. In September, Rev. J. Hassan of Londonderry said he was “ashamed of the cold reception” some gave the Vatican visitor. In October, Msgr. Bernard O’Reilly of Dublin worried that Persico’s report would be “unfavorable to Ireland” and complained he was “the wrong man to send.” The next day, Rev. M. Mooney of Cahir wrote he was delighted by the “genuine spark of Celtic spirit in his [Persico’s] very tone.”

As if to underscore the troubles in Ireland, boycotted Kerry farmer James Fitzmaurice was gunned down in a widely reported land-related murder a day before the February 1888 foundation ceremony. That may have been on the pope’s mind when he told the Irish delegation he ordered the Persico mission “that we may be aided by his report in ascertaining the actual condition of things, and the steps that in your interest it may be desirable to take.” The pontiff also suggested that he might help ease Ireland’s “difficulties” through his personal diplomacy, just as he diffused anti-Catholic tensions in Germany.

Back in Ireland, however, The Nation noted that there were “wide differences” between the situations in the two countries, and that a similar outcome was unlikely. “The German question was essentially a religious one; the Irish question is an essentially non-religious one. Nor is there in English politics any such commanding personage as Bismarck,” the paper wrote four days later.

Sanctuary statue of St. Patrick. The tabernacle is open because this photo was taken the morning of the Easter Vigil.

About 10 weeks after the St. Patrick’s foundation ceremony, Rome issued a Papal Rescript that condemned the Plan of Campaign and its associated violence and boycotting tactics. While Persico favored grassroots guidance by the Irish bishops, the decree reflected the top-down approach of the Vatican, which at least in part was trying to appease English Catholic elites and the conservative government in London, which soon opened a special commission on “Parnellism and Crime.”

The Irish bishops grumbled that the decree divided their loyalty to the pope with their ministry to the people. The directive also drew a harsh rebuke in the first issue of The Irish Catholic, the latest publishing endeavor of Timothy Daniel Sullivan, a Dublin-based MP who also owned The Nation. “We deplore that the Holy Office has been deceived into accepting as a description of the affairs of Ireland, one without any basis in fact,” the new weekly said in its 5 May editorial.

Two months later, Rome reinforced the rescript with a Papal Encyclical, Saepe Nos, which complained the original decree was “grievously perverted by means of forced interpretations.” The pontiff reminded his Irish readers that he had “carefully inquired” to “obtain full and reliable knowledge of the state of your affairs, and of the causes of popular discontent.” In other words, the Vatican was standing by its original orders against boycotting and the Plan.

The Irish hierarchy and populace only grew further enraged. By the end of 1888, 28 of 30 Irish bishops signed a letter to the pope stating that they could not enforce the decree without jeopardizing both his and their own authority in Ireland. The following year became “perhaps the worst period in the whole history of Irish relations with the Holy See.” The Irish bishops even balked at Vatican directives to hold special collections to help pay for building St. Patrick’s Church in Rome.

Lack of funds and other delays slowed completion of the church for 23 years. It finally opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1911, “in weather that was raw, and chill, and rainy, much resembling that of spring days in Ireland,” the Freeman’s Journal reported. Eight years after the death of Leo XIII, the Kerry People suggested the late pontiff “encouraged and most generously contributed” to the Irish-connected church. (The Nation folded 11 years earlier, and The Irish Catholic’s archive was not immediately available.)

Most of Ireland’s tenant-landlord disputes had been resolved by 1911, but an even more difficult revolutionary period was just about to begin. With it, there would be a new round of trouble between Irish nationalists and the Holy See.

NOTES in addition to material linked above:

  • Freeman’s Journal, 28 March, 1911, page 5.
  • Kerry People, 8 April 1911, page 9.
  • Larkin, Emmet: The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and the Fall of Parnell, 1888-1891 University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1979. “Worst period” quote on page 3, plus other background.
  • St. Patrick’s Church, Rome.
  • The Nation, 4 February 1888, page 11.
  • The Two Edged Sword.

2016 Census results detail modern Ireland

Ireland’s population increased to 4,761,865 in 2016, up 3.8 percent from 2011, according to data collected last year on the 100th anniversary of the start of the 1916 Easter Rising. The state had experienced 8 percent growth in the 2011, 2006 and 2002 census counts.

The proportion of the population who were non-Irish nationals fell to 11.6 percent in 2016 from 12.2 percent in 2011, the first decline since the census question was introduced in 2002. This is partially explained by a near doubling of people holding dual nationality, a separate category.

The 6 April data release is the first of 13 reports on Census 2016 that are due to be published this year. The Central Statistics Office will publish 11 thematic profiles, which will each explore topics such as housing, the homeless, religion, disability and carers in greater detail.

Highlights of the initial report include:

  • Self-identified Roman Catholics fell 3.4 percent, from 84.2 percent of the population in 2011 to 78.3 percent in 2016. Nearly 10 percent of census respondents said they have no religion.
  • The country is slightly older, with average age of 37.4 in April 2016 compared with 36.1 five years earlier. County Fingal, north of Dublin, had the youngest average age at 34.3, while Kerry and Mayo in the west were each at 40.2
  • The largest number of Irish speakers who use the language daily outside the education system remain concentrated in the Gaeltacht areas of counties Donegal, Galway and Kerry.
  • Private residences with no internet connection fell to 18.4 percent of dwellings, down from 25.8 percent in 2011.

Adding to my list of St. Patrick’s churches

I visited two St. Patrick’s churches during an a recent research trip; one in Maryland for the first time, the other my longtime favorite back home in Pittsburgh. See my list of 18 St. Patrick’s churches.

In Cumberland, Maryland, the late 18th century St. Mary’s was rededicated as St. Patrick’s in 1851 due to the town’s growing Irish population. The church was closed when I passed through late in the evening, but Catholic Sanctuaries has more than 50 images posted on Flickr.

Architect John Tehan lived from 1796 to 1868. It appears he may have been an Irish American from nearby Frederick, Maryland, where he is buried, rather than an Irish native. Tehan is not in the Dictionary of Irish Architects, 1720-1940.

The sanctuary of Old St. Patrick’s Church in Pittsburgh. A woven crown of thorns on a purple cushion is at left side of the tabernacle in this image during Lent 2017.