21st Century Ireland: Exploring our Cultural Context (Part 1)


Recently, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland commissioned papers exploring the cultural context of modern Ireland. The resulting works by Fraser Hosford and Patrick Mitchell were so insightful that at VOX magazine we decided (with their permission) to publish the following shortened versions of their work.

(From the January - March 2018 issue of VOX)


A Tale of Two Irelands

By Fraser Hosford

Today, there are two Irelands: the old Ireland with its religious feel and the new Ireland which is more secular and notably materialistic. These two cultures co-exist, albeit not peacefully, as demonstrated by the recurring culture wars over social issues.

One of the favourite stories of Jesus is the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). It is better titled The Parable of the Two Sons, as it contains a message for both. Intriguingly, the two sons mirror the two Irelands.

Luke 15 begins with the grumbling of the religious leaders at Jesus’ interaction with those who were deemed sinners. This parable is told in response.

The older son is presented as a “religious” person. He comes across as stern and puritanical. We are told that he was angry and refused to join the celebrations. His attitude to his younger brother is judgmental.

His words evoke a tone of resentment as he focuses on his own work on the estate and his lack of reward. His case is overstated because as the eldest son he would still have been entitled to his inheritance - two thirds of the estate, since the younger son had only taken his share. The older brother’s reaction is driven by his own sense of deserving more. And when talking to his father he doesn’t call him by name or even by title, just by the impersonal pronoun “you”. He stayed with the father but he, too, is far away. Here is a son who does things for his father, rather than enjoying being with his father.

There is much of the old Ireland in the older son. The Irish State that evolved post-independence was an overtly religious nation. The 1937 Constitution included a special place for the Catholic Church. The vast majority belonged to this tradition and mass going rates were among the highest in the world. This religiosity continued for over half a century with the Pope’s visit in 1979 attracting over 1,250,000 people. Politically, the Catholic Church wielded unmatched influence over moral and social policy.

The caricature of faith in the old Ireland fits with that of the older son: working for God became slaving, and living for God became obeying.

The caricature of faith in the old Ireland fits with that of the older son: working for God became slaving, and living for God became obeying. With faith so embedded in the culture, it was inevitable that people’s experience of faith was through ritual. Its morality became a cultural norm, because of the Church’s size, and so faith tended to focus on religious rituals and requirements rather than on the person of God.

Many Irish people’s dissatisfaction with faith, across denominations, revolves around an experience of law keeping, and the fear of religion “telling us what to do.” Only such an outward faith could explain the dramatic falls in mass attendance in one generation.

Many would testify to the judgementalism of old Ireland, seen in the sad and dark parts of our history. Those who didn’t live up to the standards of the church were punished and hidden from society. These tended to be women - unmarried mothers who were sent in great numbers to mother and baby homes, forbidden to keep and rear their own children in view of society. The 2009 Ryan Report also detailed the lives of disadvantaged, neglected and abandoned children who were sent to industrial schools where they suffered neglect and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. These events cast a long shadow over the Irish church today.

The younger son lends his name to the title of the story, the Prodigal Son. We are introduced to him as he demands, “Father, give me my share of the estate”. It is this leaving of the father, the God character in the story, that resembles the new Ireland. It seems that Ireland has abandoned God just as the younger son abandoned his father.

It seems that Ireland has abandoned God just as the younger son abandoned his father.

In recent decades, Ireland has gone quite far down the path of secularisation. As recently as the 1970s, mass attendance in Ireland was above 90%. Recent research suggests that only 30% of Irish Catholics attend weekly mass. And in Dublin this figure has dropped to below 20%. Census data shows that the percentage of those who identify as Catholic dropped from 94% in 1971 to 78% in 2016.

But this secularisation is not just a drift away from the church but a revolt against it. Nearly half of people now view the Catholic Church in an unfavourable light; and only amongst the over 55s does the church have a strong ‘favourable’ ranking. This is largely driven by the scandals, including child abuse, that have engulfed the church since the turn of the century. And secular Ireland is obsessed with freedom and choice, reacting to the past dictates of the church.

In Luke 15, it is clear that money plays a large part in the story. The younger son’s initial demand is for his share of the father’s wealth. Enjoying the lifestyle money brings was part of the plan. The cultural background is interesting. In his book, The Good Shepherd Ken Bailey shows us that in Middle Eastern culture asking to receive an inheritance immediately was akin to wishing that your father was dead. The son wanted wealth more than his relationship with his father. And a large part of the secularisation of Ireland occurred alongside the Celtic Tiger - a groundbreaking decade of prosperity which led to a surge of materialism. Coinciding with the loss of religious observance, the offer of wealth and career success was on hand to fill the spiritual and moral gap that had emerged in many Irish hearts.

The final character in this story is the father who represents God - a truly loving and gracious God. This father assents to the wish of the younger son for his inheritance. Then after the son leaves, we see a father who scans the horizon for his lost son.

He acted in joyful abandon when he finally saw his lost son, “filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son …”. This run went against what was culturally acceptable for a man in his position. But the father didn’t care. He just wanted to be with his son. This joy is expressed again when the father cuts short the son’s speech as he tries to apologise. It is an extraordinary welcome.

The son is fully welcomed back in as a son, given status and authority with a ring and a special robe, and a party is thrown for him. This would all be in stark contrast to the slander that the local village would have thrown at him.

The father’s joy overlooks the son’s betrayal in the past. The theological term for this is “grace” - a love and mercy that is undeserved. The son only returns out of self-interest because he is starving to death. But the father welcomes him back as a son and doesn’t even let him finish the speech. A full apology is not necessary for the son to experience the father’s joy.

So where does this leave the church in Ireland today? Are people rejecting the older son, when it should be the father who is on offer? The contrast between the two is dramatic. They represent two entirely different types of faith.

A God only interested in the external can never capture the heart.

If this parallel is true, then it changes the western narrative of a religious nation losing its faith as it modernises. It defines the nature of the initial faith and highlights its flaws. The older son in the parable didn’t have a right relationship with the father.

This then suggests another reason for the loss of faith: it was an inevitable reaction to a self-righteous expression of religion. A faith based on human rules and rituals is inherently unstable. It is no wonder that the new Ireland departed from the God that was presented by the old Ireland. A God only interested in the external can never capture the heart. Just as a baby smiles when their parent smiles, so an experience of heart faith has to be rooted in a God of the heart.

The good news for Ireland is that loss of faith is never final. The father continues to seek the younger son. Scripture shows us that God uses His church to reach those who are lost. And so the Irish church will be used to help find those who have moved away from faith.

But the Irish church needs to move from the attitude of the older son to that of the father. Integrity will be paramount after the scandals of recent years; humility will be necessary in recognition of this past; a non-judgemental attitude will be required and this will be sorely tested with a new abortion referendum on the horizon, but grace is about a disposition of love. And it will be costly - love always is.

So a revival of faith will not signal a return to the past; rather the nature of faith needs to change. This change is not simply a matter of how we present the faith, it has to be a genuine inward change. Critically, the grace that flows from the Father is on offer to the religious too. The father doesn’t rebuke the older son; instead of punishing him for his insolence, he leaves the party to plead with him outside.

And here the story ends unfinished, with the listeners left hanging awaiting the older son’s response. The readers of the Gospel are left wondering how the Pharisees will ultimately respond to Jesus’ ministry. The story of Ireland remains unfinished for us today too. The door remains ajar. That is the nature of grace.



Fraser Hosford works as a pastor and an economist, based in Dublin.