The Irish: Faith Pervasive as Metamucil in an Old Priest's Diet

By Unsworth, Tim | National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Irish: Faith Pervasive as Metamucil in an Old Priest's Diet


Unsworth, Tim, National Catholic Reporter


Each year, around St. Patrick's Day, I examine my blood for trace marks of my Irish faith and culture. Despite some dilution (I am three-quarters Irish), I remain a sturdy monument to repression -- as sure a mark of the breed as an Irish jig.

Irish or not, no American Catholic can escape the influence of the Irish culture and theology that is as pervasive as the green dye that colors the Chicago River each St. Patrick's Day. My parish church has German roots, but the last three pastors have been named Fahey, O'Brien and Hickey. It wouldn't have mattered if their names were Schnitzel, Perogi or Parmigiana. The Irish have been the primary cultural and religious force in the American Catholic church since the famine of 1840-1850.

In less than a century after the tidal wave of Irish arrived on our shores, 80 percent of the bishops in America could claim Irish roots. The "FBI" -- foreign-born Irish or full-blooded Irish -- dominated the clerical culture and, until Vatican II, the priest was the primary interpreter of Catholic mores.

The poor Irish. Repressed politically by the English for centuries they also had to absorb a Jansenistic theology that turned them into a paradoxical people, full of poetry, fancy and dreaming, yet plagued by a terrifying sense of guilt and need for respectability.

They left their isolated farms in Ireland and gathered for protection in America's cities. The men built the railroads and the subways, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Erie Canal, while their women worked as housekeepers. Then they sent their sons into the priesthood and their daughters to the convent.

Gradually, other sons went on the police force, into politics and law, while the daughters became nurses and teachers. With no language barrier and no home to return to, they fought so hard to be accepted that, to this day, they have difficulty being themselves.

The Irish influence has formed the American church with everything from its love of ritual and joyful gatherings to its denial of some of its most serious problems. Both the Irish and their church still have a tendency to ignore problems until they are almost too serious to be solved. Instead of allowing their faith to support their therapy, they often use their faith to deny it.

When my German-American wife becomes ill, her sparkling humor fades. When I'm laid low, mine kicks in. "Ah, it could be worse," I said to Jean when I fell off my bike recently. We went home and, sure enough, it got worse.

But I had gotten mine. I deserved my suffering. The bike spill was my fault. Sooner or later, I've got to suffer for my sins; delay will only make it worse. I am guilty until a just God finds me guiltier.

Not long ago, two professional therapists, reflecting on family therapy with Irish-Americans, described social patterns that could have been the basis of a manual of church behavior. Monica McGoldrick Orfanidis is adjunct professor of psychiatry at Rutgers Medical School and Dr. John K. Pearce is a member of the faculty of the Cambridge (Mass.) Family Institute. The two of them must have been sitting on my family's mantelpiece or my parish church's altar rail. Their portrait of the Irish would have made St. Patrick smile although he would have denied ever word of it.

Irish mothers -- and the Mother Church -- hold moral superiority over their families and the church leader they produced. Irishmen deal with women by fear and avoidance, putting them on domes, far out of reach. While appeal ing to defer to their husbands, Irish motiers tend to starve their children for affection, raising them to be well-behave but not fussed over. The Irish father, too, remains a rather distant figure, finding it easier to confide in his pub mat than his spouse.

When my pastor visited the classrooms at St. Alice's, he would walk out the door with a wave of his biretta and a mild compliment such as "They're a fine class, Sister." Her answer would strain the limits of Irish praise: "Well, Father, they,re not so bad. …

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