Here is an excellent review, by Shane of the Lux Occulta blog, of Fr. Vincent Twomey's book The End of Irish Catholicism?, which was published in 2003. I reviewed it here. (My review saw its way into print, via the Australian Catholic magazine Annals Australasia. Embarrasingly, I state in the review that the decline in Irish priestly vocations has levelled out, which is not the case.)
Shane's review, though not a hatchet job, is much more critical than mine. I have to admit that my own review was rather gingerish, since I was perhaps overly impressed by Dr. Twomey's standing. Nor would I pretend to possess a fraction of Shane's erudition when it comes to Catholic history, especially Irish Catholic history. In my review, I am saying some of the same things as Shane, though in a more muted way and with less knowledge to back up my points.
I am most strongly in agreement with Shane when he defends what we might call "traditional" Irish Catholicism from the charge of being insular, shallow and unsophisticated. He points out that the Catholic Truth Society had a book and pamphlet stall in most churches in the pre-Vatican II era. Recently, when I complained that somebody walking through O'Connell Street on a Saturday afternoon might encounter Muslim preachers, Evangelical Christian preachers, Jehovah's Witness preachers, and even the Falun Gong, but no Catholic voice, my father told me that the Catholic Truth Society often had a stall outside the General Post Office in former days. When I raised this point in the letters page of The Irish Catholic, another correspondent replied that The Legion of Mary evangelize in the streets of Dublin. I don't want to take anything away from them, but I have to say that I have never been approached (as far as I can remember) by anybody, anywhere in Ireland, seeking to convince me of the truth of the Catholic faith. (Why don't I street evangelize? I don't think I would be up to it. I try to evangelize in my own way.)
It's not just a matter of evangelization. Go into Veritas Publications on Abbey Street, find a book published in Ireland in the last thirty years or so, and flick through it. It will almost certainly be full of vague "spiritual" and therapeutic musings that make little reference to the New Testament or to Catholic teaching. From my own experience, Catholic writing in Ireland of previous decades was far more substantial and intellectually sophisticated.
One quotation in Shane's view, from the memoir of Cardinal Cathal Daly, struck me as interesting:
"It was not long before I came to realize that the problems of the French Church came in great part from the profound cultural changes taking place in France in the post-war period and especially in the 1960s. Quickly, too, I reached the conviction that the same changes would affect Irish society too before long, and would consequently confront the Church in Ireland; and that French pastoral experience would be illuminating for us and French pastoral strategies beneficial for us when that time came."
This strikes me as interesting because I don't get any sense that the Catholic Church in Ireland had steeled itself for the juggernaut of secularization that it might have seen surging towards it. I don't ever remember, in Catholic religion class in primary school or in my secondary school run by Dominican nuns, ever being told why I should believe in God or in Christianity in the first place. Nor do I remember very much public discussion along this lines, although it is true that I would be less aware of public debate as a child and a teenager. I think it is a good thing that today we have writers like John Waters and Breda O'Brien and David Quinn making the basic case for Christianity in the public square. Perhaps there were such figures in the eighties and nineties, but I don't remember them. And I think that the eighties and nineties were the time when Catholics, lay and clerical, really ducked the challenge of secularization and abandoned the defence of the Faith. I don't think we can keep blaming our grandparents for our own failures.