On a picture perfect Irish day (around 55°F, light rain, grey skies, cold winds), some of us took a trip to a small town called Sandycove, about a half an hour away from Dublin by train. We wanted to visit the famous Forty Foot, a rocky, hidden swimming place on the coast. Much to our delight, the day that we chose to go, June 16, also happened to be Bloosmday, which commemorates the anniversary of the events of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which takes place on the same day in 1904, and for which many people dress in the style of 1904 and relive the events of Ulysses. When Ulysses was written featuring Forty Foot, it was an all male swimming location. The ability to enter that space as a woman is just one of many small changes that symbolize the evolution of Ireland since that time.
The walk through Sandycove was nothing short of enchanting, as we stumbled upon a town-wide celebration of Bloomsday. The town was in the full spirit of the day, with music, portrait taking, decorated streets, and mannequins in store windows adorned with long skirts, waistcoats, and fancy hats similar to those I’d expect at a British royal wedding. I was swept up in the joy and magic of the day, and only upon reflection did I notice how closely the demographics of Sandycove’s celebrating citizens seemed to mirror those of Ireland really up until the 1990s: white, working to middle class, and most likely Catholic.
When the second Irish Constitution was written some 80 years ago, the demographics of Ireland did resemble those of Bloomsday at Sandycove (white and Catholic). Accordingly, when the constitution was written it was filled to the brim with Catholic doctrine, embodied in the definitions of family structures, the layout of the education system, and even in rules related to medical practices. It suggests that, at the time, there existed an implicit belief and expectation that the population of Ireland should and would always be Catholic.
This constitution could accommodate the needs of a population resembling the one we saw at Sandycove. Ireland was once homogenous enough for this type of lawmaking to be effective. However, the role of religion in politics, law, and culture has been disputed for the larger part of the past 60 years. The nation has since been grappling with how to reconcile changing cultural norms with institutionalized religion.
Starting in the 1990s, changing discourse on the role of religion in daily life has been coupled with changing demographics in Ireland due to an influx of immigrants sparked by the economic boom at the time. This includes economic migrants, refugees fleeing conflict, and so many others. These migrants are not yet a part of Irish traditions, as they were not a part of Bloomsday or of the dialogue surrounding the Commemoration of 1916, and Ireland is grappling with how it can best incorporate migrants and their needs into society.
Over a week has passed since our Bloomsday adventure, and with it, our first week of work. My time so far working at Cairde, an organization which aims to address health inequalities among ethnic minority communities in Ireland, both in healthcare access and education, has highlighted this new reality of a diverse Ireland. My office is a wonderful hodge-podge of accents; it is composed of two American interns, just one Irishman, and people from Poland, Cameroon, China, Russia, Ukraine, Ghana, and other nations. While Cairde is about as diverse as it gets, its clientele encompasses an even greater range of nationalities and backgrounds.
Each of these people must confront the ramifications of living in a nation with a largely Catholic constitution, culture, and system of morals. Current debates surrounding access to, and the role of religion in, areas ranging from primary education to maternal health are highly consequential not just for people whose families have been in Ireland for generations, but also for immigrants who do not see Irish culture and its (albeit diminishing) ties to Catholicism as their own.
This is not as simple of an issue as it may seem to be, as it is not just a war between a theocratic government and champions of freedom of religion. As an outsider in Ireland, the tension between past and present ideologies is one that I am only beginning to understand. The Irish constitution has by no means been a stagnant purveyor of Vatican doctrine since its inception; it has undergone many changes and continues to be challenged. Just recently, for example, a referendum on abortion law passed allowing for women at risk of suicide to end their pregnancies (although it is extremely difficult to prove that one is at risk of suicide, and thus access this portion of the law). This was an extremely controversial change, triggering both celebrations for women’s rights and extreme anger over a betrayal of Catholic doctrine and cultural norms. However, the constitution’s ties to religion in education and maternal healthcare still have great consequences for those residing in Ireland, and especially for those who disagree with its tenets. I attended a conference on the role of religion in Ireland with my supervisor at Cairde that highlighted these problems.
At the conference, there was discussion on both maternal healthcare and primary education. While I had heard about both issues in Ireland before, the issues surrounding primary education became much clearer. Speakers explained that a vast majority of primary schools in Ireland require proof of baptism for admission, which is a policy supported by the Irish constitution and that is difficult to change. As someone working in Ireland on refugee issues, my mind immediately jumped to what the ramifications of this policy must be for that population. For young refugee children coming to Ireland, this poses a unique barrier to starting school. And when refugees and migrants have their own children in Ireland in the future, they might be forced to choose between honoring their own religious traditions and thereby disadvantaging their children’s ability to be admitted into a school, or betraying their religious beliefs to give their children the best chance at an education.
Healthcare in Ireland, especially in respect to sexual and maternal health, is also imbued with traditionally Catholic principles. There are myriad examples throughout Irish history reflecting the consequences of its strict abortion laws. Just several years ago, doctors refused to perform an abortion for a woman who was miscarrying and asked for an abortion because they prioritized the slim chance of the fetus’s survival over the mother’s, in accordance with how Catholic principles have shaped abortion law. She ultimately died from sepsis caused by carrying a dead fetus. This reflects the deprivation of choice that women face over their futures, and a history of women dying after doctors refused to help them end pregnancies that threatened, and ultimately took, their lives. In the context of migrants and refugees, this means that migrants who have had an abortion are fearful to disclose that information to doctors for fear of shame and stigma. Women who have faced sexual violence and rape cannot reclaim control of their bodies, especially if they become pregnant, which can cause any other number of problems in the future. People’s freedoms are consistently restricted because of the beliefs held by a religion that is typically not theirs.
With an emerging sense of cultural pluralism in Ireland, and decades of discussion over the place of the Church in Irish society, debates over issues like education and abortion law are at the forefront of Ireland’s political scene. The nature of migration and of the progression of the beliefs of the Irish people mean that life in Ireland, and policy in Ireland, will never be as simple as they were when Joyce wrote the novel that we celebrate over a century later. With this complexity, though, comes the beauty of the convergence of people from all walks of life seeking haven in Dublin. Only time will tell how this nation handles its changing landscape, and changes doctrines of the past to meet the needs of the present.