To judge by results in legislation and social progress, one might well think that Ireland has never had a Women’s Liberation Movement. It is true that in theory women now have equal pay and equal entitlements under social welfare, and that children’s allowances are paid directly to mothers. Yet these advances have been partially offset by the discontinuation of tax allowances for children and other reductions in total family income. The participation of married women in the labour force remains the lowest in Europe, while women in general are still horizontally and vertically segregated at work and receive an average industrial wage much lower than that of their male counterparts. In the field of marital and sexual life, it may at last be possible to purchase non-medical contraceptives (condoms) in most of the larger towns, but the Constitution continues to prohibit divorce and has now even incorporated the statutory ban on abortion. How are we to explain the fact that Ireland has resisted modernizing influences and become, as it were, the last bastion of the traditional ‘protection’ or enslavement of women in the family? Structurally, the Republic of Ireland appears fixed at the bottom of the developed or the top of the underdeveloped countries.footnote1 But if we remain within a broad European framework, there can be no doubt that the continuing hold of the Catholic Church is the starting point for any analysis of the peculiar position of Irish women.

The success of the Catholic Church in Ireland has been due to its effective socialization processes, its organizational competence and its material wealth—advantages which have been highlighted by the lack of any concerted or widespread opposition or of any other organization of comparable strength. Towards the end of the nineteenth century a thorough reorganization of the Church and expansion of the priesthood were implemented under Archbishop Paul Cullen,footnote2 and from that time the bishops began to meet regularly and to present a unified voice to the public in a regular flow of policy documents. Having settled their internal affairs, the bishops then moved on to the public domain, and above all education. The ‘Queen’s Colleges’, introduced by the British in 1845 on the suggestion of Robert Peel, were attacked as ‘godless colleges’, and Catholics were discouraged from attending them. The bishops succeeded in raising £190,000 for a new Catholic college in Dublin and appointed John Henry Newman to run it, but he soon resigned over disagreements with Cullen. The college was beset with other problems, as its degrees were not recognized and it needed state support. In 1879 a University Education (Ireland) Act brought into existence the Royal University, an examining body empowered to confer degrees on those who passed its exams. It also granted fellowships to those who wished to pursue degrees. In 1908 Trinity became a separate college, the Royal Universities were abolished and a supposedly non-denominational system was established to cover Belfast, Cork, Galway and the Catholic University of Dublin.footnote3 A ban on Catholics attending Trinity was enforced by the bishops. But, at the same time, bishops sat on all the governing bodies of these non-denominational universities, which until recently observed Church holidays. The Catholic influence was also visible in appointments to posts in Humanities, where areas such as philosophy, education and social science were dominated by well-educated priests who had often obtained doctorates abroad.

A similar situation prevailed in primary and secondary education. By 1831, a Commission on National Education had been formed and a series of national non-denominational schools established. The emphasis here was on Anglicization of the Irish, largely through the teaching of English, mathematics and science. In the 1920s, however, these schools came under sharp criticism for their poor conditions and badly trained teachers. New training colleges incorporated Catholic teaching into all subjects and set out the basic ideology on which a primary education should be based.footnote4 There was, of course, strong Roman and European support for this integrated philosophy of education. At first, nuns and brothers were not recognized by the State as teachers, but in 1886 a Royal Commission permitted them to teach. The national schools were non-denominational and community-based and two-thirds of their costs were covered by state support. It was the one third which had to be collected from the community which assured the power of the clergy over education. For the only, or natural, community leaders were priests, who became in turn fund-raisers, local brokers and school managers. Any demand for a totally state-funded education (e.g. the suggestion of Chief Secretary Wyndham in 1904) was rejected and condemned on ideological grounds by such able and powerful bishops as Dr Browne of Galway.footnote5 But some bishops did at least appreciate the community dependency which facilitated Catholic expansion and control. Collections for the school, requests to bring in turf to help heating etc., were all made from the pulpits. Religion legitimated the fund-raising—which was in turn a major factor in the growth of ecclesiastical power—and the collection systems gradually became better organized and professionalized. Even in recent recessionary times, the Church has managed to raise funds to build new churches, and so on.

As school managers, the parish priests controlled the recruitment of teachers. In the sex-segregated training colleges, nuns and priests required a strong Catholic ethos from applicants, who mainly came from rural backgrounds where Catholic values were strongest. As the secondary educational system expanded, nuns and brothers made a considerable economic contribution to producing a highly educated population, far in excess of what might be expected in the current state of economic development.footnote6 Another significant aspect of this contribution was that girls were also educated, in time even more than boys. In one sense at least, girls were always equal: they too had immortal souls which required salvation.

With a network of private, but largely state-funded, secondary schools, the Church was in a strong position to carry out its task of teaching faith and morality, particularly sexual morality. In 1965, out of a total of 22.5 hours at school, 2.5 hours were still given over to religion—and even more during the years of preparation for First Communion and Confirmation.footnote7 Nor were adults neglected in the provisions for continued religious education. Sermons, confessions and missions all exercised control over people’s lives, producing a community with strong Christian values and conservative attitudes to sexual morality.