Ireland goes the way of the world – for now

Demonstrators take part in a 'Pro-Life' rally, ahead of a May 25 referendum on abortion law, in the centre of Dublin

The words of James Joyce, which were once an offence to the people of his country, now, over one hundred years later, have become stunningly real for the estimated one third of Irish people who vainly tried to halt the tide of a modernity hostile to the unborn in the referendum which took place there on Friday.

In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus, talking about his country with his friend: “Do you know what Ireland is? asked Stephen with cold violence. Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.” Too strong? No, says pro-life Ireland. What other interpretation is there when the majority in a country knowingly, willfully, declares that the deliberate killing of the unborn in the womb is permissible for no other reason than that it interferes with an individual’s comfort, convenience or life-style?

The Irish Government, willingly bowing to pressure, national and international, proposed to the electorate that the right to life of the unborn, guaranteed in its Constitution since 1983, be removed. This was to allow the legislature of the State to enact laws to facilitate unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks gestation and up to 24 weeks on grounds which, in practice, will be abortion on demand. Needless to say, the proposals as presented were less stark than that, but given the pattern of what has happened in every other country with a liberal abortion law, the reality will inevitably be termination on demand. All the dissembling in the world will not change that.

Among the slogans of the pro-abortion campaigners were “Trust women”, “Trust doctors” and “Trust politicians” – that last somewhat bizarre given the economic debacle Irish politicians visited on their country just ten years ago. With regard to the two former, campaigners for the right to life of unborn children were a little baffled by both women and doctors asking for trust with those very lives which they were claiming the right to choose to terminate. They complained that logic or reason played very little part in the pro-choice armory and that all the emphasis was on emotional exploitation of the hard cases – rape, incest, limited life prospects of the baby in the womb and more. The human right to life, the human nature of the child in the womb, even its very existence, the avoidance of the very word abortion, they complained, characterized the pro-choice campaign throughout.

But the truth is, the Government which put this proposal to the people cannot be blamed anymore. This result has now clearly shown that it is the express will of the majority of the people of Ireland – about 90% of its young electorate – that the child in the womb not be constitutionally guaranteed a right to life. Choice is the supreme moral norm. The good or evil of what is chosen is, apparently, a matter of indifference. What has shocked the dissenting third of the Irish people is that so many have failed to see that the killing of the unborn is an evil thing.

Once again, for a world which has habitually looked on Ireland as a bastion of family values and marriage, all this comes as a surprise. The first sign of this upheaval came just three years ago. Then, when a similar majority voted in a referendum to change the very meaning of marriage to allow gay people to marry, there was one question, “How did this happen so quickly?”

Many explained away that rejection of one of the social foundations binding a community They read it firstly as a sympathy vote for a minority. Secondly, it was thought of as the result of a failure to grasp the social consequences which pro-marriage campaigners warned of. Again, reason and logic were trumped by emotion and a deceitful misuse of the concept of human equality.

It was not seen by the majority as an out and out rejection by the people of the teaching of the mainstream Christian churches. This, however, is different. This can hardly be seen as anything other than an upfront rejection by the majority of the Irish of the Christian teaching on the sacredness of human life, from the womb to the tomb – and beyond. There is no ambiguity here. There is little basis for a benign response, “they know not what they do.” It has all been done with astounding willfulness.

In this instance the Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic leaders were almost all unanimous in the guidance they gave to their followers on the matter of the sacredness of life. On 16 May the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Diarmuid Martin, explained in a statement:

“The Church must always be pro-life.  That means that the Christian community must be a beacon of support for life especially at its most vulnerable moments and a beacon of support at vulnerable moments of any woman or man along their path of life.

“Christians must be pro-life when it comes to the unborn and those who are vulnerable at the end of their lives.”

The significance of all this in Irish history is twofold. She has now abandoned the principle held for at least 1500 years that all human life is sacred. She has joined the community of secularist nations where relativism rules the roost and life is allowed to flourish only on the basis of the choice of someone other than the living subject in the womb. This is where Ireland now stands – and if anything good might be said by pro life people about this, it is only that it is good to know where one stands.

The second and more general significance which this revolution has is what it says about Catholicism and the Christian Faith in Ireland. What is now clear is that the Irish people’s traditional culture, derived from Christian culture, is now rudderless. Its values with regard to life, the family – and its grasp of the Catholic Faith which has held firm for centuries in the face of “fire, dungeon and sword” – have now “all changed, changed utterly”. For many – well for approximately 32% – something other than “a terrible beauty” has dawned on them. They now face the challenge of starting again. But one third of a population is not the weakest of bases from which to start. This will be the challenge for all the Christian churches to take up, as it picks up the pieces.

There was evidence throughout this campaign of anti-Catholic sentiment – despite the efforts of the pro-life organizations to present their arguments on predominantly rational grounds, grounds of scientific evidence of the human nature of the child and grounds of natural rights and justice. A Catholic priest, an American working in Dublin, made this interesting response on social media to a correspondent who said that the vote was nothing more or less than a vote against the Catholic Church.

“Yes, the vote was a vote against the Church. To my mind, a strange way to think about human rights.” Then, after reflecting for a moment on the undoubted failures of the Church on many levels, and remarking on its servants’ sad record when it  “always found the temptation to wed itself to power irresistible”, he concludes, “The Church arose in a pagan culture by being willing to die for truths, not kill for them. Profound humility and joyful witness to the good life is the way forward. The only way forward for the secular West is to figure out how to argue for love when it announces a loveless universe, and for the Church to live love so attractively it is irresistible despite being powerless.”

For the hard-working campaigners for the unborn who have sweated it out on the streets and the doorsteps of Ireland’s cities and towns for the past four months – a truly marathon run-in to a poll – there may echo in their ears the dying words of Hildebrand, that great medieval campaigner for truth and rights under the law, “I have loved justice and hated iniquity. Therefore I die in exile.”

On Friday, perhaps appropriately, the Catholic Church celebrated his feast day. To be a Christian in Ireland just now will, for many, have the taste of exile about it. It will demand not a little of the mettle of Hildebrand to begin again the mission to which all of them after all, by the very terms and conditions of their contract, are indeed committed.

A triumphant liberal pro-abortion columnist in yesterday’s Irish Times declared that “Middle Ireland” was dead. Now there is just Ireland. Without even thinking about the totalitarian implications of that proclamation, one third of Ireland probably begs to differ. They are already promising to make their voices heard loud and clear. Perhaps they will remain in exile for a while, strangers in a wilderness of moral social values. But they believe that eventually, by “living love so attractively that it will be irresistible, despite being powerless”, in the face of the secularist West and its “me, me, me” selfish and loveless universe, they can hope to triumph. They know that if it happened before it can happen again.

Relishing James Joyce


He is special, very special. Don’t doubt it. He was at times raw but I don’t think he was obscene – and you can read prudently. If you walk through the streets of Dublin and its suburbs today, and enter into the minds and hearts of those you encounter, you will find the same authentic humanity as he portrayed – humour, falleness, ignorance and beauty which he laid before us from a century ago.  And while it will be Irish it will also be universal.

What follows, from the Paris Review, is one person’s simple illustration of why and how the literary world remains in awe of him.

Joyce was good. He was a good writer. He makes me grumpy a lot, especially Ulysses, but he was good. There are at least twenty irresistible qualities to Ulysses. At or near the top of the stack, at least for me, is the way he traffics in what I call “hyperrealistic unnecessaries.”

Shakespeare was like that, too. Sprinkled all through his plays are these exchanges that are not at all essential to the plot but that “ring true” in some surprising way, causing one to turn ’em over and over in one’s mind, pleasurably.

But who, O who, had seen the mobled queen?

The “mobled” queen?
That’s good. “Mobled queen” is good.


Moreover, the fact that the whole thing turns on the word “mobled” raises the pitch well into the “exquisite” range. (The best Simpsons episodes are full of this kind of thing, as well.)

But to return to Joyce: the unnecessary bits that are just so perfect are everywhere in Ulysses. I want to unpack one of them from my favorite chapter (chapter 1), for the benefit of American readers who have absolutely no idea how traditional British money works. Here is the passage:


—Have you your bill? We had better pay her, Mulligan, hadn’t we?

 Stephen filled again the three cups.

—Bill, sir? she said, halting. Well it’s seven mornings a pint at twopence is seven twos is a shilling and twopence over and these three mornings a quart at fourpence is three quarts is a shilling. That’s a shilling and one and two is two and two, sir.

Buck Mulligan sighed and, having filled his mouth with a crust thickly buttered on both sides, stretched forth his legs and began to search his trouser pockets.

—Pay up and look pleasant, Haines said to him, smiling.

Stephen filled a third cup, a spoonful of tea colouring faintly the thick rich milk. Buck Mulligan brought up a florin, twisted it round in his fingers and cried:

—A miracle!

He passed it along the table towards the old woman, saying:

—Ask nothing more of me, sweet. 

All I can give you I give.

Stephen laid the coin in her uneager hand.

—We’ll owe twopence, he said.

—Time enough, sir, she said, taking the coin. Time enough. Good morning, sir.

Every little dot of that is excellent. Mulligan’s sigh. Haines’s smiling banality. The woman’s “uneager” hand. But my purpose here, this morning, is to explain the bill. Her unpunctuated rigmarole of numerical spangablasm is, for me, the crown jewel in this passage, the main reason I remember it.

Sandycove and its Martello Tower, the scene of chapter one.

But first, a little backstory. Like all other Americans with literature Ph.D.s, I have had the old British monetary system explained to me a hundred times. But the thing is hopeless. Bobs, tanners, groats, florins, crowns, guineas—there’s quite a few too many of these. Also, there is the error of thinking the pound is the basic unit. Nothing costs a pound; everything costs a shilling.

For me, the only solution was to go to coin shops and purchase actual specimens of the key items mentioned above. Graduate students of America, listen to me! Go online and buy yourself an eighteenth-century shilling. Pay whatever they want. If you simply stare at a shilling (it’s a handsome coin) for long enough, a lot of your anxieties will relax. As Isaac Watts says: “Let Induftry and Devotion join together, and you need not doubt the happy Succefs.”

But let’s revisit what Mother Grogan (or whatever her name is) says.

Well it’s seven mornings a pint at twopence is seven twos is a shilling and twopence over and these three mornings a quart at fourpence is three quarts is a shilling. That’s a shilling and one and two is two and two, sir.

Let us not make this any more complicated than it needs to be. Here are the essentials. A shilling is twelve pence. A florin is two shillings. Thus,—

(a)  A pint of milk for each of seven mornings, at twopence a pint, is fourteen pence (“a shilling and twopence over”).

(b)  But these three most recent mornings, they’ve had quarts of milk, which go for four pence each (naturally, since a quart is two pints). Three quarts x four pence = twelve pence, i.e., a shilling.

Having calculated (b), she adds (a) to it: [a shilling, for the quarts] + [“one and two,” i.e. a shilling and twopence, for the pints] = [“two and two,” i.e. two shillings and twopence].

Mulligan gives her a florin (= two shillings)—that’s why they still owe twopence.

Got it? You’d probably better read the last few paragraphs over again. Concentrate.

Now, obviously the reader is not supposed to follow the original any better than Mulligan does. Indeed the iggskwizzitness of the passage is bound up in the fact that this humble, uneducated woman thinks rings(for a moment anyway) around these supposedly superior young men. And she does so without aggression or victory, or anything else. She’s mainly wary of them.

Just the same, it bothered me for years, knowing that the novel’s original readers were not nearly as flummoxed as I was. I mean, you’re supposed to be bewildered, but not rendered utterly helpless.

Splendidly, the reader of the present note now understands the passage as well as anyone alive. Until forgetting sets in, your mind has achieved union, not with that of James Joyce but with that of Mother Grogan, or whatever her name was.

Gratia Domini nostri Iesu Christi cum omnibus.