When I was growing up I heard two key narratives about “our people,” my Irish ancestors. Though I now look back at them with a bit less sentimentality, these stories nonetheless formed my sense of identity and “what it means to be Irish and of Irish descent.” The first I’m sure was perpetuated thanks to Thomas Cahill’s New York Times best-seller “How the Irish Saved Civilization.”
At an early age it was instilled in me that the progress of Western Civilization, with her triumphs of faith and art and thought, would never have been ultimately preserved and thus sustained if not for the Irish. Without the Irish scriptoriums during “the dark ages” the medieval universities, libraries or cathedrals would never have come to be. Virgil and Cicero would have gone extinct and without the revolutionary change of writing in the vernacular the great works of Chaucer and Shakespeare never would have been penned. There would be no medieval mind like Aquinas, if not for his philosophy professor at Naples, Peter of Ireland. It was Irish missionaries even as recently as the last century, that went off and converted whole nations, and in some cases, reconverted where the light of Christ had gone dim.
“Our people” had nurtured the light of faith, of beauty and of classical wisdom, while the rest of the civilized world plunged into ignorance and paganism. Their distance from the continent meant it was excluded from the Roman Empire, and thus never suffered the ill effects of fall and rapid descent into darkness. Indeed, when the fire of such things as art and books and Christianity were eventually rekindled centuries later, it was thanks to the Irish. While the sun’s light waned in the rest of the West, in Ireland, her brilliance continued to guide, illumine and inspire.
The second narrative was that for generations my Irish ancestors suffered under the oppressive rule of the British, who even in the modern era sought to suppress and exterminate the Irish people whom they deemed subhuman. This was a grave offense that later generations were never to forget. This was manifested in our cheering for “England out of Ireland” in the annual NYC St. Patrick’s Day parade in which my relatives and I proudly marched. I remember watching a rather glowing documentary on Disraeli with my father whose commentary made me think he belonged in the 9th ring of Dante’ Inferno (which wouldn’t have been conceived of, by the way, without the Irish’s preservation of literature—see narrative one).
The odious reign of the British was personified in one particular Viscount Thomas de Vesci, who commanded the local manor and taxed my fore bearer’s farm in Co. Laois till the inevitable foreclosure—the common practice whereby the people became starved tenants on their ‘own’ land. These stories were often recounted at family gatherings when, especially after a funeral mass, we sang songs together like “The Fields of Athenry.”
A small knitted square of multi-colored yarn that lived in my parent’s living room was a constant reminder of the evil that once reigned in Ireland. I once commented on its ugliness and was promptly rebuked. It had been made by my great grandfather Harrington when he had been remanded to Port Laoise Prison running messages for the Irish freedom fighters. He was 15.
Long before I visited Ireland in high school or lived there for a year as a Catholic missionary, I had a very real sense that the Irish were people of determined character who loved freedom and their faith more than life itself. As a people, they possessed the necessary boldness and tenacity to stand up to the relentless persecution that existed under British rule. They were a people who treasured the goodness of nature and of words, of music and of prayers and while the rest of the world was plunged into darkness, they remained apart; they persevered in the faith, and preserved all that was good, true, beautiful and authentically human until a time when the rest of the world was ready to love such things again. Under the thumb of a vigilant foreign oppressor who sought to destroy their dignity, if not their entire race and culture, they remained resolute and refused to be seduced by the lies and bribes and power of their British overlords.
These ingrained convictions about what it means to be an Irishman, and of Irish descent were profoundly shaken over the weekend, as the Irish voted to repeal the 8th amendment of their constitution. The amendment, which has stood for 35 years until a few days ago, acknowledged “the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to the life of the mother.” Why had it stood for only 35 years? Because prior to that moment in Ireland it was simply unthinkable. It was a matter of common sense even among uneducated commoners that Irish don’t kill their own. This amendment has kept abortion, and what Pope John Paul II aptly entitled “the culture of death” from pervading the shores of Ireland while it ravaged, almost uninhibited, through the rest of the European continent.
What the British unsuccessfully tried to accomplish for centuries—the radical acceptance of the lie that the world will be a better place with fewer Irish, by blood shed if necessary—has now been voluntarily championed by a majority of free Irish citizens. How has the Irish’s generational memory become so short and impoverished? How could the number of Irish who expressed their desire to repeal as a matter of screwing the Catholic Church for it’s horrific history of child abuse, not see that in voting to legalize abortion they are only perpetuating a culture of child abuse? How could 66% of Irish citizens, whose forefathers and foremothers clung to truth and goodness while darkness consumed the West, not recognize that history repeats itself, and once again civilization was counting on the Irish to save it?
In my mind, this is nothing short of historical and ancestral patricide. The heritage and character and legacy which modern Irish citizens have as their birthright has been forsaken. Where once the Irish preserved the light, and shone as a beacon to nations consumed by darkness, they now clamor for and invite the darkness to engulf them as well. All those who doubt can see the celebratory drinking at Dublin Castle following the vote’s announcement.
What the Irish people do not realize is that they have voluntarily signed up for a new kind of oppression of which the British could only have dreamed to inflict. A free Republic has now paved the way for the inevitable Irish law establishing the “right” to exterminate themselves; the right to kill off the tiniest and most innocent of the Irish people. You see, as the British long affirmed, it turns out certain Irish persons are subhuman—that would be the Irish in the womb—unworthy of life and with now no protection under the Irish Constitution. With this repeal the Irish have bought into the British propaganda that their ancestors adamantly resisted, even unto death.
The irony here is both terrible and astounding and my heart is breaking: Breaking for the wee Irish babies who will never get to see the green hills or hear the beautiful music of their homeland. Breaking for vulnerable mothers who will be seduced by the lie that killing their unborn baby is their only choice. Breaking for a majority of citizens, in almost every county, save Donegal, who were conned into thinking that “reproductive rights” is anything but a gross euphemism for the barbaric procedure of abortion. Breaking for would-be adoptive parents and siblings who will never have the opportunity to be blessed by adoption as my family was. Breaking for Irish healthcare providers who will now be pressured to betray the hippocratic oath by ending innocent human life instead of preserving it. Breaking for a country that was once known for being a world leader in prenatal and maternal care without abortion, which will now have to account for the fact that prenatal care will only be given if the child is convenient and with no defects, like an extra chromosome. Breaking for the city of Dublin where abortion statistics may come to mirror the abortion rates of London where 1 in 5 babies are aborted, or in New York where 3 out of 5 babies are aborted.
And yet, my childhood conviction that the Irish are a people who are rebellious in the face of evil authority and stubborn when it comes to what’s right, means that my hope for the future of Ireland is not completely shattered. The country that gave rise to countless unnamed Catholic martyrs and heroes of the Irish rebellion against a British dictatorship, may yet see a new generation of Irish men and women, who like their fathers and mothers before them, will persevere in standing up for the inherent dignity of their countrymen; who, like their prolife brothers and sisters in America, will never surrender and go on fighting for truth and goodness while the rest of the darkened world insists that murder of the unborn is an unequivocal good; who will be unrelenting in finding ways to love and encourage mothers in crisis pregnancies to choose life for their precious babies.
I hope and pray that there are still Irish hearts who will confirm that the stories of my childhood are not fantasy; who will confirm that these stories captured something inherent and unrelenting in the nature of the Irish people, because if they were wrong, and we must pray ardently that they are not, the abortion clinics that will pervade the country of Ireland will make the horror and violence and innocent bloodshed of Bloody Sunday a weekly occurrence on any given Tuesday.
Emily Sullivan is a graduate of the great books program of Thomas Aquinas College, California. She has taught high school philosophy and theology, worked as the Northeast Program Manager for Endow and currently works for the Thomistic Institute based at the Dominican House of Studies, Washington DC.
She has spoken at Notre Dame, Princeton and a variety of women’s retreats and conferences around the country on the thought of Sts. Thomas Aquinas, Edith Stein and John Paul II. She and her husband have three little girls and reside in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia where Emily serves on Archbishop Chaput’s Pastoral Council. From 2006-2007 she served as a volunteer with NET Ireland, a Catholic nonprofit that sends young missionaries to evangelize to 1,000s of teenagers in schools and parishes across Ireland.