By Amanda Murthy
“The ideological origin of Ireland’s ‘spiritual empire’ lay in the belief that it was the special destiny of the Catholic Irish to carry the faith worldwide and to lead the crusade that would return the world to the Catholic fold.”
These were the words of Professor Irene Whelan of Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, who presented a lecture entitled “Ireland’s Destiny Unleashed: Catholic Culture and Identity in Ireland, 1916-1937” on Tuesday, 25 June, at the University of Notre Dame’s Fremantle campus.
Professor Whelan, who was born in Ireland, is a specialist in Irish religious history, specifically the influence of religion on political life in Ireland. She was educated at the National University of Ireland in Galway, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States. Her doctoral dissertation was published as The Bible War in Ireland. The ‘Second Reformation’ and the Polarization of Protestant-Catholic Relations in Ireland, 1800 to1840 (Lilliput Press, 2005).
In recent years Prof Whelan has turned her attention to the world of the Irish diaspora and the role of Catholic institutions in providing unity and cohesion for an impoverished and dispersed people exposed to oppression and marginalization.
In her lecture, Professor Whelan explained how ideas developed in the United States and Australia combined with developments in Ireland to produce an intense fusion of religion and politics in the years after the 1916 Rebellion.
This fusion was exemplified in the friendship of Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne and Eamon de Valera, who had emerged as the leader of the Republican cause.
“It was grounded in the belief that the Catholic Irish were a “chosen people” special in the eyes of God for all they had suffered and endured for the faith; It would be their destiny as a free people to construct a society in a Catholic mold and to carry the Catholic faith worldwide,” Prof Whelan explained.
“This belief system had a profound influence on the culture of the new Irish state that came into being after 1922.
“It was solidified when de Valera’s party Fianna Fail (‘Soldiers of Destiny’) gained electoral victory in 1932,” she added.
Irene Whelan went on to say that religious culture that underpinned the political character of Irish life was enshrined in the Constitution of 1937.
“The emphasis on vocations to the religious life was of central importance in the educational system,” she said.
“Young people were encouraged to follow a religious vocation and thousands of young men and women entered religious orders that often took them on missionary work to the farthest ends of the globe.”
Professor Whelan described how, as a child growing up in the rural West of Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s, she learned about Africa and China from missionary magazines like The African Missions and The Far East. Life as a missionary was considered the most ‘noble’ calling a young person could consider, Prof Whelan said.
The legacy of those days is still alive in Ireland, Professor Whelan explained, although in a secular form.
Organisations like Trocaire and Concern continue to attract young Irish people to voluntary work in the underdeveloped world, and awareness of poverty and suffering worldwide continues to be a feature of life in Ireland.
Professor Whelan added that the purpose of her visit to Perth was precisely to research the origins and development of Irish Catholic missions in Western Australia for her next book, Ireland’s Destiny. The Catholic Spiritual Empire and Irish Identity in the Modern World.