(Photo: A Virgin Mary statue in an Irish school, 3 June 2010/Cathal McNaughton)
Roisin Hyde was five when she was hastily baptised a few days before she started primary school. Hyde’s parents were agnostic but because non-Catholics in Ireland had few other places to learn how to read and write, the family latched onto the only option they knew.
Thirty-five years on and Hyde, an architect in Dublin, is struggling over where to educate her own two-year-old son. It’s a dilemma faced by parents the world over. But in Ireland, where the Catholic Church runs more than nine in ten primary schools and half of all high schools, it’s a question that too often has just one answer.
“I would say that a lot of my friends, the only time they have been inside a church is to get their kids christened so they could go to the local school,” Hyde, 40, says. “I just feel so hypocritical doing it, going along for one day and then not attending.”
The reverence with which the Irish hold the Catholic Church had begun to fade even before the abuse scandals of recent years. As the economy boomed in the 1990s and 2000s, churches emptied. The abuse revelations have further undermined the Church’s authority and fractured trust, alienating committed believers as senior clergy have remained in their posts. Parents, politicians, and even church leaders have begun to call for a rollback of clerical power. Why should our children have to follow a creed just to get an education, many ask.
Despite these changing attitudes, the Catholic Church retains far more power in Ireland than in almost any other country in Europe. And nowhere is the Irish Church so deeply woven into the fabric of daily life than in education. The number of nuns and priests teaching may be down compared to a few decades ago, but the Church controls so many schools and writes so many of the rules its influence remains pervasive. In Ireland, “if it’s a state school, it’s Catholic. If it’s private, it’s usually Catholic,” Hyde says.