Just when you think the faith is on its way out of Ireland, something unexpected happens that reminds you it is still alive and well.
Two events this summer had this effect on me. The first occurred in a tough inner-city neighborhood of Dublin, the other in a picturesque rural town in County Cork. Oddly, or perhaps providentially, depending on your point of view, both events involved images of the Sacred Heart.
For a long time Dublin's Monto neighborhood was the biggest and most notorious red-light district in Ireland.
Its “working girls” catered to the sailors from the nearby port, British army soldiers from the nearby barracks (Monto dates back to the days before Irish independence in 1922) and, no doubt, a few locals as well. No one approved of Monto, but most people thought nothing could be done about it. Wasn't prostitution inevitable? they reasoned.
Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, thought otherwise. He decided to clean up Monto. In 1925, armed with his faith, he set about doing so. He drove a spike into a wall in a prominent place in Monto and hung on it an image of the Sacred Heart, announcing that he was dedicating Monto to the Sacred Heart. He quickly won the support of the locals, who were thoroughly sick of the brothel owners luring their girls into “the trade.” In no time at all, the doomsayers were proved wrong. Duff had succeeded in his task; Monto had been cleansed and, as if to prove the point, an image of the Sacred Heart was placed in every former brothel in the area.
Shortly after this dramatic reclamation, the Legion of Mary decided to mark it by placing a 4-foot statue of the Sacred Heart on the tallest building in Monto as if to overlook and protect it, and to ensure that it would never fall back into its old ways. Monto never did, but it is still a very poor area, plagued by a terrible drug problem, with very few people attending Mass anymore. But an incident last month involving the Sacred Heart statue of Monto showed that the embers of faith still burn — even if, sometimes, only faintly.
The area is being redeveloped with many of the old buildings in the process of being torn down. One of these is the building on which stands Duff's statue. In the process of removing it from the building, some workmen dropped it and watched in horror as it smashed to pieces on the street below. The workmen knew the significance of the statue. A local craftsman intervened and decided to repair it. As he did so, he and others involved in the repair of the statue detected from it the smell of roses.
The Catholic faith lives on. Even in modern-day Ireland.
The statue was restored and locals flocked to see it. Some of them, too, detected the smell of roses. The parish priest was skeptical of such reports, but he was in no doubt that the renewed interest in the statue showed that, deep down, the people of his poor inner-city parish were still seeking something deeper in their lives than mere consumerism. What it actually showed, although the priest didn't say so, was that the traditional devotions, and much of the traditional imagery of the Catholic faith, still has a grip on the hearts and minds of many people. Deprive them of this route to sanctity, and you might deprive them of the faith itself.
The second incident revolved around the police station in Cobh, County Cork. The Cobh police moved to a new station a few weeks ago. Their old station was more than 80 years old and in all that time an image of the Sacred Heart had hung in the station's reception area. The Office of Public Works, which was in charge of the move to the new station, suggested that in newly multicultural Ireland some people might be offended by a picture of a Catholic image like the Sacred Heart positioned in a prominent place in a police station. They suggested that the Cobh police hide it somewhere.
Now, one does not have to be a member of the American Civil Liberties Union to see that maybe there was something to the Office of Public Works’ concern, but what is interesting is that the police objected strenuously to the Office of Public Work request.
Media coverage of Irish affairs gives the impression that Ireland has become radically secularized, but then we find the police fighting to keep their beloved image of the Sacred Heart and the town mayor, along with the townsfolk, supporting them. (In the end the image was placed not in the reception area of the new police station, but in the office where the police officers work).
Small but telling incidents like these show that Christ still has prominence of place in the hearts of many Irish people. Many Irish still look to the Catholic Church to feed their faith, hope and love. The Catholic faith lives on. Even in modern-day Ireland.
David Quinn is editor of The Irish Catholic in Dublin.