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Breaking the Mould

Literary Representations of Irish Catholicism


Edited By Eamon Maher and Eugene O'Brien

Catholicism has played a central role in Irish society for centuries. It is sometimes perceived in a negative light, being associated with repression, antiquated morality and a warped view of sexuality. However, there are also the positive aspects that Catholicism brought to bear on Irish culture, such as the beauty of its rituals, education and health care, or concern for the poor and the underprivileged. Whatever their experience of Catholicism, writers of a certain generation could not escape its impact on their lives, an impact which is pervasive in the literature they produced.
This study, containing twelve chapters written by a range of distinguished literary experts and emerging scholars, explores in a systematic manner the cross-fertilisation between Catholicism and Irish/Irish-American literature written in English. The figures addressed in the book include James Joyce, Maud Gonne, Constance Markievicz, Kate O’Brien, Edwin O’Connor, Brian Moore, John McGahern, Seamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, Vincent Carroll and Brian Friel. This book will serve to underline the complex relationship between creative writers and the once all-powerful religious Establishment.


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Eamon Maher and Eugene O’Brien Introduction In a country where Catholicism has played a prominent role for centuries, it is logical that our novelists, poets and dramatists should engage with its implications and ramifications in their work. For some it is a central motif, for others more of an inherited language and culture: what is indisputable, however, is the extent to which Irish literature is replete with Catholic imagery and references. The Catholic habitus, even for those who have abandoned their faith, f lavours the speech of artists and their characters, many of whom regularly invoke God, the Virgin Mary, the saints, or else intone phrases from the Mass, prayers or other rituals, all of which inevita- bly impacts on the discourse employed in various texts. The priest is a sig- nificant presence also, regularly perceived as authoritarian and interfering, devoid of any real spiritual substance, more of a manager than a pastor. In Joyce’s Dubliners, for example, priests function as signifiers of power, but are also pervasive iconic presences in pictures and images throughout the collection. Religious symbols such as the Sacred Heart, scapulars, pictures of the Pope ( John the XXIII being especially popular), rosary beads and holy medals similarly abound. Ref lecting on what being Catholic meant to her, the poet and novelist Mary O’Donnell observed: I see myself as born a Christian and Catholic and still Catholic, though largely on my terms. […] No thinking woman born in the 1950s who travelled the sometimes uncomfortable route from the...

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