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"The Rise and Fall of the Cult of Mary in Twentieth-Century Ireland"


James S. Donnelly, Jr., University of Wisconsin-Madison


This paper will explore the cresting of the wave of Marian zeal in Irish Catholicism in the period 1930-60 and the swift receding of that wave thereafter. Signs of the cult of Mary were everywhere in Ireland before 1960. There was a proliferation of books, pamphlets, periodicals, films, and plays linked to the cult of Mary. In the 1930s a pilgrimage to Lourdes became an annual exercise for many thousands of Irish Catholics, and many more thousands who remained at home participated in such events by supporting the pilgrims with money, prayers, and benevolent actions. So strong was the Marian enthusiasm that gripped Irish Catholicism from the 1930s through the 1950s that the Marian shrine at Knock in County Mayo experienced an extraordinary revival in these years. According to the shrine authorities, pilgrim traffic to Knock roughly tripled in the late 1930s, rising from about 80,000 in 1937 to nearly 250,000 in 1940--the peak until after World War II. By the time of the "Marian Year" in 1954 the shrine authorities were boasting of a million pilgrims at Knock, though this figure appears to represent a serious exaggeration.

The paper will assess what appear to be the three principal reasons for the remarkable upsurge in Marian enthusiasm in this period. First, the fierce anticlerical violence associated with the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 produced an intensified Marianism by way of reaction. Throughout the late 1930s Irish Catholics were repeatedly asked to join in special religious ceremonies "in reparation for the sacrileges and murders committed in Spain." A second factor that etched Marianism even more deeply into Irish Catholicism in this period was anticommunism, which flourished especially during the Cold War and took Our Lady of Fatima as its central icon. The cult of Fatima, with its central anticommunist message, eclipsed the cult of Lourdes in Ireland, and Irish Catholics embraced the praying of the rosary (heralded now as an especially powerful stroke against the menace of communism) with unprecedented fervor. And third, there was a strong social and cultural dimension to Marianism in this period, when swiftly changing sexual mores outside of Ireland seemed to threaten the severe sexual restraint associated with the Irish demographic characteristics of late marriages and high rates of bachelorhood and spinsterhood. As the epitome of sexual purity, the Virgin Mary was perceived as the most essential bulwark of the traditional moral order.

Then, rather suddenly in the 1960s and 1970s, the Marian wave swiftly receded, and Irish Catholicism as a whole entered a troubled new era which has not yet ended. The paper will show that already by the late 1960s traditionalists were bemoaning the near-collapse of the praying of the family rosary, for which they mostly blamed the impact of television on patterns of family life. Also clearly on the wane before 1970 were other Marian devotions such as May processions, the erection of household altars in the month of May, and the wearing of Miraculous Medals and Brown Scapulars. The flagship institutions of Irish Marianism--the Legion of Mary and Our Lady's Sodality--went into steep decline as well. The paper will examine the reasons for this marginalization of Marianism in Ireland (and elsewhere): the dramatic weakening of the Cold War, the revolution in sexual attitudes along with the adjustment of the official Catholic church to this revolution, and the impact of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) in certain critical areas, especially liturgical reform and the sidelining of devotional practices associated with popular belief in miracles. As the paper will demonstrate, these factors operated in a context in which from the 1960s Irish society was increasingly characterized by materialism and cultural openness to the outside world.




Copyright 2002 Fordham University
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