Category: Irish American culture


My essay about the critical role of Irish women to the future of the Catholic church is to appear (alongside an essay by Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland) in the book below which is to be launched in Rome next month. 189 Irish women responded to a questionnaire about their feelings and experiences with Catholicism. Their thoughtful responses informed this essay and should be heard by the Catholic hierarchy if they have any interest in structural change to prevent future abuses of women and children at the hands of Catholic clerics.  Chances are they won’t listen so I urge you to buy a copy and deliver to the parish priest and bishops in your area.

Book can be pre-ordered here for its September 30th release.

Visions, Vocations and the Voices of Women, Edited by Catholic Women Speak

(Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 2018)


I recently attended a packed funeral mass in Boston to celebrate the life of a cousin who had died at 62 from cancer. She was raised in an Irish-American Catholic family, attended Catholic school and, like most women in my extended family, she had turned away from the institution of Catholicism decades earlier.  When the cancer became untreatable she reached out to a hospital chaplain and found a renewed faith that gave her a sense of peace while dying.  She was always a Catholic but in the end, she had to find a way to live with her faith, despite her alienation from the Catholic clergy, institutions and hierarchy. That is a critical issue for Catholicism.

The parish priest celebrating the Mass spoke of my cousin’s faith, but something was missing. Her husband’s eulogy soared with love. He saw her Catholic faith in her love for her family, in her work as a special education teacher in Boston for almost 30 years, in her love for her neighbors and for the women whose friendships she had nurtured through marriages, children, sickness, and grief.

Irish-American parishes in the United States are struggling with a decline in membership. The parishes in which these family’s ancestors worshiped in Ireland are in trouble too. The pews, parish councils and altars are filled with people over 60.  57 percent of priests in the Dublin archdiocese are over 60 years old. St. Patrick’s Seminary in Maynooth, once the largest seminary in the world, enrolled only six first year seminarians in 2017.

I am a Catholic-American who lived in Ireland for ten years. I was confirmed, married and had my children in Ireland. I was amazed at how Catholicism remains intertwined with the Irish state, education, healthcare and community, in such a way that the Church has been able to control people’s lives for generations.  Most Irish people remain Catholic in name and culture, but the latest census results from 2016 show a continued decline in the population who identify as Catholic,[i] and a corresponding increase in the number with no religion which grew by 73.6 percent since 2011. Just as telling is the growing movement for the separation of healthcare,[ii] law,[iii] and education[iv] from control by the Catholic institutions that have betrayed their communities.

Irish women were betrayed in the worst way. Catholic priests, bishops, nuns and cardinals abused and neglected their children and babies. They shamed women for sexual and reproductive behaviour over which the women themselves had little control. They stole the joy of motherhood and betrayed women’s loyalty by failing to protect their families.

Women today, myself included, struggle to reconcile their Catholicism with their identity as women, mothers, professionals and activists. My expertise is in community development and social inclusion. I decided to conduct a survey by way of an online questionnaire as to why the Church is failing to engage with Irish women and retain their loyalty. I received 189 responses from women. While this result cannot claim to be a representative sample, it does offer an insight into the how some Irish women define their relationship with Catholicism.

I asked twenty questions about their relationship with the Catholic Church and its role in Irish society. The questions were a combination of closed and open-ended questions. While 98.2 percent of the respondents were baptised Catholics, less than half had baptised their own children or intended to baptise future children. Only 27 percent affirmatively identified as Catholic now, while the rest either did not identify as Catholic or were unsure about their Catholic identity.

When the women were asked to explain their attitudes towards baptism and the other sacraments, responses were age dependant. Younger women (aged 15 to 44) expressed little interest in the sacraments for themselves or for their children, while the vast majority of older women said they supported baptism and participated in the sacraments in order to ensure access to schools and avoid exclusion in the community.

Nearly all the respondents thought that gender equality is an important issue professionally and personally. Only 6 percent thought that the Catholic Church as an institution values women today, and a further 15 percent said that it sometimes values women. Perhaps more importantly, only 2 percent replied that they do believe that Catholicism values women in its teaching and principles. I believe this is the crux of the membership crisis in Ireland.

Most respondents believed it was impossible to be a Catholic and a feminist, and all reported that news about the Church made them angry on a regular basis (daily and weekly). Their advice to young women was focused on the importance of personal conscience, and many warned that participating in the rituals of the Catholic Church would damage young women’s self-esteem.

On respondent wrote: “For many years, I was asked to be a reader in the church. I was also asked on a number of occasions for a reference for male deacons. I find both requests insulting and demeaning considering that women have no role whatsoever in the institution, and there appears to be no vision for this. The fact that it does not matter to the institution is the biggest insult. My daughters’ generations will not accept this.”

The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) in Ireland has recently taken a halting first step to address the crisis precipitated by the alienation and exodus of women from the Church. It has asked every diocese to refrain from creating a permanent male diaconate until the Vatican commission on women in the diaconate, set up by Pope Francis, shares its findings. In a statement issued on 11 August, 2017, the ACP explained:

We believe that proceeding with the introduction of a male permanent diaconate at this time, and thereby adding another male clerical layer to ministry, is insensitive, disrespectful of women, and counter-productive at this present critical time.[v]


The ACP statement shows sensitivity to the current level of disrespect felt by Irish Catholic women. However, the need to integrate women more fully into Catholic institutions also relates to another looming crisis, which is the growing shortage of parish priests in Ireland.[vi] I believe this could be an opportunity rather than a threat for the Church today.  The parish priest should ensure that all the faithful in his parish are nourished through the celebration of sacraments, and therefore he has a responsibility to ensure that women feel welcomed and respected as equals in his parish. Irish priests do not need to wait for the Vatican commission findings to do this.  They could start now by engaging with women and seeking to understand and respond to their concerns.

Catholic institutions and clergy need to develop parishes as places that strengthen individual faith through communal beliefs and practice. They need to approach this through community development principles of increasing the participation and inclusion of the most marginalized of their members. The tools are simple but the trust between women and clergy will only be built through humility and respect. The process of asking about, listening to, and acknowledging women’s experiences and understanding of parish politics could be as important as any resulting change in policy.

[i] Central Statistics Office, 2016 Census, Chapter 8, “Religion,”

[ii] Cf Sarah MacDonald, “Confusion arises over using sisters’ land for Irish national maternity hospital,’ Global Sisters Report, May 22, 2017, at

[iii] For example, there is widespread support for the liberalisation of Ireland’s abortion laws, despite strong opposition from the Catholic hierarchy. Cf. Sarah Bardon, “Eighth Amendment committee agrees to recommend abortion law changes,” The Irish Times, Wednesday, December 13, 2017, at

[iv] In a 2017 survey, 72% of parents surveyed agreed that law should be changed so baptism cannot be an admission requirement for state-funded schools. See

[v] Association of Catholic Priests Statement on the Permanent Diaconate, 11 August, 2017 at

[vi] Cf. “Lack of priests in Irish Catholic Church: The problem is becoming more acute,” The Irish Times, Tuesday, August 25, 2015, at

The Gombeen Strikes Again

The Healy-Raes making news for espousing ill-informed and biased opinions is not news in itself. We seem to be living in the era of unqualified Gombeen politicians making up ‘facts’ everywhere. One could be forgiven for thinking it was 1950 rather than 2017 while reading the daily political news. 

In this article an Irish mother who’s son was killed by a drunk driver is expressing her outrage at the Kerry politician’s claims that a few glasses of Guinness have never led to a drink-related driving fatality. 

By the way he owns a pub. 

Let’s support people standing up to this insidious, yet harmless seeming, Gombeen style of politics in Ireland and America. Policy should be created based on impact measurements, analysis and stakeholder engagement; not loudly stated ignorance. 

Read the Irish Independent article here – Miseducation by Danny Healy-Rae

Is it Time for Feminists to Lean In or Get Out of the Catholic Church?

Blessed Virgin MaryI told my dad it was creepy that we had to kneel in front of an old guy in a robe at mass when I was 10 or 11. I weaseled out of my confirmation at 15 and thought I was skipping into a sacrament free future as a young modern feminist. Yet years later I found myself having ‘words’ with the avid church lady in Galway who was instructing a few unconfirmed foreigners how to be good Catholic wives. I exaggerate – she was leading a confirmation prep class that I had to attend in order to receive confirmation at St. John’s in Galway so I could marry my Irish fiance in the Church but I felt like I was prostrating myself again in a front of a man in a robe.

Fast forward through a Master’s degree, my wedding, funerals, jobs, two baptisms, a move back to the US and here I am again contemplating yet another Catholic ritual. The sick irony of the Irish government hosting a Citizen’s Assembly on the 8th amendment while making no moves to open a criminal investigation into the hundreds of human remains found at the site of the former Bon Secours Tuam ‘home’ for mothers and children makes me wonder why the hell I am considering signing my son up to make his First Communion next year. Why the hell, am I a feminist who does not believe in a literal reading of the bible, still a Catholic at all?

Many Irish feminists and journalists have the answer for me. I can’t be a feminist and a Catholic and I am choosing the easy path by continuing to participate in a corrupt organization’s rituals. According to Donald Clarke’s opinion piece reprinted by The Irish Times in relation to the question of the church’s rituals, I shouldn’t participate in rituals, such as First Communion, if I don’t approve of the church.  This might be the simplest solution to my dilemma but who does it help and if it was that simple to me I would have already expunged the Roman Catholic from my identity. As I struggle to answer this question for my own sake (sorry, I don’t care about your opinion about my feminism or my Catholicism) three answers emerge.

Firstly, I like rituals because they connect me to the generations of my family before me and to communities all over the world in a way that creating my own brand of religious rituals wouldn’t do for me or my children.

Secondly, I have enough respect for the victims of the church’s abuse who are still Catholics and still participate in the rituals to consider their faith might not be misplaced.

Finally, feeling like I need to take individual responsibility for the wrongs of the Catholic church perpetuates the silent guilt created by the Catholic power structures in Ireland and Irish-America that allowed communities to stay behind their curtains while not so secret abuse, imprisonment and shaming went on in parishes everywhere.

Why are families urged to take their child out of communion prep or choose a rare non-denominational school rather than demand the crucifix and communion get out of their state-funded schools? The victims of abuse have overcome enormous physical and psychological obstacles to confront the power of bishops, cardinals, parish priests, nuns and the Vatican as a whole and what have we done about it collectively as Catholics to support them? Why in 2014 did Catherine Corless, an amateur historian, have to single-handedly research and publicize the death and secret burial of hundreds of babies in what were public institutions in communities all over Ireland?

The feminist and community development professional in me can’t quite just walk away.  I continue to vote even when I don’t ‘approve’ of the major political parties in Ireland or America. Feminists don’t approve of Donald Trump but they haven’t all left the political arena. Women have done the opposite and are flooding political institutions and decision-making structures in the attempt to collectively change politics. The silent treatment is a particularly Irish solution to conflict. I hate the silent treatment. The person you are ignoring doesn’t know why you are ignoring them and you don’t get the satisfaction of being angry. Staying home on Sunday morning is just like the silent treatment. This might prove to be the best option for me but I would rather be part of an Irish-led collective movement to remove the church and their sexist and controlling leaders from social policy in Ireland and the US.   I would rather see Catholics in Ireland and America throw off the guilt and silence created by the church and demand their rightful role as members in creating church policy. The public campaign to repeal the 8th amendment in Ireland is the first step to eradicating the smug and sanctimonious moral high ground from Irish social policy.

The Politics of Puzzling Hair

Donald Trump’s campaign started off as an Apprentice sequel. A bit of car crash television that viewers watch to enjoy a good laugh and then end up emotionally involved.  Then it veered and swerved wildly into attacking the mother of an American soldier killed in Afghanistan then onto sexual assault. As his R-rated campaign has turned from reality television into a slasher film, complete with racial slurs and stereotypes, it has become apparent that Trump could use a few politicking lessons from the wily gombeen men of Irish politics.

Who would have thought that the Healy-Rae political dynasty  would make a U.S. presidential candidate look backwards and provincial for his lack of policy platform, general knowledge and eloquence?

Jackie & Michael Healy-Rae’s stupid hats & hatless Danny Healy-Rae
Who also would have thought that a presidential candidate would share a penchant for puzzling hair and bad hats with the original gombeen man, Jackie Healy-Rae?

Trump’s stupid hat
On the surface there are no similarities between the Irish political dynasty of the Healy-Raes in County Kerry and empire of Donald Trump, but under the cap is a different story. Political watchers will be surprised to learn they share more than just spectacular comb-overs.

If you’re not familiar with today’s Irish politics you may not know the infamous political dynasty that is the Healy-Rae family of Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry.  The term political dynasty conjures up images of tanned Kennedy’s romping on rolling lawns of their Hyannis compound in tennis whites. Think rumpled suit jackets, mucky shoes, paddy caps and heavy machinery and you have an accurate mental image.

Modern Irish politics has many gombeen characters (remember Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach who was so calculatedly pedestrian that he avoided bribe accusations by claiming he didn’t even have a bank account. He slithered right out of the spotlight after his Celtic Tiger came crashing down and bankrupt Irish banks and taxpayers)

Gombeen is one of those great Irish words adapted from the Irish language but embedded with cultural meaning that makes it difficult to directly define. The Irish word ‘gaimbín’ is a noun meaning interest as in the actual interest charged on a loan. It then became used to define a money-lender and then specifically a shop-keeper or business man who sold gods and food to the poor on credit and charged crippling interest rates.

In general, it refers to shady ‘wheeler-dealer’ type of business men who accepts bribes or looking to make a quick buck at someone else’s expense.

It’s now generally used to describe politicians and businessmen involved in self-serving activities, and more specifically Irish politicians involved in Daly-style vote getting in exchange for pursuing personal favors for constituents. Gombeen men skillfully make insider deals while convincing their supporters that they are actually outsiders, like them, and hence more straight talking and capable of representing the common man’s interests.

The concept is really that despite being wealthy because of your political connections (Healy-Rae and Trump wealth is of course relative) and having no skills, experience or knowledge of public policy or government, you are the more trustworthy candidate because you are a regular Joe-sop just trying to look out for the other honest Joe-sops that no one in Dublin (or Washington) gives a shite about it because they are too sophisticated and corrupt to care about the rest of us. Regular Joe-sops are always honest when it comes to elections.

So while gombeen men make it seem easy to convince voters that they are more trustworthy than the usual politicians, Trump has shown us all that it takes a considerable (and possible uniquely Irish) skill set to maintain the line between straight-talking and ranting without alienating the media and less extreme voters.

Trump began his campaign in gombeen style with virtually no policy interests and lots of controversial ‘straight talking’ air time. Although he was technically a party nominee, he never really felt like a member of any party. He has no policy platform based on facts, plans or experience. Statements about terrorists, immigrants and plans to build a wall on the U.S. – Mexican border with Mexican funding are as far removed from public policy as Danny Healy-Rae’s claims that global warming is not real or Michael’s claims that the Gardaí should dole out drink-driving permits to rural pub drinkers because drink-driving is a made-up problem in Ireland (the Healy-Raes own a rural pub).

Many Irish politicians and commentators have argued that Healy-Rae style politics is damaging to the national interest by ultimately blocking policy decisions that might benefit the Ireland as a whole in favor of local interests. Their ‘local’ interest is to expand their voter base in Kerry and translate this into increased local and national offices. To be fair to them, most international political commentators now argue that Trump style politics is damaging to the U.S. national interests for far worse reasons!

Of course he had a different schtick than the Healy Raes because he’s not hiding his wealth but we have to factor in the cultural differences here. Trump’s number one asset in the U.S. is that he’s rich but his boastful wealth would be a hindrance in political life in Ireland and would it make it impossible for voters to buy the “I’m one of the guys the locker room” talk and trust him (especially while suffering from the Celtic-Tiger champagne hangover).

Trump has now left the likable gombeen track and is completely off-roading in uncharted political wilderness in the U.S. He made some crucial mistakes when he went from calculated ignorance to galvanizing hate and bullying. Gombeens have to carefully calculate how controversial their outrageous publicity seeking statements are in order to maximize press coverage and unmanaged non politician image but rather a regular honest man who just says what’s on his mind. Danny Healy-Rae has received international coverage for outrageous and incorrect statements about climate change being a hoax which he claims is proved by the story of Noah’s Ark (Please look this up, it’s brilliant) and Michael Healy-Rae put forward a motion to make drunk driving legal in certain circumstances where old men and rural pubs are involved (for example their own pub in South Kerry).

Trump has lost the art of being controversial and straight talking by being hateful towards groups that are generally seen as easy targets by a bully.  Gombeen men make ignorant comments, but they save their ire for the smug politicians and elite of the Pale in Dublin and certainly know better than to bully vulnerable groups like those pesky people with disabilities and victims of sexual assault.  How unfair that the media and public tend to take their side!

Trump is shockingly less calculated then the Healy-Rae boys with his late-night tweets, rants and general buffoonery. The Healy-Raes don’t even have a real office – they hold clinics in a pub and their public relations management puts him to shame. Maybe he and his professional political advisers and strategists (assuming he hasn’t had them all beheaded or locked in a tower by now) could use a trip to Kilgarvan in order to see how you win elections without addressing any real policy issues.  A few pints and easy singles slices might just be what this election needs to turn things around.

Are American’s ready to have babies the Irish way? Do you want a mid-wife or a maternity concierge?

I received a letter from my ob/gyn’s office today with an appointment date. I thought it was a mistake until I got a voice mail from the secretary requesting I ring back to confirm the appointment which was based on a referral from my GP’s office.

Sounds standard but just a year late!

I had gone to my GP with a complaint almost a year ago. The same week I got this letter, I also got an e-mail from my mother complaining about the Obamacare website in Maine and how much her policy cost.  I can not even bring myself to investigate the cost of insuring my family over there when we move over since we won’t have jobs for a few months. This all got me thinking again about the differences in healthcare between here and the US.

The main difference is price but the principle of universal healthcare leads to other differences that I am not sure supporters of healthcare reform (particularly liberal, well-educated, middle and upper class urbanites) would be ready to face themselves.  Social policy is personal and when I see FB posts about healthcare reform I chuckle at the thought of my friend’s having babies the Irish way.

I had two straightforward and uncomplicated pregnancies and deliveries and found the mid-wife led service very good but there is nothing dressed up or glamorous about your choices.

For people not familiar with the Irish healthcare system, here are few general points:

  • I don’t actually have a ob/gyn – you are assigned one when you are pregnant and she supervised my pregnancy, labour and delivery and post-natal care but I only met her once.
  • Your maternity care is delivered by a combination of GP, nurses or midwives, registrars (this is like a resident
  • The GP is your first point of call for everything and then you get referred to Consultants (specialists)
  • It is not uncommon to wait over 12 months to get an appointment for a consultant
  • You can pay and make an appointment with the same doctor directly and it doesn’t take as long
  • You get standard red-tape letters about health matters, no phone calls (I always found this disconcerting, impersonal  and kind of inappropriate – what if it didn’t arrive or someone else opened it and you never got it?)
  • Because the health system is publicly run (even if you pay you are still using the public health system because the hospitals, doctors and management are all public) it is run by civil servants and in the same manner as say the DMV.

My maternity experiences were very different from my friend’s in the U.S. and I am frankly not sure American’s are really ready for universal affordable healthcare.  It is one thing to be a liberal educated middle-class woman who believes in equal access to health care for all Americans but it is another thing when it becomes personal.  The reality is that you will have the same experience as women who don’t pay and they will be next to you.  In the chair, room or bed next to you as is the case in Ireland.

There was an Irish Traveller in the bed next to me who had just had her 12th baby and was getting given free formula and bottles. I knew the husband from work and know they live in a free house and get a lot of social welfare.  They probably get paid about $2000 per month of universal payments for children alone. The nurses spent a lot of time finding extra formula and bottles for them to take home (for free) but they were in a hurry so the nurses made arrangement for them to collect them later.

You will continue to pay for your healthcare so that other women can receive the same healthcare without paying. You will have limited choices and we know American’s are obsessed with choice (just walk down the shampoo aisle in CVS). My friend’s shopped around for their doctors and their hospitals.  I think this is all just an illusion of choice  because at the end of the day the baby will come out one of two ways and it works the same for everyone but these choices let women think they have an element of control over things. I personally think this pretense that you can control your healthcare is  dangerous expectation that leads to a lot of misinformation and disappointment at the reality of childbirth and beyond.

Has anyone heard of a maternity concierge?? Well, I hadn’t either until a friend living in LA suggested that I look up this reality show called ‘Pregnant in Heel’s’. This show is fantastic.  This woman, a maternity concierge, charges about $500/hour to fulfill your every crazy wish and demand through pregnancy.  I can’t even begin to describe the craziness I saw on the show but much of it makes you wonder how have these people become successful – they are idiots?.

No one here has heard of a maternity concierge and when I try to explain the hilarity of the tv show, they think I am making it all up.  I wish.

I received an e-mail from a close friend right after having her baby in a city in the US. There was a link to a professional photographer’s website to see the results of his photo shoot…in the hospital. The pictures were adorable and the mother looked great except for the exhausted and confused look in her eye. She had clothes on and makeup and jewelry and the baby was in props.  I started looking more closely.  The hospital room seemed to have hardwood floors! There were suggested colors to bring and tips for looking good from the photographer that included clear nail polish.  What?? This was the day after giving birth to your first baby and the hospital arranged for professional photographer’s to visit your room and sell you a photo shoot.  First I had a bit of a breakdown – how could she manage a family photo shoot the day after giving birth when I was barely able to get my son to latch on and nurse without tears (both of ours)? Then I thought, god how awful for her to be forced to present herself like that and forced to make that choice in such a vulnerable moment.

In contrast the labor ward of my local hospital was described to me by a new father as dairy barn with cows trundling up and down ready to give birth to calves. He was describing (complete with agricultural references not really appreciated by my female colleagues) how his wife had to wait until she was fully in labor before getting into a delivery room because they were all full.  In the meantime you walk the corridors.  Up and down stopping for contractions and looking at County football jerseys hanging on the walls.

The mid-wives lead the unit under the supervision of a consultant but I never saw a consultant ob/gyn in my deliveries (thank god) and since there are only three I am sure more often than not, it is a resident doctor.  The mid-wives are great.  They have seen it all and at least one stayed with me the whole time.  They are funny, relaxed, helpful, straightforward, stern when needed and made me feel relatively calm.

Give me an Irish mid-wife over a maternity concierge any day.

Note: Midwifery is a medical profession in Ireland – I realize the term midwife can be used much more loosely in the US and Australia.  I am not an advocate of these self-determined midwifes who are more like doulas that advocate home births. Midwives here are nurses with additional training and experience in pre-natal, labor & delivery and post natal care.