Hibernian Lecture: Enda Delaney
On Friday, September 9, 2022, a standing-room-only crowd gathered in Jenkins–Nanovic Halls to hear Enda Delaney, professor of modern history at the University of Edinburgh, deliver the Cushwa Center’s annual Hibernian Lecture. After a greeting and an introduction by Kathleen Sprows Cummings, Delaney thanked the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians for sponsoring the lecture and then described his topic, “Faith and Fatherland: Belief and the Irish Catholic Experience.” How important has belief been to the Irish Catholic experience, not only on the island itself but also for those who settled abroad?
Over the decades, the subject has drawn interest from a range of distinguished historians, including the late Monsignor Patrick J. Corish, former Cushwa Center director Jay P. Dolan, Cara Delay (College of Charleston), Sarah Roddy (Maynooth University), and Colin Barr, professor of modern Irish history in Notre Dame’s Keough School and the director of the Clingen Family Center for the Study of Modern Ireland. Yet elucidating the theme requires great effort, Delaney insisted, due to sourcing obstacles: the predominantly oral nature of historic Irish culture has left behind a dearth of documentation, an impediment for interested scholars.
Those sources that do exist each have their own shortcomings. For example, though many travel writers depicted Irish religion, they were not only transient onlookers but also frequent propagators of what Delaney labeled “misery tourism.” Primarily, their accounts were intended to sell copies, not to inform future historians. Drawing any firm conclusions from records of attendance at religious rites is also fraught since penal codes, a shortage of priests, and distance from churches all worked against regular participation. Published catechisms have presented another possible fount of data, but even their usefulness must be qualified; a semi-literate society would have imbibed much more from spoken sermons than from written compilations of Church teachings.
Next, Delaney explained how scrutinizing these varying modes of transmission can clarify change over time in Irish Catholic belief and practice, namely from a more communal faith to a more dogmatic religion. For centuries, Irish Catholicism comprised a mixture of Church-sanctioned doctrine and unofficial folk practices, with the latter passed down not just by local priests but also by family and friend networks within a community. One popular interpretation of Irish history has viewed the 1840s and 1850s as a hinge point for a “devotional revolution,” as the disruption of that period undermined other sources of joint identity—especially the Irish language—leaving the rites of Catholicism as one of the few remaining points of solidarity. From that instability, reformers such as then-Archbishop Paul Cullen would construct a faith that was “disciplined, universal, and orthodox.” Delaney also mentioned the dissenting view of scholar David Noel Doyle, who challenged the notion of a clean rupture and instead posited multiple Irish Catholicisms, distinguishable by region. In this telling, Irish Catholics in Connaught and Ulster retained more of the traits of their forebears, inheriting their faith via communal dissemination. Catholics in Leinster and Munster absorbed the Cullen-directed, Anglicized faith via formal indoctrination, with this latter version eventually becoming dominant throughout the island.
What of Irish Catholicism beyond Ireland’s shores? Delaney disputed the clumsy trope that emigrants jettisoned their faith immediately upon leaving home. In part, that narrative emerged from the Church itself, as priests emphasized the numerous threats and temptations emigrants would encounter in the wider world. Rather, Irish Catholicism took different forms and played different roles in global contexts. Delaney thus cited Dolan’s work on Irish Catholics in the United States, where the urban parish transitioned from “a religious institution . . . to a community institution,” with Irish priests serving as local “mediators” between newly arrived Irish Catholics and their host cultures. And even after their departure, emigrants still exerted influence on Catholicism within Ireland. Many new churches, for example, were built using funds sent from Irish expatriates, ultimately displacing a well-established “outdoor religious culture” exemplified by open-air Masses.
The engaged crowd made eager use of the Q&A time to solicit Delaney’s input on a range of topics. Tom Kselman (Notre Dame, emeritus) sought additional clarification on the shift from communal to dogmatic religion, asking whether the quality of belief changed once Irish society underwent the transition. Rory Rapple (Notre Dame, history) wondered how variations in language have governed subsequent evaluations of Irish religiosity. Delaney agreed with Rapple that religious sophistication could become diluted in the process of translating from Irish into English and due to deficiencies in the interpreters rather than the imaginative capacities of the subjects.
Gráinne McEvoy (Notre Dame, Nanovic Institute) asked how emigration altered Irish religious practice, citing as one prominent example the “American wake”—the symbolic death ritual that Irish communities performed for emigrants departing for North America, when poverty and the rigors of travel meant that migration often represented a final parting. Delaney noted that the American wake likely receded in significance once the economic prospects of the emigrants improved, making occasional transatlantic visits less cost-prohibitive. Julie Morrissy (NEH Fellow, Keough-Naughton Institute) related some of the rituals Delaney had described to the religious innovations that arose during the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, when social distancing restrictions required radical departures from long-held funeral traditions. Several other guests weighed in with questions about the place of faith during the Great Famine and how religious and cultural identities had interacted in the process of assimilation in the United States, before Cummings closed the event with thanks both to the audience and to Delaney.
On Saturday morning, October 1, visiting scholars and community members convened in McKenna Hall for the fall 2022 installment of the Cushwa Center’s semesterly Seminar in American Religion. The featured guest was Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and co-director of the Program on Historical Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and discussion focused on his recent book Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval (Oxford, 2021). Kathleen Sprows Cummings opened the morning with greetings and introductions of Jenkins and the day’s two commentators, Peter J. Thuesen (Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis) and Celia Deane-Drummond (Campion Hall, University of Oxford).
Thuesen spoke first and began with a summary of the key variables that have defined Jenkins’ scholarly career: “good writing, temporal scope, and geographic scope.” All feature in Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith, and Thuesen praised Jenkins for composing an “accessible, engaging synthesis” suited as much to a general readership as to other scholars. In Thuesen’s assessment, the book deserves special commendation for reframing common episodes in American religious history. The Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, the “burned-over district” of west-central New York, and the formation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all require reinterpretation once placed within their climatic contexts. If Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith explains many such moments in the past, Thuesen contended the book likewise proves suggestive regarding the future. The supposed “death of God,” he surmised, may not play out as anticipated—contemporary religiosity is greatest in those parts of the world with the strongest trends in population growth, which also happen to be the regions most susceptible to the damages of climate change.
“Beautifully written, erudite, a masterpiece”: with those superlatives, Deane-Drummond opened her reflections on Jenkins’ book. Like Thuesen, Deane-Drummond highlighted Jenkins’ treatment of the Global South, though in this case with some caution. Comparing episodes in the contemporary Global South with instances from early America not only conveys unintended “undertones” regarding relative stages of development, it also implies that those in the Global North have “grown away from risk.” She argued instead that the key reality of life in the Global South is the cruel irony that the region will endure the worst fallout of anthropogenic climate change despite having done the least to bring it about. Some of the content in Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith proved disheartening to Deane-Drummond as a theologian, with Jenkins recounting how historical actors have often understood climate catastrophe as a deserved result of personal or societal sin. Jenkins tempers these negative examples, however, with what Deane-Drummond called “encouraging exceptions,” moments in which historical figures responded well to changing climate conditions. That theme shaped her suggestion for a path forward. What if we could find an alternative way to read history—not ignoring violence, but instead choosing to accentuate the “peaceable” and the “virtuous,” a “history of hope . . . rather than despair and apocalypse”?
After a brief reply from Jenkins and the seminar’s customary coffee break, the gathering reassembled for an extended dialogue with the author. Brad Gregory (Notre Dame) distinguished the episodes in Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith caused almost entirely by factors such as sunspots, volcanic eruptions, and El Niño events from contemporary anthropogenic climate change. Jenkins agreed with Gregory that the distinction matters greatly for public policy but much less in terms of “projecting consequences or . . . religious implications.” Tom Tweed (Notre Dame) asked Thuesen and Jenkins whether the Buddhist concepts of “sudden religion” and “gradual religion” are germane to histories of climate, with sudden religion “more inclined to predominate at moments of crisis” and gradual religion that prioritizes “cultivation” reserved for moments of less climate stress. Jenkins embraced the typology’s application to the historical moments in his book, as did Thuesen, who asserted the entire history of Christianity is marked by efforts to harmonize the “apocalyptic” message of Jesus, that “this generation will not pass away before all these things come to pass,” with practical steps toward “institutionalization and codification.”
Multiple attendees asked Jenkins to reflect more on issues of causation. Janine Giordano Drake (Indiana University) wondered how climate interacted with another macro-process, the rise of global empires, while John McGreevy (Notre Dame) questioned whether climate would ever displace more familiar “social . . . intellectual . . . [and] cultural” explanations for historical change. Jenkins embraced the chance to engage these topics. In line with Drake’s query, Jenkins’ present book project considers empire’s role in shaping world religions, with many empires themselves having “risen or fallen in connection with . . . climate episodes.” While Jenkins granted McGreevy’s point regarding moments of climate crisis that did not yield dramatic religious change, he insisted the presence of exceptions “does not invalidate . . . [climate’s] strongly predictive power” as a factor in religious change. In response, Deane-Drummond advocated thinking in terms of “mediating categor[ies],” as research has demonstrated how certain “changes in the social sphere have been also traced” to prior climate changes.
Other seminar participants discussed how the book had inspired possible angles for future research. Jack Young (Notre Dame) inquired about historical actors who have interpreted climate catastrophe as proof of “divine absence”; might attention to climate provide a way of understanding the rise of the secular? Thuesen concurred, citing as exemplary the Scottish philosopher David Hume and his 1757 essay, “The Natural History of Religion.” Rachel Wheeler (Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis) proposed an inversion of Jenkins’ research project: future scholars might explore how religious adaptations have reoriented approaches to climate change, an instinct that Jenkins affirmed. And in reply to a comment by Jana Riess (Religion News Service), Jenkins observed disturbing parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate catastrophes outlined in his book, including the “construction of myths . . . [and] scapegoating” that emerged to make sense of the suffering. After entertaining these and many other observations from the guests, Cummings invited the three panelists to make final remarks before thanking the audience members and inviting them to return for the center’s spring 2023 seminar.
Philip Byers is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center.
Feature Image: Enda Delaney speaks to a standing-room-only audience in Jenkins–Nanovic Halls.