Hilaire Belloc on Catholic Ireland and Protestant England

Catholic Ireland
Tombstones in Catholic Ireland. Photo: Kim Buck

Recently, I have been musing here again about Catholic Ireland.

Catholic Ireland, to whom I owe so very much.

Catholic Ireland, which gave me such a shocking antipode to my native Anglo-American culture.

Catholic Ireland, which now seems to be ever more dissolved in Anglo-American culture.

But when I lived in Ireland, one could still feel the legacy of centuries of fierce resistance to Britain on the one side, America on the other.

In time, I hope to say much more. Today I would simply append a few insights from Hilaire Belloc, which compliment these recent musings. These are taken from Europe and the Faith – Belloc’s seminal history of Christendom: from its cradle in the Roman Empire to its sundering at the Reformation.

Belloc – who had been such a fertile source of inspiration for G.K. Chesterton –  meditated much upon Ireland in the course of a lifetime spent pondering Europe and the faith. For not only the Catholic Faith mattered to Belloc, but also Europe which was, in Belloc’s mind, synonymous with that faith.

This is to say that Belloc saw that Europe was Christendom. So it had been in the past when Catholic Christendom grew out of the Roman Empire.

And so, for Belloc, it still was today – even if Britain had been the one great province of that empire which had now defected from the faith of Christendom.

And it is in this light – the light of Christendom – that Belloc is speaking here on Ireland and on her relationship to Britain, that ancient province of the Empire that had abandoned Catholicism . . .

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Belloc on Ireland

With this loss of an ancient province of the Empire [Britain], one nation, and one alone, of those which the Roman Empire had not bred, stood the strain and preserved the continuity of Christian tradition: Tthat nation was Ireland.

Ireland, presented an … exception. It was not compelled to the Christian culture, as were the German barbarians of the Continent, by arms. No Charlemagne with his Gallic armies forced it tardily to accept baptism. It was not savage like the Germanies; it was therefore under no necessity to go to school.

It was not a morass of shifting tribes; it was a nation. But in a most exceptional fashion, though already possessed, and perhaps because so possessed, of a high pagan culture of its own, it accepted within the lifetime of a man [Saint Patrick], and by spiritual influences alone, the whole spirit of the Creed.

The civilisation of the Roman West was accepted by Ireland, not as a command nor as an influence, but as a discovery.

By the first third of the seventeenth century, Britain was utterly cut off from the unity of Christendom and its new character was sealed. The Catholic Faith was dead …

Its effect upon Europe was stupendous; for, though England was cut off, England was still England.

You could not destroy in a Roman province, the great traditions of municipality and letters.

It was as though a phalanx of trained troops had crossed the frontier in some border war and turned against their former comrades.

England lent, and has from that day continuously lent, the strength of a great civilized tradition to forces whose original initiative was directed against European civilization and its tradition.

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The loss of Britain was the one great wound in the body of the Western world. It is not yet healed.

Yet all this while that other island of the group to the Northwest of Europe, that island which had never been conquered by armed civilization as were the Outer Germanies, but had spontaneously accepted the Faith, presented a contrasting exception.

Against the loss of Britain, which had been a Roman province, the Faith, when the smoke of battle cleared off, could discover the astonishing loyalty of Ireland.

And over against this exceptional province –  Britain – now lost to the Faith, lay an equally exceptional and unique outer part which had never been a Roman province, yet which now remained true to the tradition of Roman men; it balanced the map like a counterweight.

The efforts to destroy the Faith in Ireland have exceeded in violence, persistence, and cruelty any persecution in any part or time of the world.

They have failed.

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As I cannot explain why they have failed, so I shall not attempt to explain how and why the Faith in Ireland was saved when the Faith in Britain went under.

I do not believe it capable of an historic explanation.

It seems to me a phenomenon essentially miraculous in character, not generally attached (as are all historical phenomena) to the general and divine purpose that governs our large political events, but directly and specially attached.

It is of great significance; how great, men will be able to see many years hence when another definite battle is joined between the forces of the Church and her opponents.

For the Irish race alone of all Europe has maintained a perfect integrity and has kept serene, without internal reactions and without their consequent disturbances, the soul of Europe which is the Catholic Church.

I have now nothing left to set down but the conclusion of this disaster: its spiritual result – an isolation of the soul; its political result – a consequence of the spiritual – the prodigious release of energy, the consequent advance of special knowledge, the domination of the few under a competition left unrestrained, the subjection of the many, the ruin of happiness, the final threat of chaos.

Note: My own italics have been added to the above – and paragraphs broken down for easier reading from a computer monitor). We also have a further post about Hilaire Belloc and Catholic Ireland here.

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5 responses to “Hilaire Belloc on Catholic Ireland and Protestant England”

  1. […] And yet a giant whose footsteps I never really recognised before – although I had begun to read and acknowledge him a little (as for example, his thoughts on Ireland here). […]

  2. Felix Soden Avatar
    Felix Soden

    Dear Roger,

    I came across your fine site through pinterest. Well done . I look forward to searching through your exciting list of links. We will be treating of the theme, Belloc and Ireland at our next meeting.

    Till hopefully soon again,

    Felix (Soden) Secretary of the Belloc Society. Dublin

    1. roger Avatar

      Felix, thank you so much for this. I am sorry I did not even see it for a long while.

      For reasons indicated in my most recent post (here), I felt it necessary to let go of the internet and this site as much as possible in recent weeks.

      Thus I am sorry I must have missed that meeting by now. Sorry, because I have been wanting to make that long southeast trek again and sorry because that meeting, in particular, would have been especially meaningful to attend.

      Belloc and Ireland … so dear to my heart.

      And many thanks for your kind words and your very good efforts in Dublin. I really do look forward to meeting again …

  3. Philip Avatar

    Sadly, the enemies of Catholic Ireland has succeeded, in recent years.

    1. roger Avatar

      A belated, sad nod of my head here, Philip. But good to hear your voice again …

      1. Jonathan Michael Avatar
        Jonathan Michael

        They succeeded (temporarily) only after the whole Catholic Church descended into chaos following Vatican II breakthrough of subversive revolutionary infiltrating forces in the hierarchy. I believe this is what it took to deliver a knock-out blow to Ireland. When the Church was universally destabilised down from top of the visible hierarchy of the human organization, there should be no surprise that Ireland no longer had what it took to remain traditionally stable and centred.

        But the last word is not yet said in the battle for Christian Ireland. If we are going to see a restoration of the Church in the last times, when the true Church is clearly separated from the apostates, then it may very well be that we shall see a resurgence of the Irish miracle, in which Ireland again becomes particularly fertile ground for the re-expansion of the true Church.

        Those who live will see.