In its institutional presence, distinct from the inclinations of individual Jesuits, the province was a little wrong-footed by the revolutionary events of the early decades of the 20th century. James Joyce’s depiction of Jesuits – in Finnegans Wake he translates the motto ‘Laus Deo Semper’ which he and his fellow-pupils were taught to write on their exercises, as ‘Lawdy Dawdy Simpers’ – though certainly unfair, may not be altogether so. A somewhat awkward change of gear is, as it were, audible in the pages of school annuals as Gaelic games were hastily introduced and articles began to appear in Irish.
What the revolution in time made way for is another twist in our tale: a ‘Catholic’ Ireland, because of partition more narrowly Catholic than, in other circumstances, it might have been. This, the historian Ronan Farren wrote some years ago, led to the creation of ‘an unnaturally large Catholic majority in the 26 counties by amputating the Protestants of northeast Ulster who might otherwise have ameliorated the overweening Catholic triumphalism that came to characterise the Irish Free State’.
What gradually emerged in the early years of independence, and especially after the Civil War, was more or less ‘unswerving allegiance to the Catholic Church’. As a province, we inhabited this uncritical, hothouse Catholic culture more readily and more comfortably than we might. Despite the occasional political commentary to be found in Studies, first published in 1912 and following earlier periodicals like the Lyceum and the Irish Monthly, and pioneering activities such as those of Fr Tom Finlay with Sir Horace Plunkett in the co-operative movement, the question may be asked as to whether a more creatively critical stance to the prevailing culture might not have been taken by Jesuits and by the former students of our schools, for all the sterling service so many of the latter gave to the new State.
In the light of subsequent developments, the failure of the Irish Church to foster a much more theologically literate laity has to be regretted and we must take our share of the responsibility for the inadequacies of evangelisation in Ireland. Unfortunately, in the closed society such as the country fair ly rapidly became, these questions were rarely asked.
Even so, with the privations of the world war over, there were plenty of signs of vigour in the province in the 1950s, often thought of as a self- satisfied, moribund time in the Irish Church and in Irish life more generally, economically straitened, unimaginative, culturally blinkered, a society largely closed to the influence of a wider world. Manresa Retreat House had been opened in 1948, to extend the work of Milltown and Rathfarnham and to blossom into the Centre of Spirituality it has since become.