Review: The Way We Were: Catholic Ireland Since 1922 by Mary Kenny 

Having just finished Mary Kenny’s new book ‘The Way We Were: Catholic Ireland Since 1922’ I decided the time was right to go read Rosita Sweetman’s review in the Irish Independent which was the subject of some twittering. I wanted to read the book first before hearing what Rosita, who Mary Kenny describes in her book as a friend, had to say, because apparently it was not very nice.   

Reading Sweetman’s review, I have to say that I didn’t recognise the book at all in what she said. It wasn’t so much a review as a castigation. If Rosita is indeed a friend, then Mary does not need enemies. This was a bit of a character assassination: an ad-hominem attack on Mary Kenny for the sins of wrongthink – or wrongspeak.

There is nothing more dangerous to a movement than one of its leading lights questioning the central tenets of that movement. It undermines the foundations; creates confusion; causes the followers to question and think. It is why leaders such as Stalin had to take out those closest to him when they diverged even slightly from his ideas. It is why the most dangerous heretics are not those who disavow a movement but who disagree only partially and from within. They need to be kicked out, considered beyond the pale so that their views can not be taken seriously.

Mary Kenny remains a feminist. Yet she is somehow also Catholic. She retains some sympathy for the Church, its believers and the role it has played in society. This is heresy for her fellow travellers like Rosita Sweetman. Such compromise is dangerous to the cause. The feminist movement – and many other activist groups – in Ireland exist like a parasite on a particular vision of the Irish past, one bound up and blamed on the Catholic Church.  

To question this, is to question the lifeblood of much that counts for secular Ireland today. Nuance and context cannot be countenanced in this regard. Groups who do not need to be named feast on the not-yet-dead carcass of the popular myth of Catholic Ireland. They cannot let it die. They keep it on life-support, resurrect it every second day, and Mary Kenny’s book makes a good effort at pulling the plug.  

But that is enough about her detractors. Of the book itself, it is a fast flowing and engaging read. Picking it up, it is heavy. It is over 400 pages. The weight promises a lot. Unfortunately, from this perspective it flatters to deceive. The book proper is a nice 250 pages and the remainder is a series of biographies of people from Mary’s and Catholic Ireland’s life – Gay Byrne, Gerry Fitt, Danny La Rue etc. They are a nice addition but it feels like there is much more to be said in the book proper. 

Even though it runs through the course of Irish history from 1922 to the present day, it ends too soon. It is a romp though a century of Irish life but it moves too fast. The potential to be an in-depth response to many of the coloured anti-Catholic histories of Ireland is lost. The ground covered is vast. But breadth means a certain lack of depth. There is much more that could be said. Many events only touched upon that deserve greater exploration.  

On the flipside, the pace of the book is good. One never gets bored reading it. There is much to challenge and to think about. A fair-minded reader from Rosita Sweetman’s side of the tracks could be forced to question some of the sacred cows. Or at least think about them a bit more. Supporters of the Church are not necessarily consoled through the book by what Sweetman calls a ‘whitewash of the sins of the Catholic Church’. Yet, the book is not about the Church. It is about Ireland, its people, and their relationship with the Catholic faith. The institution of the Church gets hardly a mention.  

Disappointingly for some, in relation primarily to her association with the feminist movement in Ireland, the author says she would do it all again. She does not disavow the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, of which she was a founding member and one of its most well known faces, though they now seem to be turning their backs on her. This is probably why the book will displease most across the spectrum aside from the centrist pragmatists.  

But much of the retelling of the last century is even-handed. There is empathy and sympathy. There is humanity and some hilarity. It is clear that the author is not setting herself up as an infallible priestess. She tells her story, interwoven with that of the island of Ireland. Her personality comes through. She claims to want to put context on the story of Ireland’s Catholic past rather than it being refuted through the lens of ‘presentism’. Things were different. Expectations were different. Resources were different. What happened in Ireland, happened in other places as well.  

At the same time, it feels like Kenny’s defence of Catholic Ireland is weaker than it could be. In particular, moving towards recent years, she ignores the report of the Commission of Investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes and the McAleese report into the Magdalen Laundries – the former of which Sweetman refers to disparagingly as ‘deeply flawed’ in her review of Kenny’s book. Everything that fails to fit the narrative is deeply flawed it seems.  

But these omissions are also part of the appeal of this book. Everyone has their perspective on the country they grew up and lived in. Everyone has a frame through which to view the facts. Mary Kenny presents her own. And it is a much nicer read than the angry diatribes that we are used to hearing about the Ireland of our parents and grandparents.


The Way We Were


David Reynolds

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