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Ireland’s Highest Cross Attacked in Anti-Catholic Protest

Locals resurrect cross on Carrauntoohil

Valerie O'Sullivan

Greg Daly - published on 12/05/14

Locals work together to restore iconic symbol on mountain.

The vandalism of a cross at the top of Ireland’s highest mountain has been revealed to have been an anti-Catholic attack.

A video showing an angle grinder being used to cut down Carrauntoohil’s five-meter high steel cross on or around November 22 was sent to Irish online news site The Journal and has been passed on to Irish police investigating the vandalism. The Journal reports that the video “contains a number of anti-Catholic Church sentiments, indicating that the person or persons involved took this action as a form of protest. The messages focus on the number of Irish primary schools which are run by the Catholic Church.”

Catholic Comment coordinator Petra Conroy accepts that the vandal or vandals clearly had a point to make about schooling in Ireland, where the vast majority of primary schools, though run by the state, are owned by Catholic dioceses and are under the patronage of Ireland’s bishops. Nonetheless, she told Aleteia, “That’s not the way to make a point. If you have a point to make which is valid, you don’t make it by cutting down an iconic symbol or well-known landmark. It’s sad that someone who clearly feels passionately about this didn’t find a better way to express their passion.”

As it happens, she says, there are no shortage of people in the Irish Church, including Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Father Michael Drumm of the Catholic Schools Partnership, who would say Ireland, like any country, should have a range of schools to reflect parental choice, and that work is needed in that direction, although Catholics should be proud of what their schools have to offer.

Such schools, Conroy says, are very inclusive, providing education for children from backgrounds as diverse as Ireland’s travelling community and various immigrant communities, regardless of whether they are Catholic or not. “Even those from Islamic backgrounds,” she says, “if they can’t access schools directed specifically to them, are often quite attracted to the kind of education, the kind of values, the Catholic schools offer.”

The discovery that the monument had been cut down led to national debate, with Atheist Ireland head Michael Nugent saying that while the attack on the cross was a criminal act that should be prosecuted, the cross itself had been erected in a bygone age when Ireland was a predominantly Catholic country, and was not appropriate in the more pluralist landscape of modern Ireland. “If there is to be something to replace it,” he said, “it would be more appropriate if it were something inclusive that everybody in the community could identify with.”

Cora Sherlock, deputy chairperson of Ireland’s Pro Life Campaign, observed that “I can’t imagine most atheists listening in were too thrilled with the position taken by the most well-known spokesperson for atheism in the country.”

“Perhaps this is one crusade that Michael should have avoided,” Sherlock added. “The way to respond to vandalism is to neutralize it by replacing what was lost. Anything else very quickly looks like a campaign built on its coat-tails, or worse, an obvious own goal.”

Sherlock’s instincts seem to have been correct. Atheist Ian O’Doherty pointed out in the Irish Independent that Nugent’s comments were “merely the latest in a long line of ridiculous and some might say, vexatious, complaints by atheists here and abroad who seem to delight in taking offence.”

O’Doherty points to the unrepresentative nature of Nugent’s organization, which by its own admission had in 2011 just 312 just paid-up members, a year when the national census saw 84% of the population identify as Catholic, and a further 6.25% identify as Christians of other denominations.
 “Atheist Ireland doesn’t represent atheists in Ireland," he said, "they simply represent their members, and like all successful lobby groups, people often get the impression that they speak for all of their ‘community.’ They don’t.”

Tellingly, at least one of those who helped restore the cross on Saturday, November 29, by his own admission does not practice any religion. Mike O’Shea of Irish Rope Access wrote on his Facebook page of how he and about 50 others worked together as “part of a community not just Beaufort but of a National community of people who have unreserved opinions on what should happen to the monument that has been on the top of Carrauntuathil since 1951.”

“Deep down,” he said, “it brought a sense of pride that my peers, neighbors, friends entrusted this historical part of our parish’s history to a group of like-minded people. Not once during the organizing of the works were there bad feelings, arguments, only a total sense of pulling together to do the best we could do, many of us had never met before, but all linked by previous generations and a common unspoken goal.”

Describing the effort needed to carry a generator up the 1,038 meter mountain, O’Shea praised the friends and strangers he had witnessed push themselves with a unison he had rarely ever seen, saying that “the sense of wrongdoing and community seemed to be a driving force that didn’t need discussing and the only focus was to restore the monument to its rightful place.”

He said he was honored to have been able to help, with the support of so many, “to restore something that carried many memories for anyone who climbed the mountain.”

One such climber is Galway-based Ray McIntyre, who has climbed Carrauntoohil at least ten times, and who claims the restoration of the cross was an example of “real democracy,” where ordinary local people, including landowners and other stakeholders, who had taken it upon themselves to put back the damaged cross. He points out that the cross was distinctive, marking Carrauntoohil out among the other mountains in the McGillicuddy’s Reeks, and providing climbers with something to hope for.  

“Easter Sunday morning about five years ago,” he told Aleteia, “I brought two friends up on a night hike up Carrauntoohil, and we got to the top for dawn. To me it was extremely symbolic — Easter Sunday and sunrise on top of Ireland’s highest mountain. The views were — it was like you’d died and went to Heaven. It was stunning.”

Pointing out that neither of his friends were practicing Catholics, he stressed that neither was remotely troubled by the cross on the mountain top. “We took a picture in front of the cross,” he said, “they posed in front of it, never even remarked on it. Didn’t bother them.”

Similarly, he said, when he climbed the mountain on the night of December 31, 1999, two or three hundred people celebrated the Millennium on the mountain top, looking out on firework displays across County Kerry. “So there was a bit of a party up there,” he said, “whiskey was being passed around, and again the cross was in the middle of it.”

McIntyre says that the cross, which was erected on private land on the top of the mountain in 1976, replacing a wooden cross first put there in 1951, needs to be understood as part of a landscape in which the high places have often been seen as holy places. The chapel built in 1905 at the top of Mayo’s Croagh Patrick, succeeding chapels perhaps dating back to St. Patrick, might perhaps be the most obvious example of such, but McIntyre cited a cross on Galtymore, Ireland’s highest inland mountain, and also pointed to how prehistoric burial mounds surmount many of Ireland’s mountains. “Invariably,” he says, “you’ll see cairns dating back 4,000 years.”

Nobody, surely, would suggest the destruction of such landmarks because they do not reflect modern Irish life, and Conroy says that true pluralists should seek to enrich Ireland’s culture to reflect its current diversity, rather than destroy monuments that somehow offend them. “Even people who don’t share the values of Christianity,” she says, “should realize that the idea that Christianity should be removed from the countryside is one that reflects a very thin narrow view of culture, and one that would impoverish Ireland for everyone.”

“If you’re looking for only things that are representative of everybody,” she added, “we end up with very, very little. Insisting on that’s not pluralism, that’s authoritarianism.”

Greg Dalycovers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.

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