The Republic of Ireland's transformation from a predominately Roman Catholic country into a broadly agnostic and multi-religious one has been well-documented in recent years. This, however, has not been to the liking of the many practising Catholics, who suspect this transition has been exaggerated, and who also feel secularists have been overbearing in their crusade to purge Ireland of the vestiges of its religious past and present. A microcosm of this debate can be witnessed in the quarrel about the existence of The Angelus on radio and television.
Predominately a Catholic devotion, The Angelus is broadcast at noon and 6pm daily on Raidio Teilifis Eireann's (RTE) flagship television and radio stations. Consisting of a bell chiming languorously, and for decades accompanied by Catholic imagery, The Angelus celebrates 60 years on RTE this month. And the debate about its place on a publicly-owned broadcaster is almost as old as the broadcast itself.
Its existence continues to irk secularists who perceive it as an anathema and anachronism, especially as RTE is state-funded; it vexes Ireland's campaigning atheists much for the same reasons BBC Radio 4's Thought For The Day antagonises Britain's. Michael Nugent, chairman of Atheist Ireland, believes that The Angelus is little more than a free advert for the Church. "If RTE was to broadcast a minute of atheist propaganda at prime time every day, most people would intuitively realise that this would be inappropriate," Nugent asserted last week. "In a religious state, the state broadcasting system would be promoting religion. In an atheist state, the state broadcasting system would be promoting atheism. In a secular state, it would do neither".
Former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble once quipped that Southern Ireland was the only country in Europe in which the six o'clock news began at one minute past the hour. Yet the vitriol levelled at The Angelus has become more acute recently as Ireland has become less religiously observant - and certainly as attacks on the Church itself have become commonplace. Revelations of child abuse by the clergy have persisted here since the early-1990s and the country continues to have chronic episodes of anti-clericalism.
RTE has sought to ameliorate objections to The Angelus by making it more "inclusive". Its television version was rebranded last September so that traditional images of old master paintings and of the Virgin Mary were replaced by "visual reflections" - featuring among others, a working fisherman, a grieving mother and Zambian office workers - designed, according to RTE religious programmes editor Roger Childs, to take time out from "the weariness, the fever and the fret" of contemporary life. "With this new series of The Angelus we are seeking to reflect modern Ireland while still retaining the integrity of the original broadcast some 49 years ago."
This has riled secularists further. "Recent attempts to soften its impact, by illustrating it with nonreligious images and rebranding it as a pause for reflection, simply make it worse," writes Nugent. "This suggests that people of all religions and none can unite under a Roman Catholic call to prayer." The Catholic community seems to have accepted the reinvention - which has seemingly reinterpreted a religious call to prayer as an ersatz television advert for bubble bath lotion - grudgingly.
If, however, the new incarnation of The Angelus seeks to reflect modern Ireland, so does the discourse employed by its detractors. I caught a debate on a Dublin radio station last week in which the claim was made that it is "offensive" to agnostics, atheists and those of other faiths. The accusation that it is "offensive" is a common one, and indicates that many who would otherwise call themselves children of the Enlightenment are just as guilty of turning the political into the personal, of appealing to emotion not reason, of employing the language of victimhood. "I find that offensive" is code for "you can't say that", a censorious plea unbefitting for those who often cite Voltaire with such reverence. Seeking to abolish something because it hurts your feelings, or because you find it aesthetically displeasing, is a profoundly irrational argument.
What is more, as with comparable debates over race, religion, culture and ethnicity in Britain, those deemed to feel "offence" in these matters often feel nothing of the sort. The Clonskeagh Mosque in Dublin, the Church of Ireland broadcast committee and the outgoing Chief Rabbi have voiced their support for The Angelus's continuation on RTE. Ali Selim, based at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, Dublin, told the BBC: "We see it as something that belongs to people of another faith," remarked Selim, who arrived in Ireland from Egypt in 1999. "If it is exclusive for Catholics, then what's wrong with that? Muslims have their prayer call and it is exclusive for them."
"The secularists pretend that Protestants, Muslims, Jews find The Angelus offensive. When you actually ask them they say 'not me'," David Quinn, former editor of the Irish Catholic and now head of the Iona Institute, told me. The campaign to seek its abolition, he says, is "equivalent to having a guest in your house and taking down every picture unless you offend them."
As it transpired, protests against The Angelus this year have been pianissimo, and I predict that it will be on the Irish airwaves for many years to come. It will be for the same reason that many pillar boxes here still bear the monograms of British monarchs, or that you can still find The Royal Irish Academy and Royal Dublin Society in a republic that hasn't had a monarch since 1948. The Republic of Ireland might be a post-Catholic, and post-colonial, country, but this doesn't mean everyone wants to eradicate its culture and history in a pique of literal-mindedness.
The Angelus is comparable to the 1701 Act of Settlement prohibiting Catholics from the English throne: logically indefensible, but in the wider scheme of things, a trifling and harmless anachronism. Militant secularists could well use a dose of common sense sometimes, and certainly stop getting things out of proportion.