Among the distinguishing characteristics of Irish Catholics—in America as much as Ireland—was our version of omertà: the code of silence. We never opened our mouths about the church outside the tribe. Most times we didn't do it among ourselves.
The English might have rammed their language down our throats, sneered at our primitiveness and meager mental capabilities, decided that it was better to let us perish or depart for America than to end our starvation—but, we had the One True Faith. When it came to chastity, piety, and moral propriety, they were pigs and we were paragons.
Only we weren't. But however corrupt, cynical, greedy, however imperfect our clergy, however distant and cruel our prelates, any criticism from within was collaboration with the enemy without—Protestants, atheists, nativists, Orangemen, King Billy, and the rest.
Frank McCourt, who died last month at seventy-eight, loathed the institutional church that he grew up in/under during the ultra-Catholic era of postcolonial Ireland, when Eamon De Valera and crew gave free reign to Eire's ayatollahs. (In the end, it worked about as well in Ireland as it has in Iran.) Living in squalor and poverty, he experienced first-hand the scorn and condescension of the pillars of the Irish-Catholic establishment: Church, State, and the Respectable Classes. (“Respectability and not alcohol,” I once heard the novelist Maureen Howard say, “is the true ‘curse of the Irish.'”)