A few things happened recently to remind me that Irish identity in Ireland, is defined very narrowly by some. The first was news that Kerry and Limerick County Councillors wished to promote and proclaim their Christian identity to the exclusion of all others. Then I was called to jury duty and was the only person out of two dozen not to hold the bible.
Kerry County Council now has a crucifix hanging over its door. I listened to and participated in radio debates about this and the one comment often repeated, was that this is a Christian/Catholic country. That Ireland is a Catholic country.
The overwhelming majority of people in this country do certainly identify as Roman Catholic. Does that make Ireland a Catholic country or does that make Ireland a country with a lot of Catholics in it?
I have to hope it is the latter because I am neither a Roman Catholic nor a Christian. Am I less Irish than my friends, family and neighbours, many of whom are Catholic? If you prick me, do I not bleed? If you pay me, must I not pay taxes? If you call an election am I not allowed to vote?
When I was called for jury duty, I thought about finding an excuse not to go. After those few seconds I sighed and accepted my fate like a hero of old, determined to do my duty i.e. sit, wait and be bored for several hours.
That endless boredom unexpectedly ended when my name was pulled from the box. Tattooed and shaven headed, I presumed I would be objected to by one or other of the barristers. No such luck. I was going to be a jury member. The novelty banished the boredom, only for the novelty to be banished by the prospect of having to do something important, decide on a stranger’s guilt or innocence. But before all that, came the swearing in. An oath to do what a jury member must do.
The swearing in involves having a bible thrust at you, then repeating an oath called out by the Registrar. I was tenth in line and I shook my head when the holy book was offered to me. Then came a few moments of confusion as the Registrar looked for the non-holy-book-oath.
Then eleven and twelve held the book.
First off, I know many jurisdictions demand that oaths be taken in court. It’s a requirement that confuses me as I do not swear an oath to drive within the speed limit or to pay my taxes. The law requires me to do these things and I am aware of the punishment if I don’t. Same as sitting on a jury or giving evidence in a trial. The law is clear so making a ‘pinkie swear’ seems superfluous to me.
The usefulness or otherwise of the ‘oathing’ is less important than the presumption of the process. The holy book is the default. The equally valid bible promise is the obscure alternative.
Why not simply ask the witness or prospective jury member their preferred method of making a promise to do what they are already obliged to do. Would that be so difficult?
Of course there is a third element of a court appearance to remind the atheist that they are not really considered Irish. The presiding judge will have been obliged to take an oath to god (with no secular alternative) before assuming office.
What is it about Irish national identity that requires so many people to include a religious clause to make it feel more valid?