Catholic dogs and the new sectarianism

'Catholic dog, sitting on a log, eating maggots out of a frog.' An ugly rhyme, cruel words whispered with the kind of venom that only a child could muster. But it's an insult that echoes the broader prejudices of a society divided along sectarian lines. Children inherit bigotry from their parents, and naïve taunting can become ingrained as prejudice.

Marrying Out, a two-part radio series for ABC Radio National's Hindsight program, reflects upon the hereditary nature of prejudice. It recalls an Australian society of the early to mid 20th century, where colonial rivalries between the English and Irish manifested as festering mistrust between Protestants and minority Catholics.

As a born Protestant with no strong denominational allegiance, who grew up after the sectarian divide had healed, I found little in the series to connect with. It serves as an intriguing historical document of intolerance in Australian society, but the emphasis on nostalgia (and to be fair, Hindsight's focus is on social history) means it will resonate most strongly with the generation that lived it.

The series' producer, writer and self-described 'recalcitrant Irish Catholic' Siobhan McHugh, engages her subjects in conversation to revisit a time where mixed marriages between Protestants and Catholics attracted discrimination at best, the threat of physical violence and disinheritance by disapproving parents at worst.

Part one, Not In Front of the Altar (Sunday 11 October, 2pm), recalls the commitment and hardships of couples that married across the sectarian divide. Part 2, Between Two Worlds (Sunday 18 October, 2pm) takes up the perspective of children who grew up in the hybrid and often rocky world of such mixed marriage families.

The stories are moving, the monologues laid alongside each other and sewn together with snippets of religious music. Occasionally they are splotched with re-enacted insults (see above) or quotes from job advertisements that stipulate, 'Roman Catholics need not apply'. These exemplify the worst instances of explicit ill-feeling.

McHugh, who spent three years collecting the stories, brings a sense of quiet outrage to her narration. Her mild Irish accent serves as a hint of where her historical sympathies may lie, although if there is blame to be allocated, it is directed towards neither Protestants nor Catholics, but to the human propensity for distrust and hatred.

Wherever there is difference there is fear, and the stories shared in Marrying Out remind us that fear devours love and can lead to irreparable fractures within families, within societies, and within an individual's own faith.

Its theme of acceptance beyond the boundaries of difference resonates in a modern society where people of many and no religions abide side by side. If the series more usefully pointed to the 'new sectarianism' brought about by erecting barriers between Muslims and non-Muslims, it may have more effectively crossed the generational divide.

'Not in front of the altar', essay by Siobhan McHugh

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: tim kroenert, siobhan mchugh, marrying out, catholic, irish, protestant



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Existing comments

I will be listening to this program, old now, grew up in Perth - well remember, Catholic dogs, stink like frogs, in and out of water logs - and in a small community back then, we just gave them a hit with out schoolbag - but the rules for catholics were worse than that - you couldn't attend a wedding or a funeral in another religions church - my father was a committed catholic but he said it was run just like the public service from the top, some of that is still there. thanks for the team for bringing it up, margaret

margaret o'reilly | 08 October 2009  

From the writings of Marc Bekoff and other ethologists it is notable that sectarianism is not a uniquely human trait, that it is shared with many animals.

Perhaps our capacity to overcome an inclination to sectarianism is more indicative of true humanity.

David Arthur | 08 October 2009  

Having been born in the forties to a 'mixed marriage' I remember the sectarian hatred well. I guess the radio program will offer some hints, but why did it all but disappear in such a short time in the sixties.

Did the RC Church achieve more reform in four years than the .churches of the reform. did in 400years? Was is a consequence of Vatican II? Certainly there appears to have been a coincidence in timing. That virulently ant-catholic newspaper
'The Rock' disappeared almost overnight. I remember we were not even allowed to go to a performance of 'Messiah' as it was seen as being Protestant.

Doug | 08 October 2009  

IMMACULATE COWS. Your 'Roman Catholics need not apply' quote has its counterpart in a (Protestant) British child migrant who applied for a farmhand job on a country property and was met with the question 'What do you know about the Immaculate Conception?'

Alan Gill | 08 October 2009  

Oh dear. I was hoping that this old schoolyard nonsense had been left behind with the exercise books and chalk boards.

Nathan Socci | 08 October 2009  

I look forward to this program. I grew up in New Guinea in the 50s and 60s. This provided a tolerant ecumenical environment before its time. I was shocked to hear a nun in m Victorian boarding school tell another 12yo student that here parents were doomed to hell because of their mixed marriage. Bigotry was widespread and not always from home.

Liz Munro | 08 October 2009  

There is so much of our past and distant history that can stir our empathies for all and sundry. Let's hope that this program gives us a kindly insight into our humanity.

Ray O'Donoghue | 08 October 2009  

Tim Kroenert sees a parallel between McHugh's analysis of the mistrust between Catholics and Protestants in early to mid 20th century Australia and the 'new sectarianism' brought about by erecting barriers between Muslims and non-Muslims,..."

Well Tim, IMHO the contemporary story of Muslims in Australia could be a good bit more complex than you imagine. Have a look at this snippet from a “conversation” between a young Iranian woman and Christopher Hitchens on Q&A on Thursday 1 October. The transcript of the unedited show is on the ABC website:

AUDIENCE MEMBER: My modesty would be there. I mean, you've been talking about these cheap jokes and things throughout this whole conversation, but you're the only one making the cheap comments.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: If you say you have - if you say that - you insult - you insult - you insult your sisters in Tehran who are being beaten...


CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: ...who are being and raped every day when you say that they have their rights in the Islamic republic.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I do not insult my Islam sisters. I do not insult my...

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: It's an insult to the women of Iran.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I do not (indistinct).

Rosemary | 08 October 2009  

Dad came from a proud pope killing family. Mum's family was staunch RC. There was a battle by both sides to have the greater influence over my sister and I. Mum won by shipping us both off to catholic boarding schools. Dad drank himself to death. Mum remarried a protestant who wound up fatally shooting her and hanging himself. The 50's were tough times for Christians. For me the 2nd council shook off the shackles of Rome and now 63 I endeavour to be christian through the catholic culture. All who seek the grace of God through any culture inspire me.

ken mckay | 08 October 2009  

It must just be me but I can't stand to read this article Tim, sad for me as I always enjoy your pieces. The wretched advertisement on the left-hand side won't sit still and has irritated me so much I have hit delete instead. Gosh I sound so old!

Carol | 08 October 2009  

Carol: I too agree that those moving ads can be a bit annoying. But I find there is a simple solution, in that refreshing the page (hit F5) often brings up something a bit less obtrusive, so that I can enjoy the article with less distraction.

Rosemary: I saw the episode of Q+A that you mention and I don't really see the relevance of the snippet that you quote. My memory is that Hitchens began to bully and taunt the young Iranian woman who had quite a reasonable point to make. Maybe you had a different interpretation.

Charles Boy | 08 October 2009  

Thanks Charles I had forgotten the F5 button, such a relief! And as silent protest I refuse to read any ads on Eureka Street that flash!

thanks for the article Tim

Carol | 09 October 2009  

Tim, I am able to see remnants of this sectarianism around me still. Perhaps in a more subtle way than you are looking for, but
nevertheless present. As the series brought back memories of stories told by my parents, and allowed me to further understand some behaviour and attitudes that I still see, it was, for me, very interesting.

My father-in-law and mother both believe that I'm not going to make heaven because I no longer worship with the denomination that they belong to. I don't tell them about certain aspects of my life because it would unnecessarily cause them distress.

In my work directing an all male church choir, I have to deal with parents who, for example, don't want their children to sing Marian songs or chants because it is too popish.
Sectarianism is still present.

David | 24 October 2009  

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