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‘The roots of Ireland’s goodness are drawn from a deep Christian faith’

People have their wedding pictures taken at the papal cross in Phoenix Park in Dublin (CNS photo/Cathal McNaughton, Reuters)

On Monday I blogged about an unusual new novel – unusual because, while not painting a sentimentalised picture of life in a small Irish country parish, it succeeds in breathing life, warmth and credibility into the personality of the main character: Fr Barnabas Salmon. As always with books that make one reflect, it posed questions in my mind so I was glad to make contact with Delia Maguire, author of the novel.

What had given her the idea for the novel, and in particular, the priest? She tells me that although Salmon is fictional, she had known a priest many years ago “who portrayed a very austere exterior while being a truly warm-hearted man”. The idea for the story had arisen from a conversation she had had with her daughters about a priest they all knew; and “linked to this was a need to write about something I feel very strongly about: that the single most important thing for a human being is to feel and believe that they matter”. Delia Maguire muses that perhaps the drive to rid the world of all “imperfection ie the drive to mercy killing, is in reality ridding the world of the thing it needs most – which is the need to care and be cared for.”

In the novel there is a link between Ireland’s economic collapse and the reports of priestly sexual abuse. Delia explains to me that the link lies in the hypocrisy of those in authority at the time. “The government, media and developers knew that the good times were coming to an end, yet they continued out of self-interest to promote the idea that all was well with the economy. Some people were certainly greedy and on the make, but there was a whole swathe of people whose biggest crime was to pay the going rate for a family home, only to discover shortly after that the economy was on the blink. They trusted authority in the banks and the government, and that trust was misplaced.”

Delia is also condemnatory of the Church: in the past “it had taken an authoritarian stand on matters of personal morality, but some of the same people who had preached about self-control and decency were then found to be either directly involved with abuse or involved with the cover-up”. She reflects that “for a people who were suffering wipe-out so fast on the heels of prosperity, I think it suddenly appeared as if no one was to be trusted – neither the state nor the Church.”

I remind Delia that in the book she refers to “abuse, violence and menace”. Thus I wonder if Salmon’s view, “A Catholic country, yes, but a Christian one, never”, accurately reflects her own view of Ireland? She speaks positively of her own childhood, with a mother “who had a profound grasp of what it is to be human. If she had been alive at the time of the publication of the Murphy report [into clerical abuse] I think she would have been sickened but not shocked.”

She reminds me that “humans are capable of doing seriously bad things.” But she is also keen to emphasise that “the cover-up went beyond the Church. In some cases the Church was doing the dirty work for families who had given up on their own children. The Magdalene Laundries would be a case in point here. The Church of the past mirrored the people of the past; after all, it was made up of people from the community.”

She comments that “there is a great danger when society in general applies the mores of the present to a very different past, and it is usually done to suit an agenda.”

On a more personal note Delia tells me that she was listening to the radio when news of the Murphy report was made public. “My instinct was to turn off the radio. But this would have been hypocritical so I left it on and I will never forget how choked with sickness and anger I felt. The contents of the report were unbearable to hear.”

She adds that such was her disgust that she almost decided not to go to church the next Sunday. “However, I did go and the parish priest delivered such a stunning, heartfelt sermon on the issue, addressing every emotion I was experiencing, and I knew that I could just about stay in the fold of a Church that contained priests like him.”

Nonetheless, she stresses that “if I had gone to church and met with a priest who made excuses, dismissed the report or ignored it, there is a chance that I might have walked away.”

These are strong words, prompting me to ask the author if she is hopeful about the future of the faith in Ireland – or not? Delia responds soberly. “It will never be the same again, but that is a good thing because in the past faith, unfortunately, became synonymous with power.” She qualifies this with the remark that “the Catholic culture is currently being portrayed extremely negatively by some people who are not giving proper consideration to what might take its place. Influential people, intent on breaking the Catholic tradition in Ireland are, I think, as hypocritical as the churchmen who betrayed their vocation.”

What does she mean by this tradition? She sounds passionate as she points out that “Irish people are renowned throughout the world for their charity and kindness and I think there is little doubt that the roots of this goodness are established in a deep Christian faith. The heritage from St Patrick took a long time to evolve; it had to fight off many enemies from without – and now it is in danger from the enemy within. Those who disown that Christian heritage forget that it has been handed down to them. We are all free to walk away from it, but to deny it to upcoming generations is not only wrong, it is also incredibly high-handed. Irish people would do well to heed Fr Salmon’s warning that ‘the next wolf will be wearing different clothing’. The mentality is the same but the taboos are different.”

Can she recommend an Irish writer to me? “I love the writing of Frank O’Connor. I think fundamental kindness permeates his work and nothing in my book beats kindness.” Returning to her own novel, Delia is keen to emphasise that although “Fr Barnabas Salmon is a priest with an agenda, and there are many who would take issue with how he goes about it, the message he imparts is eternal. In this Year of Mercy I think it is a comforting message for everyone to hear, that ‘it is never too late’”.