Books blog: A gentlemanly priest shines brightly in rural Ireland

A man takes a picture of proceedings during an annual Good Friday Way of the Cross procession in Ireland (PA)

Coming from an Irish background I have a particular interest in the fortunes (and misfortunes) of this small country. News of the legalisation of abortion in certain circumstances and a popular vote to change the definition of marriage, alongside the revelations of priestly abuse and collapse in vocations, can only fill one with sorrow, if not surprise.

Two recent books about Ireland and the Faith have made my thoughts dwell on the country of my ancestors more than usual. The first was The Gentle Traditionalist by Roger Buck, which I have blogged about here and here. The second is The Rural Gentleman by Delia Maguire, available from Grosvenor House Publishing, about which I am blogging today.

Unlike Buck’s book, The Rural Gentleman is a novel rather than a fable, describing the three years, between 2008 and 2011, when a rather unusual and eccentric priest, Fr Barnabas Salmon, arrived from England to help the parish priest of a small village parish in west Cork. With his quiet rather scholarly demeanour, his habit of quoting from his favourite authors, his determination to regularly visit his parishioners and his compassion on its outcast members, “no-one in the parish had ever encountered a priest quite like him”.

Unlike the parish priest, Fr Donal Ryan, a local man from a farming family, who enjoys greyhound racing and who is comfortable with a Church that is more a cultural institution than a means of helping to save souls, Salmon brings his own humane concerns to his homilies. Rather than “rattling through the Mass at the speed of light, spouting platitudes and endless notices”, he gradually shakes up the community from its spiritual torpor, its prejudices and its tendency to unkind gossip with his gentle reminders that Catholic Ireland has also been a place where women were driven out by “abuse, violence and menace” and where the industrial schools and the Magdalene laundries reflect a culture that is “in some respects, rotten from the top down.”

Yet unlike, for instance another Irish writer, John Boyne, whose A History of Loneliness is merely a thinly-disguised polemic against the Church with no redeeming features in its shallow depiction of systemic abuse and institutional hypocrisy, Maguire’s novel about the parish of Droumbally and its odd yet endearing new priest is much more subtle, nuanced and reflective. To an old parishioner Salmon reflects, “I am no champion of the past, much of it was terrible… but it is simplistic to dismiss it out of hand, because not all of it was bad.”

Given Ireland’s recent dark history, it is a signal achievement of the author to have made Salmon convincing in his humanity, his humility – and his hope. In the Epilogue we are told that “he arrived as a stranger, and left as a much-loved shepherd who taught, without resorting to the threat of justice, that nothing happens by chance and everything is a possibility for God.” Despite her oblique criticisms of the corrupt aspect of Catholic culture, Maguire is never contemptuous or dismissive of the Faith. As she described it to me, “The novel is my attempt to seek some light in the midst of so much darkness.”