Richard Devane SJ
By Martin Walsh
Messenger Publications, 176pp, £23/$24.50
For many Irish people nowadays, flicking through the pages of Martin Walsh’s book on Fr Richard Devane SJ will trigger a fit of the giggles. Or the creeps. Here was a social reformer who devoted himself to causes that, in these times, only get an airing in order to show how far the country has come. Devane (1876-1951) was, for instance, tireless in his effort to rid the nation of evil literature. He whisked women off the streets of Dublin’s red-light district to take them on convent retreats. He put his mind to defeating communism. He pressed remorselessly for greater regulation of dance halls, cinemas and public bathing. A few weeks before his death, he was struggling against illness to combat the importing of British newspapers.
Devane was, in a way, as concerned with combatting intellectual slavery as preventing moral compromises. A country gulping in the air of political freedom for the first time needed it own cultural oxygen supply – and not, as Devane would have seen it, the fumes coming from the News of the World. Nor would he let Ireland become, as indeed he feared it was already becoming, “a suburb of Hollywood”.
Given such potentially electrifying subject matter, with all the sound and fury emanating from the battle for a nation’s soul, this is a surprisingly low-wattage book. It affords us glimpses of Devane and the workings of his mind, with little dollops of speculation here and there about what one event or another might have meant to him, but it never truly delves deeper. Walsh also keeps his scepticism on a tightish leash, leaving us with a picture of a man who was sincere but misguided, though not preposterous.
There is not much of Devane’s own voice, which is regrettable. When it erupts properly for the first time, more than half way through the book, it has us wanting to hear more. On the subject of the waning of Catholicism in France, Devane writes of a watchman in his tower who sees a “tiny beam of silver light pierce the sullen night. It is from the West. It is from Ireland. Darkness streams from the East, from Moscow.” The Irish, Devane declares elsewhere, “are simple, homely, agricultural people”. Tell me more!
It would have been equally welcome to have heard more from some of the peripheral characters. One critic of Devane observed that he wanted to make people “more religious and more Irish by depriving them of any opportunity to be anything else”. This corker came from PJ Ruttledge, minister for justice in the 1930s.
One cannot but wonder, of course, what Fr Devane would make of the society that has emerged in the less than 70 years that have elapsed since his death. He does appear to have had something of a pessimistic streak; and scattered throughout the book are reminders that, even in the 1940s and 50s, Ireland was not as strait-laced or as different from the rest of the world as we are sometimes led to believe. Even so, while Devane knew the slope was slippery, he surely cannot have imagined just how far away it would lead from his idealised version of Ireland.
Love Island, it occurred to me, might serve as a case study of the dismantlement of Devane’s hopes and dreams for his country. A columnist on the Irish Times has declared that Maura Higgins, the Longford girl who shot to fame on the ITV reality show, is “pulverising into dust” older notions of Irish womanhood. These notions consisted of, among other things, “happy maidens listening to the wisdom of their elders around a turf fire and saying the Rosary every evening”. Maura herself has shared with 120,000 or so Twitter followers a picture of the Virgin Mary with her own face superimposed on it, an image created by Aisling Bea, one of Ireland’s brightest new writing talents, and originally put out by a Hollywood celebrity to five-and-a-half million followers. Apparently, more than 650,000 viewers in Ireland watched the Love Island finale on Virgin Media.
The Irish embassy in London sent a message of congratulations to the winning couple. (Unfortunately, the embassy’s good wishes did not prevent them from breaking up five weeks later, splitting their £50,000 winnings.)
On and on, from Love Island and countless other places, the evidence mounts for Devane’s beloved Ireland becoming what he would have seen as a horrifying dystopia. RTÉ, the national broadcaster, which as late as 1995 still had the cross of St Brigid as its emblem, carries on its website a piece on the importance of “porn literacy” for young Irish people. On a visit to Ireland recently, I listened to an interview with a drag artist on a national morning radio programme in which he explained what he and others did with their genitals when getting into costume.
Shelley’s Ozymandias comes to mind. Richard Devane’s Ireland is now no more than a colossal wreck. Nothing besides remains.