When I first went to Ireland in 1962, it seemed like a foreign country – more foreign than France, even though the inhabitants spoke the same language as I did. Dark and shabby, Dublin still felt like the Dublin of Ulysses, and though Joyce was long gone, we had the boozy and boisterous figure of Brendan Behan to personify the spirit of the natives. They talked more, they drank more and, above all, they had religion. You were aware of that as soon as you boarded the Aer Lingus plane for Dublin, as there were always two or three priests or nuns on board, seeming to guarantee a safe journey for all of us.
When I last visited Dublin a few years ago, it had all gone. Thanks perhaps to the affluence that EU membership had brought, the shabby old city had become almost indistinguishable from London – the same shops, the same crowds of tourists, the same loud music, much of it created by millionaire Irish pop singers.
Though well aware for some time that the old Ireland had gone for ever, I still felt a sense of shock in May at the sight of crowds of young Irish women screaming and whooping for joy at Dublin Castle to greet the triumph of the Yes campaign in the abortion referendum.
“All changed, changed utterly,” Yeats had written after the Easter Rising of 1917. “A terrible beauty is born.”
And now another supposedly historic moment of change was being hailed, though one without much beauty – the promise of thousands of unwanted pregnancies being legally terminated, a promise greeted by rapturous hysteria on the streets.
Coincidentally, a few weeks after that dramatic turning point, the last book of stories by William Trevor was posthumously published – appropriately, too, as no one described the old Ireland, which I could dimly remember, so memorably and with such obvious affection.
Trevor (which was actually his Christian name) was one of few writers to enrich my life and I was lucky to meet him more than once. He was softly spoken, humorous and unmistakably Irish despite having lived most of his life in England. He had spent his early years making wooden carvings for churches and there is a craftsmanlike skill in his writing: the ability to describe the nuances of a particular situation in a few short sentences.
In one of my favourite stories, “Of the Cloth”, included in The Hill Bachelors (2000), Trevor describes the lonely life of an old unmarried Church of Ireland vicar, Grattan Fitzmaurice, who in his rundown old rectory has lived to see the congregations of his three churches dwindle to almost nothing while the Catholic church down in the valley attracts a huge crowd for Mass every Sunday.
When his one-armed Catholic gardener Con Tonan dies, Fitzmaurice attends his funeral and later, to his surprise, he receives an unprecedented visit from the Catholic curate, Fr Leahy, to thank him for his kindness.
During their rather awkward conversation, Fitzmaurice notices on his table his copy of that day’s Irish Times showing the grinning face of a priest arrested in Belfast on multiple charges of abuse. Anxious not to embarrass his visitor, he turns the paper over, but Fr Leahy has already seen the story in his own copy.
“It’s how we’ve ended,” he says softly, prompting Fitzmaurice to reflect how “he often read in the paper these days that the Mass was not as well attended as it had been only a few years ago. In the towns marriage was not always bothered with, confessions and absolution passed by. A different culture they called it, in which restraint and prayer were not the way as once they had been. Crime spread in the different culture, they said, and drugs taken by children and old women raped and murdered. A plague it was, and it would reach the country too, was reaching it already.”
It is a vision rather at odds with the picture presented by the media in the wake of the referendum, of a new, vibrant and exciting Ireland, freed from the shackles of its priest-ridden past to enjoy a sunny future in the 21st century.
But there is no bitterness in the story. “I don’t think you can write about people,” Trevor once said, “if you don’t feel fond of people. Ultimately you have to celebrate the human condition.”
The two priests, well aware of the loss of a country they both in their different ways have loved, can derive comfort from their first-ever meeting and the thought of those monks who centuries ago fled from a hostile Ireland to preserve their faith on rocky islands in the Atlantic.
Last Stories by William Trevor is published by Penguin, £14.99. Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and the Oldie