Catholic Ireland – as we knew it, at least – has fallen. Doubtless, before the cultural battlefield can be declared completely clear, there is some final folding up of the tents still to do. The Preamble to the Constitution, for instance, through which the Irish people acknowledge the ultimate authority of the Most Holy Trinity, still stands in all its mind-bending incongruousness, as do the Articles that give voice to Catholic social teaching or to the safeguarding of an ideal of motherhood long since knocked from its pedestal. The presidential oath as well seems ill-suited to a country that gives equal esteem to all faiths and none.
Who knows, though? Some vague, residual piety may stay the hand of the Irish from completely scouring their ancient faith from their modern Constitution. And a certain amount of ennui concerning endless referendums may creep in at some point. Nevertheless, even if some constitutional clauses survive, it will be as thin clouds of incense, drifting evocatively but ineffectually across the statute books, to be sniffed at occasionally, for old time’s sake, but never again to be inhaled. Similarly, Irish society may cling hard to some of the sacraments for a time yet, but partly as helpful rites of passage in the absence of anything else. And it will also take time, effort and pain to disentangle the Church from the education system or at least to reach some less abrasive modus operandi.
But the fact remains. Catholic Ireland has fallen. Boom. Time will tell whether and how it can rise to its feet again.
However, as dramatic and sudden as the events of recent years have appeared, the truth is that the Ireland of the 1937 Constitution had been on the defensive for decades. The abuse revelations acted not as the starting gun but as an accelerant to the march of social history. And what may have felt at the time like epoch-making triumphs of Irish Catholicism, such as the Papal Mass in Phoenix Park in 1979, have turned out to be the last spasms of an ebbing power, deceptive victories for Catholicism gained towards the tail end of a long, self-lacerating retreat.
Some writers, though, understood what was unfolding from a long way out. Before even the 1950s were over, the great Patrick Kavanagh had already written his short satirical poem “House Party to Celebrate the Destruction of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland”. In it, a group has gathered, somewhere in the more salubrious suburbs of Dublin, to mark the publication of a book lambasting Catholicism. The tome has been warmly, fulsomely reviewed, while at the same time incurring the displeasure of the Church, the “dying monster’s rage”, which is celebrated by the party guests “with giggles high”. Seamus, the host for the evening, gazes at the author with emotion. The “Jansenistic priesthood of the nation” had perished by her hand, he concludes. She is, he stammers, “The Irish Voltaire”.
What Kavanagh seems to have intuited is that, even if outwardly not much seemed to be changing in 1950s Ireland, in reality the commanding heights of the opinion-making classes, located in that part of the capital known as Dublin 4, were changing hands for good. Catholicism’s banishment to the margins and, ultimately, its journey to and over the cliff edge, had in fact begun. Thus, in the final lines of the poem, Kavanagh swivels dramatically, swinging his searchlight away from the urban sherry-sippers and shining it deep into the “far off parishes of Cork and Kerry”, where, he writes, “Old priests walked homeless in the winter air”.
As it happens, the setting for John B Keane’s Letters of an Irish Parish Priest (1972) seems to be somewhere near the Cork-Kerry border. Keane himself (1928-2002) was a notable Kerryman from the small town of Listowel. His most famous work is possibly his play The Field (1965), which was made into a successful film in 1990, boasting a starry cast led by Richard Harris and John Hurt.
The letters are written by a Father Martin O’Mora. Clues in the text suggest that the events described unfold in the mid-to-late 1960s. The parish priest, in the world Keane recreates, is a kind of fixer-in-chief, called on by local people to rescue them from the raw consequences of gossip, infidelity, ignorance, hypocrisy, prurience and unemployment; and called upon by the Department of Education to keep the local school system from sinking to its knees, though for no reward: “It is the function of the priest to resolve these problems,” writes Fr O’Mora. “There is no one else to do it.”
Drunkenness is one of the greatest scourges he is called on to tame, telling his nephew, Joe, a trainee priest, that drink is a wonderful thing in moderation, but that “drink in the belly of an inconsiderate or selfish husband means misery for his unfortunate wife. We Irish have many virtues and many faults. If I was asked to list our worst fault, I would point the finger at the drunken husband.” (John B Keane was, as it happens, a publican as well as a writer.)
Letters of an Irish Parish Priest is a short book packed with jokes, some of them very funny, told by and about Irish priests. Pathos and farce rub shoulders, in a way that was one of Keane’s hallmarks (though he loses the run of himself once or twice, unable to resist the cheaper, more grotesque laughs). His creation, Fr O’Mora, is tough but humorous; blustering but generous; ready always for the fight, yet also forgiving; and tolerant of folly, including of the sexual kind. In another one of many letters to his seminarian nephew, he writes about the shame he feels for having waylaid, when he was a young priest, “courting couples and pairs of lovers in the laneways and out-of-the-way places at night”.
He continues: “We often surprised and chastised older lovers in great need of each other. As God is my judge, Joe, I don’t know why I did it. It was the fashion. That’s all I can say in defence of myself. I know why some did it. It was because they were lonely themselves and had natural longings and many found release in this sort of persecution […] Believe me when I say, it is one of the very few things that I have ever been ashamed of.”
But O’Mora is fierce when called for and never more so than in his attachment to the ultimate authority of the Pope and canon law. His reasoning emanates from him as a kind of a low growl mingled with softer notes of humanity and self-awareness. “To defy the Pope is to destroy the meaning of authority, with its attendant virtues such as the idea of peaceful co-existence, the idea of a true and lasting love, the rearing of a family, in fact all the virtues.”
O’Mora’s words carry echoes of the famous speech about degree that Shakespeare gives to Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida:
O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe
Writing of people who question authority and tradition, the priest continues: “They may be right in part. So what? We are all right in part even when we differ. None of our ideas are identical no more than our faces and bodies are, but there are no two ways if you are a member of the Catholic Church. It is the first and last authority. It is universal. Remember that if ever I seem unbending in matters of canon law that I was suckled on the code.”
This unwavering commitment to final authority comes to bear when Fr O’Mora gets locked in conflict with a local doctor (who has no time for a world of “dictatorial clergymen”) about the future of twins born to a young, unmarried Catholic mother; they were given over to nuns out of fear of social shaming and family retribution. O’Mora, wrongly as it turns out, suspects that the doctor is planning to arrange the adoption of the children by a Protestant family. There is a strong, even clumsy element of farce in what follows, but O’Mora’s eventual and complete submission to the authority of his bishop – and, as a result, to his opponent – is masterfully choreographed by Keane.
Hostilities between priest and doctor flare up again, however, in a dispute about allowing Rosie, a poor woman in an abusive marriage, whose life and happiness Fr O’Mora had saved in the past, to use contraception. The parish priest’s intransigence at this point is worth pondering. Given their reputation for implacability, the official statement of the Irish bishops following the promulgation of Humanae vitae, was – without conceding an inch on the teaching itself – remarkably gentle:
We ask our people to believe that we are deeply and painfully aware of the delicate and personal problems and intellectual difficulties to which this teaching may give rise for some and we are especially conscious of the difficult decisions which may face doctors […]. We ask that every effort should be made, by study and prayer, to appreciate and live the whole Catholic teaching on marriage and the family, and to see the condemnation of contraception in this life-giving context. We know that our priests, especially in the confessional, will, without compromise of principle, show that understanding and sympathy which Our Divine Lord Himself always displayed.
The bishops seem here to be signalling that they know that not every effort to follow Church teaching will succeed, that not every case will be clear and simple, and that the sacrament of Confession is there to heal any rift between the faithful and their faith arising from the teaching on contraception (which nevertheless remains true). However, these subtle refinements in the voice of authority do not seem to reach Fr O’Mora. He digs his heels in and tragedy ensues.
The priest knows his actions will always haunt him: “Most of Rosie’s children must go to an orphanage. I will do what I can but all the clergy in the world will not replace one mother.” His young curate, whom O’Mora likes and respects, begins to look at him askance. But still he feels he could not have permitted the use of contraceptives: “There is a natural law and to flout it is to flout God.” The consequences of his stand, he realizes, will be “a terrible cross to carry but then I did not become a priest just to make decisions that might be transiently popular. God will judge me and I will fully accept that judgment.”
For Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), the German novelist and Nobel Prize-winner who spent many summers with his family in a house he owned on Achill Island, the arrival of contraception in Ireland spelt a kind of doom.
Böll wrote his Irish Journal in 1954. The opening chapter, in which the author, his wife and children are making their passage from Liverpool to Ireland by ferry, is dominated, inwardly, by the author pondering the Irish reliance on safety pins, and, outwardly, by an overheard conversation, both amiable and strained, between a priest and a young emigrant woman returning to visit her parents in Galway. The young woman doesn’t believe in “fairytale Ireland”. Working as a waitress, she has seen “how many loose women Kathleen ni Houlihan has sent to London”.
She doesn’t believe in God either, but to avoid upsetting her parents she goes to church when she is back at home. Then she talks about her grandmother’s 36 grandchildren: how many stayed, how many went abroad. At this point, the priest, who for the most part has said not much other than “My child, my child,” holds forth a little: there are countries, he says in a low voice, “that export hygiene and suicide ideas, nuclear weapons, machine guns, automobiles …”
“Oh, I know,” said the light, clear girlish voice, “I know all about that: I’ve a brother myself who is a priest, and two cousins, they’re the only ones in the whole family who have cars.”
“My child …”
“I’m going to try and get some sleep now – goodnight, Father, good night.”
And so the brief conversation ends. Unsettled and mildly unsettling, it is in keeping with much of what follows. Böll expertly measures out his stores of irony, lyricism, sympathy and frankness. He speaks as he finds. But he finds with an eye that latches on to telling details in a morass of data. And he speaks with a voice and intellect that is patient, humane, idiosyncratic.
Irish Journal is vivid and impressionistic with excursions into whimsy and even the surreal. It is short and therefore selective, though without taking or even seeking sides. There are no emerald-tinted glasses, but there is no desire to mock either. As Seán O’Faoláin noted, it was a book “likely to give equal pleasure to both the -philes and the -phobes.”
The key to Irish Journal seems to be Böll’s instinctive acceptance that things will be different when you reach the last, battered vestiges of Europe, before the sea takes over completely. Indeed, Ireland was somewhere it was “possible to play truant from Europe”. When all the great cities of the continent, and even Dublin itself, had succumbed to night, a clear light would still hang over the western ocean, and a peat fire might just be coming to life.
Böll also appreciates a great, awful truth about Ireland of the 1950s: so much of it was literally somewhere else, in a diaspora scattered around the English-speaking world, leaving behind gaping holes in every family and village, and a whole society punchdrunk with loss.
For all that, Böll was not simply a neutral observer. He developed a deep attachment to the country he discovered in the 1950s. By 1967, however, the times were changing, and he felt moved to add an epilogue to a new edition of Irish Journal. This is where the kick comes. Ireland had now “caught up with two centuries and leaped another five”; and the greatest and unhappiest harbinger of change was the very thing that began to sink Fr O’Mora: contraception.
Böll anticipates his critics, acknowledges the justness of their claims, but doesn’t shy away from his point:
And a certain something has now made its way to Ireland, that ominous something known as The Pill – and this is something that absolutely paralyses me: the prospect that fewer children might be born in Ireland fills me with dismay. I know: it’s all very well for me to talk, it’s easy for me to want them in large quantities: I am neither their father nor their government; and I am not required to part from them when many, as they must, start out on the road to emigration. Nowhere in the world have I seen so many, such lovely and such natural children, and to know that His Majesty the Pill will succeed where all the Majesties of Great Britain have failed – in reducing the number of Irish children – seems to me no cause for rejoicing.
However, despite his fears, Böll – thinking perhaps of entering a pub in the west of Ireland and learning by “the tears of the beer-dispensing landlady, the faces of the silently drinking men” that John XXIII had died; or of the train conductor who “crossed himself (while telling his beads), read a newspaper, smoked, and accepted our fares all at the same time” – concluded that the faith of the Irish would ultimately persist.
Patrick Kavanagh and John B Keane, more attuned to the growing noises off in Irish society, foresaw a different fate. The publican-playwright from Kerry and the farmer-poet from Monaghan sensed that, within a few decades, the presence of the Church in Irish mores and institutions would be, as the Cork writer Theo Dorgan put it in 2009, as “smoke in a gale, dust in the wind”.
It is thanks to Keane that we can listen in on what Kavanagh’s “priests walking homeless in the winter air” were saying and thinking (and perhaps on what priests on ferries criss-crossing the Irish Sea, like Heinrich Böll’s, were thinking too). Keane’s Fr O’Mora knows the game will soon be up. He sees attendances declining at “the missions” (when a pair of priests, usually Redemptorists, would descend on an Irish parish for a week of preaching). He hears the contempt and ridicule that might have been largely confined to the Dublin salons of the 1950s as satirised by Kavanagh, spreading to country parishes by the late 1960s, with “every corner boy on the street” criticising the Church for one thing or another.
How did the rot begin? Fr O’Mora posits a theory about Pope John XXIII that has a whiff of confusion, puzzlement, desperation:
I think old John knew what he was doing when he adopted a liberal attitude. He knew that many would see this attitude as an opportunity to press claims for a softening of the Church’s attitude on many controversial matters. John knew that his liberality and candour would blow through the corridors of the true faith like a fresh wind, driving before it in the fullness of time the weaklings and wasters who do not belong so that, while there may be smaller numbers, only the strong and resolute remain. Remember that, if the position of the Church seems weak at present, it is merely purging itself of malcontents and biding its time, as it were, for the re-assertion of its authority.
In the final, unforgettable lines of Letters of an Irish Parish Priest, Fr O’Mora is driven to contemplate what lies in store for “old, frosty fellows” like himself. I have read these lines many times and cannot decide whether Keane intends the priest to sound like a deluded holdout, or, more shockingly, like some kind of prophet. Or perhaps, paradoxically, like both.
I will leave them here, reader. Can you decide?
We are the hard core, Joe, brought up on the Code. Our mission is to stand fast and to hold on no matter what. We may seem out of step right now and there are many who would say that the world shall not look upon our likes again. They are wrong for believe me, Joe, the world will whimper for the likes of us in the fullness of God’s time.
A much shorter version of this essay originally appeared at First Things
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