In the panel session on Mary Lavin (1912-1996) at the annual student conference of our Department in October 2004, two students, Masako Tohyama and Matsunuma Mihoko, focused on the 1944 story ‘The Will’. One character in the story who received little attention was the Parish Priest, whom the protagonist, Lally, visits with a request to have masses said for her mother’s soul. The parish clergy were a very central part of Irish society in the twentieth century, and needed no introduction or explanation to Irish readers. To Japanese readers, however, they may seem as remote and exotic as Buddhist ‘bonzes’ would be to Irish readers. Here I would like to sketch the characteristics of the Irish clergy as reflected in twentieth century Irish literature. I can offer only a cluster of fragments from a vast saga that might be called, in the manner of Balzac, grandeur et décadence du clergé irlandais. The complete saga itself, either as a direct history of the clerical caste, or as a history of its literary representations, remains to be written.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Irish diocesan clergy were formed in a network of Irish Colleges on the European continent, in Rome, Louvain, Paris, Salamanca, Douai and a dozen other places. Under the anti-Catholic Penal Laws seminaries could not be founded in Ireland. But the French Revolution made the British Government anxious that the seminarians on the continent would be exposed to seditious ideas, which they would communicate to their future flocks. Hence they allowed the setting up of a national seminary at Maynooth, County Kildare, fifteen miles west of Dublin. The initial nucleus of the seminary buildings was the eighteenth-century Stoyte House, located next to the ruins of the twelfth-century castle of the FitzGerald family, who played an illustrious role in Irish history up to the sixteenth century. In mid-nineteenth century, to house a student population that was swelling from the initial forty to an eventual six hundred, a turreted Neo-Gothic edifice based on designs by Augustus Pugin, gave the college its romantic and spectacular profile. The gracious interior of the college library and above all the glowingly beautiful Chapel built by J. J. McCarthy, ‘the Irish Pugin’, are the most pleasing parts of this quadrangle.
The diocesan or secular clergy were not, of course, the only priests in Ireland. Religious clergy, that is, priests who live in community and take formal vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, were represented by the medieval orders – Dominican, Franciscan, Capuchin, Carmelite, Augustinian and Premonstratensian (Norbertian) – who had recovered their standing in the wake of Catholic Emancipation. In the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries, too, most of the monks had received priestly ordination. The newer religious orders of the Counter-Reformation and later – the Jesuits, Vincentians, Passionists, Redemptorists, Marists, Salesians, Rosminians – were well represented. In addition missionary societies, whether composed of secular clergy – like the Maynooth Mission to China (Columban Fathers) and the Society of African Missions – or of religious clergy, like the Pallottines and the Divine Word Missionaries, recruited a great number of Irishmen for service abroad. Religious sisters were twice as numerous as priests (about 12,000 to 6,000 thirty years ago), and included the homegrown orders of Nano Nagle’s (1718-84) Presentation Sisters and Catherine McAuley’s (1778-1841) Sisters of Mercy. Armies of brothers, non-ordained religious, provided the teachers in many schools. The Irish Christian Brothers, founded by Edmund Ignatius Rice (1762-1844), led Spartan, dedicated lives and many of their pupils went on to become priests. But it was the diocesan clergy who loomed largest in Irish society, because of their prominent presence and role in every parish, as managers of the primary schools and patrons of many associations. Bishops tended to take a rather high-handed attitude to the non-diocesan clergy, keeping them in their place. Writers often complained that Ireland was ‘priest-ridden’ and the Bishop’s crozier vied with the Parish Priest’s blackthorn stick (directed at courting couples) as a symbol of religious repression. But the population was content with the sense that ‘Holy Ireland’, ‘the Island of Saints and Scholars’, was a special place, spared the secularism and moral corruption rife elsewhere, especially in ‘pagan’ England.
Seminaries, constructed on the lines set down by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), were enclosed worlds, poorly chronicled in European literature. Stendhal’s picture of seminary life in Le Rouge et le Noir is quite remote from reality. Seminaries were spiritual barracks, in which every moment of the day was rigourously scheduled. Military barracks have inspired more literature, because they were easier to visit and because former residents turned more readily to the pen. They figure in high literature in Joseph Roth`s Radetzky March and in the Doncières sections in Proust, for example. Minor seminaries, boarding schools run by priests and attended by boys wishing to be priests provided an early initiation into the clerical world. The only fictional representation of an Irish minor seminary that I know of is a rather blunt novel, Sausages for Tuesday by Paddy Kennelly, brother of the poet Brendan Kennelly. In rural Ireland the minor seminaries were often the best schools available; many talented writers were minor seminarians, some of whom later few spent a few years in Maynooth or one of the smaller major seminaries (in Dublin, Kilkenny, Carlow, Wexford, Thurles, Waterford and Belfast).
The average priest lived in a major seminary from age 18 to age 25, leaving the compound only for the Christmas and summer holidays. Even at home he would wear the black clerical garb that placed a barrier between him and the people. Newspapers and radio did not penetrate the seminary world. Seminarians who left, especially at a late stage in their training, carried the social stigma of ‘the spoiled priest’. This method of total immersion instilled a package of attitudes, intellectual, spiritual, emotional and social, that would remain the backbone of the priest’s personality throughout his life. Sentimental attachment to Maynooth as an alma mater was not universally felt. Like many Irish educational institutions it favoured more the bookish and abstract scholar than the lively, practically oriented youth. Canon Patrick Sheehan (1852-1913), Parish Priest of Doneraile, County Cork, penned a rich portrait of the bookish kind of Maynooth student in Luke Delmege (1901). The newly ordained Luke glows with pride at the academic honours loaded on him in what he thinks of as the foremost academy of Christendom, but finds himself very ill-equipped to face the modern world or the loneliness of a desolate rural parish. Canon Sheehan, a tenacious but undocumented rumour holds, was acclaimed by Tolstoy as the greatest living novelist. His serene and elegant style, marked by a literate command of Greek, Latin and German poetic allusion, masks a penetrating wit that can at times border on the subversive, even amid the gentle comedy and edification of his most popular novel, My New Curate (1900). Sheehan also wrote The Blindness of Dr. Gray (1909), in which a Jansenistic old priest jousts with his curate who is too fond of culture and learns love from a niece he had condemned; and an autobiography, which his priest friends urged him to burn – surely a sad loss to Irish history and letters. Ruth Fleischmann in a 2002 lecture in Doneraile on ‘The Catholic Church, Clergy and Religion in the Novels of Canon Sheehan’ praises Sheehan’s insight into priests’ lives: ‘Their loneliness is shown without sentimentality; their self-questioning and critical appraisal both of their role and their ability to live up to it immunizes them against that sense of importance and infallibility which marks the writings of such men as Father Joseph Guinan and the pronouncements of so many of the bishops. Their doubts and dissatisfaction bear witness to an independence of mind fostered by their sense of mission, yet also fettered by their sense of duty. The frustrations often endured by the younger clergy are memorably described. At the beginning of the novel My New Curate, the parish priest describes his efforts as a young man to initiate improvements in the village, and his failure: “... Nothing on earth can cure the inertia of Ireland. It weighs down like the weeping clouds on the damp heavy earth, and there is no lifting it, nor disburthening of the souls of men of this intolerable weight. I was met on every side with a stare of curiosity, as if I were propounding something immoral or heretical ... It was a land of the lotos. The people were narcotized” (II 13-14)’.
The aura of Maynooth is captured as well in some chapters of Mo scéal féin (1915) by an t-Athair Peadar O`Laoire (Father Peter O`Leary, 1839-1920), in which the academic and ecclesiastical grandees of the place are described with ingenuous awe. However, he has some pungent complaints about the poor health conditions of the seminary, testified to by the line of photographs on each year’s classpiece carrying the inscription Mic léinn a fuar bas (students who died). A poignant view of Maynooth from within is offered in Walter McDonald’s posthumous Reminiscences of a Maynooth Professor (1925). The Irish Catholic Church had become intensely Rome-centered as a result of the Famine (1845-8), the reassertion of Papal power at Vatican I (1870) and the work of the ultramontane Cardinal Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin. McDonald (1854-1920) sketched a rather eccentric theology in his heavily speculative work Motion: Its Origin and Conservation (1898), in which the physical concept of motion is linked with the theological concept of grace. His colleagues referred the book to the Vatican authorities, finding in it a tendency to the unorthodox view known as Occasionalism, and the book was condemned; he wrote five further theological works, which he was forbidden to publish. He opposed a collection to build the spire for the College Chapel and urged that the money be spent on the library instead. Duly built in 1902-05, the spire is a landmark for miles around on the Kildare plains, and was memorably described by Sean O’Casey as ‘a dagger through the heart of Ireland’. McDonald looks back nostalgically to the day when the Empress Elizabeth of Austria broke though a breach in the walls while hunting and was graciously received by the professors, and he speaks of a convivial outing with his colleagues as a rare oasis in a desert of loneliness; one is reminded of Miss Tita’s reminiscences in The Aspern Papers, chapter five. Sean O’Casey has a chapter on McDonald in his Autobiographies, called ‘Silence’, with the haunting refrain, ‘Silence, Dr. McDonald. Not a word of this to anyone’.
Later, Neil Kevin’s gorgeously written I Remember Maynooth, and Denis Meehan`s Window on Maynooth (1949), spun out a vein of Maynooth nostalgia that invites comparison with Evelyn Waugh`s Brideshead Revisited. (Meehan published under a pseudonym a remarkable memoir of his later years of crisis in the USA.) For many writers, however, Maynooth was not a name to conjure with but one to curse with. The anticlerical tone is set by George Moore, in such stories as ‘Home Sickness’ and The Lake, and by Joyce, who uses his potently suggestive symbolism and diction to project chilling clerical figures in his first story, ‘The Sisters’ (1904, revised 1906) and in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Maynooth clergy did not cross Joyce’s field of vision, but he scorns the Irish Bishops’ invitation of Edward VII to the college in Ulysses 12:1402-8; a prostitute asks the black-clad Stephen Dedalus: ‘Are you out of Maynooth?’ (15:2533). Moore tries to capture the world of clerical culture in the first version of The Lake, but the result is crude; the third version of 1921 is a poetic and musical masterpiece, where the quest for a naturalistic sketch of clerical life recedes in face of the drama that passes within the priest`s soul. Gerard O’Donovan, active as a priest from 1895 to 1904, was a protégé of Moore’s, and Moore drew on his experiences as a basis for the story of The Lake. In turn, there is a cameo of Moore in O’Donovan’s novel, Father Ralph (1913), a stirring account of clerical exactions and skulduggery at the turn of the century. The zealous but critical protagonist is forced out of the priesthood by his colleagues who skilfully exploit the Modernist controversy then on the boil, somewhat in the manner of McDonald’s Maynooth colleagues. O’Donovan went on to write other novels, including one about the Great War, How They Did It (1920), and Vocations (1921), in which a mother seeks to place her two daughters in a convent, condemning the younger to life in ‘a tomb’. He was the hero and intimate friend of Dame Rose Macaulay (1881-1958), author of The Towers of Trebizond (1956).
Frank O’Connor (1903-1966) is a rich resource for study of the clergy. He was a customer in my father’s shop in Dillon’s Cross, Cork. One day he left a manuscript behind on the counter. An hour later his anxious mother, Minnie O’Donovan, the unforgettable heroine of An Only Child, came breathless in quest of the mislaid document. ‘Here you are, Madam’, said my father, handing her the text of ‘The Long Road to Ummera’, a classic of Irish fiction.
The social world O’Connor’s stories map is that of Cork, the city he loved and hated. The love beings with the magic of the quaint Victorian lanes and chimney-pots of the north side of the city – elegant Sunday’s Well, pub-lined, impoverished Blarney Street, Victoria Barracks, St. Luke’s Cross, Dillon’s Cross, and perhaps at the centre of this oniric landscape my own infant haunt, “Gardiner’s Hill falling headlong to the valley of the city, with its terraces of tall houses and its crest of dark trees” (My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories, Penguin, 2005). The hatred concerns the barriers to living that Cork imposed, and all these barriers converge on the figure of the priest.
Conformism to stifling social control is embodied in the priest, who is both its supreme enforcer and its supreme victim. The priest serves as a mirror of the limitations of provincial life, of all the tensions and frustrations, weaknesses and failures of vision that beset the Irish Free State from the thirties through the fifties. In “An Act of Charity” the clergy force a young doctor to cover up the suicide of a priest. The cult of respectability creates a culture of concealment: “That one of God’s anointed could come to such a state of despair was something the Church could not admit. It would give too much scandal, It was simply an unacceptable act” (Collected Stories, New York, Knopf, 1981, 638; all references are to this volume unless otherwise noted) – that must be retrospectively undone, expunged from the record. The doctor is pressed with appeals to his “charity”, then with a threat: “it might have very serious effects on your career”. The curate, Fr. Fogarty, is angry at the parish priest’s “bluff”, but the doctor “didn’t know his own strength” and allows himself “to be crushed” (640), an infuriating display of male weakness, not uncommon in O’Connor. Subservience to the clergy is but the most salient form of a general failure of courage and honesty in Irish society. The parish priest exploits the upper hand he has gained: “It was as though he were stripping him of any little dignity he had” (640). The doctor ruefully remarks, “And so this is how it’s done” (642). The stifled unease and questioning of Fr. Fogarty are at the centre of the story, which concludes: “What lonely lives we live, he thought unhappily” (643).
Social control is unmasked as laced with a kind of religious madness in “The Cheat”, in which a man runs the gauntlet of social disapprobation for his marriage to a Protestant and willingness to have his children raised as Protestants. A visit by a bumbling priest reveals that his wife is taking instruction for conversion to Catholicism, without having told him. This priest remains sympathetic, and serves to bring out the abusive character of another priest visitor who says “I want to talk to you about your soul” and insinuates that his body is in danger as well, with a smile: “Something about the smile shook Dick. It seemed to radiate a sort of cold malice which was new to him… ‘Your arrogance won’t last long, Mr. Gordon’, the priest said. ‘You’re dying of cancer” (522). Dick reflects, “this was something more and worse than foolishness. This was foolishness going bad, foolishness turning into naked evil” (523). Perhaps O’Connor was remembering how Archbishop McQuaid had entered his home one night during the War, offering him a job if he would separate from the woman downstairs, whom he had married in a registry office). (James McKeon, Frank O’Connor: A Life, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 1998, 136-7).
“News for the Church” shows the control operating at the most intimate level. The scene is a confessional. The priest at first seems a benign, non-judgmental sort, close to the sympathetic confessor of “First Confession”. The badinage about peccadilloes stops when the penitent, a nineteen-year old girl, says, “I had carnal intercourse with a man, father” (123). His reaction is swift: “it’s your bounden duty to marry this man” (126). But the young lady has no such intentions. “He now saw how he had been taken in. This little trollop, wandering about town in a daze of bliss, had to tell someone her secret, and he, a good-natured old fool of sixty, had allowed her to use him as a confidant” (127). He takes his revenge by “stripping off veil after veil of romance, leaving her with nothing but a cold, sordid, cynical adventure like a bit of greasy meat on a plate” (127). Michael Steinman doubts it the story is “an expression of rage at the repressive power of the Irish clergy” (Dictionary of Literary Biography v. 162, p. 258), but the vitality he points to in Father Cassidy is calculated to intensify such rage: “He suddenly began to chuckle, a fat good-natured chuckle, and as he passed the statue of St. Anne, patron of marriageable girls, he almost found himself giving her a wink” (128).
Yet that O’Connor raged is beyond doubt. His revision of “Orpheus and his Lute”, a tale of a Cork band who pawn their instruments for drink and play a sublime concert on borrowed instruments, silences the concert; Michael Steinman, in his book Frank O’Connor at Work (Macmillan, 1990) comments: “O’Connor was enraged by the government’s censorship of imaginative literature... He was singled out, with a novel, several collections, essays and translations routinely banned, as well as being blacklisted, unable to publish, broadcast or travel freely for a few years” (72). He was rightly angry, perhaps bitter, but never a whiner; for his art would have the last word, and was already having it in its international reception.
Another aspect of the priest that fascinates O'Connor is the intimate sexual and affective price his social position exacts; somehow the throes of the celibate become emblematic of a lack that is widespread in the society, the desolation of sexual unfulfilment as caught in “The Bridal Night”, set on an island which has a song, “Lonely Rock is the one wife my children will know” (24). A schoolteacher spends a night of love with a mentally deranged boy, before he is sent off to an asylum, and his grateful mother remarks: “It was a great ease to us. Poor Denis never stirred, and when the police came he went along with them without commotion... And isn’t it a strange and wonderful thing? From that day to the day she left us there did no one speak a bad word about what she did, and the people couldn’t do enough for her. Isn’t it a strange thing and the world as wicked as it is, that no one would say the bad word about her?” (25). A touch of sensual tenderness casts its perfume across the desert of a sexless existence, emblematized in the closing line: “Darkness had fallen over the Atlantic, blank gray to its farthest reaches” (25).
In “The Luceys” the rigid, unforgiving uncle wears clerical back and his front room has red curtains and a mahogany bookcase: “it gave Charlie the same sort of shivers as the priest’s front room” (68). The young protagonist of “The Genius” also has a chilly image of clerical life:
“I expect you’ll be a priest when you grow up, Larry?” She asked.
“No, Mrs Dwyer”, I replied firmly. “As a matter of fact, I intend to be a composer. Priests can’t marry, you see, and I want to get married”. (My Oedipus Complex, p. 7).
Disappointed in love, he comments: “My great work meant nothing to me and I knew it was all I would ever have. For all the difference it made I might as well become a priest. I felt it as a poor, sad, lonesome thing being nothing but a genius” (p. 11).
“The Frying-Pan” gives an insight into the poisonous influence of clerical celibacy on a married layman. Tom, his priest friend reflects, “like other outsiders... knew perfectly what priests should be, without the necessity for having to be that way himself” (149). His wife Una remarks that “there’s no harm in Father Whelan. It’s just that he’s certain he’s going to die in the workhouse... she was implying that the priest’s office made him an object of pity rather than blame” (151). He senses her pity for himself. “It seemed to him that with all the things he bought to fill his home, he was merely trying desperately to stuff the yawning holes in his own big, empty heart” (152). He finds Tom “an uncouth and irritable bastard”, but Una explains that “he’s jealous of you because you’re a priest” (155). He replies that Tom is welcome to the “respect and responsibility and freedom from the worries of a family” that priests enjoy, “owner having no further use for same” (155). He kisses Una, and she remarks, “It’s a change to be kissed by someone who cares for you” at which he protests mechanically, “the priest in him getting the upper hand of the lover” (156). Una reveals that Tom “thinks he’s a terrible blackguard because he wants to make love to me once a month... I can talk like this to you because you’re a priest” (156). “He makes it a sin... it’s never anything but adultery with him” (157). The curious reversal of roles here is a double denunciation of what Maurice Wohlgelernter calls a “barren and witless celibacy” (Frank O’Connor: An Introduction, Columbia UP, 1972, p. 81). Conclusion: “the three of them, Tom, Una, and himself, would die as they had lived, their desires unsatisfied” (157).
In “The Shepherds, two priests ask a French captain to put a girl, their parishioner, off his scandalous ship; the Captain asks if the girl is the parish priest’s mistress, causing the old man to blush. The younger priest, speaking in French, tells the captain he’d be happy if the captain took the girl wherever he’s going, and himself as well! Turning away from the ship and its glimpses of a free life-style, “He felt hopeless and lost, as though he were returning to the prison-house of his youth” (47-8). This poignant hopeless longing is a quintessential note in O’Connor’s stories, his protest against the conventionalism of Cork, and its feckless, witless, footless, clueless inability to seize life and live it.
It is unsurprising that Archbishop McQuaid brought so many of O’Connor’s publications to the attention of the Censorship Board (see John Cooney, John McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland). Yet O’Connor, though aware that the Church enshrined the abusive attitudes of the Irish to their own sexuality, was not an out-and-out anticlerical. His widow saw him as “torn between empathy with the men and antipathy to the institution” (Frank O’Connor, The Collar: Stories of Irish Priests, ed. Harriet O’Donovan, Belfast: Blackstaff, 1993, vi).
Father Peter Connolly (1927-1987), Professor of English Literature at Maynooth, was for many years a foremost mediator between the literary and ecclesiastical worlds in Ireland. In an essay on ‘The Priest in Modern Irish Fiction’, published in The Furrow in 1958, he wrote: ‘In our circles you will hear now and again a denial that the attitudes of our writers to the Irish priest are representative of the country. This opinion can be upheld only by ignoring the other half of the truth, which is that the serious writer is often ahead of his generation in that he brings to expression feelings and thoughts lying dormant and unformulated all around him’ (No Bland Facility: Selected Writings on Literature, Religion and Censorship, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1991, p. 119). He found that sympathetic novelistic portraits of the Irish priest, in the line of Canon Sheehan, such as those of Francis McManus in The Greatest of These and Benedict Kiely in There Was an Ancient House, fell flat.
Connolly held that the anticlericalism found in Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, Liam O’Flaherty and Mary Lavin was “not the radical anti-clericalism of Stendhal, for instance, or even of Moore and the young Joyce. Most of these stories belong in spirit to a more venerable and a very solid tradition of satire which goes back to Chaucer and the Middle Ages. Detached, amused or malicious, this kind of writer is ultimately on your side in so far as his effects depend on an implicit contrast between the man described and his priestly office. There is here an oblique confession of your exalted ideal” (No Bland Facility, 123). However, Connolly felt that Irish writing on the priesthood had become fixated on stereotypes, either hostile or reverential: “Perhaps we must accept the fact that Irish writers will always be unwilling or unable to work towards a more inclusive attitude (which would, incidentally, allow of a deeper comprehension of the priest) and to work out the literary medium to carry it” (136).
Here O’Connor could figure as an exception. Connolly praised the “entirely profane” approach of O’Connor in “Uprooted”, in which the priest tells his brother, “It’s the loneliness of my job that kills you” (97). “Ned “had never quite grown used to his brother,... partly because his ordination seemed to have shut him off from the rest of the family, and now it was as though he were trying to surmount it by his boisterous manner and affected bonhomie” (84). The dehumanizing effect of priesthood lay in the rigid separation from common humanity it was thought to entail, so that the priest became a non-person, more than human, which in practice meant less than human. Ned himself is uprooted, unhappy in Dublin, and alien to the eternally repetitive commentary on trivial events of his Irish-speaking, poteen-making village, of which O’Connor provides many samples (84-5; 86; 88). “It seemed to Ned that he was interrupting a conversation that had been going on since his last visit” (85). Yet the conversation is drenched in terms of endearment and exclamations of piety, having a human and spiritual richness not to be found in the “lean, unlovely English” of the city. “Ned realized with infinite compassion that for years Tom had been living in the same state of suspicion and fear, a man being hunted down by his own nature; and that for years to come he would continue to live in this way, and perhaps never be caught again as he was now” (97). This moment of truth prompts us to reread the story and sense the hollow pain beneath Fr Tom’s hearty bluff joking, with its carnal overtones. The brother, a teacher in Dublin, can never return either to the Irish-speaking home place: “something he had outgrown and could never return to” (98). Moore’s “Home Sickness”, anthologized by O’Connor, lurks in the background here.
In O’Connor’s clergy, personal and professional are inseparable, but interact in different ways. In this regard, O’Connor is an heir of Canon Sheehan, of whom Catherine Candy writes: “As each of his main characters is an extension of his self, they form an intriguing drama between priest and man. It is remarkable, as Peter Connolly noted, that this attitude, fruitful for Irish writing, is quite unknown to contemporary fiction about the priest in other countries” (Priestly Fictions: Popular Irish Novelists of the Early 20th Century, Dublin, Wolfhound, 1995, p. 32). One might seek antecedents, however, in the treatment of the Anglican clergy in Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles or George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life.
Another dimension of priesthood that O'Connor evokes is the residual sacral status which links the priest to the Celtic past. In “The Old Faith” ancient legends of saints are recalled. The Bishop, formerly Professor of Dogmatic Theology, “seemed to be quite unaffected by the scene in the ruined cathedral, though it deeply impressed Father Devine, with the crowds of country people kneeling on the wet grass among the tottering crosses and headstones, the wild countryside framed in the mullioned windows, and the bid, deeply molded clouds drifting overhead” (404). The native church is invoked against the clerical church, the church whose grip on modern Ireland was secured at the time of Cardinal Cullen. The bishop disapprovingly confiscates a bottle of poteen. But it later turns out to be himself a poteen-maker’s son and to have great sympathy with a vanished Ireland and its superstitions, the “old faith” which he makes much of to annoy the snobbish Canon Lanigan.
This third aspect of priesthood owes much to O’Connor’s friendship with Fr Traynor of whom he writes:
Yet I never really felt that he was not a good priest, and he gave me an understanding of and sympathy with the Irish priesthood which even the antics of its silliest members have not been able to affect. It was merely that his temperament and imagination constantly overflowed the necessary limits of his vocation as they would have overflowed the limits of almost any calling, short of that of a pirate. Yet they also enriched his character, so that you felt if he lived for another twenty years he would be a very fine priest indeed. (An Only Child and My Father’s Son, Penguin, 2005, p.290)
With Traynor he visited “the Tailor” (of The Tailor and Ansty) in Gougane Barra. Traynor would “brood on all the might-have-beens of his life” (291) and would exclaim:
“People like you give the impression that it’s our fault if the country is priest-ridden. We know it’s priest-ridden, but what can we do about it? I can’t even get on a tram without some old man or woman getting up to offer me his seat. I can’t go into a living-room without knowing that all ordinary conversation stops, and when it starts again it’s going to be intended for my ears”. (295)
“The Mass Island” is another tale of clerical manipulation, but now in the good cause of having a beloved priest buried in the place he has chosen. It ends with an epiphany of the native church in a landscape reminiscent of Gougane: “One by one the ranked headlights blazed up, and at every moment the scene before them grew more vivid – the gateway and the stile, and beyond it the causeway that ran toward the little brown stone oratory with its mock Romanesque doorway. As the lights strengthened and steadied, the whole island became like a piece of theater scenery cut out against the gloomy wall of the mountain with the tiny whitewashed cottages at its base” (654).
O’Connor, we recall, was not only an observer of contemporary Irish society, but one who sought to recapture the older life of Ireland in his studies of its history and literature. His chronicle of oppressed lives is free of bitterness, embraced by a comprehensive charity, because of his secure, serene rootedness in that older Ireland.
LAVIN'S EARLY STORIES
Mary Lavin is remembered above all as the chronicler of the period that can be called ‘Devalera’s Ireland’, since it was dominated by Eamon Devalera (1882-1975), an insurgent of 1916, leader of the IRA against the Government forces in the 1922-23 Civil War, founder of the Fianna Fail party in 1926, shaper of the Irish Constitution in 1937, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) 1937-48, 1951-54, 1957-59. He was the chief spokesman for the narrow Catholic and nationalist ethos of the country in those decades. (In a changing Ireland, he lived on in the ceremonial role of. President from 1959 to 1973.) His Ireland was a rural, closed, conservative country that prescribed standard patterns of speech and behaviour to each member of its close-knit local communities. It is remembered with nostalgia today, as an ‘innocent’ place, a kind of touchstone against which to measure all the liberal sophistication that has come about since. But sarcasm against the narrowness and repression of those decades is almost more virulent now than it was among the writers who rebelled against it at the time. Such protest is less costly now, and ironic quotation of Devalera’s 1943 speech for St. Patrick’s Day has been a ritual of the new Irish liberals, known as the ‘Dublin 4’ set: ‘That Ireland which we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens’. That speech was made in the middle of World War II, known in Ireland as ‘the Emergency’. Mary Lavin’s first stories, written at this time, capture well the buried tensions of this insular world. The degree to which Mary Lavin is linked with this period is shown by the Field Day Anthology’s classification of her among pre-1945 prose writers even though she wrote fiction from 1939 to 1979. It was a society particularly suited to the short story, a genre which focusses on the intimate questions of isolated individuals at a moment of crisis in their lives. Frank O’Connor opined that in his native Cork one could attain the mental age of 12, and in Dublin that of 14. A world so limited could be mapped in short stories but offered no basis for the expanse of the novel. In his well-known study, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (Harper & Row, 1985), O’Connor wrote: ‘Most Irish novels still tend to end as The Lake itself ends, by the hero’s getting out of the country as fast as he can. The only Irish novel that compares with it for excellence – Daniel Corkery’s The Threshold of Quiet – ends with the heroine’s going into a convent, which is only the same conclusion seen through a veil of resignation’ (206).
The short story was the genre that expressed the lonely voices of what O’Connor called ‘a submerged population group’. ‘The novel can still adhere to the classical concept of civilized society, of man as an animal who lives in a community, as in Jane Austen and Trollope it obviously does; but the short story remains by its very nature remote from the community – romantic, individualistic, and intransigent’ (21). The pluralism of social forces and contrasting voices in interaction, which is the necessary element for the creation of novels, did not exist in Ireland. Even such novels as The Lake or Ulysses, could be seen as confirming this, since they were originally planned as short stories, to be added to their authors’ landmark collections The Untilled Field (1903) and Dubliners (1914; written 1904-07); and the new Free State was if anything a narrower society than the pre-Independence society of those novels. Mary Lavin’s second novel, The House on Crewe Street (1945) has the air of a novella dragged out to novel length. Conversely, as O’Connor noted, a weakness in Lavin is her tendency to let a short story run on as if she were writing a novel: ‘Miss Lavin is much more of a novelist in her stories than O’Flaherty, O’Faolain, or Joyce, and her technique verges – sometimes dangerously – on the novelist’s technique… She has the novelist’s obsession with logic, the logic of Time past and Time future, not so much the short story teller’s obsession with Time present… Sometimes she begins her stories too far back, sometimes she carries them too far forward, rarely by more than a page or two, but already in that space the light begins to fade into the gray calm even light of the novelist’ (211-12), Two of her best stories, ‘At Sally Gap’ and ‘A Memory’ are partly based on Joyce’s ‘Eveline’ and ‘A Painful Case’ respectively; a comparison would reveal that Lavin tends to expand and lose intensity where Joyce has chosen laconic concentration.
As a rural writer, Lavin is in the tradition of Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches, Moore’s The Untilled Field, Katherine Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, and Chekhov, in addition to Joyce and an American writer she admired, Sarah Orne Jewett. She handles with skill the style indirect libre that allows easy access to the characters’ minds. Flaubert had been the first to use this technique with conscious mastery, and it is deployed exquisitely by Joyce and Mansfield. Lavin’s skill in free indirect reporting of characters’ thoughts and feelings can be seen in Lally’s musings in ‘The Will’, one of the two stories anthologized by Frank O’Connor in Classic Irish Short Stories (1959). Both stories portray the clergy as deeply, securely settled in a mould that one can trace back to the world of Canon Sheehan. The comfort and order of the priest’s interior in ‘The Will’ contrasts with the outsider status of the distraught heroine, who has chosen the freedom of air over the stifling warmth of her family’s bourgeois lifestyle. But in this symbol-drenched story, the priest is also associated with the chilly otherness of death: ‘The wet black railings of a gate come in contact with her fingers. This was the gate leading into the residence of the Canon’ (Classic Irish Short Stories, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 245). Her initial reception is forbidding: ‘“What in the name of God do you want?’ said an elderly woman with an apron that blazed white in the darkness [this line gives a new twist to the story’s fire-imagery]. “I want to see the Canon!” said Lally. “He’s at his dinner”, said the woman, aggressively, and went to close the door’ (245). This woman is the stereotypical priest’s housekeeper, an important figure in Irish life and literature up to very recently. The furnishings of the Canon’s house, ‘the polished mahogany chair in the hall’, ‘the polished floor’ (246), and his dress, which knits further threads into the story’s motifs of red and black, ‘the cape of his shiny canonical robes’ (247), ‘his stiff canonical robes, piped with red’ (248), convey an institutional atmosphere in which Lally with her ‘shabby boots’ and ‘thick stockings’, keenly observed by the priest, is ill at ease. She battles her way into it in order to fight for her mother’s soul by paying to have mass said for her. The offering of mass for the dead was something very central to Irish Catholic piety, and people would often leave money to the Church to have numerous masses offered for the repose of their souls. The priest tells Lally that her mother, who has cut off her impoverished daughter without a penny, ‘left a large sum in her will for masses to be said for her after her death. Three hundred pounds, I believe, or thereabouts; a very considerable sum, at any rate’ (247). The rationale behind this is the doctrine of purgatory, in which sins are atoned for by a period of penal suffering before the soul can enter heaven. The pains of purgatory were imaged in the same way as those of hell, namely, as the agony of being plunged in a blazing furnace. Lally perhaps fears that the masses her mother bought will have little effect, because of her selfish motivation: ‘It’s not the same thing to leave money yourself for masses. It’s the masses that other people have said for you that count’ (247). The horror of purgatory – or of hell – preys on her mind, and is imaged by ‘the heat of the flames that dragged themselves like serpents along the logs in the fireplace’, ‘the leaping flames in the grate’ (246): ‘The eyes that stared into the flaming heart of the fire were indeed filled with fear, and as a coal fell, revealing a gaping abyss of fire, those eyes filled with absolute horror. The reflection of the flames leaped in them’ (247-8). The priest is sympathetic. ‘There was a sad story about her, I forget what it was’ (246), hears her tale ‘with an unusual and ungovernable curiosity’ (247), and offers to say the masses without being paid a stipend, a suggestion Lally angrily rejects. ‘Humbly the priest … accepted the dictates of the draggled woman in front of him. “I will do as you wish”, he said. “Is there anything else troubling you”’ (248). Lally’s anxiety about the fate of her unforgiving mother’s soul may be a religious representation of a search to heal the trauma her mother has inflicted, and to reach reconciliation with her mother beyond the grave. The priest’s inquiry if anything else is troubling her indicates his awareness of this dimension. While he does not display any lofty spiritual insight, he comes across as a competent representative of the institutional Church, nothing like the totally uncomprehending Abbé Bournisien in whom Emma Bovary attempted to confide.
The other story in the O’Connor volume is ‘A Wet Day’(1944) – ‘a brutal little story which I mistakenly chose to represent her in an anthology of Irish short stories. Here, a parish priest, who is a monster of selfishness, complacently congratulates himself on having brought about the death of his niece’s young husband so as to preserve his own comfort’ (O’Connor, 211). This epiphany of clerical egoism is dropped calmly into the cosy world of the narrator’s aunt. The narrator is a student, a questioning young woman like the protagonists of ‘A Cup of Tea’ and ‘The Shrine’, and one mark of her critical modernity is the idea that priests are human beings like everyone else: ‘she was beginning to realize that in my estimate of a man’s worth I did not allow credit for round collars and tussore’ (250). Her arguments with her aunt are the stuff of thousands upon thousands of Irish tea-table skirmishes: ‘Cheap anti-clericalism was the phrase she used most often to batter a way through my remarks. But as a matter of fact I believe that secretly she enjoyed these encounters that we had, and that they gave her a feeling of satisfaction as if she were Fighting for the Faith’ (251). The priest is presented as a familiar domestic figure: ‘“How is your lettuce, Ma’am?” asked the old Parish Priest. “I hear it’s been bad everywhere this year”. But from the start an almost obscene undercurrent is felt: ‘He paused and blew his nose loudly, and then he looked around him. “Slugs!” he said then, very sternly… After a minute the old man turned around and looked at me. “Slugs”, he said again, and only the fact that he put the word in the plural kept me from feeling that this sturdy and blunt old man was calling me names’ (250). The hypochondriac priest, who has the same name as the protagonist of The Lake, Father Gogarty, is a graduate of the Irish College, Rome, and would perhaps consider himself a cut above the Maynooth clergy. Memories of Rome are his criterion for judging Ireland: ‘When do we get a sunny day in this country I’d like to know? As far as I can see it’s rain, rain, rain’ (251). ‘He often told us stories about those days, and all the stories had flashes of sunlight in them… We thought, involuntarily, of sun-pools lying on hot, city pavements, between the chill shadows of lime leaves’ (252). His spiritual world is null: ‘the bleak, concrete church where he went through the Mass perfunctorily, and gave out a hard dry sermon, with a blackened silver watch in his hand’ (252). ‘Nothing could interrupt the perfect machinery of his sentences. They ran smoothly in the tracks they had cut for themselves through dogma and doctrine, over forty years before, when he was a careful curate, working under a careful pastor’ (253). Mary Lavin wins sympathy for the priest by stressing his frailty, his diabetes, and his exile: ‘It may have been his constant talke of health that made us associate him with the pagans of southern Europe, and made us feel a certain sympathy for him, trapped in a land of mist’ (254). The conversation between the priest and the gardener captures the gushing sycophancy (perhaps laced with an undercurrent of subversive irony, sometimes) that Irish people used to lavish on the clergy: ‘“Ah! Why wouldn’t you let her spoil you, Father? She loves giving you the few poor vegetables!” “She does, indeed. She does, I know that, Mike. I can see that. Isn’t it a grand thing the way the Irish women are so good to the clergy?” “Why wouldn’t they be, Father? Where would we be only for the priests?”’ (257-8). Lurking in the background of this story is Joyce’s portrait of the decrepit Fr. James Flynn in ‘The Sisters’. This, too, is a first person narration involving the narrator’s aunt and culminating in a shocking epiphany of clerical corruption. The priest in Joyce’s story, too, ‘had studied in the Irish college in Rome and he had taught me to pronounce Latin properly. He told me stories about the catacombs’. Fr. Flynn has the same combination of spiritual paralysis and mastery of dogma. His nose is a prominent motif as is Father Gogarty’s. In Joyce’s story, too, the characters express sympathy for ‘poor James’, and their critical thoughts are suppressed or conveyed only in tacit hints. ‘Joyce in this story crystallized a whole series of popular tales about priests who were “marked” – whether “spoiled” or “off the mission” – but he embalmed it in the rigid and formal objectivity of French Naturalism and it has had no literary successors in its kind’ (Connolly, 121).
Other early stories tackled the juicy topic of sexual repression in a clerically dominated culture in ‘Sunday Brings Sunday’ and ‘The Nun’s Mother’. ‘Sunday Brings Sunday’ opens with a pious, somewhat bullying sermon on the efficacity of prayer. ‘The people moved like actors in a play, actors who have rehearsed their lines and gestures so often that they could go through them in their sleep, but had long ago lost all understanding of the play’s significance’. The form of the liturgy is frozen, its rigidity expressing a lack of imagination, a dread of change. Mary Lavin again shows herself to be a keen observer and critic of lay subservience to the clergy: ‘When it comes to cooking for the priest it would be a hard thing to be over particular, no matter how particular you were. If they don’t deserve the best, I’d like to know who does?’ (99). Installed in privilege, priests automatically assumed it was no more than their due. The priest’s sermon is somehow at a tangent to the listener’s experience: ‘It is by prayer that we obtain the grace to avoid sin’ (112), she hears, but is too inexperienced to understand the dangers of sexual intimacy. She is torn between implicit faith in the priest’s authority – ‘He knew everything that was right and everything that was wrong. He had to know everything on account of confession’ (112) – and suspicion that he might not have the answers after all: ‘Weren’t the old people always laughing till their sides split whenever there was a sermon on company-keeping?’ (112-13). Here again we have a sidelight on the subversive element in Irish religion. As Mary Lavin remarked to Masaki Kondo in 1973, the Irish do not have a deeply rooted sense of guilt. But the young woman quickly suppresses her critical stirrings: ‘She was a terrible wicked girl, thinking bad of the priest’ (113). ‘It wasn’t his [the priest’s] fault that Jimmy didn’t know anything about anything any more than she did’ (115). The humour here keeps at a distance the anger and indignation that Mary Lavin must often have felt; she never voiced the feminist rage that has become the staple of Irishwomen’s discourse today. It is easy to underestimate the force of her ‘quiet rebellion’; see A.A. Kelly’s Mary Lavin: Quiet Rebel (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1980). Peter Connolly noted that there was ‘suprisingly little attack on moral failure’ of Irish clergy: ‘Only two writers who do this – both of them women – occur to me: Norah Hoult [author of Holy Ireland, 1935] and Mary Lavin, who deals savagely with clerical ignorance and neglect in Sunday Brings Sunday and with a monstrous case of selfishness in A Wet Day’ (Connolly, 123). Instead, the local power of the clergy attracted writers’ ire; he cites a O’Flaherty’s A Tourist Guide to Ireland (1930) and James Plunkett’s The Wearin’ o’ the Green (1956).
The same to-and-fro between stifled dissent and submissive internalization of authority is found in a remarkable story, ‘The Nun’s Mother’. It captures the skein of mixed feelings churning in a mother’s mind as she consigns here daughter to a convent. She sketches in her mind a timid theological dissent: ‘She believed in prayer… but not in prayers of petition’ (The Stories of Mary Lavin II, p. 45). She senses the inauthenticity of the religious conventions she must now subscribe to: ‘Would she perhaps be obliged to assume an attitude?... To put up holy pictures even in her downstairs room? And what else? Oh yes – to punctuate her conversation with pious little tags like God willing, Thanks be to God, and God between us and all harm’ (46). The sexual theme arises again, this time from Lavin’s characteristic vantage-point of the happily married and sexually fulfilled woman, something rarely represented in Irish fiction. ‘Does she know what she is giving up?’, worries the new nun’s father. The mother shares his unease on this score, indeed feels almost a panic: ‘Why had she not confessed openly that she didn’t know either – any more than him – that she was afraid to ask – and that if one of them didn’t do something quick it would be too late?’ (48). ‘If a boy of theirs had taken some crazy notion – like Angela – and announced that he was going to be a priest, Luke would undoubtedly have handled him wisely’ (49). The sacral aura of nuns and of consecrated virginity was a force too great to be argued against. ‘The Church had the trump card when it came to talking about love. The fulfilling of the law. Greater love hath no man! All that bosh. Even if she had tried to compete with those nuns, what chance would her stumbling words have had against quotations two thousand years old, no matter how they were garbled and distorted’ (54-5). A Vatican document against feminism in July 2004 begins by declaring that the Church is ‘expert on humanity’, but stories like this map the shadow-side of such claimed expertise in a telling way. Sexual reality did not have the same legitimacy as religion in Irish discourse, and parents could not easily communicate with their children about it: ‘Love was nothing that could be described in a way that would have an appeal for an idealistic young girl whose head was full of poetry... Would it have been right to interfere with what, after all, one was supposed to consider a Divine call?’ (55). The mother doubts her own judgment, and shifts to internalization of the Church’s judgment as a result of two factors. One of these is clumsily introduced; an account of a sordid incident awakens in the mother a horror at the slimier side of sex, from which her daughter will be free – this seems rather out of character with the personage as we know her so far. The other deciding factor is the social reward that her new role brings: ‘Everyone would be kind to her from now on, and everyone would treat her with respect, for she had proven herself; she was the mother of a nun’ (63). There is a depth of painful irony in the expression ‘proven herself’. One might rather say that she has bowed to repression and sacrificed her saner instincts as a woman and as a mother. Richard F. Peterson’s statement that ‘the conflict between emotional and spiritual truths is developed but never resolved in this highly impressionistic story’ (Mary Lavin, Boston: Twayne, 1978, p.36) misses the irony: the ‘spiritual truths’ are presented in a sceptical perspective, and the story is sharply analytical rather than ‘impressionistic’; the mother may be confused, but Lavin is devastatingly lucid.
The world of the convent is treated more lightly than in ‘The Nun’s Mother’ in two stories of 1956, ‘My Vocation’ and ‘Chamois Gloves’. ‘There’s no smell at all off the like of them’, remarks the heroine’s father in ‘My Vocation’ (Patriot Son and other stories, London: Michael Joseph, 1956, p. 182). The nuns offer escape from sexuality, but their squeamishness has a social dimension as well. One of the recruiting sisters condescendingly assesses the family’s hygiene: ‘It seems clean, anyway’ (191). In the end the protagonist’s earthy good sense prevails: ‘I laughed away my vocation’ (195). Lavin’s evocation of convent life (also at the end of ‘The Girders’, 1944) is rather pallid and stereotyped, whereas she handles the clergy with considerable insight. The most interesting aspect of the little she says about religious sisters is the social one, the element of ‘social climbing’, class distinction and snobbishness that seems inherent to the role of the convent in Irish life.
In contrast to these critical stories, the priesthood is rather idealized in ‘The Pastor of Six Mile Bush’ in 1951 and ‘The Great Wave’ in 1959. A seminarian is challenged on clerical gluttony by some students in the former story, which begins naturalistically: ‘“Isn’t it true to say that for the most part they’re good for little else than putting their legs under the table three or four times a day?” … Alexis was outraged at the words, but all the same he knew that the description could without doubt be applied to one or two priests here and there, poor unfortunates buried alive – you might say – in some sodden village’ (A Single Lady and other stories, Michael Joseph, 1951, p. 199) The young men go together to spy on the priest eating: ‘it was not only this strange priest, but he too, and all of his calling, who would be judged for ever in the eyes of the students, according to the revelations of the next few minutes’ (211-12). We may recall the priest in ‘A Wet Day’ and suppose that Lavin is building some sympathy with a lonely man before showing his foibles: ‘It isn’t right, Alexis’s heart cried out – it isn’t right. No man ought to be sent to live out a lifetime in a place like this’ (213). But there is a surprise ending: the priest indeed has a big meal set before him, but as soon as the housekeeper’s back is turned he distributes it to ragged, starving children who flock to his window. At this point the story has moved into the realm of a Märchen or wonder-story, as Regina Mahlke observes in Die Erzählkunst Mary Lavins (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1980, p. 144): ‘there was still something strangely unhuman about him, but it was the strange unhuman quality of those who are not only extremely old, but who are already withdrawn in spirit and desire from normal dealings with their human kind’ (221). There is a mismatch between the naturalistic beginning and the parable-style ending.
‘The Great Wave’ also has an element of fairytale. It tells of a seminarian and his younger friend caught up in a tsunami that kills the entire population of their island. (Mrs Eileen Kato, who was a good friend of Mary Lavin, tells me that she was fascinated on discovering the Hiroshige print of a tidal wave sweeping up boats, just as she had described it in her story.) The seminarian drops his vocation, but the younger boy acquires his, and looks back on the events as a Bishop. ‘When Seoineen realizes the magnitude of the tragedy, he becomes so bitter that he turns away from his faith. Jimeen’s reaction, however, is just the opposite. Out of his grief, he discovers a great mission in life’. ‘Because it stresses a Christian view of the supernatural powers of the sea, it also lacks some of the primitive power of [“The Green Grave and the Black Grave”]’ (Peterson, 102). The powerful naturalistic description of the wave and of the seminarian’s struggle with it clashes, once again, with the edifying conclusion. It is ironic that Lavin’s only representations of priests as sublimely virtuous or divinely called are fairytale ones. It is a ‘spectacular fact’ (Connolly, 136) that Ireland never produced a sublime portrait of a saintly priest, as Bernanos did in Sous le soleil de Satan (1926) and in Le journal d’un curé de campagne (1936), or even a portrait of a mediocre priest that would have theological depth, as in his chilling tale, L’imposture (1927). Perhaps the mundane quality of Irish parish life did not lend itself to exalted visions of this kind. Canon Sheehan comes closest, since he thought of the priesthood as embattled by forces of secularism and decline, whereas the priesthood in the ultra-Catholic post-independence Ireland (whose Protestant population had shrunk) were not locked in any dramatic spiritual struggle.
THE LATER STORIES
Lavin’s best work consists in the realistic stories set in the pre-60s Ireland. That Ireland began to lose its form with the advent of television, foreign travel, the culture of Elvis Presley, the Beatles and James Bond, Ireland’s entry into the European Economic Community (now the European Union), the economic boom presided over by Taoiseach Sean Lemass, the liberalization of the Church in the pontificate of John XXIII (1958-63) after the long reign of Pius XII (1939-58) and particularly in the years following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and the growth and increasing influence of Dublin As a result, Mary Lavin’s art lost its secure correlatives, its defining limits. Instead of examining a stable society, with minute observation worthy of Jane Austen (on whom she had written a thesis as a student at University College, Dublin), Mary Lavin had now to track a changing world. The 1961 story, ‘In the Middle of the Fields’, with its chaste rural setting, reads like the last product of the still intact enclosure. Several later stories succumb to a novelistic, if not novelettish, looseness as they register the changing texture of the culture. She remained in control of her domain of inward and interpersonal experience, but the new Ireland did not bring any positive enhancement to her vision or style, so that she was either doing well what she had always done, or doing less well what she had not before attempted.
The new Ireland brought a growing freedom in critical protest against the clergy and the repressive culture they were seen to represent. The dramatic possibilities of the priest, both comic and tragic, had been exploited and had settled down into a predictable shape in plays such as Paul Vincent Carroll’s Shadow and Substance (1937), Kieran Tunney’s A Priest in the Family (1951), and Joseph Tomelty’s Is the Priest at Home? (1953). With John B. Keane’s popular hits, beginning with Sive (1959), a new outspokenness began to pervade the Irish stage. In The Field (1965), Big Maggie (1969), The Matchmaker (1976) and The Chastitute (1980), the growing murmur of defiance against the shape imposed on Irish society by the Church is a prescient undercurrent in his drama. The version of Big Maggie that I saw at the Cork Opera House a few years ago seemed to have been updated to echo recent questions and scandals. Keane’s prolific output also includes the light, joky Letters of an Irish Parish Priest (Cork: Mercier, 1992). Bryan MacMahon, like Keane a native of Listowel, County Kerry, has aa story, ‘Egg-Timer’ (in A Final Fling, Poolbeg Press, 1998) on the unspoken affection between an ailing priest and his elderly housekeeper of fifteen years and their decision to stay together for their last few years. In his contribution to a book on emigration in the 1950s, The Vanishing Irish, MacMahon, echoing the situation of still earlier days described in Moore’s ‘Home Sickness’, blamed the problem on the priests of the 1930s and their ideology of sexual prudery: ‘Wooden roadside platforms were set on fire by curates: surer still, the priests drove their motorcars backward and forward over the timber platforms; concertinas were sent flying into hill streams, and those who played music at dances were branded as outcasts’ (http://migration.ucc.ie/pmeinishowenfinal.htm)
Two novels from 1969 sharpen the critical focus on the clergy. James Plunkett, in Strumpet City, portrays a dominating, manipulative, fanatical clerical caste that blocks social progress, but also tackles individual clerical morality, suggesting that a clerical character should never have become a priest. Richard Power’s elegiac novel The Hungry Grass (Bodley Head, 1969) enters the mind of a rural priest, fatally ill, who struggles through the last days of his life. The novel, by the brother of a priest and based on a Fr Corbett of Waterford Diocese, captures well the texture of the old clerical comradeship. The author died of heart failure shortly after publishing this work, which is a model in writing to the current generation of scribblers, each page marked by that quiet inevitability that marks a masterful stylist. In a typical scene, the protagonist gives an unprepared sermon on a passage from the Fourth Gospel and ends up nagging the people in time-honoured style. The numinous dimension of priesthood is little in evidence, yet the protagonist’s stifled, lonely struggle has a quality of nobility. Peter Connolly greeted the novel as disconfirming his pessimism about the inability of Irish writers to get beyond stereotypes of the clergy: Power’s protagonist ‘is seen in the round, emerging in the first place as a wholly credible human being, and then as a man whose life has to be lived out in the penumbra of a sacred calling’ (Connolly, 213). Connolly sought Bernanosian depths in the novel, as a tale of an authentic priestly vocation that raises the question ‘whether Conroy is finally a saintly figure or an accursed , even damned, soul’; he thought that if this ambivalence were further explored Power would write ‘a still better and greater novel’ (216-17). But Power’s reluctance to push through to such imponderable metaphysical issues in perhaps truer to literature and to life. He reduces those issues to a vague bother, and that itself is part of the sedulous realism of his tale.
Other sources for literary questioning of church and clergy during the sixties and seventies are the novels and stories of John McGahern, and the novels of John Broderick, of which The Pilgrimage (1961) and The Waking of Willie Ryan (1965) have recently been reissued by Lilliput Press (see Sam Thompson’s review in TLS, Dec. 17, 2004). The tradition of Canon Sheehan continued in the Cork priest Jerome Kiely’s Seven Year Island (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1969). He has recently published Heat not a Furnace (Cheshire: Trafford), a comic novel about a prankish priest who has frequent 'run-ins' with his parishioners -- all evoked in a roguish and polished style, with effects that are hilariously funny -- and that notably deals with the topic of accusations of pedophilia towards the close of the novel. There are faint shades of Michael Jackson or of Socrates' infatuation for Charmides in the story of the priest's innocent but catastrophic friendship with a boy. Enda McDonagh chides the author for the revenge fantasy with which the novel concludes (‘The Tears of God – meditating on a novel’, The Furrow 55, 2004, pp. 682-8); though the narrator admits that his revenge is 'unchristian', and though Hollywood movies provide a constant diet of such vengeful endings, it does seem a false note; an extract can be read at: http://www.trafford.com/4dcgi/view-item?item=4769&233102052-10795aaa. More recently, Kiely has published a new book of poems (Swallows in December, Trafford), reviewed by Enda McDonagh in The Furrow, June 2006. In "Leper Mass" he writes, desolately:
"You may say Mass," the bishop said,
"but never again in a church..."
The cubby where I offer Mass
I call the leper hole
because no healthy eyes must see
the silver hourglass
filled with eternity,
or hear the slow drip of the sacred words...
"The Lord be with you" I say to walls...
The Christ I know lives gaunt, alone,
within the wilderness that is my Mass
and speaks to nothing but to stone.
McDonagh comments that "the saddest for poet and priest-reader may be: 'Brother Priests'":
They were like brothers till the gospel put
a fratricidal weapon in their hearts.
"I was in prison but you never came
to see me" were Christ's killing words...
On the whole issue of clerics and minors, Andrew O'Hagan's novel Be Near Me (Faber, 2006) is illuminating, though it has little sense of the theological foundations of priestly identity.
Returning to Mary Lavin, her thinking on the clergy was regalvanized when her widowed years came to an end as she formed a relationship with Michael Scott, the Jesuit priest who became her second husband. He is the model for the widowed Vera’s friend, Father Hugh, in ‘Happiness’ (1968) and ‘The Lost Child’ (1969) ‘Their warm companionship and their deep mutual concern for each other obviously reflect the relationship that had developed between Mary Lavin and Michael Scott in the years leading up to their marriage’ (Peterson, 122-3). He appears as Father Tom in ‘Villa Violetta’” (1972), an amusing story of a mother and her three children in Florence; it has a journalistic looseness and is rather spoiled by a string of Italian spelling errors. The conversations sometimes suggest a TV drama: ‘“What made you become a priest, Father?” Vera asked quietly. The priest did not seem surprised at her question. “Mine was a late vocation,” he said... “You see, I was going to marry a girl who was working in the Bank with me... She was killed in an accident the week before we were to be married…I didn’t want to fill her place – ever –”. Then he smiled “except with this mob”’ (A Memory and other stories, Constable, 1972, pp. 135-6). His own probing question is in similar vein: ‘“What is your problem, Vera?” he asked. “I mean – your special problem here in Florence – apart from the obvious one of being a widow with three children --?” She was completely taken aback’ (136-7). ‘The fear which had never quite left her from the hour Richard died – and which, since she came to Italy, had increased to dangerous proportions – was no more… now this wise priest, with a power to help that came from complete selflessness – had given her back her confidence’ (150). In her stories of widowhood, Mary Lavin sometimes comes close to deserting the craft of fiction for an artless témoignage.
Simultaneously Lavin produced astringent sketches of clerical control and sexual repression in ‘A Pure Accident’ (1969) and ‘The Shrine’ (1974). In ‘A Pure Accident’, a bitter tale of two abusive priests, the dark colours are laid on thick. We first meet the jovial, autocratic Canon, determined to keep order: ‘It’s dead against the rubrics’ (The Stories of Mary Lavin III, Constable, 1985, p. 213). He speaks dismissively of the faithful: ‘Is there anyone else in the chapel at night only old women? Bundled up in corners, mumbling and jumbling, and thumping their craw. Mea culpa, mea culpa! Titillating themselves with piousity, that’s all, with not a jot of real religion in the lot of them’ (213). The curate is told to spy on the pious ladies, to nab a suspected thief, and he causes an injury to one woman. His subsequent behaviour to her is coarse in the extreme, in ironic contrast to the uncritical regard in which the laity hold the clergy: ‘who’d expect them to give anything to charity when their whole lives have been devoted to the sick and the suffering’ (217). Abject toward the Canon, the curate is brutal to the people: ‘What else did she expect coming down on her arse like that?’ (219); ‘“What’s wrong with her now?”, he yelled. “First her arse, and now her arm”’ (221). He tells her: ‘If you’d any sense it’s at home in your bed you’d have been, an old woman like you’ (226). When he tries to patch things up, he reveals only further depths of insensivity: ‘“We’re determined to try once more to get a light put in the porch of the chapel. You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that what happened to you won’t happen again, anyway”. Dully Annie looked at him. “It’s not much satisfaction, is it?”, she said’ (224). She is told that legal redress is not possible, because of the special status of the clergy: ‘No decent firm would take the case, once the clergy was concerned’; ‘Oh Annie, Annie, is there no way we could get the money, and at the same time spare Father Patton’ (226). She piously agrees that: ‘Nobody expects a priest to have money of his own’ (226). ‘Your fall must have made you soft in the head’, Fr Patton tells her when she suggests applying to the Canon. (226). Then he begins to whine: ‘How would you like to have it on your conscience that you destroyed me?’ (228); compare the layman Murty’s remark about the plan to catch the thief: ‘What loss is a few coins compared to someone’s character?’ (218). The priest then reveals his private agonies. The seminary world was a nightmare: ‘All the other fellows were going through the same thing as me, only they were always rushing about on the hurley field, and running up and down in the mud till they stupefied themselves, but I kept trying to work everything out in my head’ (228), until he had a nervous breakdown. This ‘epiphany’ has been prepared by the Canon’s remarks early in the story: ‘“It’s hard to see what sends the likes of him into the Church at all... They do their best, I grant you, but they don’t have the right motive at the start... Oh, the mothers of Ireland have a lot to answer for. When I was in Maynooth I used to see them on visiting day walking round the grounds with their poor weedy, pimply-faced sons, wrapping their own mufflers around the poor fellows’ necks”’ (215). The curate ‘freaks out’ when a nurse names the soup as ‘cocky leaky’: ‘You’d think butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth., and then she comes out with the smut’ (230). He conceives ‘a horrible hope’ that Annie will die (232). He reflects that ‘his life had been all boxes’ (237). ‘In Mary O’Grady, Larry, the youngest of Mary’s sons, almost becomes a spoiled priest because his superiors are worried that his older brother’s mental illness may be a sign that Larry is not strong enough to perform the demanding duties of a priest. “A Pure Accident” is an ironic fulfillment of that priestly prophecy. Indeed this poor servant of the Church is ill-suited for his profession – but the Church as an institution also fails because it seems to encourage insensitivity and niggardly behavior rather than loving care and simple human understanding’ (Peterson, 127). This priest is evidently a walking disaster, but the story seems rather over the top. The collection in which it occurs begins and ends with stories about the gentle Fr Hugh, enclosing this grim story as if to make a point. But between the two soft portraits of Fr Hugh and the too hard portraits of the two priests in ‘A Pure Accident’ Lavin seems to miss the justesse of her earlier clerical portraits.
In “The Shrine” the priest is the female narrator’s uncle, and his clerical foible is not egoism, as in ‘A Wet Day’ but backdoors manipulation; he gets one of his cronies to use influence to block the niece’s husband from having a career in Ireland. The priest’s fanatical, proprietorial devotion to the shrine (modeled on Knock), which he is defending against the irreverent young man, almost makes us empathize with him. As in ‘A Wet Day’ our sympathy is solicited only to make the final epiphany of ruthlessness all the more shocking.
A remarkable feature of Lavin’s portrayal of Ireland is the way the religious threads are woven into the total picture without drawing undue attention to themselves and without distracting from the essential theme of her writing, the intimate relationships between lovers, siblings, or children and parents. Her naturalistic view of priests as human beings cuts across the mystique of the clergy that was ingrained in the Irish imagination. ‘I see priests and nuns as just the same as the rest of us, victims of curial despotism. Sometimes I have portrayed clergymen as less than they ought to be or as downright destructive, but that is not anti-clericalism. It only means that when a man acts according to his nature he sometimes behaves in a way that is contrary to the accepted purpose of his calling. I’ve written of similar failings in doctors and mothers’ (in Leah Levenson, The Four Seasons of Mary Lavin, Dublin: Marino Books, 1998, p. 154). ‘I have never to my knowledge written an anticlerical story, although I have written about priests and nuns who were weak and human’ (88). Her relation to Michael Scott brought skepticism about ‘this whole celibacy business’; ‘she came to believe that waiting had been neither praiseworthy or honourable’ (179). John Paul II’s ‘conservatism troubled Mary... he surely had a lot to learn, she thought’ (197).
The earlier insights into the religious mystification of the laity, in Lally’s confusion about Purgatory in ‘The Will’, or the speculations of the children in ‘Limbo’, as well as the critique of sectarianism in ‘The Convert’ (linked to ‘Limbo’ by the characters of Naida Paston and Maimie Sully), are replaced by a rather shrill and didactic approach in ‘The Face of Hate’ (1979), the only story set in Northern Ireland, one calculated to upset Republican sentiment as ‘The Patriot Son’ long ago upset Frank O’Connor. The mother tells her hothead son: ‘“I was at the father’s wake, and although the shroud hid the bullet holes, I could get the smell of singed cloth. Ah, well. There’s no use talking about those things. It’s only keeping the bitterness alive.” Johnny could not let that pass. “It isn’t us that’s keeping it alive, it’s them, the Protestants. You know that, Mother”’. She warns him against hate: ‘No more than yourself, I don’t suppose he knows why God gave him a heart in the first place, unless to pump hate into his veins’ (A Family Likeness and Other Stories, Constable, 1985, p. 89). The story preaches the message, ‘Make love, not war’: ‘Then she looked up and said a most extraordinary thing: “At your age, son, and with your looks, it’s a wonder to me some nice girl hasn’t put her eye on you”’ (92). Johnny says: ‘“If you ask me, the priests and bishops have ended up making paupers of us.” His mother’s face went ashen. “Where did you hear talk like that?”’ (94). Perhaps Lavin here is attempting to position the IRA over against the Church, something rather difficult to do given the collusiveness of several clergy and the readiness of the IRA to exploit both traditional piety and Liberation Theology for their cause. The message of the story is relayed from Johnny’s mother to the Protestant girl he has a crush on: ‘Do you realize, Johnny Mack, that in other countries, civilized countries, people don’t know, don’t care, what religion you are?’ (102). Violence breaks out among the teenagers: ‘Johnny’s eyes slotted from face to face of the three, and it seemed to him that they all had the same face, the same hateful, sneering Protestant face… he shot out his fist and smashed it into the nearest face’ (109). The girl criticizes both sides equally: ‘“You were sneering at us, weren’t you” she said. She pointed to Johnny. “You were out to provoke him. You stupid fools. You think you’re great, don’t you? With your drums and sashes and your Union Jacks.” Then she swung towards Johnny. “And you. You, with your Green, White and Gold. Soon there’ll only be one flag in Belfast. Here, give me that,” she cried, and reaching forward, she pulled the blood-stained handkerchief out of Johnny’s pocket and spiked it on the railings. “There will be only one flag flying over this city soon,” she cried’ (111). This is a well-meaning story, but too direct in its message, and one feels that the author does not have the deep knowledge of Northern Ireland that she has of her home region.
How did the clergy react to Lavin’s portrayal of them? Around this time, the Maynooth Summer School planned to have her give a talk on ‘The Priest in Irish Fiction’. When the list of proposed speakers was sent to the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, for approval, he rejected her with the ironic notation: “Indeed Mary Lavin would know a lot about the priesthood”; he was just then dealing with the paper work for Scott’s laicization in preparation for the marriage. McQuaid, Archbishop from 1940 to 1972, was the most powerful churchman of Lavin’s time. Once, being driven from his residence to his office, he noticed that the mannequins in Clery’s store window were all unclothed in preparation for a new display of dresses and suits. Furious, he had his secretary phone the store and demand that in future the window-blinds be drawn while the mannequins were being undressed and reclothed. Such incidents were amusing then, but the combination of prudery and power is recalled with less amusement in the present period of collective soul-searching.
THE END OF THE LINE? THE PRIEST IN THE CONTEMPORARY IRISH LITERARY IMAGINATION
Fr Peter Connolly said to Declan Kiberd in 1980; 'Religion will go in Ireland in the next generation: and when it goes it will go so fast that nobody will even know it is happening... Look at the speed with which our people got rid of their own language when it no longer seemed of practical use to them' (Kiberd, The Irish Writer and the World, as excerpted in The Furrow 56, 2005, p. 247). Brendan Hoban reports a similar statement, dating it to the 1960s, 'a time when the Catholic Church in Ireland was at the peak of its power and influence: over 90% attended church; seminaries were full; the credibility of bishops and clergy couldn’t be higher; and so on. When asked why he had arrived at what now seems an extraordinarily prescient and prophetic conclusion, Connolly replied that the Irish are not a sentimental people, “once they find something is not useful, they abandon it”’ (The Western People, Sept. 15, 2004). Moving on beyond Mary Lavin into this territory of crisis, we find perhaps its first literary representation in Tom Murphy’s The Sanctuary Lamp (Poolbeg Press, 1975; revised version, Gallery Books, 1984). The agnostic anguish of this play might recall Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955). But Moore’s tale of is of private, stifled doubt, whereas Murphy, author of the searing tragedy Famine., aims at memorable public statement, and the resolution of the doubt come through violent rejection of the clerical Church. Reading Murphy in the early nineties, during an umpteenth contraception controversy, it struck me that the repetition-compulsion behind such bouts of sterile debate could still sting people into art, as in the time of Joyce, Yeats, O'Casey and O'Connor. But a decade later, it looks as if such clashes of Church and State are gone forever, for the Church no longer represents a massive popular force. The Sanctuary Lamp probed the religious malaise of Irish Catholics which has since spilled over into religious indifferentism. In this play the characters are caught in a double bind: on the one hand, a vivid sense of God, on the other, anger and confusion about the Church; the Church is desired as vehicle of divine presence, feared as oppressor of human freedom; God is reproached for his distance and obscurity, treasured as a consoling presence in Jesus. Thirty years later, Irish Catholics are less likely to cling to the Church as the last refuge of their souls.
The character of Harry, neither Irish nor Catholic, places Irish confusion in the wider perspective of human puzzlement and alienation before the traditional symbols of religion to which he nonetheless reaches out: ‘Why do you resent me? ... And being watched here as no servant – as no menial! – was ever watched before. I have every right to be here!’ (14). As a common man he claims his place before the mystery, cutting through the clerical mediations which are in reality obstacles, as the dialogue with the ‘disillusioned but very humane’ Monsignor suggests – the priest is sympathetic but bland, and has no answers. Harry now shares his agony directly with Jesus: ‘My spirit is unwell too ... I have every confidence I can get well here’. The play indeed turns out to be a ritual of religious healing. The waif Maudie puts forward the significance of Jesus for this healing: ‘he gives forgiveness’ (19). Harry needs to hear this, as he is full of vengefulness against Francisco. In the end Harry has undergone some change of heart as he realizes his own responsibility for his wife’s death, and experiences something of forgiveness in a change of mood as the night drags on. Maudie's dream of her dead mother – ‘Oh by the way, Maudie, I'm very happy now’ (23) – associates ‘forgiveness’ with life after death, the topic of Harry's final declarations: ‘The soul – y’know? – like a silhouette. And when you die it moves out... from the world to take its place in the silent outer wall of eternity... And the merging – y’know? Merging? – merging of the silhouettes in true union. Union forever of loved ones’ (53). Perhaps this could be seen as a New Age equivalent of Lally’s imaginings in ‘The Will’.
The horizontal confessional in which the characters finally go to sleep (‘It isn't half bad down here’) is a comforting womb which has overthrown paternal judgment and responsibility (the erect confessional) and in which that order can be forgotten (‘See? I can't remember. I've beaten them’). The Church of childhood is remembered as an object of longing, a home, while the clerical church is dumped. When I read this play in 1991 I thought its structure feeble, and ascribed this to a failure to engage articulately the paternal order and rethink social values. I still think that Fintan O’Toole exaggerated when he invoked the Eumenides, ‘a play about the foundation of a new religion, a religion of man, whose justice is greater far than that of the Gods’, and described Murphy’s play as ‘the only modern version of the Oresteia which, without in any way being a prisoner of the original, includes its political, psychological, and religious themes, and, more importantly, achieves the same reconciliation of the three which Aeschylus does’ and as, therefore, ‘a European play of considerable importance’ (The Politics of Magic: The Work and Times of Tom Murphy (Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1987), 155, 158). Yet Murphy did catch a moment of epochal mutation in Irish religious consciousness, a bidding of farewell to Church while embracing a generalized Christian sentiment.
Many felt that the language of the play was ‘distorted by sheer hatred’; ‘we recoil from transparent, illogical loathing’ (Harry White, Irish University Review 17.1, 1987, p. 80). But we should distinguish as carefully as possible between the author and the characters. Thus the character of Francisco is presented as ‘Irish, self-destructive’ (30). He gives a sermon against the clergy: ‘God made the world, right?, and fair play to him. What has he done since? ... When they painted his toe-nails and turned him into a church he lost his ambition ... and became a vague pain in his own and everybody else’s arse’ (30). ‘Vague pain’ seems to be what the play vehiculates in regard to church and creed, pain alleviated by the memory of Jesus – the gentle mysterious glow of the sanctuary lamp. Troubled and disaffected Irish Catholics retain their religion as an urge to go on scratching this painful spot: it might be healthier simply to let God go, leaving oneself free to pick up God-language again as occasion arises as a skilful means of inducing spiritual awareness. And indeed Francisco’s outburst may be just the spasm of this letting-go. ‘But what a poxy con! All Christianity! All those predators that have been mass-produced out of the loneliness and isolation of people, with standard collars stamped on! ... They’re like black candles, not giving, but each one drawing a little more light from the world... Oh, they could kill you – Oh they can really hurt you, so little do they know about it all! (49). ‘Black on the outside but, underneath, their bodies swathed in bandages... Half mummified torsos like great thick bandaged pricks! Founded in blood, continued in blood, crusaded in blood, inquisitioned in blood, divided in blood – and they tell us that Christ lives’ (50). This cry of rage enacts perhaps the basic decision of the Irish people with regard to their clergy in recent times. Murphy’s choice for a more open Christianity, free of clerical trammels, may not lay the foundation stone for a new spiritual culture, but it sweeps away a superstructure that has become intolerable. It is said that Murphy’s rage was kindled by his experience working in the International Committee for English in the Liturgy (ICEL). This committee resigned a few years ago, and its work has now been finished by a new committee appointed by the Vatican. A new translation of the liturgy has now at last been prepared, and may soon be imposed on the entire English-speaking Church. In the name of hewing close to the Latin original, it jettisons what was good in the present translation and introduces quite a few bizarre locutions. And sadly, the reaction to this is more likely to be not rage, but resignation. (For other projections onto the stage of the inner struggles of the Irish Catholic soul, see Tom Kilroy’s Talbot’s Box, 1977, on Matt Talbot, and Frank McGuinness’s Innocence, 1986, on Caravaggio.)
In my time in Maynooth (1966-76), people vaguely thought of writing the Maynooth novel that would capture the fascination of those years of change – during which the rigid mould imposed on generations of priests was broken and the college embraced modern life, with an influx of women and lay students that was gradually to reduce the seminary to an almost forgotten appendage of the secular university. But just as foreigners in Tokyo who dreamed of writing the definitive novel about their situation were rather nonplussed at the success of Amélie Nothomb’s Stupeur et tremblements, so when a novel of Maynooth did at last surface, Michael Harding’s Priest, many were dismayed at this morose tale of suicidal clerics. Harding gave an astonishing interview to the National Catholic Reporter in which he claimed he had been ordained merely to experience for himself the end of the clerical world. His work blazes with anger, an anger for truth and justice. In his play ‘Misogynist’ a distraught cleric argues with a girl, preaching at one stage:
‘And so on and so forth
and the necessity for authority
at a time like this.
The need to curtail any social or liberal
excesses at a time when we are on the precipice
That sort of thing’
(David Grant, ed. The Crack in the Emerald [London: Nick Hern Books], 1994, p. 158).
‘Silly tradition really.
Often wonder where it ever started.
Oh well, traditions are important.
Not for us to reason why.
People must have their buzz as they say nowadays.
And mighty is the buzz of a little intercession.’ (170).
The play touches on the sense of the Irish people around this time that religion had no real function, no real efficacity.
Another of my fellow-seminarians, Padraig Standun, was forbidden to publish by his bishop, but cleverly asked that an exception be made for his writing in the Irish language. He proceeded to write in that medium a string of novels which are studied in departments of Irish but whose English versions have not attracted much critical appraisal. An example is Celibates (Poolbeg Press, 1993; translated from Ciocras, Clor Iar-Chonnachta, 1991), in which a priest goes on hunger strike to have celibacy abolished and his bishop is pressured by a Mafioso papal nuncio to have him committed to an asylum. The priest gives up his strike from compassion for his parishioners. (The story recalls from afar Moore’s tale, ‘A Letter to Rome’, in which Father McTurnan, again motivated by compassion, urges the Vatican to allow priests to marry so as to repopulate the country.) Standun also wrote the work on which is based the film The Priest’s Story, later The Bishop’s Story, a witty presentation of the unraveling of celibacy on the Aran Islands, with enthusiastic participation of the local people as actors. One recalls Aran-born Liam O’Flaherty’s first novel, Thy Neighbour’s Wife (1923; repr. Dublin: Wolfhound, 1992), about an Aran priest who falls in love. The novel is studied in Robin Heavner Jackson, Troubled Trinity: Love, Religion, and Patriotism in Liam O’Flaherty’s First Novel, Thy Neighbour’s Wife, a dissertation from East Tennessee State University available on the internet. Remembering Pat Staunton as a quiet rebel in his seminary days, I find that his comedy pits Gospel against Church, as in the English film Priest, in a way that retains the essence of a recognizable priestly identity. My seminary classmate, Brendan Hoban, has also written satirical clerical fiction, The Lisnagoola Chronicles (Columbe Press, 1995), which counterparts his challenging non-fictional diagnosis of the crisis of the clerical church, Change or Decay (privately published, 2004).
A woman’s view of priests, rather in the tradition of Mary Lavin, is found in Mary Leland’s novel, Approaching Priests (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991). Challenged by a woman, who says: ‘You are ignorant, that’s the only reason why your complacency is excusable. And yes, you are complacent – much too complacent for a young man. You nestle inside your faith as through it were a carapace, like a crab’, the priest reacts defensively: ‘He wanted to get his hands around her neck and throttle her’ (pp. 12-13). The clerical gallery includes Fr Damien Sebright, critic of Humanae Vitae, who is forced out of the priesthood; Anselm Daunt, IRA enthusiast, and Johnny Trant, a cynic, who both flourish in the priesthood.
Today, the priesthood has suffered an unprecedented loss of status, prestige and relevance, amounting to a social and spiritual eclipse. The clergy now have no place in Irish society or in Irish spiritual vision, certainly no central place. Nietzsche’s saying that ‘when a God dies, it dies by many deaths’ can apply to the fate of the Irish Catholic priesthood – for it has shriveled not only spiritually and socially, but in terms of sheer numbers, and in addition has been battered by wave upon wave of sexual scandals. Simultaneously it has ceased to enjoy human and spiritual appeal in the literary imagination. The lay church struggling to be born has had no attraction for the literary imagination, either, for the clerical church is a well-known literary resource, which lay Catholicism cannot match. Pre-Vatican II devotion is a reservoir for fantasy, as in the extravaganza of the religious procession at the climax of Neil Jordan’s film The Butcher Boy (1996). Here Catholicism becomes an exotic saturnalia, as in Fellini. Jordan’s picaresque "Breakfast on Pluto" is based on another Patrick McCabe novel, and stars Cork actor Cillian Murphy as the transvestite child of a priest (Liam Neeson), who constantly falls for and deconstructs thuggish he-men -- a remarkable take on the violence of Northern Ireland, recalling some of the maddest moments in Jordan's debut film Angel.
Even works like The Sanctuary Lamp or Priest could no longer be written today, for the theme no longer holds fascination. Crises of faith are of little literary interest at a time when they are the banal accoutrement of almost every adolescent’s career. The time seems to have passed, even, when the literary imagination seized on the clergy as a dying caste, an image of all that has died in mainstream Irish culture. Religious broodings of Irish writers tended to circle fetishistically about the pious devotions of the pre-Vatican II period, as when the lost souls in Brian Friel’s Wonderful Tennessee sing a Marian hymn. The same author, who left Maynooth because he sensed that the Church had lost touch with the deep pre-Christian religiosity of the Irish people, evokes the buried paganism of Ireland in Dancing at Lughnasa, where a missionary priest who has ‘gone native’ in Africa becomes a spokesman for the values of pagan regeneration. Martin McDonagh’s Syngean skit, The Lonesome West (Methuen, 1997), has a caricatural priest who tries to make peace between two warring brothers, and drowns himself in discouragement, yet another emblem of a dying caste.
After writing an article warning against the increasing power of Sinn Féin, which glorifies as ‘patriotism’ the terrorist actions of the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland, Brendan Hoban discovered how the voice of any priest is silenced today by reference to pedophile scandals: ‘My message was that an organisation with a private army, involved in racketeering and responsible for the deaths of thousands of men, women and children over the last few decades, was about to get its hands on our democratic institutions... Responses critical of my remarks – apart from disagreeing vehemently with my comments – had one thing in common: a reference to the recent scandals of clerical child sexual abuse (CCSA). The implication was that because I was a priest of the Catholic Church and because of the activities of some priests and because the Catholic Church had dealt so badly with CCSA that any argument I would offer on any subject was lacking in credibility; or had no substance; or should be ignored’ (The Western People, Aug. 18, 2004). This painful scandal is indeed a headache, an albatross, for Irish priests. A thorough airing of the questions it raises about celibacy, or about a church culture of secrecy, is impeded not only by the discouragement of open debate in general during the pontificate of John Paul II, but by the numbing sense that this is a no-win topic, and that anything that is said only compounds the imbroglio. Novelists might be expected to bring a shaded and nuanced vision, but in fact they seem to reflect the identikit of the priest as Abuser that emerges from press reports and commentaries.
James Ryan (husband of Mary Lavin’s daughter Caroline Walsh) has an abusive priest in his novel Seeds of Doubt (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2001). He says to the fourteen year old girl he has raped: ‘Nora, what you and me did was wrong. And no question about it… Anyway, I want to tell you I’ve confessed and got forgiveness’ (88). ‘The way it is now, what I’ve come for is to give you the chance… I’m sorry. Sorry for the way it went… I’ll have you know a vocation isn’t all plain sailing, Nora. Not a bit of it’ (89). ‘Now and then a fellow gets doubts. Goes through a spell of doubt. But God is good’ (90). This hair-raising dialogue is not too far from the actual stuff of what we hear in courts. The central section of the novel, to a casual reading, seems to be something of a rigmarole; it deals with the short life of the priest’s child in an Italian orphanage, where he is subjected to spiritual abuse by another priest. An anomie in the culture of religious sisters is also suggested: Aunt Ber, a nun set adrift by the loosening of convent discipline, finds herself without moorings, ‘Years of part-time courses followed, all with a philosophical bent. Equally caught up and equally lost in the maze of undergraduate ideas around at the time I was singled out as a sounding board… In the end Ber’s search for a foundation was useless. If anything it only left her more displaced than ever… Advancing age has allowed her to sidle back into community life and she has done so with an obsequiousness painful to observe’ (202).
Reviewing Peter Mullan’s film The Magdalen Sisters, which was rightly denounced by the Vatican as an ‘audacious provocation’, Tom Dunne refers to ‘an increasingly secular Ireland, comfortable with clerical villains, and in a mood to make them pay’, and asks: ‘How did we produce generations of such nuns and priests? How did we so completely entrust our children to them? How did we allow the uncomprehending and distorted sexual mores of a celibate clergy to destroy so many lives?’ (Dublin Review 9, Winter 2002, p. 75) One may well protest that it is unfair to tarnish all with the same brush, but on the level of imagination such dark images of priesthood are lodged in the popular mind, and our writers do nothing to alter that situation. The last person a novelist keen on revealing the soul of Ireland today would choose as his protagonist would be a priest. Yet a good novel, in the wake of Richard Power, could surely be written about the personal destiny of a priest today, caught between two worlds and registering in mind and body a radical mutation of beliefs and of culture. David Pierce’s useful, if perhaps rather aggressively nationalistic anthology, Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century (Cork University Press, 2000), advises students that in discussing ‘the presence of religion’, ‘the portrayal of priests is a good place to start’ (p. 1267). It is not, however, a good place to end. The Irish romance with the priest seems to have petered out, and new figures of religious inspiration are emerging elsewhere in the Irish literary and even theological imagination.
I am afraid that the image of the clergy seen in the sombre mirror of twentieth century Irish fiction is a depressing one, more déclin than grandeur. Literature rarely flatters. If one were to portray married life in the nineteenth century on the basis of novels, it would seem an unrelieved hell. Yet the clerical reader of this literature is troubled – sua res agitur – for it chimes all too closely with the critical assault on Irish Catholicism now afoot in the real world. In both cases, justice is not being done to the admirable qualities of many Irish priests, the dedication, compassion, piety, which left a salutary mark on Irish society. The clergy, in their homilies and in their very presence held out the moral law to the Irish people. If their moral preaching fell into an abusive sexual puritanism, this was in harmony with the popular mindset of rural Ireland. If they preached Law more than Gospel, and if their sermons were theologically and biblically undernourished (as is still the case), this was compensated for by the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion, which effectively brought the mercy and peace of Christ to the faithful. Today Ireland has acquired a new reputation for corruption in political and business life and crime is rampant. The disabled clergy no longer provide a moral voice.
Literature cannot do much with the theological dimension of priesthood, whether conceived as an indelible sacramental character stamped on the soul, or more functionally as a vocation to preaching and ministry. Even the ‘a la carte priests’ who have sprung up in this time of ‘a la carte Catholicism’, at a time of low clerical morale, can still carry over some of this legacy. The interest in alternative menus opens the door to frivolity, perversion, corruption and hypocrisy, according to a decline better parsed by vigilant lay guardians than by the clerical conscience itself. Yet it also reflects a shift in awareness well noted by Mark Patrick Hederman, the literary monk of Glenstal Abbey, who declared: ‘When Sinead O’Connor tears up publicly a picture of the Pope, it is not because she is an atheist or because she doesn’t believe in the church – it is an act of frustration and disappointment at a particular presentation of the church and its failure to speak to the kind of people we really are, we have painstakingly become, and are not prepared to renounce or betray’. The Limerick Leader comments: ‘Sinead is no doubt sincere. Moreover she is entitled to her opinions. But the rest of us are entitled not to have our intelligence insulted by naive interpretations of her messages’ (August 14, 2004). Both the singer and the monk are reaching back to the iconoclastic medieval tradition invoked by Peter Connolly above. To a depleted church culture, pacing in a narrow cage of clericalist preoccupations, they bring the challenge of re-imagining the Christian and Catholic heritage in larger, freer terms.