Republican News · Thursday 29 June 2000

[An Phoblacht]

Lapsed Catholic remembers why

Oracles of God: The Roman Catholic Church and Irish Politics 1922-1937

By Patrick Murray

University College Dublin Press

A couple of years ago whilst in Dublin, I was persuaded to attend mass at the Pro Cathedral. Or rather, I was dragged up the steps and shoved into a pew. In response, I reverted to the sullen, inchoate defiance habitually displayed by your average revolting adolescent - which is precisely what I had been when I decided, despite the benefit of a ruinously expensive convent education and its attendant insistence on the precise observance of Catholic ritual, that I would have no more of any of it.

However, whilst I sat at the back of the church this juvenile sulk was slowly tempered by an awareness of the simple loveliness of the surroundings. There was also a full choir in attendance and, no doubt momentarily overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the music, I suddenly felt a pang of real loss over my long-abandoned religion. For a fleeting second, I had an intense desire to rediscover some kind of Catholic spirituality. Then the priest began his sermon.

A few days earlier, 16-year-old James Morgan had been abducted and tortured to death by a loyalist gang and thrown into a pit of rotting animal carcasses. His death had come during a spate of killings by the UDA and UVF. It is laughably naïve I know, but I actually expected the priest to mention - at some point - what was going on in the Six Counties and to offer some expression of support for the nationalist population. He said nothing. It is hard to explain the feeling of utter deflation, of tentative hope crushed, as the realisation gradually dawned on me that he really was going to ignore the issue.

d then I realised why I had lost faith in the church and its clergy. They always, it seemed to me, always let you down. In Ireland especially, from Denis Faul's wretched connivance with the British authorities during the hunger strikes, to Archbishop Brady's recent attendance at the George Cross ceremony for the RUC, a force whose very raison d'être has been to oppress Catholics, the church has been found wanting. Instead of defending Catholics, it has defended the status quo; instead of defying the authority of an unjust state, it has hectored and condemned those who refuse to lie down and shut up.

Which brings me to Patrick Murray's book. Historically, republicans have had a complex, sometimes very difficult relationship with the Catholic Church. Murray covers the critical period from the signing of the Treaty to the 1937 Constitution and explores what he calls ``the passionate engagement'' of many of the Roman Catholic clergy in Irish politics following independence - an engagement which many priests ``soon came to regard their right and even their duty''.

Whilst he goes some way to refuting the commonly-held belief that there was virtually total clerical support for the Treaty - there were, in fact, many individual priests who actively opposed it and others who courageously provided both practical and moral support to the IRA when it was being persecuted by the Free State - the lasting impression one gets is that the church as an institution was more often than not principally concerned with protecting its own narrow interests. It aligned itself to whichever political party it considered most amenable to that end, irrespective of any other considerations. This tendency was, Murray argues, strictly in accordance with its own doctrine, and although one could argue this point at length, his grasp of the relevant theology is impressive.

This is not an easy book to read; it was originally submitted as a PhD thesis, and it shows. Much of it is sleep-inducingly dry and the way in which the author has organised his vast amount of minutely detailed historical material is not particularly conducive to the retention of information by the reader; I found myself constantly having to flick backwards and forwards, re-reading sections in order to keep on top of the historical arguments

However, Murray's subtle insights into the fraught interaction between republicans and the clergy in his chapter on ``The North'' are very interesting. Again, although there were - and still are - priests prepared to speak out on behalf of republicans and thus incur the wrath of the hierarchy, most displayed the usual tendency to submit to the authorities. They were routinely as voluble in their condemnation of the activities of the IRA as they were silent over the detention without trial of republicans and the executions of IRA volunteers.

Despite this, Murray argues, there remained a strong emotional attachment to Catholicism on the part of many republicans, which still resonates today and which goes some way to explaining my own experience in the Pro Cathedral. ``Republicans, like their Fenian predecessors'' he observes, ``could embrace Catholic spirituality and ecclesiastical authority on matters of faith whilst at the same time entertaining considerable scepticism about the competence of bishops to pronounce on political or constitutional issues''. Amen to that.


How the West was lost

The Deposition of Father McGreevy

By Brian O'Doherty

Arcadia Books

Paperback 11.99

Its part of the book reviewer's trade that you don't look at previous reviews. This paperback edition had previous reviewers' comments on the back from the hardback edition.

I deliberately didn't look.

There was one on the front that my eye couldn't help but stray over as I sat down with this novel set in 1940s Kerry. The quote was from a review in ``Atlantic Monthly'', describing the book as ``Bone-chilling''.

I put that to one side, ignored it, and tried to discount it as I read O'Doherty's work. To no avail, I re-read the book after the initial read. I'm still cold, shivered, like being a room with a corpse alone.

This is stunning stuff.

Its no feelgood book, but its truth follows you after you've put it down. Not since I read Liam O'Flahertys ``Skerret'' in the 1980s have I encountered a description of the West of Ireland that was so shamefully accurate.

This is nothing less that a literary treatment of the West of Ireland psychosis that was so brutally laid bare by Nancy Scheper Hughes in her excellent, if unethical, Saints, Sinners & Schizophrenics (1979).

One cannot argue with the fact that human communities have a critical mass. If they grow beyond that, they usually sub-divide. Dublin is made up of how many urban villages?

As communities become progressively smaller they cease to be viable. In this novel, a remote mountain village in Kerry is cut off by the snow from the town, which represented the outside world.

During the harshest winter, the women of the village, one by one, die of a mysterious, unexplained illness. This, for me, is a powerful metaphor for the civic death suffered by women in that patriarchal society.

The main body of the novel - as the title suggests - is taken up with the parish priest's recounting of what happened in the village when it had to rely on its own dwindling resources, material and human, in the harsh winter of 1940.

O'Doherty examines all of our rural Irish Catholic baggage.

He uses a native of the village who hears of its demise while working in publishing in London in the 1950s. He - William Maginn - is a distant relative of the good Father McGreevy - as we all are.

Father McGreevy is an interesting priest to come across these days in Irish literature, a good one. Here, like all of us, is a product of his environment and of his historical moment. He seeks to explain the random cruelty of a chaotic universe within his own belief system - a worldview inhabited by an omnipotent, omniscient male deity.

From the pages of O'Dohertys work you can taste this simple man's despair at what his god is visiting upon his flock. The mountain in winter will not yield to their efforts to allow a decent burial for the women. Finally, church and state collude to clear these people from their mountain. Father McGreevy bitterly notes that not everything that has befallen the people of the West can be laid at the door of the English.

The story concludes with the psychiatric system incarcerating and punishing two members of a community that the English speaking Free State never understood, nor valued.

As I said, this is not a feelgood book, but if you care about how the West was lost after the British went, then start here.


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