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Once the Terror of His Flock – Now the Laughing Stock: Rise and Decay of the Clerical Master Narrative in Modern Irish Literature and Beyond

Peter Lenz
p. 205-218

Résumés

Depuis le ve siècle jusqu'à une période récente les moines chrétiens et, ensuite, les prêtres catholiques ont occupé une position dominante dans la société irlandaise. Ils substituèrent aux rituels religieux des Celtes païens, à l'éthique et aux normes sociales propagées et préservées par les juristes, les druides et les seanchaí (les conteurs celtiques traditionnels), leur propre métarécit. La prééminence du prêtre dans les questions profanes et spirituelles de la vie privée et sociale des Irlandais lui assura un rôle clé dans un métarécit qui refléta, à touts les époques, l'immobilisme de la société irlandaise. Ce métarécit a eu une grande importance pour la littérature irlandaise, mais a récemment connu des changements considérables.

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1As early as in the mid-fourteenth century, when the Irish clergy started cementing their role as their people’s true guides because of their commitment to alleviating the yoke which the Statutes of Kilkenny (1366) had laid also upon the natives, i.e. the non-Anglo-Norman part of the population, a new master narrative developed in Irish society. In it, the Catholic priest and his Church respectively featured as the impersonation of the essence upon which the native Irish were supposed to model their public and private lives. As a consequence of the historical process of replacing the Gaelic tradition and its master narrative with the Christian one, the Catholic clergy had thus not only become the new spiritual lords but also the personification of both the love of the nation and the land:

  • 1 Frederic Lucas, The Tablet. Quoted in J.H. Whyte, The Independent Irish Party 1850-1859(...)

The Church was […] the only permanent form of national organization, or indeed true representation, the peasantry had. In Ireland […] the priests occupied towards the people the role of a gentry or local aristocracy. They were the only educated class who truly sympathized with the people, and thus the only class to whom the poor Catholic farmer could turn for advice or guidance on matters temporal as well as spiritual1.

2This resulted in a triple impact upon Irish private and communal life. Firstly, the parish priest as the superior of his flock set up a codex of ethical norms, with a rigorous definition of sexuality and traditional gender roles modelled on stern Catholic ethics. Secondly, the priest’s superiority in worldly and spiritual matters remained unquestioned by his parishioners because, as the druid’s successor, he was believed to have almost magical powers. Thirdly, the Catholic clergy’s pioneering impact on the shaping of the post-Treaty society from 1922 enabled them to deploy absolutist criteria in the definition of what was spiritually and culturally conducive or detrimental. By and by, life in the Irish Free State and later Irish Republic was cut off from what was going on in Europe and the rest of the world. The Catholic clergy were supported in their policy by the nationalists, and from this cooperation emerged a new national philosophy which President Eamon de Valera summed up as follows:

  • 2 Eamon de Valera, "The Ireland That We Dreamed of", Speeches and Statements by Eamon de (...)

That Ireland which we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit […] It would, in a word, be the home of a people living the life that God desires that man should live2.

  • 3 Quoted in Donald S. Connery, The Irish, Falkenham, Readers Union/Eyre and Spotiswoode, p. 133
  • 4 Ibid., p. 190.
  • 5 Quoted in Malcolm Brown, The Politics of Irish Literature. From Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats, L (...)

3De Valera’s fairy-land conception echoed both the nationalist Irish Revival ideal of Ireland and Cardinal Paul Cullen’s policy of eradicating all English (i.e. Protestant) influences upon Irish life. This meant that the priest became the first instance in supervising the realisation of that specifically Irish philosophy of life in both the social and private spheres of his parish. It was therefore not surprising that the Irish Constitution of 1937 stated in Article 44: “The State recognizes the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens3.” For the critical intellectuals, the Church’s special position as the guardian of the faith and the ethical norms to be acknowledged in society found its most striking expression in the foundation of the “Committee of Inquiry into Evil Literature” (1926) and the “Censorship Board” (1929), which prevented some 85 % of (non-conformist) Irish writers from having their books published at home. At the same time, in the public opinion dominated by the then prevalent master narrative, writers whose works were censored were regarded as immoral. One adult’s representative statement outs it thus: “I grew up thinking of Frank O’Connor as a dirty old man. […] When I finally read his books, I was mortified4.” The restrictive measures initiated under the aegis of the Church, and Cardinal Cullen’s claim that “literature [was] a vehicle of sin and infidelity fit to taint the purity of believers through the charms of poetic pleasure5”, were fuel to the fire and made the Catholic clergy the main target of analytically critical Irish writers of the first half of the 20th century and beyond. They defined their literature as education to life in Ireland, while at the same time demanding it became international to break Ireland’s seclusion from the world.

  • 6 Officially, Daniel O’Connell had made the Catholic priest a representative national figure (c (...)

4As a consequence of the majority of the population’s meekness, and their being prepared to internalise the moral norms propagated by the clergy, the Catholic priest was attributed the role of a representative individual whose personal actions and interactions with his parishioners reflected the social life of a community and pointed at the status quo of society as a whole6. Accordingly, the protagonist in George Moore’s short story “The Way Back” claims:

  • 7 George Moore, "The Way Back", The Untilled Field. With a Foreword by R.T. Henn, Gerrards Cros (...)

[T]here is no free thought, and when there is no free thought there is no intellectual life. The priests take their ideas from Rome cut and dried like tobacco and the people take their ideas from the priests cut and dried like tobacco. Ireland is a terrifying example of what becomes of a country when it accepts prejudices and conventions and ceases to inquire out the truth7.

  • 8 George Moore, "The Way Back", op. cit., p. 108-109.
  • 9 George Moore, "Home Sickness", The Untilled Field, op. cit., p. 43.
  • 10 George Moore, "Julia Cahill’s Curse", The Untilled Field, op. cit., p. 169.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 170.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 170-171.

5Seán O’Faoláin distinguishes between three types of the Irish priest: “[…] the jovial, hunting, hearty priest, who is really a ‘good fellow’ in clerical garb; or the rigorous, unbending, saintly and generally rather inhuman ascetic – the patriarch of his flock; or the man whose life is one long psychological problem8.” Type two is of central importance in George Moore’s and Liam O’Flaherty’s narrative works, and partly also in James Joyce’s. He is essentially responsible for his parishioners’ moral cowardice and represents the executive authority to drive those into exile who have failed to comply with the social and ethical norms that were expected to be observed in the communal and private life. The great majority of the clerics in George Moore’s prose claim to be the unquestionable and absolute instances of authority in their parishes, traditionally endowed with both the right and the challenge to control their flock’s private and social activities. Thus, for instance, the parish priest in “Home Sickness” ruthlessly interferes in the gradually developing love affair between Margaret and the Irish-American visitor Bryden by suddenly showing up at a dance in a private home to scatter the couples with his threats. Bryden, to whom the priest’s discourse and its impact upon the community are alien, and thus unintelligible, feels intuitively tempted to defy the priest but is kept from it for “if he said anything to the priest, the priest would speak against them from the altar, and they would be shunned by the neighbours9”. Anyone refusing to submit to the priest’s authority runs the risk of being expelled from the community. An exemplary case for this is the one of Julia Cahill in Moore’s “Julia Cahill’s Curse”. Julia repudiates the wealthy Moran, whom the priest chose for her as her future husband. In a hitherto unprecedented effort of emancipation, she remains stubborn even when the priest confronts her, shouting “I’ll have no more of that. I’ll have you out of my parish, or I’ll have you married10”. So, at the next mass, the priest attacks her verbally from the pulpit and frightens the audience by saying that “a disobedient daughter would have the worst devil in hell to attend on her11”. The parishioners internalise the priest’s threat, which has a devastating effect upon Julia and her family. From then on “the people when they saw Julia crossed themselves, and even the boys who were most mad after Julia were afraid to speak to her. Cahill had to put her out. […] Julia went to America, so some do be saying […] whilst others do be saying that she joined the fairies12”. In either case, according to the then valid Catholic Irish master narrative, Julia’s soul was lost.

  • 13 Liam O’Flaherty, "The Outcast", Irish Portraits. 14 Short Stories, London, Sphere Books (...)
  • 14 Liam O’Flaherty, "The Fairy Goose", Liam O’Flaherty’s Short Stories, Volume 2, London, (...)
  • 15 In Moore’s "The Wedding Feast ", The Untilled Field, op. cit., p. 91, one of the characters s (...)
  • 16 The relationship between pagan superstition and Christian faith and its impact upon the (...)
  • 17 Liam O’Flaherty, "The Fairy Goose", op. cit., p. 88. Similarly, in Moore’s "The Wedding (...)
  • 18 Liam O’Flaherty, "The Fairy Goose"

6Similar to Julia Cahill’s fate is the one of a nameless young mother of an illegitimate child in Liam O’Flaherty’s short story “The Outcast13”. In spite of his awareness that refusing to grant the young woman an act of mercy would make it impossible for her to remain integrated in the village community, the priest curses the mother and her child, thus driving her indirectly into suicide. In O’Flaherty’s narrative works, clerics, and the ethical norms they established, are sources of friction in the lives of the common people in the Irish west, who, at their roots, are determined by tradition and instinctive social behaviour. In “The Fairy Goose” the priest spreads fear and terror among the villagers, paradoxically accompanying his action with the Christian motto “Fear God and love your neighbours14”. He pushes an old woman to the ground after she had successfully improved her desolate financial situation with her goose, which was allegedly bestowed with magical powers. Officially, he accuses her of cheating the villagers by performing heathen rites, but in reality he considers her a threat to his boundless power15. In the same way as in “Julia Cahill’s Curse”, the parishioners submit to the priest’s authority: they kill the fairy goose and drive the old woman out of the village. This swing of attitude happened less from their inner convictions but rather from panic as the community believe that the priest’s magical powers exceed those of the fairy goose. In this story, the synthesis of Christian faith and superstition as exhibited by the villagers becomes palpable16. When the priest is scolding the villagers for their credulity and their being attracted by pagan superstitious belief, he shouts “I wonder the ground doesn’t open up and swallow you all. Idolaters!” In response, an old woman cries “Spare us, father17” to avert by incantation the danger of perishing evoked by the priest’s curse. The story concludes with the narrator laconically stating that “from that day the natives of that village are quarrelsome drunkards, who fear God but do not love one another […] [T]he only time in the history of their generation that there was peace and harmony in the village was during the time when the fairy goose was loved by the people18” – an indirect praise of the old Gaelic order of communal life which was abolished and replaced by the clerical master narrative.

  • 19 Liam O’Flaherty, A Tourist’s Guide to Ireland, London, The Mandrake Press, 1929, p. 34-35.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 56.
  • 21 Liam O’Flaherty, Shame the Devil, London, Grayson & Grayson, 1934, p. 228.
  • 22 James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, London, Penguin, 1996; first published (...)

7The representatives of the clergy in O’Flaherty’s fiction share the contempt of the plain people, whose lives are still unconsciously governed by tradition and intuition. In A Tourist’s Guide to Ireland O’Flaherty is savage in his critique of the Irish priesthood: “The parish priest regards himself as the commander of his parish, which he is heading for His Majesty the Pope […] As far as the Civil power is concerned, it seems a semi-hostile force which must be kept in check, kept in tow, intrigued against and exploited19.” From O’Flaherty’s point of view, the only way for Ireland to return to her former innate harmony, which was distorted by clerical dominance, will be to rid herself of the “black rash20”: “[W]e have grown so tired of priestly cant and hypocrisy that we have turned against the wisdom which their avarice has corrupted by use as a cover for their evil-doing; but we must return to its simple beauty if we wish to save ourselves21.” This conviction is partly paralleled in Joyce’s and Moore’s writings, but there is no hymn sung in praise of the old Gaelic order. Instead, the artist is declared as the new priest as he celebrates life whereas the priest blasphemes in his hatred of life. In a talk with his mate Cranley, Stephen justifies his decision: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church22.”

  • 23 Gerald O’Donovan, Father Ralph, London, Macmillan, 1914, p. 468-469.
  • 24 Ibid., p. 459.
  • 25 George Moore, The Lake, Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1980; first publ. 1905, p. 176.
  • 26 Frank O’Connor, “To Any Would-be Writer”, The Bell, 1:5, 1941, p. 87-88.
  • 27 Cf. Paul A. Doyle, Seán O’Faoláin, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1968, p. 73.
  • 28 Benedict Kiely, Modern Irish Fiction: A Critique, Dublin, Golden Eagle Books, 1950, p. (...)

8There are parallels to Stephen Dedalus’s process of abandoning the master narrative that has dominated his life until his maturity in the autobiographical novel Father Ralph by the ex-priest Gerald O’Donovan. Ralph, the protagonist, is driven into becoming a priest by his fanatically religious mother and his nurse. In the course of the different stages of his clerical career he realises that the asceticism his fellow-priests preach to their parishioners is reduced to absurdity by their own hedonistic lives. Not prepared to accept the inconsistency of appearance and reality, Ralph finally takes the decision to have himself unfrocked: “I am probably leaving […] [a]nywhere […] where I can breathe and live […] I was dead and now I live23.” Realising this, Ralph defies the warning by his friend, the clerical critic Boyle: “My dear [Ralph] O’Brien, we are only a coterie. The moment you take off that Roman collar you will be branded as a heretic. Publicly ignored, perhaps, but privately hounded down in a hundred subtle ways24.” Ralph’s step is paralleled by that of the clerical protagonist’s in George Moore’s The Lake, who also abandons his parish, saying: “I can’t stay here, so why should I trouble to discover a reason for my going? In America I shall be living a life in agreement with God’s instincts. My quest is life25.” As for O’Connor and O’Faoláin, the Irish artist is challenged to contribute with his writing to the educative shaping of society: “Education is preparation for life, and the only suitable preparation for Irish life is Irish literature26.” This had to happen in an analytically descriptive way, in the sense of a writing which combines the writer’s love of his compatriots with his insight into their weaknesses and follies27. Despite their common goal, their writing reflects their individually different attitudes towards their subject: “O’Faoláin has accepted Ireland as a castaway accepts a coral island, while Frank O’Connor can be as outrageously at home with his people as a country parish priest skelping the courting couples out of the ditches28.” Although both writers also include in their fiction the character of the priest as a moral policeman as fashioned by Moore, their works, similar to O’Donovan’s, unmistakably emphasize the thesis that it is not exclusively the clergy who are to blame for the desolate status quo of Irish society. For a great part it is the people’s own fault as their often unnatural behaviour and their willingness to slavishly follow authority both foster and cement the clerical master narrative and its paralysing impact on the country. Hence, in complying with their educative literary approach, they contrast the priest of the moral policeman type with positive clerical characters, human beings of flesh and blood, to whose own inner selves their parishioners’ innate human problems, wishes and drives are not alien.

  • 29 Seán O’Faoláin, "A Broken World", Stories of Seán O’Faoláin, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1977; fi (...)

9In Frank O’Connor’s short stories jovial priests such as, for instance, Bishop Dr Gallogly and Father Foggarty are representative individuals who already outline the possibility of a natural and open-minded relationship between the clergy and the people. Seán O’Faoláin does not deny it but is more cautious towards the probability of its coming true. In his short story “A Broken World”, the narrator reflects upon the status quo of life in Ireland, using the metaphor snow: “[…] under that white shroud, covering the whole of Ireland, life was lying broken and hardly breathing29”. In both O’Connor’s and O’Faoláin’s clerical narratives the focus is not primarily put on the question whether or not the priests themselves strictly observe the dogmatic and moral principles they preach. Rather, the two writers are interested in the impact clerics have on their environment, i.e. whether they integrate into it and the traditions their parishioners adhere to, or whether they oppose them. Methodically, it is especially O’Connor who develops the clerical characters in his fiction against the backdrop of what his contemporary O’Faoláin once stated about the nature of the priest as such:

  • 30 Seán O’Faoláin, The Irish, op. cit., p. 109.

The key to the nature of the priest is that he is elusively twofold. His secret is that of all the arcane professions. It is impossible to isolate, in any of his acts, his personal from his professional elements. […] [H]is human personality is dedicated but not suppressed. But neither can we see him exclusively as a man: he has risen superior to normal human values, intercourse and sympathies. And he is cut off from the lay world by celibacy30.

10To verify that a natural interrelation between the clergy and the people is possible, O’Connor developed the anti-moral policeman type of priest Father Foggarty, who remains faithful to both his vocation and to his parishioners, whom he treats with respect, and for whom he is always a ready and sympathetic listener, with a deep understanding for their innate drives and human follies, which are not alien to him either. As a representative individual, and as a new, open minded type of cleric with a convincing popular touch, Foggarty proves, with his personal example, that there is a middle way for Irish critical and individualistic persons between outer exile and meek subordination under the prevalent national and clerical master narrative. In the short story “The Mass Island”, the authoritarian and lofty priest Father Jackson muses about the scene with which he is confronted at Foggarty’s funeral:

  • 31 Frank O’Connor, "The Mass Island", Masculine Protest and Other Stories, London, Pan Books, 19 (...)

He had thought when he was here with Foggarty that those people had not respected Foggarty as they respected him and the local parish priest, but he knew that for him, or even for their own parish priest, they would never turn out in midwinter, across the treacherous mountain bogs and wicked rocks. He and the parish priest would never earn more from the people of the mountains than respect; what they gave to the fat, unclerical young man who had served them with pints in the bar and egged them on to tell their old stories and bullied and ragged and even fought them was something infinitely greater31.

  • 32 Roddy Doyle’s turning away from the traditional Irish literary realism is rather an implicit (...)
  • 33 Cf. Joseph O'Connor, "Warum mir Joyce und Konsorten Wurscht sind", ZEITmagazin 41.4, Ok (...)
  • 34 Fintan O'Toole, "Island of Saints and Silicon: Literature and Social Change in Contemporary I (...)

11Until the end of the 1970s, the bulk of Irish literature continued to be focused on the local rather than the international. From then on new voices demanded a new and broader scope for Irish writers to model their literary works upon, with Sebastian Barry, Frank McGuinness, Joseph O'Connor, Colm Tóibín, and Robert McLiam Wilson being among the most prominent ones32. Joseph O'Connor sees Irish writing turn international as a consequence of Ireland's society abandoning the hitherto characteristic insularity step by step33. Taking the same line, Fintan O'Toole states: "[W]hat we are dealing with in contemporary Irish literature is a series of variations on Ireland, a series of individual responses to discontinuity, disruption and disunity34." Nevertheless, authors such as Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, Dermot Bolger and Patrick McCabe have continued with their merciless analyses of the remnants of nativism in Irish society. Others, especially representatives of the recent generation of writers, alienate the local to make it universal, with clerical characters still featuring as representative individuals who mirror what the present status quo of society is like.

  • 35 Cardinal Dr Seán Brady quoted in Brendan Bartley and Rob Kitchin, eds., Understanding Contemp (...)
  • 36 Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly quoted in Brendan Bartley and Rob Kitchin (eds.), Understanding (...)
  • 37 President Mary McAleese quoted in Brendan Bartley and Rob Kitchin (eds.), Understanding Conte (...)
  • 38 Joseph O’Connor quoted in Lizette Alvarez, The New York Times, February 2, 2005, quoted in Br (...)

12In the 1980s and 90s, when the Celtic Tiger boom catapulted Ireland from an economically under-developed country on the sleepy western edge of Europe to a global player that climbed the heights of economic growth rates at an incredible pace, the hitherto clerical master narrative started to decay rapidly. Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland Dr Seán Brady has equated the spiritual loss which came in the wake of this economic and social change with Ireland’s being bled white by centuries of emigration: “[W]e may be witnessing another lost generation – a generation of young people who, instead of emigrating abroad, are leaving the shores of moderation, responsibility and spirituality35.” Emily O’Reilly, the government’s ombudsman and information commissioner, complained in 2004 that “[…] released from the handcuff of mass religious obedience, we are Dionysian in our revelry, in our testing of what we call freedom […]36” Similarly, President Mary McAleese critically stated on her second-term inauguration in 2003 that “[…] we are busier than before, harder to please, less heedful of the traditional voices of moral guidance and almost giddy with greater freedom and choice37.” Finally, writer and critic Joseph O’Connor put his finger on the problem when he laconically observed that “[t]here are some of us who worship Versace the way our grandmothers worshiped the Virgin Mary38”. Shockingly paralleling the rapid loss of ethical and spiritual maxims in the society, the Irish Catholic Church entered a hitherto unprecedented rapid decline in moral and cultural authority when, in 2009, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse and the Murphy Report revealed thousands of child abuse crimes committed by clerics and other persons professionally involved in Catholic institutions. Years before, the making public of other cases in which clerical appearance and reality had clashed had already cast doubt on the clergy’s claim to be the unquestionable authority in moral affairs. The one which caused enormous uproar with the public was surely the confession of the former moral hardliner, the ex-bishop of Galway, Eamonn Casey, of having a child with an American woman.

[T]he 1992 sex scandal centring on Bishop Eamonn Casey of Galway riveted the country. The Irish Times disclosed that almost two decades earlier, when he was Bishop of Kerry, Casey had fathered a son by Annie Murphy, an American woman seeking refuge in Ireland from a broken marriage, and that he had used diocesan funds to make payments to her. In human terms Casey came off badly as the scandal unfolded, not so much because of his repeated violations of his priestly vow of celibacy but because of other deeds or omissions: his indecent pressure on Annie Murphy to give up the child for adoption; his failure to develop any significant relationship with the son whom he had fathered, and the deceptions which he had practised to keep what had happened from disclosure, including the diversion of diocesan funds.39

13As a consequence of the ongoing decline of the Church’s influence upon Irish private and social life since the late 1980s, the figure of the priest has become fair game for writers and the media. Thus, for instance, Paul, the protagonist in Eamonn Sweeney’s novel Waiting for the Healer, who after an absence of ten years returns to Ireland for his brother’s funeral, sees the decay of authenticity in Irish life mirrored in the person of the priest who is reading mass:

  • 40 Eamonn Sweeney, Waiting for the Healer, London, Picador, 1997, p. 87, 89.

The priest was one of those performing fuckers. The deep voice. The meaningful pause. And the come-to-me-all-who-labour hand gestures […] The priest's voice boomed around the shop. So did the voices of the folk choir. Fuck me backwards […] If I'd wanted the Mamas and the Papas playing at my brother's funeral I'd have booked them myself. There was something to be said for the oul Faith of Our Fathers all the same. But I couldn't think what it was40.

14The priest is a colourless nobody who merely does his job. To Paul, however, in the contradiction between clerical pretension and secular attitude, he personifies the disintegration process which the Church has been suffering for more than two decades.

  • 41 Christopher Murray, Twentieth-Century Irish Drama: Mirror Up to Nation, Irish Studies, (...)

15The works of dramatists such as John B. Keane, Tom Murphy, Michael Harding, Dermot Bolger, Marina Carr and Martin McDonagh also reflect the change of the set of social and ethical circumstances in Ireland over the last forty years. Keane’s Moll (1971) is a harsh critique of the clergy: they are depicted as selfish and materialistic, lacking any interest in the problems and needs of the people. In The Chastitute (1981), Catholic sexual morals are sarcastically explored, an approach which is even topped by the ex-priest Michael Harding’s Una Pooka, in which a supernatural being in the guise of Father Simeon personifies the hard-to-control sexual drive. “In […] Una Pooka (1989) […] Harding has continued to use folklore materials together with images of Catholic liturgy and belief […] [H]e appears to use the theatre to vent his pro-feminist and anti- clerical views41 […].”

  • 42 Tom Murphy, The Sanctuary Lamp, Plays 3, Introduced by Fintan O’Toole, London, Methuen, (...)
  • 43 Ibid., p. 125-126.

16Tom Murphy’s The Sanctuary Lamp (1975) features a monsignor who is interested far more in reading Hermann Hesse than in his official clerical duties. He has the same doubts about essentials of Catholicism as the intruders in his church have. When one of them, Harry, rhetorically asks whether the sanctuary lamp was a mystery, he answers, “I suppose it is42”. Similarly, he signals indifference towards a basic Catholic dogma in his reply to Harry’s question about the truth of the Pope’s infallibility: “Well, the last one was, the next one will be, but we’re not sure about the present fella43.” But the monsignor is not depicted as a negative type of priest in the play. He seems to have chosen inner emigration as a consequence of the Church’s turning into a worldly enterprise, with many in the clergy being cold egoists who only fake spirituality. To Francisco, one of the three men, who symbolically carries the name of the church innovator St Francis of Assisi, priests are

  • 44 Ibid., p. 154.

predators that have been mass-produced out of the loneliness and isolation of people, with standard collars stamped on […] [s]elling their product: Jesus. Weaving their theological cobwebs, doing their theological sums! Black on the outside but, underneath, their bodies swathed in bandages […] half mummified torsos like great thick bandaged pricks44!

17Dermot Bolger’s plays integrate surrealist elements, as is the case in Blinded by the Light (1990), in order to mercilessly ridicule the blend of fanatic Catholic and nationalist attitudes in Irish society. His dramatic art depicts a society in which the clergy have become superfluous, a society without God which is, however, not irreligious. In Leenane-Trilogy, Martin McDonagh, enfant terrible and one of the most successful playwrights of recent Irish drama, presents a rural community of the Irish west in which all traditional ethical maxims, and even the authority of the parish priest, have been levelled and consequently replaced with an attitude of eudemonism and materialistic bargaining. The three plays The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West evoke an ethical endgame which has resulted from a rural community’s replacing religion and communal spirit with the gospel of consumption and leisure.

18Father Welsh mirrors the rottenness of the dead society for whose spiritual charge he is responsible. He is the very opposite of the clerical characters that feature in traditional Irish literature. Welsh is absolutely ineffective, uses the same abusive language as the others; he is an isolated individual who has lost all human – let alone – clerical dignity, an alcoholic and utterly depressive man:

  • 45 Martin McDonagh, The Lonesome West, Plays: 1, London, Methuen, 1999, p. 134-135.

Welsh — […] It seems like God has no jurisdiction in this town. No jurisdiction at all. [...] I’m a terrible priest, so I am. I can never be defending God when people go saying things agin him [...]
Coleman — Ah there be a lot worse priests than you, Father. The only thing with you is you’re a bit too weedy and you’re a terror for the drink and you have doubts about Catholicism. Apart from that you’re a fine priest. Number one you don’t go abusing five-year olds so, sure, doesn’t that give you a head-start over half the priests in Ireland45?

19He finally considers his whole life and vocation a complete failure. The same as policeman Tom Hanlon had done some time before, Father Welsh finally drowns himself although, shortly before, he called this kind of suicide “a horrible way to die” (150) and argued: “You can kill a dozen fellas, you can kill two dozen fellas. So long as you´re sorry after you can still get into heaven. But if it’s yourself you go murdering, no. Straight to hell” (154). In Leenane Trilogy, the policeman’s suicide marks the death of the traditional system of social order, and Father Welsh, deprived of spiritual leadership, signifies with his suicide the death of the clerical master narrative in Post-Celtic Tiger society.

  • 46 Cf. Paul Simpson, "Satirical Humour and Cultural Context: With a Note on the Curious Ca (...)

20Whereas there were at least faint echoes of the traditional clerical master narrative in the minds of the characters in McDonagh’s Leenane-Trilogy–albeit without any effect on their lives and finally doomed to perish in the personification of Father Welsh–they have been lost completely with the community of the Craggy Island parish, which is the location of Father Ted, one of the most popular sitcoms in British television history. When its creators offered it to RTE, the Republic of Ireland’s terrestrial TV station, it was turned down on the grounds that the clerical characters acting in it and the topics dealt with were too sensitive for an Irish audience at a time in which the Church had already entered the phase of turmoil. After Father Ted was offered to British TV and became a sweeping success on Channel 4, RTE bought it back in 1997. In the same year, Father Ted became the most watched TV programme in Éire46. The sitcom is centred on the three priests Father Ted Crilly, Father Dougal Maguire, and Father Jack Hackett, who were banished to Craggy Island in the Irish west by their local bishop for their involvement in a fraud case. The three clerics are a chaotic bunch of fools, characterized by alcoholism and scatological language (Father Jack), dumb naiveté (Father Dougal), and pseudo self-assurance (Father Ted). First and foremost, the latter’s permanent but vain attempts to achieve order by means of mechanical action following given patterns such as repetition, inversion, incongruity and interference of chains of events creates utterly comical and grotesque situations. The clerics’ acting and interacting with each other and others is no longer defined by conformity or nonconformity with the principles of their vocation or with notions of Christian ethics but has adopted the nature of playing, a consequence of the traditional religious discourse and the clerical master narrative having become alien to the people. If Father Ted, for instance, tries to deploy traditional priestly patterns of action, they immediately fail, and it is this immediacy of an action and its failure which brings about the comedy or grotesque character of the situation. This is, among many other scenes, evident in the opening of the episode “Cigarettes and Alcohol and Rollerblading”: Mrs Doyle, the clerics’ cranky housekeeper, addresses Father Ted:

  • 47 "Cigarettes and Alcohol and Rollerblading”, Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, Father Ted: T (...)

Mrs Doyle — I see you put the old cross up, Father. What’s that about?
Ted — Oh, I thought people might have been sort of getting confused about where the parochial house is. So I thought [sic!] I’ll put a big cross up in the middle of the garden. I just hope people know it means that I’m a priest and not just some madman47.

  • 48 Linehan and Matthews, p. 191.
  • 49 Ibid., p. 193-195.
  • 50 Ibid., p. 195.
  • 51 Ibid., p. 199.

21This dialogue is immediately followed by a short scene in which a young couple walk by the parochial house. They see the cross: “Man: Look at that. Some madman’s put up a cross48.” A similar scene following this pattern presents Ted insisting that Jack, Dougal and he observe Lent and renounce smoking (Ted), drink (Jack) and rollerblading (Dougal). A second later they are shown hallucinating, shaking with withdrawal symptoms, and shortly after this they come up with the idea to secretly give in to their addictions49. Not only are the three priests anything but role models for their parishioners – which would be useless anyway as the Catholic practice of life is no longer intelligible to the people; they (except, to some degree, Ted), too, have lost all knowledge about rudimentary religious rules, rites and practices. This becomes evident, for instance, when Ted rings up a nun and is welcomed with “Ave Maria” he asks “[…] why do nuns always have the most awful music when you’re on hold50”. The priests follow a wanton lifestyle (Jack: “I’m off for a wank” […] Dougal: “I’ve never see [sic!] a clock at five a.m. before51.”) and are either unfamiliar with basics of Irish Catholic life or indifferent to them:

  • 52 Ibid., 197-198.

Mrs Doyle — I’ll be off now, Fathers.
Ted — Oh, right. Off to Croagh Fiachra.
Dougal — Where’s that, Ted?
Ted — It’s a big mountain. You have to climb up it with no socks on, and then when you’re up there, they chase you back down with big planks. Great fun52.

  • 53 Ibid., p. 198.

22Both the priests and the people consider forms of religious practice, if at all, as leisure activities (Mrs Doyle, before leaving for Croagh Fiachra: “I want a good miserable time” […]53) or some sort of game:

  • 54 Ibid., p. 200.

[Sister] Assumpta — FATHERS! […] Finish your breakfast and come outside for your daily punishment […] Matty Hislop’s ten-step programme to rid yourself of your pride […]
Ted (unsure) — Well, that sounds great […]54.

  • 55 Cf. Fintan O’Toole, "Islands of Saints and Silicon: Literature and Social Change in Contempor (...)

23In contrast with the clerical master narrative and its enormous influence upon 19th and 20th century Irish writing and beyond, the clerics acting in Father Ted still present the Irish priest as a representative individual who mirrors the status quo of society. But he is no longer the former terror of his flock but rather the laughing stock, which signifies the death of the Irish clerical master narrative and its replacement with an international and purely materialistic one: Ireland has mutated from the island of saints and scholars to the island of saints and silicon, as Fintan O’Toole calls it to circumscribe Ireland’s mystical past and her arrival in the presence of globalization55.

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Notes

1 Frederic Lucas, The Tablet. Quoted in J.H. Whyte, The Independent Irish Party 1850-1859, London/New York, OUP, 1958, p. 80.

2 Eamon de Valera, "The Ireland That We Dreamed of", Speeches and Statements by Eamon de Valera 1917-1973, ed. Maurice Moynihan, Dublin, Gill & Macmillan, 1980, pp. 466-469, at 466.

3 Quoted in Donald S. Connery, The Irish, Falkenham, Readers Union/Eyre and Spotiswoode, p. 133.

4 Ibid., p. 190.

5 Quoted in Malcolm Brown, The Politics of Irish Literature. From Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats, London, Allen and Unwin, 1972, p. 126.

6 Officially, Daniel O’Connell had made the Catholic priest a representative national figure (cf. Seán O’Faoláin, The Irish, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1969; repr. 1972; first publ. 1947, p. 106).

7 George Moore, "The Way Back", The Untilled Field. With a Foreword by R.T. Henn, Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1976, first publ. 1903, p. 345.

8 George Moore, "The Way Back", op. cit., p. 108-109.

9 George Moore, "Home Sickness", The Untilled Field, op. cit., p. 43.

10 George Moore, "Julia Cahill’s Curse", The Untilled Field, op. cit., p. 169.

11 Ibid., p. 170.

12 Ibid., p. 170-171.

13 Liam O’Flaherty, "The Outcast", Irish Portraits. 14 Short Stories, London, Sphere Books, 1970, p. 89-94.

14 Liam O’Flaherty, "The Fairy Goose", Liam O’Flaherty’s Short Stories, Volume 2, London, New English Library, 1970, repr. 1980; first publ. 1937, p. 89.

15 In Moore’s "The Wedding Feast ", The Untilled Field, op. cit., p. 91, one of the characters says: “Don’t we like to believe the priest can do all things?”

16 The relationship between pagan superstition and Christian faith and its impact upon the development of Irish literature is dealt with in David Krause’s article "The Death of a Tradition", Studies 63, 1974, p. 219-230.

17 Liam O’Flaherty, "The Fairy Goose", op. cit., p. 88. Similarly, in Moore’s "The Wedding Feast", op. cit., p. 90, it is said that “there is plenty in the parish who believe [the priest] could turn them into rabbits if he liked […]”.

18 Liam O’Flaherty, "The Fairy Goose"

19 Liam O’Flaherty, A Tourist’s Guide to Ireland, London, The Mandrake Press, 1929, p. 34-35.

20 Ibid., p. 56.

21 Liam O’Flaherty, Shame the Devil, London, Grayson & Grayson, 1934, p. 228.

22 James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, London, Penguin, 1996; first published 1916, p. 281.

23 Gerald O’Donovan, Father Ralph, London, Macmillan, 1914, p. 468-469.

24 Ibid., p. 459.

25 George Moore, The Lake, Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1980; first publ. 1905, p. 176.

26 Frank O’Connor, “To Any Would-be Writer”, The Bell, 1:5, 1941, p. 87-88.

27 Cf. Paul A. Doyle, Seán O’Faoláin, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1968, p. 73.

28 Benedict Kiely, Modern Irish Fiction: A Critique, Dublin, Golden Eagle Books, 1950, p. 128.

29 Seán O’Faoláin, "A Broken World", Stories of Seán O’Faoláin, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1977; first published 1932, p. 95.

30 Seán O’Faoláin, The Irish, op. cit., p. 109.

31 Frank O’Connor, "The Mass Island", Masculine Protest and Other Stories, London, Pan Books, 1977; first published 1969, p. 160-161.

32 Roddy Doyle’s turning away from the traditional Irish literary realism is rather an implicit than an explicit one.

33 Cf. Joseph O'Connor, "Warum mir Joyce und Konsorten Wurscht sind", ZEITmagazin 41.4, Oktober 1996, p. 28.

34 Fintan O'Toole, "Island of Saints and Silicon: Literature and Social Change in Contemporary Ireland", Cultural Contexts and Literary Idioms in Contemporary Irish Literature, ed. Michael Kenneally, Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1988, p. 15.

35 Cardinal Dr Seán Brady quoted in Brendan Bartley and Rob Kitchin, eds., Understanding Contemporary Ireland, London/Dublin/Ann Arbor, Pluto Press, 2007, p. 293.

36 Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly quoted in Brendan Bartley and Rob Kitchin (eds.), Understanding Contemporary Ireland, op. cit., p. 292.

37 President Mary McAleese quoted in Brendan Bartley and Rob Kitchin (eds.), Understanding Contemporary Ireland, op. cit., p. 292.

38 Joseph O’Connor quoted in Lizette Alvarez, The New York Times, February 2, 2005, quoted in Brendan Bartley and Rob Kitchin, eds., Understanding Contemporary Ireland, op. cit., p. 292.

39 James S. Donnelly, “A Church in Crisis”, History Ireland, [http://www.historyireland.com/category/volume-8/issue-3-autumn-2000/], [http://www.historyireland.com/category/volume-8/]. Viewed 10. Jan. 2014 [http://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/a-church-in-crisis].

40 Eamonn Sweeney, Waiting for the Healer, London, Picador, 1997, p. 87, 89.

41 Christopher Murray, Twentieth-Century Irish Drama: Mirror Up to Nation, Irish Studies, New York, Syracuse, 2000, p. 234.

42 Tom Murphy, The Sanctuary Lamp, Plays 3, Introduced by Fintan O’Toole, London, Methuen, 1994, p. 106-107.

43 Ibid., p. 125-126.

44 Ibid., p. 154.

45 Martin McDonagh, The Lonesome West, Plays: 1, London, Methuen, 1999, p. 134-135.

46 Cf. Paul Simpson, "Satirical Humour and Cultural Context: With a Note on the Curious Case of Father Todd Unctuous", Contextualized Stylistics, eds. Tony Bex, Michael Burke, and Peter Stockwell, Studies in Literature 29, Amsterdam and Atlanta, Rodopi, 2000, p. 253.

47 "Cigarettes and Alcohol and Rollerblading”, Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, Father Ted: The Complete Episodes, London, Boxtree/Macmillan, 1999, p. 191.

48 Linehan and Matthews, p. 191.

49 Ibid., p. 193-195.

50 Ibid., p. 195.

51 Ibid., p. 199.

52 Ibid., 197-198.

53 Ibid., p. 198.

54 Ibid., p. 200.

55 Cf. Fintan O’Toole, "Islands of Saints and Silicon: Literature and Social Change in Contemporary Ireland", in Michael Kenneally, Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe (ed.), Cultural Contexts and Literary Idioms in Contemporary Irish Literature, 1988, p. 306-327.

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Peter Lenz, « Once the Terror of His Flock – Now the Laughing Stock: Rise and Decay of the Clerical Master Narrative in Modern Irish Literature and Beyond », Études irlandaises, 39-1 | 2014, 205-218.

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Peter Lenz, « Once the Terror of His Flock – Now the Laughing Stock: Rise and Decay of the Clerical Master Narrative in Modern Irish Literature and Beyond », Études irlandaises [En ligne], 39-1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2016, consulté le 26 septembre 2017. URL : http://etudesirlandaises.revues.org/3835 ; DOI : 10.4000/etudesirlandaises.3835

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Peter Lenz

University of Regensburg

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