Page 10, 23rd October 1992

23rd October 1992
Page 10
Page 10, 23rd October 1992 — Towards a finer faith

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People: Brendan Walsh


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Towards a finer faith

Charterhouse Chronicle by Brendan Walsh TAXIS ' have St Christopher medals fixed to their dashboards. Crucifixes are pinned to the wall over the fitted kitchen units. Hanging alongside the wedding photographs and the clip-framed snaps of the grandchildren, almost like a studio portrait of a senior member of the family, is an oleograph of the Sacred Heart. In Ireland, religion is still. literally, part of the furniture.

I spent a few weeks this summer in Youghal, County Cork, a laid-back and unpushy seaside town mildly frayed at the edges: chip shops and a crumbling promenade as well as some decently-preserved bits of -heritage" and a posh fish restaurant. I've been back too often. Every dimly-lit sidestreet and lounge bar recalls some botched adolescent rite-ofpassage or early essay in alcohol abuse. The real Youghal is lost under the meretricious geography of memory.

The three Catholic churches are all filled every Sunday, apart from one Mass at the ungodly hour of 9.30 am. After the services children eager to master the technology of salvation mill around the side altars, pressing coins into the tin boxes and selecting their candles with the same rapt concentration as they play the computer games at Perks amusement arcade. Down the road from the parish church, the tiny convent chapel of the perpetual adoration of the blessed sacrament is open 24 hours a day, and is never empty. A steady trickle of callers drops in to say a few prayers.

When the school breaks up for the summer, and sightings of the Virgin Mary are reported, the astonishment is not at their appearance, but at their choice of venue. Why Cappoquin ? Why, Lord save us, Ballinspittle? It might be prickly at times, but the relationship between this world and the next is never less than intimate.

WHEN people turn against the Church it is with the special bitterness of close emotional involvement. Contraception, priestly celibacy and divorce are discussed with a passion that seems to go far deeper than the issues involved. The continuous exchanges this year over a woman's right to choose to have an abortion were like arguments over the family dinner table, where no one listens to anyone else because everyone knows exactly what everyone else is going to say.

One hears disturbing stories of the malice and narrowmindedness met by single mothers and homosexuals and even those stepping more gingerly out of line. You hear much almost, it must be said, as if such difficulties were never encountered outside the Church of the terrible guilt and depression engendered by a Catholic upbringing.

Religion here has a special weight. It carries with it much of

Ireland's historical experience. It reaches right between the toes of the Irish personality. Disturb it. and you release passions with a momentum that has been gathering for centuries.

Peoples given a rough time in history pre-eminently, of course, the Jews become masters of the brief sabbatical from reality: the joke, the bet, the racket, the sting. Living under British rule gave the Irish their bracing practical demonstration of the doctrine of original sin. The longwindedness, the obfuscation, the assways-up way of looking at things. the alarums and excursions and verbal shenanigans of "Irishry": partly, of course, it's just a wind-up for the plodding Anglo-Saxon visitor; maybe, too, it's the habit often bred by the discomforts of history: never look reality straight in the eye.

Religion has a special place in such cultures. The Irish came to hug their faith closer and closer to themselves, because in bad times it was pretty well all they had. It became part of them, the key to their self-esteem, their identity as a nation. It lent enchantment to their lives. And of course, it was a silent but eloquent raspberry blown in the faces of the Protestant landlords. To compromise it, to water it down, was tantamount to betrayal of one's "Irishness", to sleeping with the enemy.

Something else happened in Ireland, too: rather like what happened in Poland. When Church and people have their backs up against the wall, it's not time for asking the leadership cheeky questions or for tinkering with catechism. After the Irish won their freedom as they used to say in less cynical times the Church that suddenly found itself a great power in the land, able to virtually dictate the constitution, was naturally enough firmly disciplinarian and doctrinally conservative. On my first day in Ireland my brother and I drove with a friend to our mother's village in north Cork, Glanworth. Just a mile or two away is Labbacallee, a handful of enormous stones wedged up against each other. Coming across them, fenced off from the road and set in a tidily landscaped lawn, is unsettling, like seeing a lion through the bars of a passing circus truck. There's a powerful presence at this ancient burial site of older, deeper layers of Irish memory.

The bumptiousness and primness, the lunacies of literary censorship, the obsessive preoccupation with precision and sexual virtue: this is only one layer in the Irish geography of memory. It has more than a dash of the nonconformist conscience about it: the respectable. English middle class Victorian values imbibed by the Irish hierarchy in the nineteenth century, and preserved in the aspic of unchanging tradition until the closing decades of the twentieth.

The Irish are not a naturally obedient or puritan people. Their unembarrassed, two-handed grub at the good things in life is second nature to them. They have a feel for making plain things sacred, for turning ordinary occasions into celebrations.

Those who worry that the Irish are letting go of the faith may turn out to be right. I'd rather say they are growing out of a defensive, inward-looking Catholicism, a survival-kit version that took them through the harsh winter of colonial rulc, into a Catholicism more truly their own: openminded and generous-hearted, not afraid of self-criticism, secure enough in itself to respect the rights and freedoms of others, and the widest vision of the good life.

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