IT IS said that the young are impatient of the institutional Church. Those who seek try to find a short cut through or round it.
In Ireland — and, watch it, it's all going to be about Ireland this week — the Institutional Church has been the vehicle of this quiet and occasionally despairing and bloody triumphant survival of a nation; of a culture; and of a definitively foreign people who yet retain the confidence to be friendly with the likes of Charterhouse.
Knock, even without God or His Mother, was a supreme example of the agony of Ireland upon its agricultural cross. Historically, the English were afraid of the Irish as a strategical threat on their flank and they could not understand them and their different views. What you do not understand you fear and what you fear you hate and what you hate you attack and, even if it is poor and ragged, you try to destroy it. Decently, if you are English.
This is no Irish nationalist brag because I believe that the English in Ireland basically meant well. It takes art act `' will to believe that, but then so does the Faith in the One Holy and Undivided Trinity.
In 1879 Knock was a disgrace to western ci■ ilisation. True, the Great Famine was over. But they were suffering a secondary one. More than that, it was a time of despairing unrest. The Catholics had no security of land tenure and the lanlords could evict almost at whim. with troopers guarding the bailifs as they raked the straw off some miserable cabin in order to make it uninhabitable. The local landlord was a Browne whose name is now part or a peerage. They were not loved.
Co Mayo was a place of hunger and injustice and the Irish Catholics had about as much rights as Negroes in the Southern States at that time. They were not lynched: they were compelled by the system to emigrate —to an English or Welsh or Glasgow slum; or in a coffin ship to New York or Canada. They lived from harvest to harvest and only the eldest son could stay at home.
The Church was the one thing that sustained them and the Knock apparition could not have come more opportunely, at the worst time, in the worst place. It was a morning star in the darkness.
It was also the year that Michael Davitt founded the Irish Land League in the same desolate and lovely country to fight for the rights of the tenant farmers to a fair rent and a right of tenure. He got sent to Australia for that.
Strangers sometimes blame the Irish clergy for their pretentions. Then they were an absolute necessity. The priests were educated and were the people's magistrates, protectors and gentry. The bishops were their kings and nobility.
In Knock the parish priest was the Archdeacon Cavanagh who
was a one-man relief and educational organisation. He was one of the top hatted, masterly priests who saved Ireland and he lived in the sort of low cabin that would do fine now as an amusing weekend cottage for a young intellectual in search of the occasional spell of simple life and hard drinking. lie did not see the appraition, but was not hostile to it.
The present parish priest now is Mgr James Horan. He started his career as a priest in Dumbarton in Scotland. He is, somehow, the image of the good priest at work. He is a strong faced, cheerful, shrewd man.
He insists on finishing his own sentences even in the face of an urgent reporter. He is a lifelong abstainer from the hard stuff. He entirely believes in Knock.
He has done most of the building in this part of Ireland, which one cannot now call "God Forsaken". He is curiously serene and cheerful in the mounting turmoil of an utterly unprecedented papal visit. He is public relations gift to God. He lives in a decent small house opposite the shrine where the housekeeper looks harassed and behaves like a devoted watchdog. Closed rooms clatter with typewriters. Brisk young women come in and out with press handouts and photographs.
More and more, I come to believe that the Irish can organise these sort of things just as well as we can a Royal Occasion.
I had a long talk with him in a crowded priestly sitting room, he breaking off now and again to give legal advice to a nun down the telephone, to check with a secretary that some key Cardinal had been properly invited, to walk with me to the shrine pausing to bless a handful of medals for a well-dressed young woman, laughing, teasing — "How did a man with a name like yours get a job on The Observer?" — not a
builder for the sake of building. the man who was saying the 9 o'clock Mass on the feast of St James the Great. His feast day.
He faces a deluge. lie has laid On 150 "lines" for the Press on the great day which, at the time of writing, has not been designated. It will not t 2 enough. He will have to stable a multitude of foreign Cardinals and those enchanting, dipping and curving and heart breaking lanes are not going to sustain the sort of rush that would daunt even over organised Lourdes.
They have at the still heart of this serene place perhaps the one man who can cope with it. Anyway, he knows how to treat the press, which is one of the new Beatitudes, and is so sensible that he makes you feel frivolous in front on his laughter.
The profound reader may gather the impression that toffee nosed Charterhouse was impressed and enchanted by the whole experience.
More than cathedrals
IN MY trip to the West I was driven. guided by a bright and tireless young Irishman from Bord Failte (OK, the Irish Tourist Board) an organisation I can recommend for its pleasantly eccentric efficiency and this is not a bread and butter letter.
I got a bit worried lest he develop in his elbow the equivalent of writer's cramp. Every time we passed a church, he crossed himself. And we passed hundreds. I was brought up by nanny to do the same. But one doesn't in England, does one? The Embarrassment Factor again. Anyway, in a very short time I seem to have seen several cathedrals. The chief was the one of Tuam (which seems to be pronounced rather like that medicament that on television clears the nasal tubes for various sOcial and education emergencies).
I recall an appalling story from a book I cannot find. One of the Spanish survivors from the Armada who were wrecked on the West coast of Ireland and got back to Spain wrote it down. He was lucky because the Irish handed over the survivors to the local lords who, under Elizabeth's orders, killed them and rewarded their Catholic captors. Anyway, this Spaniard was walking to freedom and met a beggarly and ragged man. They began to talk in Latin and he found himself with the Archbishop of Tuam.
Tuam is one of the four ancient Archbishoprics of Ireland — Armagh, Dublin, Cashel and Tuam. Tuam itself, though founded in the sixth century, is only a small market town. Mostly one storied; bright painted, no echo of its ancient grandeur on view except for its two great churches.
There is the Catholic Cathedral in a charming sort of Strawberry Hill Gothic about 1849. It is huge and as bare as well boiled fish bones. And yet it is noble and splendid and very slightly mad — the tight-lipped assertion of an
over-pressed nation. It is towering high, built of stone that I first took for iron. It is mercifully pre-Pugin and therefore full of the residue of an 18th century grace. It is magnificent.
In the same city village there is the Church of Ireland cathedral. It is a massive thing, burnt down. by accident this time, but most peculiar. It has a 19th century nave and a 15th century bit of a corss over and then a marvellously rich 19th century choir where the Protestant Prebends in Gothic splendour on huge, drooping yellow cushions sit upon thrones and the bishop has a great stone chair with an angle with a book over it that looks as if it would crown him lethally if he ever stood up without care to reprove some minor rector for an error of doctrine or accounting.
Beyond this, beyond a ravishing and sophisticated arch in the undisciplined Irish style, there is a long choir lined with a forest of superb North Italian choir stalls, Someone bought them in Nice.
I could not get in, but you can see this vision of a marraige between the plainest and best Gothic with the late baroque in this ancient and reduced city. But who ever uses this cathedral?
Then there was Galway Cathedral. A few years ago there was a bit of a fuss about it. Galway itself is a noble little city, one of the most pleasing in Europe, elegant, proud, basically classical. The Franciscan church is a Roman temple done regardless. It used all to he rich upon the trade with Spain. Mainly wine.
So the previous bishop built a cathedral for a million pounds and the usual lot lifted up their hands at this waste of precious ointment. In fact they got a bargain.
Certainly it is large, but then Galway is a noble and ancient city. It is not of a daring design. It has a great dome over the crossing. The high altar is raised at the centre like a boxing ring. There is a curved roof of carved wood and lashings of local marble to set off the rough splendour of the Irish stone.
They have inserts of old carvings that touch the heart and a mosaic of the late President Kennedy at prayer which no longer does. In effect it is a great grey gesture of pride and love and prayer. It works.
Its present bishop is Eamon Casey who made his name in the missionary wastes of England, helping to start "Shelter" and to rouse the public and the more beastly local authorities to the plight of the deserving and hopeless unhoused. But God is good and there are even more than shrines and cathedrals and ruins to visit on this edge of Europe. And what a lark — though a hard working one — it all was.