Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Beautiful Ireland

Ireland is a beautiful country. And the Irish are often thought of as charming. Which they are; up to a point. But there is a much darker side to Ireland, and Irish history, than the one portrayed on the tourists’ picture postcards and in the more sanitised movie versions of Irish life.

The Sunday Times on 11 September carried a review by John Carey of John McGahern’s autobiographical book Memoir; and this is a book which reveals just how singularly unpleasant Ireland can be. Or at any rate was, in the recent past.

John McGahern describes what it was like to be brought up in Ireland in the 1930s and '40s. Ireland then was pretty much remote from what might be called European civilisation. The Roman Catholic Church controlled everything; it censored books, newspapers, magazines. It positively encouraged the corporal punishment of children. It's little wonder that James Joyce left.

McGahern was the eldest of seven children. His father was a policeman who mostly lived in the police barracks. But when, for two days a month, the policeman came home, he beat his children brutally. When the mother of the family died, the children went to live with father in the barracks.

Here the children lived close to starvation, not because father couldn't afford to feed them but because he chose not to. The beatings intensified, on an almost daily basis. One daughter spent two months in hospital: her crime was sleepwalking. The medical authorities and the police knew full well what was going on. No one did anything. The father was regarded as a pillar of the community, sitting in the front row for mass every Sunday.

When John McGahern grew up he became a teacher. He found, however, that the Church controlled education, as it controlled everything else. All teachers were required to pay an unofficial tax to the local priests at Christmas and Easter.

McGahern’s first novel, The Dark, was published in 1965. It was denounced from the pulpit as pornographic (hardly likely at that date), and McGahern was sacked from his teaching job on the orders of the archbishop. He sought help from his union, but the general secretary sided with the archbishop, declaring that McGahern had put himself beyond the pale by marrying a Finnish citizen.

None of this is news, strictly speaking. In recent years, despite strenuous efforts on the part of the Church, Ireland has begun to understand what goes on in the rest of the world, and Irish people have felt able to reveal what went on in the past, and to condemn it. The world, for its part, has begun to see what lies underneath the blarney. Films such as The Magdalene Sisters have seen to that.

My wife is British by nationality, but she was brought up in Ireland, and so she has many friends and relations there. We visit from time to time. About six years ago I found that the Irish newspapers were full of stories about sexual abuse of children by priests; and when I went back two years later, it was as if I had returned the following morning. I opened the newspaper and it felt as if I was reading the same story; and there were pages of it.

I remarked on this to the Irishman we were staying with. In response he proceeded to tell me about his own visits to prisons, in his capacity as an Open University tutor. In one prison, he said, there were 60 priests who had been convicted of child abuse; and there were another 60 awaiting trial. (Ireland, by the way, has a population of about 4 million; a bit less than Detroit.)

Roman Catholic parents have begun to vote with their feet. They may still go to church, but they enrol their children in Protestant schools – a circumstance which would have been absolutely inconceivable until recently.

The whole atmosphere in Ireland has changed beyond all recognition. And not before time, you might think.

Three years ago, my wife and I went to a (Protestant) wedding. The service was conducted by two clergymen. At the reception afterwards, one of the two clergymen remarked on how beautiful the bride’s dress was, and how dearly he would have loved to have worn it himself, if only it had been the right size. The other clergyman told what can only be described as a dirty joke, and he did it before people were quite drunk enough to appreciate it. No one present seemed at all disturbed by either of these gentlemen.

John McGahern, unsurprisingly, no longer goes to church.


archer said...

For myself, I have always agreed with Mr. Casey that there is too much God in Ireland, and in everywhere else besides.

Daithi said...

Never mind Joyce... more to mind is that Beckett left too. I mean, Beckett. It just makes you want to cry. (I would say only the greatest man ever to put pen to paper, but I don't want to appear fawning.)

Bah. God isn't the problem in Ireland. You have to look hard to find Him these days anyways, and well, the country still isn't much of a social utopia.

If you can forgive the grotesque generalisation, the real problem is Irish people and their deeply disfunctional society. It's so very depressing.

Daithi said...

Oh! I forgot. Excellent post Mr. Allen. You look beyond the b'gorrah-isms here and it's a very unpleasant country.

Iain said...

And what is the moral of this story? Simple. Religion is the curse of the human race.

In fact, if you look at its manifold crimes and obvious absurdities, you might wonder how it can have retained its grip for so long. Well, here’s why. First, religion was, as Philip Larkin tells us in Aubade, ‘Created to pretend we never die’; and second, it is always and inevitably an expression of cultural identity. No one wants to die, and everyone needs to belong.

But ultimately, humanity always bites the bullet: in the end, we reject superstition. Such things don’t happen overnight, but the death-knell of religion in the Western world was sounded many centuries ago by the twin bells of Renaissance and Reformation. Between them, even if it was not immediately obvious, they made inevitable the elevation of Man over God, and reason over superstition.

But Ireland? Ireland was a Catholic stronghold in Protestant northern Europe, isolated and fiercely determined, in defiance of a big bully of a neighbour, to retain her own identity. This surely explains the backwardness and superstition which we read about in the work of McGahern, Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), James Joyce (look especially at Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and many others. But it couldn’t last, and even Ireland is now changing at dizzying speed. Catholicism has already lost its grip, and will not regain it: the process is never reversible.

No sweat, then? Superstition need never scare us again . . . If only. Hitherto, Islamist terror has been bloody and horrific without coming anywhere near to threatening Armageddon. But what will happen if terrorism and technology should ever meet where Hiroshima met Albert Einstein? Some believe that it is only a question of time before Islamists achieve a nuclear detonation in the United States. If they do, all bets on the future of the human race are off. Scary.

As a corrective to religion, you might just try reading the Bible or the Koran with open eyes and an open mind. Alternatively, have a go at Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, or at Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh. And if decades of indoctrination make it impossible for you to accept that Jesus might not have been much of anything, take a gander at this.

Kev said...

I'm afraid I did not really enjoy reading the post of "Daithi". I'm a very proud Irishman and I don't need to use b'gorrahhs or oirishness to promote this country. Obviosly like any country we have our bad points and horrible points (sexual abuse by clergy, violent crime and drug use) but please do not attempt to say that me, my friends and family, my neighbourhood and so on are deeply dysfunctional without bothering to come and see how we're doing. I had a great childhood and so did the majority of people that I know. I'm now in my twenties and enjoying the benefits of a great place to live. I've really tried to articulate this post as best as I can without really showing the anger that I feel right now but I just have to say fuck off out it ye cunt!

Anonymous said...

I'm a U.S. citizen and I've been to Ireland 7 times. I think that it's a beautiful place, the people are awesome, and I wish the U.S. was more like it. Every place has it's faults, but I feel it's the people of Ireland that make it so beautiful. Their wit, brains, and compassion in everyday life make me yearn for such a place. Off the subject quite a bit, but I never knew or heard that palm trees grow there..freaked me out.

Daniel said...

Daithi is probably only posing as an Irishman. Ireland does indeed have bad points, being human, but the more i travelled the more I realised Irelands real trump card. People are judged almost solely on their character and not on their appearance. People give you a chance to explain yourself, give you the time to unravel who you are and what you are about, instead of looking you up and down and wondering what it is they could possibly extract from you. This is absent in a large part of the world and is more precious than anything I have found. So what if Beckett left and Joyce left at some point. They grew up here. Many people travel for different reasons. Many Americans go to Europe. Seriously, the point being? Pretty much every country that England meddled with for extended periods of time (try 800 years) became extremely dysfunctional in the aftermath. That's not victimhood, that's just the reality of our history.

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Anonymous said...

I love Ireland. And what's the most entertaining aspect of Ireland? Every Englishman's infatuation with it. You only have to browse the web and the English are still, even to this day, enormously angry towards the Irish who felled their empire with nothing more than gutsy determination. And the thing i loved most about the Irish? Their utter disinterest in the English. A true David and Goliath story. Move on England. It's over. They won.

Miranda said...

I lived in Ireland for a year. I wish I could live there permanently but unfortunately I have commitments to family at home in Canada. I found the above rather bitter-sounding. Can't help feeling the author has an axe to grind with Ireland. But then he is English and, as another poster has said, perhaps it is time for some English people to move on and not hold their infamous grudge against the Irish for initiating the break-up of their Empire. The Irish have nothing left to prove in my opinion. I have had only good experiences during my residency in their beautiful country. Thank you Ireland.

Miranda said...

P.S. Oops, I forgot to add....
My year in Ireland was spent completing my Linguistics degree in Trinity College Dublin. I'm afraid I could not help but notice that the three "bitter" postings above were most probably written by one person since the use of language is unusually in tandem. This has made me even more convinced the author has an axe to grind and has used some trickery to "create" postings to support his negative opinions. Not good practice. And probably not heallthy behaviour. I would suggest the author lighten up and live a little. Perhaps I could suggest a holiday in Ireland might be a useful cure? (smile)