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.