He’ll have brought it on Himself

Colm Tóibín

  • Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing edited by Éibhear Walshe
    Cork, 210 pp, £40.00, April 1997, ISBN 1 85918 013 2
  • Gooddbye to Catholic Ireland by Mary Kenny
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 320 pp, £20.00, March 1997, ISBN 1 85619 751 4

Sometime in the early sixties, when I was eight or nine, the actor Micheál MacLiammóir came to Enniscorthy, a small town in the south-east of Ireland where we lived, to perform his one-man show The Importance of Being Oscar. My uncle, who was a staunch member of Fianna Fáil, the ruling party, and a fervent member of the ruling church – he was later decorated by the Pope – bought us all tickets, and we attended, as did many others in the town, in a family group. MacLiammóir was, we were told, a great actor, a great Gaelic speaker and a great Irishman. I remember his voice and his presence on the stage; I remember him reclining like a large sleek cat on a chaise-longue, world-weary and knowing and infinitely melancholy, and then standing up and looking at us all, caressing us with his narrowed eyes and speaking as though he was telling us fresh gossip, insinuations he would be asking us to keep secret at least until we had left the theatre. It was strong stuff for a small boy.

By that time, MacLiammóir had performed his one-man show all over the world, and now he was trying it out in rural Ireland. Enniscorthy was important for him: it was here in June 1927 that he met his lifelong partner Hilton Edwards. They became Ireland’s most famous homosexual couple. I remember, on Micheàl’s 70th birthday in 1969, watching them being treated as such on Irish television. When he died in 1978, MacLiammóir’s funeral was attended by the President, the Taoiseach, five government ministers and the Leader of the Opposition. He had become a national treasure.

I wondered why no one walked out of that show in Enniscorthy in the early Sixties, why it was not denounced or indeed stopped by the priests in the town. A one-man show about Oscar Wilde was surely dangerous territory in a provincial part of an overwhelmingly Catholic country. It was not as though the town was especially liberal. I remember that in these same years two men in their twenties who worked together in the same small shop in the town were also living together. I remember someone whispering to me that they were queers, and then later hearing a friend of my sister saying that they had been packed off to jail again for misbehaving. Their lives were ruined. It was clear to me as I grew into my teens that being gay in this country would require care and attention.

In his essay ‘Inventing Micheàl MacLiammóir’ in Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing, Éiibhear Walshe makes clear that MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards, who directed him in the show, were very careful and attentive indeed. MacLiammóir stood back from Wilde: he was the narrator of Wilde’s story – he did not impersonate him, except maybe by implication. ‘MacLiammóir,’ Walshe writes, ‘keeps all his sexual references gender-specific. In the first half of the presentation, Wilde’s passion for Lillie Langtry and his love for Constance, his wife, is recounted.’ And in the second half, the trial had already taken place, and thus Wilde’s suffering in prison and in exile could be concentrated on – ‘rendered with pathos and melodrama’, as Walshe writes.

That was why it was a show for all of the family: it proceeded through winks and nods, suggestions and implications. No one knew then that MacLiammóir, who spoke Irish in the most beautiful tones, had not an Irish bone in his body. He came from England to Ireland in 1917 and he recreated himself as an actor and illustrator. He learned an Irish accent, just as many Irish people would learn English accents. In his one-man show, he proved, however, that he understood something very fundamental about the nature of discretion and indiscretion in Catholic Ireland. He had become one of us.

The best accounts of Irish Catholicism are the sociologist Micheál Mac Gréil’s Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland (1977) and Prejudice in Ireland Revisited (1996), and The Moral Monopoly: The Catholic Church in Modern Irish Society by Tom Inglis, published in 1987. According to Mac Gréil, more than 94 per cent of the population of the Republic of Ireland profess themselves to be Catholic; of these, more than 81 per cent attend weekly mass. More than 83 per cent of the population believe that religion has ‘helped’ them, and about the same number believe that children should be brought up in the same religion as their parents; 71 per cent pray once a day or more often; 78 per cent agree that ‘there is a God who occupies himself with every human being personally’ (the same question, when put to a Dutch sample, had 43 per cent agreeing). Seventy-five per cent of Catholics would welcome the news that their daughter wanted to become a nun, 79 per cent would welcome the news that their son wanted to become a priest.

I found Mac Gréil’s first Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland wonderful entertainment when I returned to live here in 1978. It was usually best after several strong drinks. (More than 40 per cent of Dubliners, for example, believed at that time that skinheads should be deported.) Now in his second, 1996 study, he shows in a survey about social distance that only 12.5 per cent of Irish people would welcome a gay person into their family, only 14 per cent as next-door neighbours, only 15 per cent as co-workers; 15 per cent would, in fact, debar or deport gay people from Ireland.

Tom Inglis’s book deals with the ways in which Catholicism took root in Ireland. ‘It was peculiar to Ireland,’ he wrote, ‘and it was to have a lasting effect, that the whole civilising process took place in and through the Catholic Church. Due to the absence of a native rural bourgeoisie, the priests and later the nuns and brothers, were the most accessible and acceptable models of modern civilised behaviour.’ In his chapter on ‘The Irish Mother’, Inglis shows how, by the middle of the 19th century, the mother came to represent the power of the Church in the home. Deprived of economic power, she was given immense moral authority. ‘The way for the mother to obtain the priest’s blessing and approval was to bring up her children within the limits that he had laid down,’ he wrote. ‘In doing so she was able to call upon him as an ally in her attempts to limit what her husband and children did and said.’

Almost everything that happened to me as a child was explained in Inglis’s book. My mother was in charge of the nightly rosary, calling everyone in, making us kneel up, stopping my father laughing, adding prayer after prayer to the end of the five mysteries. This was her work. It seemed natural then, it was what every mother did, no father led the family rosary; they meekly took part, like the rest of us. And there was an extraordinary sense of spectacle at Sunday Mass in Pugin’s cathedral, built in the town in the middle of the 19th century. Inglis explains that it was the place where people first learned to turn up on time, to remain silent, to have manners, to show respect. Inglis explained that Catholicism was not simply a faith which endured but a fundamental force that shaped Irish society, dominated the way we dealt with our families, the way we gathered as a group, to take just two examples.

Mary Kenny, in what she calls ‘a social, personal and cultural history from the fall of Parnell to the realm of Mary Robinson’, does not list Micheál Mac Gréil’s books in the bibliography. Her book does not deal much with Catholicism as a system nor as a powerful monolith. It does not dwell very much on how the bishops sought to control institutions such as schools and hospitals in Ireland. Her main source is a devotional monthly called the Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart, which had a circulation of 300,000 in 1920 and is still coming out now with a rather reduced circulation; she uses this with great skill and a certain ingenuity to show the shifts in attitude to nationalism and dogma over the past hundred years. She dismisses Tom Inglis as ‘left-wing’, but does not manage to disagree with his analysis in any serious way. She claims that he sees the partnership between priest and mother in Ireland as ‘sinister’, but this is to misrepresent the cool, detached, almost po-faced tone of his book. Her own style, on the other hand, is chatty, opinionated, personal, quirky, slightly wound-up.

Catholicism has been the central element in all the public events in the south of Ireland this century. Even though the Church opposed paramilitary activity, all of those who took part in the 1916 Rising spent their last hours in the arms of the Church. Mary Kenny has an important chapter called ‘1916 and the Spirit of Sacrifice’. ‘It was the word-of-mouth excitement about the holiness of the 1916 rebels which seems to have meant so much to the people,’ she writes. ‘The men of 1916 died with fortitude and great piety ... The deaths of the 1916 men were told and retold as perfect Christian parables.’ She quotes Conor Cruise O’Brien, who points out that the emphasis on the Catholic nature of the Rising made the partition of Ireland almost inevitable. But she is right to believe that the great turnaround in public opinion about the Rising between 1916 and 1918 had much to do with the well-publicised piety of the leaders as they faced death.

The apotheosis of holy, Catholic Ireland took place during the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932. ‘A banner in a Dublin street proclaimed 23 June 1932 – the day on which the Eucharistic Congress effectively began – as “The Greatest Day in Irish History”,’ Kenny writes. She cites G.K. Chesterton, who met a woman on a Dublin tram during the Congress. ‘Well, if it rains now,’ she said, ‘He’ll have brought it on Himself.’ Chesterton saw a banner hanging between two tenement houses: ‘God Bless Christ the King,’ it said.

From then on an authoritarian Church and a fragile, insecure State combined to produce a sort of dark ages. It was as though Ireland north and south vied with each other over who could produce the most sectarian state. Censorship, mass emigration, economic stagnation. For several chapters this book deals not with the Church but with the State, because the Church was the State. It has always been clear that neutrality in the war made Ireland insular, self-obsessed and uneasy with itself. Kenny is correct when she writes that ‘neutrality in the Second World War was widely, indeed overwhelmingly, supported by the people of Eire, as Catholic Ireland was called before it became a Republic in 1949.’ She goes on:

In the end, the political rigidity of this time was greatly to Ireland’s disadvantage. For the wartime censorship deprived people of information about the moral aspect of a conflict which has, perhaps, marked our century more than any other event. To this day, I think, many Irish people are not really aware of how strongly it has formed neighbouring European nations.

The impulse towards neutrality had much in common with the Church’s view of its own authority. Everything must be controlled and held; joining Britain in the fight against Hitler would have been to admit that Britain could possibly have right on its side, could be, under certain circumstances, a moral arbiter. This would have been simply impossible in Ireland in 1939: it would have been to admit that the taking up arms in Ireland between 1916 and 1922 was perhaps a mistake, or something that should now be forgotten. Similarly, for the Church to loosen its hold on its flock would, the Church believed, have led to people abandoning the Church, turning away from religion.

One version of the history of Irish Catholicism after the foundation of the state is not a history of prayer and devotion, of mass-going and vocations: it is a history of coercion and control. The figure who emerges from it most strongly is John Charles McQuaid, the Archbishop of Dublin between 1940 and 1972, who stopped Noel Browne, the Minister for Health in 1951, from introducing a health scheme for mothers, thereby bringing down the Government, and who insisted that John McGahern be fired from his job as a teacher in 1965 when his novel The Dark had been banned. (The Dark mentioned masturbation, at that time, and perhaps even still, the national pastime, and used the word ‘fuck’ on the first page.)

Mary Kenny devotes chapters to the relationship between the Church and the rise of feminism, the violence in the North and the referenda on moral issues in the Republic. She makes sweeping statements, she quotes from books, she makes reference to the period at the end of the Sixties when she was women’s editor of the Irish Press and, it is said, the wildest girl in Dublin. Sometimes, she quotes interesting statistics. In 1970 there were fewer than two thousand deserted wives in the Republic: by 1994 there were almost sixteen thousand. In 1970 there were seven marriages per 1000 people: in 1994 this had fallen to 4.4. In 1970 there were 21 births per 1000 people; by 1993, it had gone down to 13.9.

In 1970 Mary Kenny was living in Ireland: by 1994 she had been in London for more than twenty years. It is notoriously difficult to follow what is going on here from outside. Her account of the last twenty years lacks subtlety and detail. While, for example, the Church has become more easy-going in public, it has become stricter in private on certain issues. Teachers of Christian doctrine are monitored much more closely now in Catholic schools. Parents of children who are making First Communion and Confirmation are forced to become involved. If you want to get married in a Catholic church, you have to attend a Catholic marriage guidance course, and these, I am told, are excruciating. There are still two children’s hospitals in Dublin, one Catholic, one Protestant; an attempt to merge them failed because the Catholic Church would not cede any rights to what they call ‘another ethos’. When I asked a senior doctor on the Catholic side why the Church cared so much about this, he explained that it had to do with counselling: in the Catholic hospital parents who wanted to know whether they were likely to have a handicapped child would have to be told that abortion was not an option. But it was, he said, essentially about control. In another hospital in Dublin controlled by nuns, promotion was refused to doctors, including doctors at the top of their profession, who supported the free availability of contraceptives.

The Church has lost the war against contraception and divorce, and won the battle, at least for the moment, on abortion. But it still works its authority when it can. It won the right to have certain people – teachers and nurses mainly – excluded from recent anti-discrimination legislation, on the basis that the Church as an employer has a right to discriminate against those who do not support its ethos. At the moment the Supreme Court is considering whether it is not unconstitutional to discriminate against people in this way.

In the end, the explosion in the Irish Church came from within. When the news broke that the Bishop of Galway had fathered a son and, in Kenny’s words, ‘deserted and denied mother and child’, Mary Kenny felt that she at first took the matter too lightly. ‘Think of the Borgia Popes,’ she said jokingly to an editor in Dublin. ‘During these events,’ she writes here,

I used to hear people in Ireland say: ‘It can’t get worse.’ And each time it did. On one Monday in November 1994, the three leading stories on RTE television were the political repercussions following the Brendan Smyth [the priest who had abused a large number of young people] case, the collapse and death of the Dublin priest in a homosexual sauna club [as chance would have it, there were two other priests on the premises to give him the last rites] and the conviction of the Galway priest for a sexual assault on a young man. In one news bulletin. I made no more jokes about Renaissance Popes or the Church being for sinners. The wave upon wave of charges and convictions were relentless, squalid and depressing.

As these cases broke in Ireland, I watched them carefully, and I wished that I could draw a conclusion, but I could not. It would be easy to say that these men had grown up in a time when the Church could do exactly what it wanted – stop legislation, bring down governments, fire novelists from their jobs – and it was therefore easy for them to think they could do what they wanted. But it wasn’t like that. Between the ages of 15 and 17, I went to a diocesean school run by priests, which had a seminary attached. From that time I know five priests who have been – what can I call it? – in the news. One is in jail in the North; one received a suspended sentence, one fled to another jurisdiction; two are facing serious charges.

If you had shone a light on each face around the church – there were more than three hundred of us – during evening Benediction in that school and seminary, there would be no reason why you would fix on these five people. What each one did was different, was done over a different period of time; but all of them, as far as I am aware, were interested in teenage boys. In the case of four of them, it never occurred to me when I first knew them that they were gay. Even with the fifth, it seemed an impossible idea. I believe that they joined the Church sincerely; perhaps the idea that they had no sexual interest in women made them feel they had a vocation – there was no one to tell them otherwise, these things were not discussed. Two of them had been priests for a long time when they made headlines; the other three were just starting their careers. They destroyed people’s lives; they abused their responsibility.

It is probable that had they not been gay they would not have joined the seminary. When they joined the seminary no one talked about homosexuality, it was not allowed for as a possibility. No one gave these men any guidance about their sexuality; in the society around them it was a great taboo, and still is, as Mac Gréil’s survey makes clear. I know how long the evenings must have been for them. I know how long they must have denied it, and, when they gave into it, how afraid they must have been. I know how much damage they caused. I imagine it was a lonely old business being gay in that seminary and perhaps worse afterwards in the outside world. Recently, I met someone whose brother had been propositioned by one of these priests. ‘He deserves to be in jail just for that,’ the man said to me.

In the scale of social distance in the Republic of Ireland, only five groups came below gay people: they are members of Sinn Fein, followers of Hare Krishna, people with Aids (whom 22.5 per cent of those surveyed would debar or deport from Ireland), drug addicts and members of the Provisional IRA (whom 43.1 per cent would deport or debar). It is likely that priests ‘in the news’ would now be lower on the scale.

In contrast, the writers who figure in Éibhear Walshe’s Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing seem oddly heroic as they grappled, and still grapple, in public with the topic which was, and is, more dangerous in Ireland than any other: sexual difference, sexual ambiguity. Since very little explicitly lesbian writing exists, it is necessary here to look at the work of certain women writers – Eva Gore Booth, Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane, each of whom has her own chapter – and how they dealt with same-sex love. Some of these women were, as far as we know, gay; others were not. The issues are clearer in other essays – in Éibhear Walshe’s piece on MacLiammóir, for example, or Lillis Ó Laoire’s on the poetry of Cathal Ó Searchaigh, some of which is explicitly gay, or Anne Fogarty’s on two works of fiction which have lesbian characters, Kate O’Brien’s As Music and Splendour and Mary Dorcey’s A Noise from the Woodshed.

It is possible that Cathal Ó Searchaigh is nor the first gay poet in the Irish language; Gaelic poems in the 18th and 19th centuries are full of unrequited and impossible love, and it is certainly possible that some of them were written by a man about a man. But Ó Searchaigh is the first poet in a long tradition to be explicit about his sexuality. One of his poems has been on the school curriculum, and many teachers believed that it was a man’s love poem to a woman, rather than to a man, but in the last few years especially Ó Searchaigh has made his position very clear – ‘we were too poor to have closets’ was his line – as does the Introduction to the 1993 bilingual version of his selected poems.

These two books have very little in common. It is unlikely that any of the subjects in Éibhear Walshe’s book paid much attention to the Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart or in 1932 were overjoyed at the prospect of the Eucharistic Congress. On the other hand, Mary Kenny and her cast of Catholics would probably not be much concerned about finding a lesbian tradition, so that students and readers could know that within the monolith, or not far away from it, there were individuals who had other things on their minds. On the evidence which Micheál Mac Gréil presents us, it is clear that the Catholic Church will not go away; the vast majority of citizens of the Republic are likely to remain Catholic. It is useful to remind them now and then of the people they have for so long sought to exclude and marginalise.