No fear of wrath

Apr 23rd, 2009 | By | Category: Ireland

Carl Jenkins’ ‘Dies Irae‘ was played on Lyric FM as I drove from the station at just after eight this morning.  It seemed an appropriate piece of music with which to pass the gates of Ashurst, the one time home of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, ruler of Ireland for thirty years.

A friend tells of her childhood in Ballybrack and McQuaid’s car drawing up at the village garage so his chauffeur could fill it with petrol.  McQuaid sat in the back of the car, staring fixedly forward. Children from the village jumped up and down waving at him, but he did not so much as look sideways.

“He’s a very miserable man”, observed my friend.

“May God forgive you for saying such a thing about the archbishop”, her friends retorted.

There was a fear of this man and a fear of the church.  Without the church one would face the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath, the Day of Judgment, without hope and would burn in Hell forever more.

Reading James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man thirty years ago, in the summer after finishing A levels, passages seemed comical:

His fingers trembled as he undressed himself in the dormitory. He told his fingers to hurry up. He had to undress and then kneel and say his own prayers and be in bed before the gas was lowered so that he might not go to hell when he died.

People didn’t really believe such things, did they? People did not believe that their eternal destiny (if they believed in such a thing) was at the whim of a priest, did they?

In the sermon to which Stephen Dedalus listens, where the missioner tries to convince the Catholic boarding school boys of their sinfulness,  Joyce caricatures the preaching of damnation:

Last of all consider the frightful torment to those damned souls, tempters and tempted alike, of the company of the devils. These devils will afflict the damned in two ways, by their presence and by their reproaches. We can have no idea of how horrible these devils are. Saint Catherine of Siena once saw a devil and she has written that, rather than look again for one single instant on such a frightful monster, she would prefer to walk until the end of her life along a track of red coals. These devils, who were once beautiful angels, have become as hideous and ugly as they once were beautiful. They mock and jeer at the lost souls whom they dragged down to ruin. It is they, the foul demons, who are made in hell the voices of conscience. Why did you sin? Why did you lend an ear to the temptings of friends? Why did you turn aside from your pious practices and good works? Why did you not shun the occasions of sin? Why did you not leave that evil companion? Why did you not give up that lewd habit, that impure habit? Why did you not listen to the counsels of your confessor? Why did you not, even after you had fallen the first or the second or the third or the fourth or the hundredth time, repent of your evil ways and turn to God who only waited for your repentance to absolve you of your sins? Now the time for repentance has gone by. Time is, time was, but time shall be no more! Time was to sin in secrecy, to indulge in that sloth and pride, to covet the unlawful, to yield to the promptings of your lower nature, to live like the beasts of the field, nay worse than the beasts of the field, for they, at least, are but brutes and have no reason to guide them: time was, but time shall be no more. God spoke to you by so many voices, but you would not hear. You would not crush out that pride and anger in your heart, you would not restore those ill-gotten goods, you would not obey the precepts of your holy church nor attend to your religious duties, you would not abandon those wicked companions, you would not avoid those dangerous temptations.

Read John Cooney’s biography of McQuaid, and Joyce’s caricature, from a former generation, of the church’s attempt at control of every thought, loses some of its comedy.

Dies Irae is now a piece of music played for entertainment on the breakfast show on the radio.  What would McQuaid have thought?

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  1. McQuaid was a deeply troubled man. A man full of fears and insecurities that he displaced by inflicting them on others.

    He is, arguably, the worst thing that could possibly have happened to 20th century Ireland.

    McQuaid was, I’m sorry to say, more than a man. He was the physical manifestation of a national illness.

  2. The teaching of Irish history in England stopped with the Treaty. I still have not fathomed what happened to the Republican zeal. The clericalisation of the state seems well documented, is this what was really wanted by the majority all the time?

    McQuaid contributed directly to the Northern Troubles in reinforcing all the Unionist propaganda.

  3. Of course, Bock, if McQuaid was right, you are going to burn along with the Protestants and Freemasons. You will have to practice the old handshakes before you depart this life, otherwise no-one will talk to you 😉

  4. Ashamed to say I don’t know of him but in many ways the tide has turned here and it’s the Protestant Church preaching fire and brimstone. Catholics don’t teach the old testament at all . .although they’re pretty big on the concept of sin!

  5. No reason you would have heard of him. I only heard his name when I moved to Northern Ireland in 1983 – he was the bogeyman with which to frighten Protestant voters!

    The Anglican diocese of Sydney would not be typical of the Anglican Communion, and, being Protestant, would tend to be concerned with individual response rather than seeking t impose a set of views upon the whole of society, as McQuaid did.

    Looking back, some of the stuff is comical, even cheap detective stories were banned as likely to corrupt public morals.

  6. I for my sins was one of the poor souls confirmed by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid at the age of eleven years!

    The day still haunts me. The Church was on Griffith Avenue, close to Marino Casino. A very large church and there were only about thirty candidates from three schools and a half dozen teachers there. No parents were present and fifty one years later I can still hear the sound of the heavy door being closed and locked with us inside. I shivered then and do so again now at the thought of it.

    Ian for years both in school and in our local parish, retreats were held and Hellfire and damnation were regular topics. I didn’t have a weak bladder, but there were many occasions when I left a church with wet pants!

  7. Grannymar,

    I am still not sure how, in the late 1950s, the church could still have had such a hold. There must have been a sufficient number of ordinary people who still believed the missioners for that stuff to have been given any credibility. Sean O’Casey derided our church for not standing up to McQuaid; I thought he was harsh but now think I agree with him

    Incidentally, why on earth was the church door locked?

  8. I suspect most people believed it was insanity but went along with it for the sake of peace. Much like the sort of mindset that prevailed in eastern Europe after the war.

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