Buying an Irish Times at a corner shop, I walked over to the church. A vast 19th century building, it was hard to imagine it ever being full. I shook hands with the nephew standing at the doorway and slipped into a pew two-thirds of the way down the nave to await the beginning of the memorial service. A goodly crowd for a weekday afternoon, we launched into the singing of the opening hymn. The silver and white haired people around me filled the church with sound; it is hard to imagine such a scene being possible in twenty years time.
Religion for those of us gathered there was private and personal and understated and undemonstrative. The tribute acknowledged the life of a wonderful lady who had been born before the First World War and who had lived through the whole of modern Irish history.
It is said that Jane Austen wrote against the background of the French Revolution and the Napoloeonic Wars, but never once allows the violence of political events to come into her writing. Perhaps Irish Protestants have developed an Austenesque quality, not allowing the unpleasantness of the outside world to creep in.
A friend, whose father was a bishop in a former time, tells me there was no choice; that the Protestants left in the Twenty-Six Counties found their numbers severely depleted in the exodus that followed Partition and that those who remained were such a small community that keeping one’s head down was the only option. Perhaps it was a wise way to go; perhaps it was the stress on personal and private ethics that enabled us to arrive in the 21st Century as a church that can cope with the individualism of our times. Perhaps to raise a voice when one is only 2% of the population is a futile exercise anyway.
Yet reading Matthew Sweeney’s review of Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture would prompt one to wish there might have been some alternative voice to monolithic Catholicism. Sweeney writes, “The villains of the story, both products of their times, are the priest and the mother-in-law” and that the psychiatrist in the story who deals with Roseanne, the central character, writes “In the upshot I preferred Roseanne’s untruth to Fr Gaunt’s truth, because the former radiated health.”
What different truth might we have offered in such times?