Sitting under grey skies, looking out at Atlantic rollers, I finished the fourth volume of Sean O’Casey’s seven volume autobiography. O’Casey’s departure from Ireland at the end of “Innishfallen, Fare Thee Well”, (the title he gives to volume four), marks his leaving, in 1938, of a country that had become something very different from the republic of which O’Casey had dreamed when secretary of the Irish Citizen Army. O’Casey finds himself on the margins – a Protestant in a country overwhelmingly dominated by the Roman Catholic hierarchy; a socialist in a society that is deeply conservative and fearful of Communism; working class in a literary world dominated by middle class, privileged people.
In the closing pages of “Innishfallen, Fare Thee Well”, O’Casey becomes vehement in his denunciation of the Roman Catholic bishops whom he perceived as concerned only with maintaining the place and power of the church. O’Casey cites repeated examples of church dogma coming before historical or scientific truth. It is a bleak postscript to the Irish struggle for freedom.
Irish history taught at my college in England stopped at independence; what had happened to the radicalism that had driven the move towards freedom?
Sitting at lunch today, I inquired of the teenagers as to what had happened to Sinn Fein in those years, why weren’t they there with a radical voice to speak against the Church with its censorship and oppression? Why were books banned and writers driven into exile?
“They were torn in two by the Treaty – the Free Staters on one hand and de Valera and his followers on the other. Once de Valera was in power in the 1930, he did everything his own way”.
I wasn’t sure whether that really answered the question about where the radicals had gone; maybe, like O’Casey, they just became disillusioned, maybe church dogma drove out the truth.
Tearing a hunk of bread from a baguette, my phone rang. Moving away from the table, I took the call. It was from a woman looking for help with getting her family back to school. Depending on social welfare payments, she copes well when her drinking and gambling husband is not there. When he is there, guess who receives the family’s payments and where most of them go. I arranged to see her next week and she apologized for phoning me in France “Not at all, I would rather you phoned me than you felt you couldn’t phone me”.
The Irish constitution enshrines the values of O’Casey’s time. The concept of the “family” still holds a special place, even where that concept means a home that is dysfunctional, violent and abusive. There is nowhere in the Gospels where Jesus says that a woman must put up with a man who beats her and neglects his children; church dogma cannot come before truth.
O’Casey died in Devon in 1964, where he had spent the last quarter century of his life. He would not recognize the Ireland he had left; for even with all the faults of which the Church accuses it, Ireland is immeasurably better than it was when the Church was in charge.