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?