There is a profound voicelessness amongst Church of Ireland people; their Catholic friends and neighbours and the goodly parish priests whom they have known for years have been betrayed by the church whom they so faithfully served; they have been betrayed by religious orders; they have been betrayed by the State to which they have been so loyal.
The shock of the child abuse report was not in the stories, these have circulated for years, it is in the realisation that church and state collaborated in institutionalised evil.
William Trevor, one of the most brilliant observers of Irish life, captures a sense of what thoughts might be passing through many Church of Ireland minds this weekend. Of the Cloth is one of Trevor’s collection of stories The Hill Bachelors, published in 2000, and alludes to the case of Father Brendan Smyth affair, a paedophile who had belonged to the Norbertine Order. The mishandling of the case brought down the government in 1994.
Grattan Fitzmaurice, is the bachelor Rector of a group of three country Church of Ireland parishes. His gardener has died and on the evening after the funeral Mass in the town’s Catholic church, the Catholic curate calls; as he is leaving, the conversation touches upon thoughts prompted by Smyth’s photograph on the front of the newspaper:
‘Time was, a priest in Ireland wouldn’t read the Irish Times. Father MacPartlan remarks on that. But we take it in now.’
‘I thought maybe that picture -‘
‘There’s more to it all than what that picture says.’ Something about the quiet tone of voice bewildered Gratran. And there were intimations beneath the tone that startled him. Father Leahy said:
‘It’s where we’ve ended.’
So softly that was spoken, Grattan hardly heard it, and then it was repeated, increasing his bewilderment. Why did it seem he was being told that the confidence the priests possessed was a surface that lingered beyond its day? Why, listening, did he receive that intimation? Why did it seem he was being told that there was illusion, somewhere, in the solemn voices, hands raised in blessing, the holy water, the cross made in the air?
At Ennismolach, long ago, there had been the traps and the side-cars and the dog-carts lined up along the Sunday verges, as the cars were lined up now outside the Church of the Holy Assumption. The same sense of nourishment there’d been, the safe foundation on a rock that could not shatter. Why did it seem he was being reminded of that past?
‘But surely,’ he began to say, and changed his mind, leaving the two words uselessly on their own. He often read in the paper these days that in the towns Mass was not as well attended as it had been even a few years ago. In the towns marriage was not always bothered with, confession and absolution passed by. A different culture, they called it, in which restraint and prayer were not the way, as once they had been. Crime spread in the different culture, they said, and drugs taken by children, and old women raped, and murder. A plague it was, and it would reach the country too, was reaching it already. The jolly Norbertine man of God grinned from the newspaper photograph in village shops and farmhouse kitchens, on cottage dressers, propped up against milk jugs at mealtimes, and he grinned again on television screens. Would he say that all he ever did was to reach out and gather in his due, that God had made him so? In the different culture Christ’s imitation offered too little.
‘I often think of those monks on the islands,’ Father Leahy said. ‘Any acre they’d spot out on the sea they would row off to see could they start a community there.’
‘Cowled against the wind. Or cowled against what’s left behind. Afraid, Father MacPartlan says. When Father MacPartlan comes in to breakfast you can see the rims of his eyes red.’
An image of the older priest was vivid for a moment in Grattan’s recall, his mourning black, the collar cutting into pink flesh, hair that had thinned and gone grey over the years of their acquaintanceship. That this man wept in the night was barely credible.
‘I never left Ireland,’ Father Leahy said. ‘I have never been outside it.’
‘Nor I.’ The silence after that was part of the dark, easily there, not awkward. And Grattan said, ‘I love Ireland.’
They loved it in different ways: unspoken in the dark, that was another intimation. For Grattan there was history’s tale, regrets and sorrows and distress, the voices of unconquered men, the spirit of women as proud as empresses. For Grattan there were the rivers he knew, the mountains he had never climbed, wild fuchsia by a seashore and the swallows that came back, turf smoke on the air of little towns, the quiet in long glens. The sound, the look, the shape of Ireland, and Ireland’s rain and Ireland’s sunshine, and Ireland’s living and Ireland’s dead: all that.
On Sundays, when Mass was said and had been said again, Father Leahy stood in a crowd watching the men of Kildare and Kerry, of Offaly and Meath, yelling out encouragement, deploring some lack of skill. And afterwards he took his pint as any man might, talking the game through. For Father Leahy there was the memory of the cars going by, his bare feet on the cobbles of the yard, the sacrifice he had made, and his faithful coming to him, the cross emblazoned on a holy robe. Good Catholic Ireland, a golden age.
‘Anywhere you’d be,’ Grattan said, ‘there’s always change. Like day becoming night.’
‘I know. Sure, I know of course.’
Father Leahy’s cigarette dropped on to the ground. There was the sound of his shoe crunching away the spark left in the butt, then his footsteps began on the gravel. A light came on when he opened the car door.
‘You’re not left bereft, you know,’ Grattan said.
You’re not left bereft.