Graphite clouds shrouded the Wicklow mountains to the east and the rain came in sheets. In the evening light of a summer’s day, the shades of green all around were brooding, melancholy. You never realize how green Ireland is until you go elsewhere, then as the Aer Lingus flight comes in over Howth, there is greenness to the north and to the west for as far as you can see.
A solitary tractor travelling a by road recalls a conversation with a farmer in another county.
“The bishops wanted rid of us”.
“They would have been glad if we had disappeared altogether”.
His claim could not be argued; read the biography of John Charles McQuaid; read the pronouncements of the hierarchy; there was no place for Protestants in their vision for Irish society. There was no place for this solitary Protestant farmer in the picture of Ireland presented to the outside world.
“People used to kneel to kiss the ring of the bishops; that was the power they had over lives. Now everything has gone – the church, the religion, the whole lot. The young ones have no time for any of it”.
“The swing of the pendulum?”
“Maybe so. Too far one way, and now too far the other”. He sat in silence as he pondered what his country had become.
The rain had stopped by the time the Naas Road was reached. It wasn’t summer, but it was dry. The drive around the M50 was easy and turning into the driveway of William Trevor’s old school, words from his short story “Of the Cloth” came to mind. The tail end of a conversation between Grattan Fitzmaurice, a country Rector, and Fr Leahy, the local Catholic curate as Leahy is leaving the Rectory one evening:
‘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.
It is Fitzmaurice’s vision of Ireland, no more sharply defined than an impressionist painting, that is the one that has endured. The farmer has triumphed over the bishops, but is no more happy at the harvest than they.