Chicken house preachers
The heavy haulage lorry had pulled into a layby to allow a line of cars to pass. The trailer carried a wooden building, the dimensions of which exceeded the width of the lorry, and which must have been a source of concern for the driver as he sought to negotiate the winding country roads.
Professor Haire would have laughed at a story he would have remembered upon seeing the building. Professor Haire travelled down from Belfast to Dublin each week in an attempt to impart knowledge to students in my class.
Meeting him once, to discuss an essay, he asked where I was living.
‘Donaghcloney’, I answered.
‘Ah, Donaghcloney’, he said, with a smile. ‘Do you know there were two farmers leaning on a gate when a lorry went by with a wooden building on the back.
‘What do you think that is?’ asked one of the farmers.
‘Ach, I wouldn’t be certain’, said the other, ‘it could be a chicken house, or it could be a new church for Donaghcloney’.
I was about to protest that Donaghcloney was a fine place, and it hadn’t nearly as many churches a s some places around, but realized the point wasn’t about a particular village, it was about the society in which we lived, a society where people lived under the tyranny of the preachers whose theology and worldview was shaped by the wooden halls and tin tabernacles.
The whole culture was shaped by demagoguery and intimidation; women in their Sunday hats, men whose shirt collars were a size too small, children who were expected to behave as adults, listened week by week to the outpourings of speakers who denounced every aspect of the contemporary world. The listeners lived in constant fear of a medieval hell if their belief was not expressed in exactly correct terms.
Religion was rooted in insecurity, fear, and, sometimes hatred. There was not much grace, love, or joy in the constant harangues against Catholics, and every other group the preachers could scapegoat.
How quickly it all came unwound; how quickly the secularization of society deprived the speakers of their constituency. The power of the preachers is past; no preacher now will stand at an open air gathering and tell thousands how they should think, no-one now could engage in the vitriol and bigotry which was the stuff of much of the preaching.
Were the farmers watching a wooden building pass on the back of lorry today, the thought would not even occur that it might be a church. It’s hard now even to imagine a world where we lived under such tyranny.
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