‘What do Protestants really believe?’ a colleague from the North asks, and he is not asking about those in the North but their very dissimilar counterparts in the South. I try to explain the odd amalgam of beliefs at the heart of Protestant identity – catechism Christianity combined with eighteenth Century deism, a love for Ireland and, undeniably, masonic influences in the thinking of many of the men.
‘If you really want to understand what is believed, read William Trevor, read about Grattan Fitzmaurice in ‘Of the cloth’ and Canon Moran in ‘Autumn sunshine’.
‘Novelists have profound psychological insights’, he smiled.
Perhaps novelists should be taught in theological training; though the tendency there is to talk about what they think it is that people should believe rather than a William Trevor-like speculation on what it is that is dear to people
Trevor’s ‘Of the Cloth’ has the 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.
Grattan Fitzmaurice’s vision of Ireland, no more sharply defined than an impressionist painting, is dear to the heart of his real life co-religionists. Of course, that does not answer the colleague’ question, but anyone who believes they can state what it is that Protestants believe has the wrong answer.