More than five hundred pages into James Joyce’s Ulysses: parts are incomprehensible, others seem to anticipate a magical realism that would become popular decades later. What is striking is the extraordinary use of language; dialogues where each phrase commands attention. Perhaps that is why Joyce so alarmed the church, it wasn’t just the content of the story, it was its power to command attention.
The church tends to prefer banality; perhaps it is safer, more controllable. The most banal moment I can remember was at the funeral of a neighbour. The homily was brief.
“Pat was a good man who said his beads and will go straight to heaven so we need have no worries and we’ll get on with the prayers.”
I had only attended the funeral because the family asked me to go and do some prayers. The priest told me that any prayers I did would have to be after he had finished the burial.
Maybe it was an attempt at a calculated insult, or maybe he believed that I was so far down the scale of things that it would be less embarrassing if I was not there at all. After the burial is finished just about anyone can say anything; at a funeral of a politician, or a funeral where there is political controversy, after the burial is when the oration is allowed. The priest’s message was clear, “your prayers have no religious significance”.
In retrospect, it was a relief to have had no involvement in a ceremony that excelled in its banality. Apart from the one sentence homily, the deceased’s name occurred about twice in the service. There were no orders of service, no music, nothing to recognize the departing of a man who had been known and loved throughout the little rural community.
Maybe the priest regarded the funeral as an inconvenience; maybe he had another engagement, though, in a small rural parish, it would be hard to imagine where, but if the script writers of Father Ted had been looking for inspiration on perfunctory ceremonies, they wouldn’t have been short of material – it was all done, church ceremony and burial outside, in about twenty minutes. The poetry of the landscape around seemed to mock the pale efforts of the church.
In a country with rich traditions in literature, language and music, it seemed odd to sink to blandness. Even if there had been some prayer, some poem, some piece from the past, something to rise above the rushed mumbling of a liturgy, where the priest would start the next line before the people had finished the previous response. Ireland need never be banal. Even in his most obscure moments, Joyce showed Ireland need never be banal.