“Truth isn’t truth,” said Rudi Giuliani, bringing the opprobrium of the world’s media down upon him, in the circumstances, justifiably. But, in a wider context, does a story have to be true to be true? Are there stories that are apocryphal, stories that are told of many different people in many different places, that are without factual basis, but tell a truth about a people, a place, a community?
A moment came a few years ago when I realized that facts are sometimes secondary to meaning. The story was told about specific people in a specific place, but has been anonymized for fear the driver in the story might have been identified.
“The canon never learned to drive. If he wanted to go anywhere, he had a man who would drive him in a horse and trap, a man who was known as a heavy drinker. The man always wore a black suit if he was driving the canon, and the suit was so worn it was almost green rather than black.
Anyway, the canon and the parish priest had always been great friends and one day the parish priest said to the canon, ‘Why doesn’t that driver of yours get himself a new suit?’
‘Sure, you know the reason he has that old suit’, said the canon, ‘he drinks all the money I pay him’.
The parish priest suggested to the canon that he hold back part of the man’s pay each week, until there was enough for the man to pay for a new suit for himself. So the canon did this, keeping a bit back every week until there was enough to cover the cost of a new suit for the man.
Then the canon made a mistake, he took the money and gave it to the man and told him that he was to go to the town and get himself a new suit. Of course, the man did no such thing, he went to the town and spent all the money that had been saved in pubs.
Anyway, the evening came and the man had spent the whole day drinking and was barely fit to stand. He was finding his way up the street with both hands against the wall. As he was going up the street, he was spotted by the parish priest who was walking the other way.
‘Drunk again!’ said the parish priest crossly.
The man looked at the parish priest and said, ‘Don’t worry, Father, hold onto the wall the way I am doing and you will be alright.'”
The story had a ring of familiarity, at least the bit about holding onto the wall, it had probably gained much over years of telling. Whether or not it had any factual basis, it pointed to two truths that characterized much of rural Ireland, that there was an amicable, if arm’s length, relationship between clergy of very different traditions and that there was a popular delight in stories where people scored a point against both of them. Whether it was the canon’s money being spent on pints of porter and glasses of whiskey, or the parish priest being deliberately misunderstood, a healthy disrespect for clerical authority was a tale worth retelling – and certainly a truth worth upholding.