Writing of the work of the poet Louis McNiece, the late Clive James wrote, “There are some who believe that McNiece’s poem Snow is one of the best poems ever written in the last, or any other century. They have a point.”
James bemoans McNiece’s self-effacing manner, his tendency to expect the worst. “It was the way that McNiece was. Pretending to be a loser, he worked at self-destruction as if it was an occupation.”
Perhaps McNiece was simply a product of his background. Growing up in the rectory in Carrickfergus, where his father was clergyman, McNiece was a reflection of a Church of Ireland culture and worldview that is disappearing.
Anyone who grew up being taught the Church of Ireland catechism would have known all about being self-effacing, being modest, being understated. The Book of Common Prayer, with which McNiece would have had a childhood Sunday by Sunday familiarity, taught him to “do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me.”
Louis McNiece’s adult life might have been lived at a far remove from the stern Prayer Book spirituality of his upbringing, but to judge from the perception of Clive James, the words learned in Sunday School and confirmation class continued to shape his outlook.
John Frederick McNiece, Louis McNiece’s father, was a Co Galway man who became a member of the Orange Order, but believed home rule was better than partition, and when Bishop of Down, Dromore and Connor, which included the city of Belfast, refused to allow the Union flag to be laid on the grave of unionist leader Edward Carson. Thoroughly Protestant, Bishop McNiece was also thoroughly Irish. He held in tension his Irish identity and home rule sympathies and his ministry to the unionist and loyalist community over which he presided.
The Church of Ireland was certain in its identity, certain in its traditions, but perhaps, like Louis McNiece, it carried being modest and self-effacing too far. In Northern Ireland, it found itself torn away from its roots by strident Protestant evangelicalism and in the new Irish state it struggled to survive in the hostile climate created by an ultramontane Roman Catholic church.
Perhaps a more confident and more assertive Church of Ireland might have been more effective in helping to hold together the disparate communities on the island. Perhaps if there had been less contentment with the feeling that one was called to a particular state of life and more personal ambition and drive, the Church of Ireland might have contributed more figures to political life (and, possibly, fewer to literature!)
If Clive James wanted to understand the roots of Louis McNiece’s self-negation, he might have found it in the spirituality of the Church of Ireland community. It would be hard now to find many signs of that spirituality.