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Catholic Ireland has fallen. Some vague, residual piety may stay the hand of the Irish from completely scouring their ancient faith from their modern Constitution. It will also take time, effort, and pain to disentangle the Church from the education system or at least to reach some less abrasive modus operandi. But the fact remains: Catholic Ireland, as we knew it, has fallen.  

The Ireland of the 1937 Constitution has been in full retreat for decades. Some writers understood what was happening from a long way out. Before the 1950s were over, the great Patrick Kavanagh wrote his short satirical poem “House Party to Celebrate the Destruction of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.” In it, a group has gathered in Dublin to mark the publication of a book lambasting Catholicism. The book has been warmly, fulsomely reviewed, while at the same time incurring the displeasure of the Church, the “dying monster’s rage,” which is celebrated by the party guests “with giggles high.” 

What Kavanagh intuited was that even if not much seemed to be changing in 1950s Ireland, in reality, Catholicism’s banishment to the margins had begun. In the final lines of the poem, Kavanagh swivels dramatically, swinging his searchlight away from the urban sherry sippers and shining it deep into the “far off parishes of Cork and Kerry,” where, he writes, “Old priests walked homeless in the winter air.”   

The setting for John B. Keane’s Letters of an Irish Parish Priest (1972) seems to be somewhere near the Cork-Kerry border. Keane himself (1928–2002) was a notable Kerryman from the small town of Listowel. His fictional letters are written by a Father Martin O’Mora. Clues in the text suggest that the events described unfold in the mid-to-late 1960s. The parish priest, in the world Keane recreates, is a kind of fixer-in-chief, called on by local people to rescue them from the raw consequences of gossip, infidelity, ignorance, hypocrisy, prurience, and unemployment; and called upon by the Department of Education to keep the local school system from sinking to its knees. “It is the function of the priest to resolve these problems,” writes Fr. O’Mora. “There is no-one else to do it.”  

Letters of an Irish Parish Priest is packed with jokes, some of them very funny, told by and about Irish priests. Fr. O’Mora is tough but humorous; blustering but generous; ready always for the fight, yet also forgiving and tolerant of folly, including of the sexual kind. But O’Mora is fierce when it is called for and never more so than in his attachment to the ultimate authority of the pope and canon law. 

To defy the Pope is to destroy the meaning of authority with its attendant virtues such as the idea of peaceful co-existence, the idea of a true and lasting love, the rearing of a family, in fact all the virtues.

Writing of people who question authority and tradition, the priest continues,

They may be right in part. So what? We are all right in part even when we differ. None of our ideas are identical no more than our faces and bodies are, but there are no two ways if you are a member of the Catholic Church. It is the first and last authority. It is universal.

This unwavering commitment to final authority comes to bear in a dispute between the priest and a local doctor about allowing Rosie, a poor woman in an abusive marriage, whose life and happiness Fr. O’Mora had saved in the past, to use contraception. The parish priest’s intransigence at this point is worth pondering. Given their reputation for implacability, the official statement of the Irish bishops following the promulgation of Humanae Vitae was—without conceding an inch on the teaching itself—remarkably gentle: 

We ask our people to believe that we are deeply and painfully aware of the delicate and personal problems and intellectual difficulties to which this teaching may give rise for some and we are especially conscious of the difficult decisions which may face doctors in particular cases. We ask that every effort should be made, by study and prayer, to appreciate and live the whole Catholic teaching on marriage and the family, and to see the condemnation of contraception in this life-giving context. We know that our priests, especially in the confessional, will, without compromise of principle, show that understanding and sympathy which Our Divine Lord Himself always displayed. 

It seems that this voice of authority did not reach Fr. O’Mora. He digs his heels in and refuses to succumb to the doctor. He knows his actions will haunt him: “Most of Rosie’s children must go to an orphanage. I will do what I can but all the clergy in the world will not replace one mother.” His young curate, whom O’Mora likes and respects, begins to look at him askance. But still O’Mora feels he could not have permitted the use of contraceptives: “There is a natural law and to flout it is to flout God.” The consequences of his stand, he realizes, will be “a terrible cross to carry but then I did not become a priest just to make decisions that might be transiently popular. God will judge me and I will fully accept that judgment.”

For Heinrich Böll (1917–1985), the German novelist and Nobel Prize-winner who spent many summers with his family in a house on Achill Island, the arrival of contraception in Ireland spelt a kind of doom. Böll wrote his Irish Journal in 1954, in which he described the deep attachment to the country he had developed in the 1950s.  

By 1967, however, the times were changing, and he felt moved to add an Epilogue to a new edition of Irish Journal. This is where the kick comes. Ireland had now “caught up with two centuries and leaped another five”; and the greatest and unhappiest harbinger of change was the very thing that began to sink Fr. O’Mora: contraception.  

And a certain something has now made its way to Ireland, that ominous something known as The Pill—and this is something that absolutely paralyzes me: the prospect that fewer children might be born in Ireland fills me with dismay. I know: it’s all very well for me to talk, it’s easy for me to want them in large quantities: I am neither their father nor their government; and I am not required to part from them when many, as they must, start out on the road to emigration. Nowhere in the world have I seen so many, such lovely and such natural children, and to know that His Majesty the Pill will succeed where all the Majesties of Great Britain have failed—in reducing the number of Irish children—seems to me no cause for rejoicing.

Despite his fears, Böll—thinking perhaps of entering a pub in the west of Ireland and learning by “the tears of the beer-dispensing landlady, the faces of the silently drinking men” that John XXIII had died, or of the train conductor who “crossed himself (while telling his beads), read a newspaper, smoked, and accepted our fares all at the same time”—concluded that the faith of the Irish would ultimately persist.  

Kavanagh and Keane, no doubt more attuned to the growing noises off in Irish society, foresaw a different fate. Keane’s O’Mora knows the game will soon be up. He sees attendances declining at “the missions” (when a pair of priests, usually Redemptorists, would descend on an Irish parish for a week of preaching). He hears the contempt and ridicule spreading to the parishes of Cork and Kerry by the late 1960s, with “every corner boy on the street” criticizing the Church for one thing or another.  

How did the rot begin? O’Mora posits a theory about Pope John XXIII that has a whiff of confusion, puzzlement, desperation: 

I think old John knew what he was doing when he adopted a liberal attitude. He knew that many would see this attitude as an opportunity to press claims for a softening of the Church’s attitude on many controversial matters. John knew that his liberality and candour would blow through the corridors of the true faith like a fresh wind, driving before it in the fullness of time the weaklings and wasters who do not belong so that while there may be smaller numbers, only the strong and resolute remain. Remember that, if the position of the Church seems weak at present, it is merely purging itself of malcontents and biding its time, as it were, for the re-assertion of its authority.

In the final, unforgettable lines of Letters of an Irish Parish Priest, O’Mora contemplates what lies in store for “old, frosty fellows” like himself. I have read these lines many times and cannot decide whether Keane intends the priest to sound like a deluded holdout or like a prophet. Or perhaps, paradoxically, like both. Can you decide?

We are the hard core, Joe, brought up on the Code. Our mission is to stand fast and to hold on no matter what. We may seem out of step right now and there are many who would say that the world shall not look upon our likes again. They are wrong for believe me, Joe, the world will whimper for the likes of us in the fullness of God’s time.

John Duggan is a freelance writer based in Surrey, England. 

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