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A Guy Called Gerald
Eamonn McCann discovers a great lost Irish writer who was also a priest
Eamonn McCann, 05 Mar 1997
The Irish writer Gerald O Donovan ended his days in exile. His daughter remembered him in the years before his death in London in 1942 lying on a sofa all afternoon reading his way through the Cambridge Ancient History and endless detective stories, one a day. He rarely mentioned Ireland.
And Ireland rarely mentioned him.
I have read only one O Donovan novel: I know he wrote at least one other. Father Ralph was published by Macmillan in London in 1913. It caused a sensation, according to PJ Kavanagh in Voices In Ireland. Despite this, it appears never to have been re-printed. But it is a book whose time has come again.
O Donovan was a priest in Loughrea in Galway at the turn of the last century, and left a mark still there to be seen stained-glass windows in St. Brendan s cathedral, for example, by Sarah Purser, Patrick Pye and Evie Hone, members of a Dublin school of stained-glass artists founded by Edward Martyn, an Irish language-revivalist, co-founder of the Abbey Theatre and leading light in the rural cooperative movement. Obviously, there was social and artistic synergy in those days of a sort we d find strange today.
O Donovan s legacy is seen, too, in embroideries to designs by Jack Yeats which are still a feature of the main altar of St. Brendan s.
The Fr. Ralph of the novel is raised in Dublin in enclosed, comfortable surroundings, believed by his mother from birth to be predestined for the priesthood. The early passages describe a milieu in which the Church is omnipresent, where discussion and even rancorous debate is commonplace about the respective merits of different religious orders or the proper precise balance between the pastoral, educational and evangelical roles of the clergy.
Ah, these Jesuits . . . Of course they are an ornament to the Church . . . in the minds of heretics . . . I pray for the Jesuits, Ralph. No one is past praying for.
The Carmelites now! Preaching, the confessional, and the singing of the office sum up their energies. Their round of spiritual duties is almost as monotonous as their meals.
At Maynooth, Ralph is chilled by the coldness of the spirituality on offer, and by the venal career-ambitions of many of his fellow student-priests.
But God was in Maynooth, too, in one of those wonderful six-part motets of Palestrina . . . in the brilliance of an occasional day of perfect heat, when all nature seemed keyed up to the same pitch of gladness . . . past the meadows of sweet-scented clover by Mary chapel, cows standing knee-deep in the Liffey at Celbridge, flicking busy files with lazy tails . . . through the De Vesci demesne . . . and home by the valley of the Black Pig, ablaze with yellow iris . . .
He is posted to Loughrea (Bunnashone in the book) where an old nun of fierce, independent views introduces him to the parish:
Nine or ten hundred families in all. There is a workhouse with a large staff of officials, a dozen policemen, town commissioners, one convent here with over forty nuns, the Dominican convent with twenty, a bishop with five or is it six now? secular priests . . . all these bodies make some profession of looking after the poor . . . Yet a woman can live in a house that s not fit for a dog-kennel and die of starvation.
Ralph s futile efforts to find a fulfilling ministry in Loughrea provide the material for the bulk of the rest of the book. He becomes involved he has no choice in the complex interplay of factions among his fellow clergy, observes the intermeshing of the Church with the local business community , joins a radical agitator lately returned from the US to form a labour club, feels the stirring of sexual attraction for a childhood friend, now a nun, watches as the bishop manoeuvres to ensure that the pious rich leave their wealth to the Church.
We are shown that far from the Catholic Church in Ireland in this period being a citadel of certainty in a turbulent world as suggested in the novels of Canon Sheehan, for apt example it was an arena of turmoil, suspicion and doubt. The attitude of the plain people to the clergy was by no means of unalloyed reverence, but contained elements of resentment and furious hatred.
In one shuddering scene, the priest visits a convent where an old man lies dying.
As Ralph began the prayer for Extreme Unction, a growing look of horror appeared in the old man s face. He sat up suddenly, apparently without an effort, and shouted, waving his shaky hands in the air.
Stop him! Stop him! He s reading away my land from me. .
When the old man dies, his son addresses the nuns and priest.
I ask ye all to witness, he said calmly and tonelessly, that in the presence of God I call on His curse this night to alight on the priest that took away my father s land and broke his heart and his mind .
In the end, as the Irish hierarchy shuts down a modernist journal and priests are required formally to renounce any association with the dangerous trends of new thought, Ralph is forced from the Church, and from Loughrea. As he walks up the platform at Loughrea station to his train, a group of men he has known for years begins to hiss. Sitting into the carriage, he hears the hissing subsumed into the wheeze of the steam engine as it pumps up pressure to pull out and leave Loughrea behind.
Ralph was alone in the compartment. He sat still for a while, his eyes fixed on the bay along which the train skirted, and the mountains rising sheer on the far side. The throbbing of the engine seemed to prolong the hiss . . . If that scene on the platform represented his country, and with a pang he felt that it did, he was without a country.
On the boat to England, he watches from the stern as the slanting sun makes molten silver of the track of foam trailed in its wake, then turns round and braces himself again to the east wind.
Father Ralph is a startling book, for the vivid and detailed picture it presents of the dominant section of Catholic Irish society in times which were ripening towards national revolution. There is no other such depiction that I am aware of, in fact or fiction, of the ruling class of rural areas at that juncture. These, remember, are the people who were to win the War of Independence, albeit that they expended little energy and less blood of their own in the achievement of it.
Perhaps it is because they won that they have been able to secrete away ever since this portrait of themselves in their preparation for power.
The sheer ugliness of the Catholic Church s looming presence in Irish society; the role it played in the formation of the class structure of the imminent Free State ; the fact that there were other possibilities available to the mass of the people which some at least were willing to seize but which the Church was determined they would not: none of this has ever been more tellingly described than in Father Ralph.
The most startling thing of all about this important book is that it is virtually unknown. There must be an enterprising publisher out there who will set this to rights. n