My household-gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood, said Charles Lamb in his essay New Year’s Eve.
For those who love language, let the words wash over your lips. We can return to the point after tasting the wine of Lamb’s lyricism.
I would set up my tabernacle here. I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived; I, and my friends: to be no younger, no richer, no handsomer. I do not want to be weaned by age; or drop, like mellow fruit, as they say, into the grave.–Any alteration, on this earth of mine, in diet or in lodging, puzzles and discomposes me. My household-gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood. They do not willingly seek Lavinian shores. A new state of being staggers me.
Wonderful. The intoxication of words.
But let us return to the point, which is the removal of long-held ideas. These days, we forget the household gods that every society invented and venerated, not least the Irish, whose attachment to the elemental and the ancient is written into the very DNA of our speech. It’s no wonder that people such as us would have been so vulnerable to grooming by sacerdotal smooth-talkers, just as the vulnerable everywhere are groomed by potential abusers. Who in Europe, during the mid-nineteenth century might have been more open to seduction than our ancestors, after the appalling social dislocation caused by the latest famine? It’s true that there were previous catastrophic famines, but what happened in the 1840s was Ireland’s Shoah and we’re still feeling its reverberations a century and three-quarters later.
No priest died in the time of the Famine, roars the Bull McCabe, an extraordinarily brave speech to put in a character’s mouth when John B Keane wrote The Field, in the Ireland of the sixties. Keane showed remarkable courage writing such a line in small-town, narrow-minded Listowel and yet he got away with it, even though the clerics continued to dictate policy to governments for decades to come. The narrative of the time was that the priests were the defenders of the people, selflessly sacrificing themselves for the good of the people.
In Ireland, perhaps just as much as anywhere else, folk history derives from folk songs, and those very songs can soon attain the patina of antiquity even though they might be no more than a year or two old and even though they might be based on utter nonsense.
Patrick McCall, for instance, a Dubliner writing a century after the 1798 rebellion, produced Boolavogue, a song belted out by many an impassioned patriot. The narrative in the song takes no account of what really happened in Wexford 100 years previously. Its main character, Father Murphy, is a conflation of at least three separate people and it ignores the random slaughter of Protestants in the locality. Yet for many Irish people, it formed the primary source of what they regarded as knowledge about 1798. By such means are hatreds inflamed.
Barely a decade before Keane wrote The Field, the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland, working closely with the protected medical (and Catholic) elite, had successfully scuppered a simple proposal by Noel Browne to protect poor mothers and children. Ultimately, even the supposedly radical Browne bowed the knee to those same bishops.
It’s not only songs that can achieve a false layer of antiquity. When Paul Cullen, Ireland’s first Cardinal, arrived in 1850, while the Famine still afflicted hundreds of thousands, he entertained no thoughts of poverty. Cullen’s plan was to convince the Irish people that his version of Catholicism had existed forever, and he succeeded in doing so. Few Catholics today are aware that Cullen invented rituals such as Benediction. In the 1840s, Cullen’s thoughts were fixed solely on power, and that’s why he held a magnificent procession in Thurles, thronged by the great and the good. Those who could afford rail travel converged by train. Others came by horse, and the rest walked. The wealthy commandeered the upper windows of the town, better to observe the magnificent procession of the church princes. It mattered nothing that poor people starved in the fields as the trains rattled past, for this was a matter of the Magisterium.
And as the years went by, it mattered little to Cullen that tenants were evicted in their hundreds of thousands to book passage on the coffin ships, as long as he consolidated the power of Rome on the island of Ireland.
Cullen achieved his goal, as one might expect from a man of such considerable intellect. Priests were now Father, instead of Mister. Arrogant young fellows in priestly garb policed all public gatherings, watching for immorality in a very Irish precursor of the 20th century Iranian Islamic police. They sanitised the dancing, eventually rendering it into a vile and embarrassing parody of culture, a revolting beauty contest for little girls.
As time went on, they consolidated Rome’s power, eventually achieving their greatest ambition when the British withdrew and they found themselves in complete control of a subservient, grovelling Catholic government. Contraception was banned. Divorce was banned. Books were banned. Thinking was banned.
Children were consigned to the care of brutal, ideologically-driven, sexually-dysfunctional clerics in the industrial schools.
Films were censored. Foreign publications were banned. Modern European authors were banned. Music was banned. Public dancing was banned except in tightly controlled circumstances. Public libraries were filled with anodyne western novels for the men and mindless romantic escapism for the women.
Priests roamed the countryside, laying down the clerical law.
The archbishop of Dublin was given a say in the writing of our national constitution.
This is the legacy we’re still recovering from and this is why it will take a long time before we’re free of it. Household gods are not rooted up too easily. Ireland as a country is suffering from a prolonged Stockholm Syndrome, going all the way back to Paul Cullen’s arrival in 1850 and the transition won’t happen overnight, but there are signs that things are changing.
For all his shortcomings, and he has many, Enda Kenna has now done several things that posterity will judge him positively for.
Kenny is the first Irish prime minister to publicly rebuke the Vatican for interference in our republic.
He’s the first to assert that the only important book in affairs of state is the constitution, not the Bible.
And he’s the first to state publicly that, while he might be a Catholic man, he isn’t a Catholic taoiseach.
There are many things we can beat him over the head with, and I’ll continue to do so. I’ve condemned him for many things, but let me venture this opinion. Enda Kenny will be written about as the Irish head of government who defined Ireland as a secular state. Given our history, that’s revolutionary, and perhaps it took a conservative Catholic to achieve it.
A new state of being staggers us, and with good reason.