Ireland’s Holy Wars: The Struggle for a Nation’s Soul, 1500–2000
by Marcus Tanner
Yale University Press, 498 pp., $29.95
St. Peter’s College sits on a low hill overlooking the town and the harbor of Wexford, about eighty-five miles south of Dublin. It is a diocesan college which, when I went there in 1970 at the age of fifteen, housed three hundred boarders who attended secondary school, about seventy seminarians, and thirty teaching priests. The college church was designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, the great architect of the Gothic Revival in the mid-nineteenth century, and each morning we attended Mass there, and each evening rosary and benediction. During my final year I had a seat on a side row of the church and had a panoramic view of the faces of the seminarians on the gallery and the priests on the altar and at the back of the church, and I have a clear memory of the sense of order and holiness and tradition and solemnity. It was unimaginable then, and it is almost unbelievable now, that among our congregation at that time were men who would bring the Irish Catholic Church to its knees.
Three of them, guilty of the sexual abuse of boys, are now household names in Ireland; three others are more shadowy presences in the growing pantheon of Irish priests who have been accused and found guilty of sexual abuse. I knew all six, three of them reasonably well, and I liked all of them. In 1970, had you shone a light on every face in Pugin’s church at St. Peter’s College, you would have seen nothing about these men to suggest that they would later take advantage of boys under their power.
Their power was considerable; the parents of the boys under their control would have accepted and trusted their authority more or less completely; the government would have known not to challenge the church on its care of the young. Thus it was not until the late 1990s that anyone went to the police to complain about abusive priests. Before then, people would have believed, and the Church itself would have agreed, that Irish Catholic priests were somehow beyond the power of the police.
In Enniscorthy, fourteen miles north along the river Slaney, where I was brought up, Pugin also designed the neo-Gothic Catholic cathedral which towers over its Protestant counterpart. This was the center of life in the town. Each Thursday evening we would kneel in this vast shadowy space and listen to the priest’s voice booming and echoing. Death comes soon, he would say, and judgment will follow, so now, dear children, examine your conscience and find out your sins. And each Sunday, for five Masses in a row, the church was packed. It was where you could see everybody, where new fashions could be paraded, where those who owned shops could move confidently up the center aisle, and others, less powerful in the town, move timidly up the side aisles.
The town itself was a palimpsest of a thousand years of Irish history which led to the …