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The Cause that Called You


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 extraordinary hegemony of the Catholic Church in the Republic of Ireland. Street names like Abbey Square, Friary Hill, and Friary Place make clear that this was once the site of a Franciscan friary. And if you walk into the yard of Lett’s Brewery (“Let’s Drink Letts,” the advertisement used to run), you will find an old doorway from the friary set into the wall, the beautiful, glistening cut granite perfectly preserved.

Because of the peculiar nature of early Irish Christianity, these monasteries had greater power in Ireland than elsewhere. There were no martyrs in the early Irish Church; there is little evidence of any conflict between Celtic animism and Christianity, which came to Ireland around 432. The two beliefs seemed, indeed, to work together at various times. The Roman system, a hierarchy based on the diocese and the parish, in which the pope appointed the bishops to the diocese and the bishops directly controlled the priests who ran the parishes, did not catch on in Ireland until the mid-twelfth century, later than most countries in Europe. Instead, Christianity was spread by the abbots and monks who ran autonomous monasteries. There was no central authority based on the diocese and the parish; rules and regulations varied from one monastery to another. Roman structures played little part in introducing the new religion which grew, it seems, slowly and organically, making it difficult to change over subsequent centuries. The introduction of parishes and dioceses in the twelfth century—the Roman invasion of Ireland—came in the same years as the conversion of the Vikings in Dublin to Christianity and the Norman invasion, but was to have more far-reaching implications. It would restructure Ireland for a further and more thorough invasion.

Marcus Tanner’s previous book is called Croatia: A Nation Forged in War. He is thus in a useful position to view the peculiar and gnarled interaction of race, history, religion, and naked political opportunism that has caused such bitterness in Ireland. Northern Ireland, and indeed Wexford in the southeast, have much in common with areas of Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. The chief similarity, besides a history of religious conflict and invasion, is the terrain itself: there is good, rich, fertile land, which any planter or invader would instantly take, and not far away there is bad land to which the vanquished can be banished. The dispossessed do not leave, they watch and wait; they believe that their claim on this land is aboriginal. The planters may have a new religion and better technology; the natives have an ancient knowledge and an ancient claim. In his story “Heritage,” published in 1978, Eugene McCabe described the natives in their habitat close to the Irish border three hundred years after the colonization:

bare, spade-ribbed fields, rusted tin roofed cabins, housing a stony faced people living from rangy cattle and Welfare handouts. From their gaunt lands they looked down on the green border country below, watching, waiting. To them a hundred years was yesterday, two hundred the day before.

Tanner, in his superbly researched and intelligent version of the Irish past, is not concerned to press the connections between Ireland and Croatia too far. He is more interested, for good reasons, in making distinctions rather than connections—between the Reformation as conducted in Ireland and in England, for example, or between the Counter-Reformation in Ireland and in Europe. He begins by traveling in contemporary Northern Ireland, watching the flags and bunting of the summer marching season, studying old hatreds and tribalism and faction-fighting in a modern setting, and he ends in the cultural uncertainties of the Republic of Ireland with its booming economy.


If you walk along Friary Place in Enniscorthy and turn left, you can see Enniscorthy Castle squatting at the top of the hill. It has a similar doorway to the one in Lett’s yard, which also must have been plundered from the monastery. The castle was built by the Normans to withstand weather and time, and strengthened by the English in the reign of Elizabeth to remain a symbol of their dominance. In 1960, my father and the local priest acquired it and established a museum there, and its rooms are now dedicated to the sacred memory of various Irish rebellions. My father and his friend understood the significance of what they were doing: they were taking over the citadel, establishing in its halls their version of the Irish past.

Old ghosts walked freely in the castle, wondering, I imagine, if they should let the Queen know what dreadful use the building had fallen into. I remember discovering the dungeon, cut into the rock in the very bowels of the castle. It was airless and dark with a smell of damp and mold. Soon they put a light down there and distempered the walls, leaving a space for the etching that someone who was imprisoned here had made in the wall, a crudely drawn figure with armor anda sword.

All the great Tudor adventurers stayed in this building. In 1581, a lease of the friary and castle was granted to Edmund Spenser. There is an entry in the diary of the Lord Deputy, dated December 17, 1594: “Sir William Clark and Mr. Briskett went to Enniscorthy to the Lady Wallop’s for Christmas.” Mr. Briskett was the poet Lodowick Briskett, an intimate friend of Spenser’s, whose most famous poem was written on the death of Sir Philip Sidney. Briskett owned a great deal of property along the river. Lady Wallop was the wife of Sir Henry Wallop who came to Ireland in 1579 as vice treasurer for the Elizabethan administration. He made a fortune from the forests that stretched away to the north and west of Enniscorthy. In one of his several petitions for further rewards for his services, he wrote: “I presume I have deserved favor in greater measure for having planted at Enniscorthy, among so wild and barbarous a people.” In the 1960s, as we, the descendants of the wild and barbarous, played around the castle, we were led to believe that the word “wallop” had entered the language courtesy of Sir Henry and his violent disposition. “There is no way to daunt these people but by the edge of the sword,” he wrote in 1581.

It seems easy now to explain why the Reformation did not take hold among the native Irish or the pre-Tudor settlers. In the 1530s there was no university in Ireland from which new ideas or new preachers could emerge. As the historian Alan Ford has written:

The ignorance of the clergy in Ireland was a handicap for both reformation and counter-reformation, since both stressed that clergy must be of high quality, intellectually and personally.[*]

The fissures within the society were so deep between the Pale (the area around Dublin which was anglicized) and the rest of the country, between English speakers and Irish speakers, between the Old English and the natives, that there was no common language with which new ideas could be spread. In the seventeenth century, the majority of the preaching clergy in Ireland came from outside. Also, in the early years of the English Reformation, change in Ireland had been halfhearted. While legislation declaring Henry VIII to be the Head of the Church was put through Parliament, there was no serious effort to quell Catholic dissent. The Oath of Supremacy, in which loyalty was sworn to Henry as Head of the Church, was never forced on Irish members of Parliament. The dissolution of the Irish monasteries was chaotic and badly managed and not fully successful, thus leaving the reformed church in much of Ireland impoverished and demoralized.

The Elizabethans did not come to Ireland with prayer books in the vernacular; they came with a sword. The new religion became synonymous with violent conquest. William Beddell, the Anglican bishop of Kilmore, wrote in 1634,

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