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,
the popish clergy is double to us in number, and having the advantage of the tongue, of the love of the people, of our own extortions upon them, of the very inborn hatred of subdued people to their conquerors, they hold them still in blindness, ourselves being the chiefest impediments of the work that we pretend to set forward.
Sir Henry Wallop’s “wild and barbarous people” began to look to Rome and to Spain for their deliverance. In the castle museum at Enniscorthy, there are Spanish vestments belonging to my father’s co-founder, a priest who was trained not in Ireland but at the Irish College in Salamanca in Spain, one of the European seminaries which began to produce Irish priests as opposition to the Reformation in Ireland became concerted in the seventeenth century.
Between 1540 and 1640 much of the land around Enniscorthy changed hands: local owners were replaced by settlers from England and Scotland. As the Wexford historian Henry Goff has written:
The long established Irish and Old English owners who between them held all the lands…in 1540, owned only one third of the area between them in 1640.
The settlement of Ulster, which began in the early seventeenth century, was equally intense. In the eastern counties of Ulster, around the city of Belfast, “the settlements,” Tanner writes, “were the private enterprise of a couple of adventurers,” and these tended to be more successful than the colonization (also involving the ejectment of the Catholic locals and the giving of their land to Protestant settlers) under the direct auspices of the crown. Tanner is alert to how various and complex the settlement of Ulster was in the early seventeenth century:
The Plantation turned into an ethnic and religious patchwork quilt…. The inhabitants of north County Down are very largely the descendants of emigrants from [the Scottish towns] Ayr, Renfrew, Wigtown, Dumfries, and Kircudbright. In Belfast, Chichester [one of the adventurers] mingled Scots and Manx settlers with families from his native Devonshire. The settlers of the crown Plantation were both Scottish and English. In Londonderry and County Fermanagh, English immigrants were in the majority, which explains the strongly Anglican character of County Fermanagh even today.
For these Protestants in the North the year that would be remembered was 1641. It was, in Marcus Tanner’s words, “year zero”:
The fury of the displaced native Irish Catholics boiled up and exploded and the settlers’ descendants never forgot the torments to which their community was exposed that year. They turned it into a biblical parable in which they were the Israelites, the chosen people, while the natives assumed the role of the Old Testament tribes whose destiny, it seemed, was to make trouble.
More than one third of the settler community in Ulster was massacred by their Catholic neighbors. This solidified the Ulster settlers, Presbyterian and Church of Ireland, into one identity: Protestant and under siege by their neighbors. And Cromwell’s assault on Ireland made no distinction between the Old English Catholics and the natives. They, too, took on a single identity: Catholic and dispossessed. Cromwell’s policy of land distribution gave the Protestants most of the land and left the Catholic population landless and aggrieved. In 1690 they owned 22 percent of the land, by 1703 14 percent, and 5 percent by the 1770s. “The destruction of the Catholic property-owning class,” Tanner writes,
ran concurrently with the abolition of their remaining political rights. As the right to elect was tied to the value of land, the number of Catholics who could vote fell steadily until 1728, when the last Catholics lost the vote.
The number of converts to the Protestant religion in these years was very low—merely 5,500, mainly landowners, between 1703 and 1789. Catholics remained a majority in most of Ireland, however, growing from 800,000 in 1650 to 1.5 million fifty years later and continuing to expand over the next century. A census of 1831 revealed an Irish population of 7.9 million, of which 6.4 million were Catholic. As their numbers grew, so too did their confidence, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, despite official policy and subsequent persecution of Catholics, their power.
The hill which overlooks Enniscorthy, Vinegar Hill, is famed in song and story. It stood across the valley from our house; this hill was the last stand of the rebels in 1798. I knew how the English tortured the rebels and their associates by giving them “a pitch cap” by pouring boiling tar on their heads and then pulling the hardened tar off. As a small boy, I imagined the English pulling the very tops of their heads off and staring inside at the strange, soupy, viscous mixture which made up the brain. As we passed through the town of Tullow, my father would point at a shop whose owners (or rather, whose owners’ ancestors) had betrayed a rebel priest, Father Murphy. He said that you could never go into that shop. I often wondered why they did not change their name, or set up shop in some other town.
At Vinegar Hill o’er the pleasant
Our heroes vainly stood back
And the Yeos at Tullow took
And burned his body upon the
The uprisings against the English in Wexford and elsewhere in 1798 differed from the rebellion of 1641. Both the American Revolution and the French Revolution had established ideas of liberty and equality and, in the case of the former, freedom from English rule, which had a powerful impact on sections of Irish opinion. A number of Protestant intellectuals were prepared to lead a rebellion, and because that rebellion included the Catholic landless class, the Catholic literate class (including a small number of priests), and Protestant idealists, its very failure made it an inspiration for Irish nationalists. No one had to witness, as in France, a struggle for power among the factions. They merely witnessed bravery and then defeat. Thus the rebellion of 1798 could become a shining moment when old identities were shed and Ireland seemed briefly to struggle free of its destiny. And the cruelty of the English in putting down the rebellion could be recounted in each household over the next two hundred years.
In the ballads and the history books and the stories, however, two uncomfortable aspects of the rebellion were left out. One can be summed up in the name Scullabogue. In the Wexford of my childhood it was an unmentionable word. In June 1798, as Marcus Tanner writes,
a group of at least 100 prisoners, overwhelmingly Protestant, and including women and children, were forced [by rebels] into a barn at Scullabogue, six miles east of New Ross, and burned alive.
The rebellion had become sectarian. “The leaders might preach the secular nationalism of the French Revolution,” Tanner writes, but
the ordinary pikemen were motivated by an age-old hatred of Protestants of all classes. In Wicklow and Wexford it was noted that while the rebels attacked property indiscriminately, they burned only the houses of the Protestants.
And Vinegar Hill, in the weeks when it was held by the rebels, was used as a place where Protestants could be taken to be tortured and killed. Our glorious past was more complicated than we ever imagined; our ballads were lies.
While the rebellion actually took place in 1798, its power and resonance really came into being one hundred years later, during the elaborate centenary celebrations, in which W.B. Yeats took part with such uneasy relish. Most of the famous ballads were written not in the immediate aftermath of the rebellion but in preparation for the centenary celebrations. The rebellion lasted such a short time and achieved so little that its legacy could be claimed by almost anyone. In 1998, when Ireland wanted to emphasize its nonsectarian future and its European connections, the commemorations would focus on the idea of Protestants and Catholics joined together to further European ideas of liberty and democracy. In 1898, on the other hand, the commemorations emphasized the rebellion as a separatist, nationalist, Catholic event, led by priests, which might inspire us to further rebellion:
God grant you glory, brave Father
And open heaven to all your men;
For the cause that called you may
In another fight for the green
In 1987, in Wexford: History and Society, an essay by Kevin Whelan appeared which made nonsense of the idea of the 1798 Rising as an event supported by most of the local Catholic priests. It made clear that of the eighty-five priests in Wexford in 1798, one was mad, ten were rebels, and seventy-four remained quiet or loyal to the British government, many of these preaching vehemently against rebellion. The local Catholic bishop described the rebel priests, the heroes of the ballads, as “renegade, abandoned, reprobate priests who perverted their ministry by joining the Rebellion.” His words did not suit the version of history invented in 1898 and put forward in nationalist Wexford thereafter.
The descent of the rebellion into sectarian murder and the role of the mainstream Catholic clergy in 1798 are worth emphasizing not simply because historical truth, such as it is, may be important, but because both these aspects of the rebellion had echoes and repercussions in the years that followed and, indeed, in recent years in Ireland. The 1798 rebellion, for example, had much in common with the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. On both occasions disparate forces joined under one banner which was raised in the name of liberty and civil rights, taking both their ideology and their bearings from events in the United States, the events of 1798 from the American Revolution and the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland from its counterpart in the US. Both movements began with political idealism which soon descended into sectarian hatred and sectarian murder, involving a large British military presence and much condemnation from the Catholic clergy.
The Catholic clergy in the eighteenth century moved from being hunted under penal laws to becoming slowly respectable and then gradually conservative. The Irish Catholic dispossessed were a potential revolutionary class, with no other leaders after 1798 except clergy who, however, tended to come from the growing number of prosperous families and did not welcome revolutionary politics. “Since the rebellion of 1798,” Marcus Tanner writes, “London and Dublin Castle had come to appreciate the Catholic Church as a breakwater against revolution and the only institution that could keep the Irish peasantry in a due state of submission…. The cooperation of the Catholic priests was seen as essential if the lid was to be kept on.”
Outside Enniscorthy, not far from where we lived, there is a field known as “The Repeal Field.” It was here in 1842 that the political leader Daniel O’Connell, who had already won the right for Catholics to be MPs, held one of his huge meetings seeking repeal of the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. O’Connell spent his first evening in the town, having been welcomed by six hundred horsemen, at a dinner party at the bishop’s palace, and it is easy to imagine the guests, Catholic men of power and wealth and consequence, with O’Connell the great parliamentarian and opponent of violence, hand in glove with the Church as he led Irish Catholics of all classes, including the growing middle class, toward reform rather than revolution against their landlords and against British rule. The platform from which O’Connell spoke included many parish priests. The bishop’s address began: “My dear friends of the County Wexford, you have come here, quiet, orderly, peaceable, moral men, such as you have always been, for that is your character.”
Thus the pattern begun in 1798 of Church opposition to political violence and possible revolution became more complex. In Daniel O’Connell the Church had found a politician who would further its aims; the clergy came to believe that they represented the nation, in its highest and most noble ideals, and therefore could extend their influence, or withhold support, as it suited them, over the next 150 years. They would continue to rail against republicanism and the use of force. In 1864, Cardinal Cullen told a meeting in Dublin: “Those who talk of civil war, or resistance to established authorities and revolutionary movements, are the worst enemies of Ireland and its ancient faith.” The goal of the Fenians, the secret revolutionary movement to free Ireland from the British, he later said, was “to preach up Socialism, to seize on the property of those who have any and to exterminate both the gentry of the country and the Catholic clergy.” Despite the threat of excommunication, Tanner writes, “the majority of the faithful might obey the bishops but a substantial minority was determined on revolt, whatever the Church said.” My grandfather and his brother, evicted from a small farm outside the town, moved into Enniscorthy at the close of the nineteenth century; they both had been sworn into the Fenians. Excommunication did not make them anti-clerical, or anti-Catholic. They would have taken a considerable interest in exterminating the gentry, to use Cardinal Cullen’s phrase, but they remained fervent Catholics, as did most of the Irish revolutionaries.
In a book published in 1946 to celebrate the centenary of Enniscorthy Cathedral, an essay lists the names of those who contributed to the building fund:
At the time when these entries were made the Great Famine was sweeping through the land. Many of those whose small subscriptions helped to build Enniscorthy Cathedral must soon have known bitter hunger, starvation and death.
Yet when I look at the list of names, I recognize them as the names of the people I was brought up with. Some of their descendants own the same shops, live in the same houses. The cathedral was completed during the Famine years, while the cottier class of renters of small lands was being wiped out, as a triumphant symbol of the new power of the Catholic Church. The walls were built from the rubble of the old Franciscan friary.
Even now, if you stand on the bridge over the river Slaney, you will see the Catholic spire lording it over the spire of the Protestant church. The Protestant community remains strong in Wexford, however. They still have farms along the river valley and they traditionally elected, until this year, a Protestant member of Parliament. This is unusual in the Republic of Ireland, where the Protestant population declined by two thirds between 1861 and 1936.
The Protestants of Wexford seemed to accept the new state, founded in 1922, and the rise of sectarian hatred in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s made little difference in Wexford. But one episode in 1957 in the village of Fethard-on-Sea in the south of County Wexford made clear that the spirit of sectarianism was still simmering. There was, Tanner writes, “a small rural Protestant community of a few dozen families.” A daughter of one of these families married a Catholic and, to win the sanction of the Catholic Church, such unions had to agree that the children would be educated as Catholics. The couple in question remained unsure about this, expressing their doubts to the local priest. Eventually, the wife took her children to Northern Ireland and began negotiations from there over how they would be educated. The Catholics of Fethard- on-Sea, under the guidance of their priest and with the support of their bishop, responded by boycotting every Protestant in the district. “Catholics,” Marcus Tanner writes, “were told not to go into Protestant shops, work for Protestant farmers, purchase Protestant goods or milk, or continue in the employment of Protestant institutions, such as schools.” The Catholic bishop of Galway said that all local Protestants were guilty of “the crime of conspiring to steal the children of a Catholic father. But they try to make political capital when a Catholic people make a peaceful and moderate protest.”
I was two years old at the time and thus within a few years I would be in a position to listen carefully to everything that was said in the house and remember most of it. Fethard-on-Sea was about twenty-five miles away. The boycott was never mentioned in my hearing. My father and his friend the priest were busy collecting money and goodwill for their new museum in those years. They both were celebrating rebellion in the castle. In the Republic of Ireland, a legacy of rebellion did not lead its followers, or at least the ones I knew, toward speaking out against the victimization of their neighbors. The old conflict between the natives and the settlers was still in the background. The locals, including my own family, remained in their own tribe. The conflict did not emerge again as starkly as it did at Fethard-on-Sea, but nonetheless the two communities remained apart. The names, both Christian names and surnames, are different. While Catholics and Protestants play rugby and golf together, the Gaelic games of hurling and football are played overwhelmingly by Catholics. On a Sunday morning as you walk back from Mass, you can see the Protestants outside their church after service, a small, tight community separate from our own.
My uncle, who fought in the War of Independence and on the Republican side in the Irish Civil War, tended to remain silent on his exploits as a revolutionary. He was, in his later years, decorated by the Pope for his services to the Church and he was a faithful member of Fianna Fáil, the party that has ruled Ireland for most of the time since independence. One Christmas, however, he began to laugh at the word “ricochet,” telling us how when they took over the Protestant church in Enniscorthy during the Civil War and were under attack there, one of his colleagues roared over and over: “Watch the ricoshits lads, watch the ricoshits.” We all laughed at his imitation of his friend’s accent. I did not dare ask him what in the name of God they were doing taking over the Protestant church during a war which, ostensibly, had nothing to do with Protestants.
In 1994, Enniscorthy Cathedral was in need of serious restoration and collections were made to fund the work. It was decided after Easter that the cathedral would close and mass would now be said in the local convent and in the large hall owned by the Gaelic Athletic Association. The local Church of Ireland, however, offered the use of their church as well, the one my uncle took over during the Civil War. Most of the people in the town had never been inside this church.
On Saturday, April 16, then, evening Mass was said to a packed congregation in the Protestant church in Enniscorthy. On the way into the church groups of people were photographed to mark what the priest called “this historic occasion.” The Protestant church was much smaller than ours, less imposing, and squarer in shape. There was a beautiful marble pulpit with an eagle’s head on the lectern. Some stained glass showed Jesus in a red tunic holding a lamb, but the other long windows were made of light green glass.
It was strange to be in a Protestant church seeing familiar Catholic faces and hearing familiar Catholic prayers. All of us looked around until Mass began. It was announced that there would be no sermon. I could not take my eyes off a plaque on the wall to my left. It was to the memory of Archibald Hamilton Jacob, Late Captain of the Loyal Vinegar Hill Rangers, Who Departed This Life, December 1836, Aged 66 Years. “As a Magistrate, He Was Impartial, As a Subject Loyal, As a Soldier Generous and Brave.”
He must have been up there on Vinegar Hill during the battle of 1798, and he must have been around for the slaughter afterward, which I heard so much about when I was a child. We were in his church now; we had been invited. Protestant service and Mass would be said here this morning. No one else in the congregation seemed very interested in this plaque, or the sectarian legacy. The plaque was a memorial to a past we would not repeat. History, I believed, had come to an end in Enniscorthy.
In the last years of the twentieth century, the personal became political in the Irish Catholic Church. I have a memory of a schoolday at St. Peter’s College in 1971 when I faked illness in the morning and found myself in the afternoon in the rooms of a priest who taught science and would later become school principal. He had a good stereo system and the new album by The Who. We sat there and listened to the record and talked until another priest, who worked in the seminary, came to visit. It was all friendly and easy. I admired the priest from the seminary because he had given a sermon on the paradox of faith which was literate and complex and challenging. He was also very good-looking. As class came to an end, we were joined by one of my best friends who later became a priest as well.
The fact that all four of us were homosexual was not even a subtext in the room. Homosexuality was a great taboo, although in this liberal era after Vatican II most other subjects were open to discussion. It did not occur to me then the great difference that homosexuality was going to make to my life. And it would have been beyond our wildest nightmares that two of the other three men in the room were going to be photographed and named as having had sex with minors. They were to become the hunted priests of Ireland in the third millennium.
Later that year, of my own voli-tion, I attended a vocations workshop during the holidays at which others were present who would also become abusers. I wonder now what would have happened if someone had asked us if we were sure we were not mistaking the confusion around our own sexuality for a vocation to the priesthood. Most of our friends, even deeply religious ones, decided not to become priests because of the celibacy rule; they could not imagine their lives without the company of women. We had no such problem.
The science teacher served a jail sentence; a photograph of the visitor from the seminary appears daily now in the Irish papers as fresh allegations against him arise. And, sadly, in the past few weeks my old friend who came from class that day and sat with us in the science teacher’s room, he too has been suspended by his bishop. All three, in the years I knew them, exuded a funny sort of innocence. They managed, as far as I can tell, to keep their vows until they came into their forties. The science teacher became principal of an all-male boarding school; the priest from the seminary became head of a seminary; my school friend worked in a parish.
In 1971, when I knew them, there was no reason why you would fix on these three people and the other three seminarians who also got into trouble and say that it was bound to happen. What each one did was different, was done over a different period of time. All of them as far as I know were interested in teenage boys. I believe that they joined the Church sincerely. I know how long and lonely the evenings must have been for them, and how strangely tempting the proximity of so many vulnerable young men under their control. I know how long they must have denied it, and when they gave into it, how afraid they must have been.
I also know how much damage they did. Their victims come from the same backgrounds, the same sort of families, as I do. Many of those abused are in their thirties now. Many of them complained to the Church and were ignored. In Ireland there is a long tradition of political victims and martyrs, but there is enormous reticence on sexual matters. For the victims to speak on television about what was done to them, and the effect it had, in a small society where everybody knows you, has taken enormous courage and been immensely powerful. Recently, after the suicide of one of the priests while facing charges, his victims came on television. In their manners, their accents and their body language, they looked like and spoke like the people I went to school with, who sat in that church at St. Peter’s three times a day, but in their frankness, their tone both wounded and candid, the hurt wisdom in their voices, their flashes of anger, they were living in a new sort of Ireland.
In that same program, made by the BBC, Brendan Comiskey, the local Catholic bishop, was stopped on his doorstep and questioned about why he had left an abusing priest in his parish. “Bishop Comiskey,” Marcus Tanner writes, “was a born communicator, popular on local radio and possessing the common touch.” In a split second, as the bishop moved up the steps and away from the inquiring camera, his communication skills failed him. He looked afraid. A week later he resigned. For those of us brought up in an Ireland where bishops were aloof and high and mighty, Comiskey was different, and his resignation was all the more shocking for that. The Church, before the sex scandals, was in decline in any case. In the Dublin diocese in 1979, the year of the Pope’s visit, there were sixteen ordinations; ten years later there were eight; in 1999 there was one. There was a similar decline in Mass-going. The birth rate in the Republic also dropped from 74,400 in 1980 to 49,456 in 1993. It is clear that Catholic Ireland is entering a new phase.
December 19, 2002
[^*]:"The Protestant Reformation in Ireland," in Natives and Newcomers: Essays on the Making of Irish Colonial Society, 1534–1641, edited by Ciaran Brady and Raymond Gillespie (Irish Academic Press, 1986), p. 54.