Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Irish and Purity

The Irish have a mixed image when it comes to what we might call the carnal side of life. On the one hand, we have a traditional reputation for purity, even prudishness-- based on our once-devout Catholicism, our stringent censorship laws in the middle of the last century, and (perhaps) the long skirts and sleeves worn in traditional Irish dancing. On the other hand, there is a rather uproariously raunchy image, based (perhaps) on the idea of big Irish (emigrant) families, on the naughty lyrics to some traditional Irish ballads, and on risqué works of old Gaelic literature such as The Midnight Court by Brian Merriman.

Canon Sheehan

Which is true? Personally, I think the prudishness-- or purity-- is more true.

I'm not prudish myself, nor can I lay claim (more's the pity) to the kind of natural purity that G.K. Chesterton (for instance) seemed to exemplify from his boyhood. I have very often laughed at blue jokes, for instance. I have even made them.

I am, however, very drawn to the ideal of a certain wholesomeness that, in my view, seemed typical of Irish culture until very recently. I'm not saying this was ever representative of what went on behind closed doors, or of conversations in schoolyards and pubs, or in the privacy of the imagination. But the fact that there was an ideal of chastity in public discussion, and in the arts, seems to me admirable in itself. I think this lingered in Ireland for some considerable time after it had been discarded elsewhere.

These reflections are propted by a novel I'm reading now. It's called The Triumph of Failure and it was written in 1901 by a priest-novelist, Patrick Augustine Sheehan (better known as Canon Sheehan).

In a passage that I read earlier today, the protagonist of the story-- an impoverished scholar whose Catholic faith is fragile, and who is fascinated by the classics-- finds himself ruminating about the purity of the Irish:

With faith enervated almost to paralysis, but not unto death, and with all my intellectual powers steeped in some opiate that made them feeble and unperceptive, I am happy to say that I still retained that which seems to me to be the common and glorious birthright of our race-- a reverence, timid and awesome, for whatever is pure and undefiled. It is recorded in the lives of the saints that one obscene word threw them into insensibility. I can believe it. It is no legendary hypothesis. I have known those who would actually sicken at a suggestion of indelicacy. And if not quite so sensitive, I think I may lay claim to a shrinking from all suggestiveness that made it a positive torture to hear or say anything gross or impure. I knew that there was some hidden, unspeakable malice about this vice which no human mind of saint, philosopher, or theologian had ever fathomed; just as there is some secret, inexplicable charm in the opposite virtue, which no soul shall see explained until it sees the face of God. Naturalists may try to explain it away by reference to secret laws of Nature; physiologists may talk of a Nemesis dogging the steps of the irreverent; no law of Nature, no subtle inquiries into the subterranean working of her laws, can ever give a logical insight into the traditions of our race, the instinct of a loathing or the exaltation of inspiration, which is but a lost and broken fragment of some revelation made to our unfallen father.

Canon Sheehan died more than sixty years before I was born, but I think I am old enough to have witnessed the afterglow of what he describes here. I even think the Irish still have a tendency in this direction, and that our efforts to be raunchy and risqué always seem more than a little forced.

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