Irish Papist

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

Saturday, May 13, 2017


"Cumha" is the Irish word for nostalgia, and I was just hit by a particularly potent blast of it.

I've given up on reading Irish language poetry, at least for the moment, and I've decided to go back to An Sagart, the journal of the Cumann na Sagart, the Irish language association for priests and other Catholics. Maybe I'm getting excessively sectarian, but after a while of reading non-Catholic stuff, I miss the atmosphere of Catholicism. I think this is particularly pronounced when it comes to the Irish language, because almost everything in Irish that's not written from a Catholic perspective is pointedly anti-Catholic in one way or another. For instance, many of the poems I was reading used Christian imagery, but they used it in an irreverent way. Similarly, contemporary Irish language writers seem to delight in vulgarity and "grittiness", in order to prove how far removed they are from the Christian Brothers schools.

So, once again, I picked up one of the familiar sky-blue volumes of An Sagart. The one I took today came from 1989. I was twelve in 1989. It was the year before the 1990 soccer World Cup in Italy, which seems to me to be a major dividing line in Irish social history. (This guy agrees.)

The article that I happened to read was about a "reconciliation room" (or perhaps a "confession space") in a church at Cloughjordan, Tipperary. The writer (a priest) was simply describing the church, the stained glass windows (by famous Irish artist Harry Clarke) and the room itself. He also described the time he spent there hearing confessions.

Reading it, I felt an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, of homesickness, of yearning. The atmosphere of the article was so specific to the Ireland of my childhood, the Irish Catholicism of my childhood.

How to describe it? Mellow is the first word that comes to mind. Bear in mind that this was an Ireland that had already been considerably liberalised-- too liberalised, already. But there was still a background respect for the Church and the clergy, for religion in general, which could be more or less taken for granted, to some degree.

Relaxed is another word that comes to mind. I don't think it's projection that the Ireland reflected in such articles is less hectic, less driven, less go-getting than the Ireland of today. A modern economy, for sure, but one where business and commerce still had considerably less glamour and respectability than literature and the arts-- where there was even something slightly apologetic about money-making. (A long way from "Dragon's Den".)

I can't fit the next idea into one word, but I would say "a sense of shared narrative", or "a sense of shared identity". Of course, the writers and readership of An Sagart would be particularly committed to the Irish language and national culture, but it really does seem the case to me that, right up to my childhood, there was a shared sense of narrative and memory in Ireland. The long struggle for national independence; the Irish "spiritual empire" of missionaries abroad; the campaign to revive the Irish language and other national traditions; the scourge of emigration (treated as a national scourge instead of an individual predicament, or lifestyle choice; even the Troubles in the North, universally treated as an unalloyed tragedy, were a part of this. Today, shared narrative seems entirely to do with living conditions, such as housing and hospitals. Important, but the bare minimum.

The desire to use the words "us", "we", and "our" is so potent in human nature. The problem is that, when you make such an admission, you instantly evoke images of collectivism, Orwellian dystopias, Nuremberg rallies, the Borg from Star Trek, and so forth.

But that's not the point. "Us", "we" and "our" doesn't have to be a monolith or a phalanx. In fact, it's precisely when those words refer to a whole landscape-- one which includes divisions, conflict, disagreement, and oppositions of various kinds-- that they are most powerful. Like my favourite images of the snow globe, the words "us", "we" and "our" refer to the unseen borders of a whole world, the glass dome that makes a world.


  1. This is very very moving and points to things indescribably precious.

  2. Enjoyed this. Perhaps it's my state of mind but recently I have been thinking more and more that the breakdown of institutions for collective identity and organisation is disastrous for our mental well-being. And that the elevation of money making over everything is in process of destroying everything that makes us human. Orwell himself said that sensible people agreed that you must sacrifice some freedom for more equality.

    1. Thanks for those kind words, John. I am a big fan of Orwell myself. Regarding equality, it's become such a vexed word I prefer to use words like "solidarity" and "fellow-feeling", but I basically agree.

    2. Yeah, well equality is a much abused word these days I'd agree. But basically I'm talking about the idea that it is more important to look after each other as part of a community than to be an 'equal' competing individual 'free' of entanglements with all other humans. Anyway, nice post.

  3. looks like a nice church also. I'm sure there's room in the world for Gaelic poetry, the church and Harry Clarke ,not all at once, however