In this edited extract from John McGahern’s 1993 essay, ‘The Church and its Spire’, recently reprinted in the posthumous collection, ‘Love of the World’, the novelist recalls growing up in Ireland at a time when ‘the Church had almost total power’
I WAS born into Catholicism as I might have been born into Buddhism or Protestantism or any of the other isms or sects, and brought up as a Roman Catholic in the infancy of this small state when the Church had almost total power: it was the dominating force in my whole upbringing, education and early working life.
I have nothing but gratitude for the spiritual remnants of that upbringing, the sense of our origins beyond the bounds of sense, an awareness of mystery and wonderment, grace and sacrament, and the absolute equality of all women and men underneath the sun of heaven. That is all that now remains. Belief, as such, has long gone.
Over many years I keep returning to a letter Marcel Proust wrote to Georges de Lauris in 1903 at the height of the anti-clerical wave that swept through France:
“I can tell you at Illiers, the small community where two days ago my father presided at the awarding of the school prizes, the curé is no longer invited to the distribution of the prizes since the passage of the Ferry laws. The pupils are trained to consider the people who associate with him as socially undesirable and, in their way, quite as much as the other, they are working to split France in two. And when I remember this little village so subject to the miserly earth, itself the foster-mother of miserliness; when I remember the curé who taught me Latin and the names of the flowers in his garden; when, above all, I know the mentality of my father’s brother-in-law – town magistrate down there and anti-clerical – when I think of all this, it doesn’t seem to me right that the old curé should no longer be invited to the distribution of the prizes, as representative of something in the village more difficult to define than the social function symbolised by the pharmacist, the retired tobacco-inspector and the optician, but something which is, nevertheless, not unworthy of respect, were it only for the perception of the meaning of the spiritualised beauty of the church spire – pointing upward into the sunset where it loses itself so lovingly in the rose-coloured clouds; and which, all the same, at first sight, to a stranger alighting in the village, looks somehow better, nobler, more dignified, with more meaning behind it, and with, what we all need, more love than the other buildings, however sanctioned they may be under the latest laws.”
Proust’s plea is for tolerance and understanding that come from a deep love, a love that is vigorous and watchful:
“. . . let the anti-clericals at least draw a few more distinctions and at least visit the great social structures they want to demolish before they wield the axe. I don’t like the Jesuit mind, but there is, nevertheless, a Jesuit philosophy, a Jesuit art, a Jesuit pedagogy. Will there be an anti-clerical art? All this is much less simple than it appears.”
The Church grows in the very process of change, Proust asserts, and he argues that it had assumed an influence even over those who were supposed to deny and combat it, which could not have been foreseen in the previous century, a century during which the Catholic Church was “the refuge of ignoramuses”. He names a number of great writers of the time to show that the 19th century was not an anti-religious century. Even Baudelaire was in touch with the Church, Proust argues, if only through Sacrilege.
There is no danger, even today, of the parish priest being excluded from a school ceremony in Ireland. In any of the small towns it would be as much as a person’s social life was worth to try to keep him away, which does not make Proust’s truth less applicable. If the 18th-century church in France was “the refuge of ignoramuses”, my fear is that the Church in 20th-century Ireland will come, in time, to be seen similarly, and my involvement was when it was at the height of its power.