“Objectivity is only to be found in the dull prose of PhD theses and maybe not there either, subject, as they are, to the prevailing ideologies in universities”
Fr Kevin Hegarty
I play the Lotto and I don’t know why. I don’t expect to win. I am not lucky in raffles. Okay, I once won a cracked cake stand at a Foróíge concert in Geesala. The crowd was small and there were several prizes. It was difficult not to win!
If I did win what would I do with it? Over the years the Lotto advertisements have offered suggestions. Buy the ultimate sports car, the Lamborghini? A Lamborghini on the back roads of Erris. I don’t think so!
Or employ a gourmet chef in my kitchen? No. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life lunching for Ireland. I am not interested in being a forensic food critic like Helen Lucy Bourke. Several years ago, when she was writing for ‘The Sunday Tribune’, she castigated a leading restaurant in Dublin. She claimed she left the restaurant hungry. A few days afterwards, Con Houlihan, in one of his memorable fógras in ‘The Evening Press’, wrote that he was starting a fund to save Helen Lucy Bourke from starvation.
Hunger is relative. Some years ago there was what was called snow famine on the ski slopes of Europe. The ‘Observer’ newspaper published a thought-provoking cartoon which juxtaposed this seeming calamity with a drawing of a starving woman in Africa.
I have, however, a dream I would like to realise and a lotto win might help. I’d love to take a sabbatical from the daily job, travel around Ireland and describe the social condition of our society today – how we celebrate, play, shop, worship and mourn.
Ideally I would be accompanied by a good photographer. I have spent some time this week looking at a book of photographs by Rachel Giese, called ‘The Donegal Pictures’. In 1981 she centred her work on a small area in that county, a long glen between the Atlantic and Mount Errigal. She evokes, for us, a society at the end of an era.
There are many portraits of farmers, turf-cutting, school children and weddings. My favourite is one of a little shop in Gortahork which is framed around two beautiful little girls. There are shoeboxes, dresses, postcards, a weighing scales and minerals featured in glorious chaos. I reckon the shop is closed or transformed now. Our world is one of Tesco, Aldi, Dunnes and Lidl – and, for the technology literate, on-line shopping.
Could I not do something similar where I live now? The trouble is I am too well-known. One time people wore their ‘Sunday Clothes’ for Mass. This is less obvious now. There is still, however, a ‘Sunday Clothes’ language that people use for priests. Sometimes when I walk into a hotel or restaurant the conversation stops dead and then resumes a little unnaturally. ‘Nice/awful day, Father,’ as the case may be. The weather is always a safe topic in Ireland, except, maybe, at a Green Party Ard-Fheis.
My interest in documenting the state of Irish society today arises from what was a trend in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Several English observers wrote about their experiences of travelling around Ireland. One of them was the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, in his day as popular as Charles Dickens.
In 1842 he published his Irish Sketch Brook. It is a memorable evocation of Irish society on the cusp of the Great Famine. He has his blind spots. Who doesn’t? Objectivity is only to be found in the dull prose of PhD theses and maybe not there either, subject, as they are, to the prevailing ideologies in universities.
He was inclined to be acerbic about the Catholic Church. He asserted that students in Maynooth were brainwashed. He described a journey with some students on their way to the college.
“I must say the young fellows drank plenty of whiskey on the road, to prepare them for their year’s abstinence; and, when at length arrived in the miserable village of Maynooth, determined not to go into college that night, but to devote the evening to ‘a lark’. They were simple, kind-hearted young men, sons of farmers or tradesmen seemingly; and, as is always the case here, except among some of the gentry, very gentlemanlike and pleasing in manners. Their talk was of this companion and that; how one was in rhetoric, and another in logic, and a third had got his curacy. Wait for a while; and with the happy system pursued within the walls of their college, those smiling, good-humoured faces will come out with a scowl, and downcast eyes that seem afraid to look the world in the face. When the time comes for them to take leave of yonder dismal-looking barracks, they will be men no longer, but bound over to the Church, body and soul: their free thoughts chained down and kept in darkness, their honest affections mutilated. Well, I hope they will be happy tonight at any rate, and talk and laugh to their hearts’ content.
The poor freshman, whose big chest is carried off by the porter yonder to the inn, has but 12 hours more of hearty, natural, human life. Tomorrow, they will begin their work upon him; cramping his mind, and biting his tongue, and firing and cutting at his heart, - breaking him to pull the church chariot. Ah! why didn’t he stop at home, and dig potatoes and get children?”
Maybe he was right!!
Let’s park his attitude to the Catholic Church. In other matter he had good taste. He liked the ‘pretty town of Westport’. Even then it was noted for the excellence of its hotels. He stayed in one of the ‘prettiest, comfort ablest inns in Ireland’, its cellars stocked with good wines.
Share this page