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The City, The Country, and the Church






Mega Fix


TWA Flight 800






Note: The following was written in 1993

On a bleak, grey mid-winter day, last year, as I walked alongside a Galway canal, a short, weathered gent passed me walking on the left. As he passed, he looked up and said with a smile, "Not a bad day now, is it?"

"Not a bad day?" On the surface, this sentiment seemed as dim as the weather. But the day before, as I recalled, rains had whipped the city and the winds had howled like a Banshee. This day was merely bleak and grey. From an Irish perspective, not a bad day at all.

All generalizations are imperfect, I know, but this one exchange summed up for me the difference between their experience and ours. The Irish expect to be rained on--in fact and in metaphor--and are appreciative when spared. We expect the sun to shine and grouse when it doesn't.

The Irish have had a long history of rain. In 1169, Henry II of England cast a covetous glance westward and liked what he saw so much that he took it. From that date on, in fits and starts, the visitors from across the Irish Sea would continue to squeeze the native Celts off the good sod and on to the rocks. "To Hell or Connacht," said British henchman Oliver Cromwell summing up 17th century native options: in this case, death or exile to Ireland's hard-scrabble West.

The physics of disposession climaxed with the potato famine of 1845-49, when more than a million of Ireland's eight million people died and another million or so quit the country, my own ancestors among them. Life was so tough even after the famine that while the average slave in America could expect to live 36 years, the Irish peasant could expect but 19.

Throughout Ireland's troubled history, however, there have been bright spots. One, for many Irish, has been the Roman Catholic Church, "the Church," a stubbornly persistent source of both affirmation and identity. It was the Church that endowed the Irish with their oddly fatalistic good cheer; the Church that taught them to endure the grey and to seek light in the eternal. This other-worldliness helps explain the gallantly hopeless uprisings that dot Irish history as regularly the beads on a Rosary.

From the beginning, the Catholic Church in Ireland has adapted well to pagan Celtic realities. Unlike many sects, it has not offered any serious resistance to escapist pleasures like drinking, dancing and gambling. Usually, in fact, quite the opposite. The local bingo parlor, for instance, offers a "pilgrimage to Lourdes" as its weekly grand prize. And no sacrament goes uncelebrated nor untoasted, the Last Rites included.

There is one behavior, however, that the Church has restricted, some would say severely: and that is sex. The reasons for these sanctions are lost in the fog of time--they may be ecological in origin--but they have clearly shaped the culture and spun a web of anxiety around more than a few lives.   (. . . more)





Posted: 1993

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