Brendan Hoban reviews Willie King’s new novel.

What happened to God’s policemen

When we sense that there’s something strange going on under the surface and we’re not quite sure what it is, we often turn to writers and artists, to give an insight beyond the limits of our own horizons.
For some time many have felt that there was something awry about priesthood but we were never quite sure what it was. And, in so far as it has been articulated, insights have come mainly from priest-writers who have explored what many experienced as an enveloping darkness.
Over thirty years ago, the writer, Michael Harding, wrote the novel ‘Priest’, which presented a gallery of clerical types: young men without hope, lonely individuals in mid-life crises, older ones in profound confusion. In the main guilt-ridden and angst-driven individuals searching for solace in the midst of disillusionment and torment: ‘There he is. A sad forty-year-old. Living alone in a large presbytery. The rooms have high ceilings, and marble mantelpieces, and they are dark places . . .’
Harding, playwright, novelist and at present regaling audiences around the country with his mordant Cavan wit, was ordained a Catholic priest in 1980. Six years later when he had left the active ministry he came to write ‘Priest’ which explored some of ‘the dark places’ surrounding priesthood.
It received a mixed reception. Some dismissed it as caricaturing the priesthood, others were disturbed by what seemed an opening into the pathological side of priesthood but most, on reflection, felt Harding was naming truths that we found difficult to accept.
We weren’t used to such a dark profile. Most of us were reared on a diet of books like Canon Sheehan’s ‘My New Curate’, whimsical accounts that didn’t venture very far if at all under the skin of parish or priestly life. Or the writings of Bernanos and Mauriac though Graham Greene tended to open up unlikely but often still benign portraits of Catholic clergy.
Richard Power’s novel, ‘The Hungry Grass’, published in 1969, was something of a breakthrough in that it marked a definitive change in the fictional treatment of an Irish priest. Power broke away from the usual clerical stereotypes – either piously sentimental or profanely satiric – in his depiction of Fr Tom Conroy. Caught between a fear of damnation and a hope of redemption, Power left the tension unresolved. What remained was a sense of darkness, a bleakness suggested though not entirely named. It was a foretaste of Harding’s ‘Priest’.
All of that by way of introduction to William King’s new novel, ‘A Lost Tribe’, which charts the role of the priest in Ireland, from his exalted position to one of endangered species. King, who’s a Dublin parish priest and a prolific novelist – this is his fifth novel in two decades – brings the memories of almost fifty years of priesthood and an impressive writing style to his best novel to date.
The main character is Fr Tom Galvin who, coming towards the end of his life and on a retreat in his old seminary, remembers the old church he knew, the hopes he had entertained, the realities he had lived and the devastation the Catholic Church in Ireland was now experiencing.
As he moves around the seminary, memories of the past keep rushing in, like the times the seminarians were given permission to watch the opening of the Second Vatican Council on television which presented a mix of reactions among them, for some hope based on the vision of the Council and for others the seduction of power as they watched the procession of bishops ‘vested in flowing robes’.
King’s gallery of priests, ranging from the nakedly ambitious Damien Irwin, dreaming about trips to Rome ‘to buy vestments at Gamarelli’s, to ‘Mac’ who’s expelled from the seminary as a result of a tryst in the bushes, to Galvin himself, fifty years ordained, uncomfortable with but still committed to the priesthood and the Church, and ‘striving to recover the dream of his youth but, like an ageing marathon runner, he no longer has the legs.’ Other well wrought characters include the archbishop – shades of John Charles McQuaid in this portrait – or the weird Dean of Discipline who told the students that ‘the most important rule in the seminary is obedience’.
Boundaries of time collapse as Galvin remembers the old seminary, holding up the cappa magna, the archbishop’s long trail of washed silk, parading up and down the ambulatory after breakfast, the thud of wet leather as the football resounded against the walls of handball alley, the purl of whispers during the solemn silence, the deacons self-consciously reading their breviaries, the girl in the confessional wanting to know if it was an occasion of sin to let her boyfriend sleep in her flat even if he was in another room.
Galvin struggles to keep going as the Church seems to crumble around him. The seminary is practically empty, some priests are being harried for abusing children, churches (he fears) are ‘becoming old curiosity shops’. Priests once ‘God’s policemen’ now occupy a marginal place on the sidelines as Ireland, ‘waiting a long time for this chance’, exacts its retribution.
This is a wonderful book, rich in wisdom, beautifully written, highly entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny. Priests, particularly those who remember the past and who struggle with the present, will find it a highly entertaining read. It also has some wise and compelling things to say about why we are where we are and how we are.
Real writers (like artists) see it first.

• William, King, A Lost Tribe, Lilliput Press, pp. 244, €15.

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One Comment

  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    For novelists, including Pádraig Stándún and yourself, Brendan, a dying priesthood is a gift that keeps on giving. I don’t agree that Bernanos lacks depth — he is the most terrifying recorder of the Catholic priesthood — Mauriac seems to have avoided that territory though he has one or two brooding seminarians in his gallery of troubled young men.

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