How cosy and quaint do the petty sectarian bigotries of 20th century Irish writing seem today.
I’m not referring to the civil war in the North of Ireland, usually euphemistically referred to in a diminished manner as the ‘Troubles’. I lived through most of that, and it was extremely unpleasant indeed.
Rather I mean the slightly earlier period of the early and mid-twentieth century, when Irish writing bestrode the world in the forms of giants like Joyce, Beckett, Yeats and Behan.
What’s interesting, considering just these four (though we could add many other lesser names), is the varying personal reactions to the sectarian divide in Ireland. For the Protestant-raised, middle-class and cosmopolitan Beckett and Yeats, minor distinctions in flavours of Christianity was an irrelevance at best.
Yeats in later life veered into mysticism, theosophy, magick and the occult. Beckett by contrast tended to dismiss Christianity if not all religion entirely, referring to it as “all balls”, though conceding that it amounted to more than merely “convenient mythology”. Raised in the era they were, both Yeats and Beckett imbibed plenty of Christian dogma in school and wider culture however, and both demonstrate in their writing an easy and deep familiarity with Christian writings and the Bible.
By contrast, the Catholic, lower middle-class/working class Joyce and Behan seemed unable entirely to shake off the tribal Catholicism of their backgrounds and education. I was reminded of this recently when I re-encountered Behan’s hilarious take on Anglicanism:
Don’t speak of the alien minister,
Nor of his church without meaning or faith,
For the foundation stone of his temple
Was the bollocks of Henry VIII.
Behan was a self-described “daylight atheist”. This is often presented online in the form of a quote: “I’m a communist by day and a Catholic by night”. However, I’ve not found a reliable source for this variant. Anyhow, Behan clearly had not managed to transcend the petty sectarian rivalries which beset Ireland, and in this he echoes Joyce, who in the highly autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man describes his alter-ego protagonist Stephen Dedalus refusing to consider conversion to Protestantism:
– Then, said Cranly, you do not intend to become a Protestant?
– I said that I had lost the faith, Stephen answered, but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?
We might consider this passage as a depiction in mature adulthood of his prissy adolescence were it not that it is echoed elsewhere in his work, such as the short story ‘Grace’ in Dubliners.
It’s worth remembering too that Joyce and Behan both escaped the confines of petty Ireland if anything more completely than Yeats ever did, the latter becoming a senator in the newly independent Ireland whereas Joyce relocated permanently to Europe, while Behan spent much of his time in London and America. (Beckett like his mentor Joyce went to Europe and never looked back.)
So then, what fuels this seemingly pointless animus? The grounds of objection from both Joyce and Behan relate to an apparent illogicality inherent to Protestantism. Notably in both instances, there is no defence of Catholicism offered, merely a snide (and in Behan’s case, very funny) dismissal of Ireland’s second-largest faith.
And unlike Yeats, neither sought to construct a religious faith of their own, though in Joyce’s case at least there was an astonishing attempt to replace the religious impetus with an aesthetic one, succinctly underpinned as Joyce said, by “silence, exile and cunning.”
I think Behan’s piece (a translation as it happens from 16th century Irish) gives the game away here. In many locations, the first line of his translation is misquoted as referring to “your Protestant minister”. But Behan like his source material makes clear that while Anglicanism is being referred to, the issue is less the protest against Catholicism underpinning it than its alienness, that is, the fact that it was the faith of the foreign (ie English) overlords who governed Ireland from the time of bebollocked Henry to their present day.
In other words, it was an atavistic political tribalism rather than a theological objection. We still have those tribalisms in Ireland today, primarily in the North where those overlords remain in position, likely against their will and desire, due to the complexities of establishing a permanent and lasting peace. In the 26 counties of the Irish Republic however, these passages stand out as glaring anachronisms now.
And even in the North, the late great “famous” Seamus Heaney (like Yeats and Beckett a Nobel laureate) is best described as sociologically post-Catholic rather than a devotee of the creed of his birth. This runs counter to the opinions offered by some of his most astute critics, Conor Cruise O’Brien and Edna Longley in particular of course, but is it unfair to point out that both critics came from Protestant backgrounds and hence saw the cultural references to Catholicism in Heaney’s work as more significant than it was simply because those references were alien to them in the same way that Protestantism was to Behan?
In other words, the sensitivities may be reversed here. Perhaps it is as readers that we detect these curious emphases. Perhaps we misconstrue the petty cultural rivalries of sectarianism in mid-20th century Ireland because religion played such a larger role in cultural life in those days, in ways that anyone under 50 is unlikely to recognise in Ireland today.
The great Irish writers never stop teaching us, and one of their lessons is that we must challenge ourselves as readers with regard to what we find striking in their writing. What we notice and what we do not says perhaps as much about us as it does about them. They hold a mirror to our souls, even if, like Behan, we are daylight atheists.