As I’d expect, Mary Kenny has offered a critically sympathetic and definitely non-polemical take on the long withdrawing roar of the sea of faith from Catholic Ireland, noted already by Gladys. For critics who may gloat that it’s all up for religion entirely, she makes an important distinction between faith and the institution of the (Roman Catholic) Church which by no means writes off faith entirely.
Mary points out that the problem with Vatican 2 was that it removed or played down so many props to faith, wrongly abominated by strident Protestants in my view – like the drama of ritual or routines like family prayers with rosary beads, and exposed the blunt choice that had been buried in ecclesiastical theatre for centuries – do you believe or not believe?
Behind it were the abuse scandals waiting to be exposed but prefigured for example in the late John McGahern’s searing novel The Dark. It was re-issued by Faber in 2008 bearing a red “banned” sticker which I have in front me me now, recalling its first publication in 1965 when it was proscribed by the Irish censorship board. This article recalls an attitude to the Church not unlike Mary’s today which veered away from confrontation and allowed the work to speak for itself and sink into public awareness in spite of the ban. John didn’t protest against the ban himself because he didn’t want to show up the Irish state “making bloody fools of themselves”. This was not only magnanimous but in the end , effective. Militants should take note.
Not that protest should be ruled out. It’s surely a case of horses for courses. In her youth, Mary displayed her fine gift for protest as a miniskirted spokeswoman on the the pill –or condom- train from Belfast, and afterwards on TV. This was a positive publicity coup carried out at the height of the Troubles that those of us who were around at the time will never forget.
In a later article for the Indo, Mary herself recalled the climate of the time, comparing the handling of the McGahern ban to the pill train excursion .
On 22 May 1971 a group of Irish feminists including Mary Kenny travelled to Belfast by rail and made their return to Dublin laden with contraceptive devices into a statement on the illogicality of the law. This provoked criticism from the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland; Thomas Ryan, Bishop of Clonfert, said that “… never before, and certainly not since penal times was the Catholic heritage of Ireland subjected to so many insidious onslaughts on the pretext of conscience, civil rights and women’s liberation.
Spluttering reactions like these are period pieces today but we are still left with the question Mary’s Guardian piece today implies: when faith is undermined, is scepticism a sufficient substitute? She also has more sympathy for the young State today than she may have had at the time. As all women become their mothers, she has a great quote from her’s after watching her daughter’s appearance on The Late Show:
“Why can’t you be a bit cuter, like Mary Robinson?” she said. “She keeps her dignity. You have to go out and make an eejit of yourself?”
As we get older we miss our parents and tend to swing to the right. But sorry Mammy. On that one, I think Mary had it right first time.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London