Commenting on his book, An tOileánach, Tomás O’Crohan said at the turn of the last century: ‘I have done my best to set down the character of the people about me so that some record of us might live on, for the like of us will never be again.’ This is the English version of the Gaelic text. O’Crohan, a fisherman with little formal education, describes the final years of an island people living off the coast of the Dingle peninsula.
My most recent novel, A Lost Tribe, published in September is, in part, motivated by the same aim as motivated O’Crohan to write his masterpiece about a fin de siècle historical moment. Nowadays, whenever I take a Sunday afternoon walk around one of the seminary campuses, I become aware of questions that seek an answer. ‘Why did it all collapse in such a relatively short length of time? Why did we seem to be ‘trailing clouds of glory’ only a short time ago?’ This September, the number of students who entered the seminary at Maynooth was the lowest on record.
The questions about decline refused to go away during those quiet Sunday afternoons and they were fed by memories of colleagues, some of whom were young men of considerable ability and idealism who could no longer endure the suffocating atmosphere of seminary life. A set of explanations came winging back: a rapidly changing culture fuelled by huge developments in mass communications and the consequent failure of the Church to address these ‘signs of the times.’ That seemed plausible. The availability of third level education and the greater possibility of good jobs: that too had an effect. The reluctance of Church authorities to welcome the recommendations of the Council put a damper on the high hopes raised by Pope John’s aggiornamento. In my book, a crusty parish priest marks his new curate’s card with a warning: ‘we’ve a lot of overheads. We have to pay our debts. We don’t have time for fancy ideas from them boyos in Rome.’ These and many others reflections occupied my thoughts and refused to be silent until I decided that the only way to find some explanation was to put pen to paper – make a modest ‘raid on the inarticulate’.
Many would claim that the author has to know the ending before launching into a work of fiction. In fact, the opposite is the case. I once heard the celebrated novelist John McGahern say that one writes in order to understand; I didn’t know what he meant. I do now. So, I began a journey without knowing my destination.
A Lost Tribe, a work of fiction, traces the fortunes and misfortunes of a generation of priests who were trained in St Paul’s seminary and who, after ordination, served the Irish Church in various parishes. In the autumn of 1962, they were in the high summer of their lives when they stepped inside the stout walls for the first time. That very week coincided with an exciting event in the Catholic Church – the opening of Vatican II.
The novel is related largely through the consciousness of Father Tom Galvin. His time in the seminary and later as a priest corresponds to the time span of the book. But some spirited students like Mac, Galvin’s best friend, never learnt how to survive. Mac had been trysting with the college caretaker’s daughter before he was caught and given an immediate expulsion. The dean of discipline, The Phantom, regarded this flagrant transgression as a product of the general lowering of standards ushered in by foolish notions of freedom emanating from the Vatican Council. He would root it out.
The contrast between Mac’s ardour – a natural consequence of youth – and the battle-weary figures Galvin comes across at a retreat later in the novel represents the wide spectrum of clerical states that are rendered in A Lost Tribe. The repeated disclosures of clerical child abuse, the loss of prestige and the isolation of the presbytery are a load too heavy for some to carry.
It is not uncommon for some to take umbrage at a priest writing a work of fiction which seems to be critical of the Church: ‘must be some unresolved problem he has; time for him to get over it,’ they conclude. Thankfully, the positive reactions I’ve had from my readers, including most priests, far outweigh that disapproval. In any case, as the man said: ‘here I stand, I can do no other.’’
And instead of any presumed spite that I might harbour against the Church, I write in gratitude for what it has given me since I was a child growing up in north Kerry. The symbols and rituals that marked the seasons were a source of wonder and, in some cases, delight. The colour, the wheeze from the old harmonium that filled the village chapel intimated a better world: one of mystery and mystique somewhere beyond the Stacks Mountains and beyond the routine of daily life. Even the ordinary sounds, such as the collective cough immediately following the consecration of the Mass, the men at the back kneeling on one knee with their caps for a cushion, I remember all these with fondness.
Stemming from a major setback to my family’s fortunes, I was aware in my formative years of an acute sense of uncertainty about my place in life and, in hindsight, I attribute my arrival at the seminary gates as a sort of flight from the world. In those days, the Church in Ireland seemed unshakeable: it became my refuge and, in time, the midwife of whatever growth has been born within. O felix culpa! I believe I may have arrived at the right gate.
(c) William King
About A Lost Tribe:
A Lost Tribe is a novel that charts the role of the priest in Ireland, from his exalted position to one of an endangered species. The seminarians at St Paul’s are granted permission to watch the opening of Vatican II, transfixed by the procession of bishops ‘vested in flowing robes’. Seduced by the power emanating from Rome and inspired by the vision of the Vatican Council, these young men sacrifice their instincts to a life in the priesthood.The dream collapses when the Irish Church becomes unwilling to evolve with a rapidly mutating world and unable to wield the power it once had. As people begin to think for themselves, the priest no longer exists as the final arbiter of right and wrong, the moral stronghold of the community. Unable to cope with the pressures of ministry and no longer fulfilled by their call, many abandon their vocation to seek a new life.Mac, a spirited young student, is disillusioned with the inadequacy of his seminary training and is expelled for a tryst, while timid fellow priests share remedies for the collective loneliness of their vocation. King’s daring novel offers an insight into the conflicted life of the priest struggling with the demands of a self-selected lifestyle and the isolation of clerical celibacy. A Lost Tribe is a poignant study of an altered society.
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