James Joyce has the last word on tyrannical church

HOW timely that we are celebrating James Joyce again.

Timely because, had we, as a nation, been more attuned to the story of his life and what he wrote we might just possibly have avoided the hell on earth endured by victims of widespread clerical abuse.

It was the suffocating stranglehold of institutional Catholicism, maintained in part by the same religious orders that later ran the industrial schools and Magdalene centres, that drove Joyce into exile and later fuelled the banning of his books.

I have just viewed a 1977 film adaptation of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (the one with Bosco Hogan and TP McKenna) and was struck by the classroom scene where the clerical teacher is testing his pupils on their knowledge of Latin grammar. As he speaks, the classroom door opens ominously and in strides the prefect of studies, Fr Dolan. He immediately produces a leather strap similar to the one displayed during last week’s solidarity march in Dublin for abuse victims. He raps it loudly on a desk, a prelude to what lies in store for the pupils. He strikes fear into them, whacking a pupil who is kneeling in front of the class for having failed at lessons. He then punishes Stephen Dedalus, (Joyce’s alter ego) in like fashion… slapping him painfully on both hands with the leather.

The Latin teacher is a mild mannered cleric who seems to flinch a little from the punishment he witnesses… but he says nothing and does not intervene, like so many of the “decent” brothers, priests, and nuns who stood by when child or teenage inmates of institutions were suffering at the hands of adult bullies or sexual deviants.

The sermon on hell described in the novel, conveyed chillingly in the film, has the effect of solidifying the church’s control over the petrified students who hear it... just as the same church held sway over the hearts and minds of millions of Irish people for decades.

In recent days I have heard it said dozens of times that the church has been shamed by the behaviour of a few “bad apples”. I think it’s the other way around: there are, and always have been, priests, nuns and brothers who were decent human beings… it was, and to an extent remains, the authoritarian structure and ethos of the institutional church that made possible the horrors of systemic institutional abuse.

Joyce saw the church’s undue influence over people’s private lives and the affairs of state for the malign and unhealthy phenomenon it was. The vast majority of his fellow-countrymen and women shunned him in his lifetime. He doesn’t have too many detractors now, though I wish we could somehow rescue his legacy and his work and take it away from the musty halls of academia. It belongs to all the people and especially, in my view, to those whose lives were scarred, dented or destroyed by the church’s abuse of power in Ireland.

John Fitzgerald


Co Kilkenny

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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

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