Toby Joyce, 62: ‘You can be a moral person and live an upright life without religious belief’

Photograph: Barry Cronin

Photograph: Barry Cronin

Fri, Aug 22, 2014, 11:30

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Toby Joyce lives in Navan, Co Meath

I grew up in Clifden, Co Galway, in a house on Market Street in the town. To put it bluntly, I think the town was dying then, back in the 50s. There were a lot of derelict buildings, unpainted buildings, buildings without roofs. Clifden is a much changed place, for the better, today.

My father Tobias was in his 50s when he got married. He was many things in his life, but he mainly dealt in cattle. If he had a love, it was for sheep, but the money was in cattle and beef, so that’s what he dealt in.

Both my parents were very much pro-Free Staters. They were very anti-clerical and had a profound mistrust of the church. They were pious Catholics in public but privately, in front of the family, they expressed their real views. I think there was always a latent anti-clerical element in society and that it’s not something that has only emerged in recent years.

I don’t practise religion and I abandoned it quite early on, by the time I was 20 or so. What I disliked about Irish Catholicism, when I started to think about it, was its arrogance. There was a veneer of superiority and there was very little that was humble about the church. I think you can be a moral person and live an upright life without religious belief.

There were four of us children. I was always bookish. I was a bit of a nerd before nerds were invented. I relied heavily on the local library, as did my mother. We both went there every couple of days.

I went to boarding school in Garbally, then to UCG, where I studied mathematics and physics. I was very rudderless when I finished. There was a feeling you didn’t have to emigrate any more. It was the Lemass years and there was a general feeling of lift in the country. I was at a loose end.

I took a job in the Indian Ocean, through the Holy Ghost Fathers. It was the equivalent of Voluntary Services Overseas in those days. I taught mathematics and physics at Rodrigues, an island about 350 miles from Mauritius. I was 23 when I went out.

I was there for two years. My father passed away when I was out there. I didn’t get back in time for the funeral, and it was even a couple of days before they got the news to me, because I was on a boat between islands at the time. Missing his funeral is the most painful thing that has ever happened to me, because there was no closure. I felt I had missed something with him.

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