Poetry or polemic?


PRESENT TENSE:THIS DECEMBER sees the 400th anniversary of the birth of the great, but these days increasingly unread, English poet John Milton, who, this week, made a rare appearance in this newspaper. A line from his poem Lycidas was appropriated by Paul Durcan for a most peculiar tract entitled Archbishop Dr Martin Lays Down the Party Line.

"Alas! What boots it with incessant care/To tend the homely slighted shepherd's trade?" wrote Milton in Lycidas, a pastoral elegy filled with metaphors not readily accessible to the modern reader (the "shepherd" refers to the clergy). No such problem with Durcan's tirade, which refers to Dr Martin as "Doc Martin the Boot". Doc. Martin. Boot. Geddit? Standards of wordplay appear to have declined over the last four centuries.

Set aside for a moment any crimes committed against poetry, and consider the substance, such as it is of Archbishop Dr Martin Lays Down the Party Line.

Durcan's poem, written two years ago, was inspired by two kerfuffles within the Catholic Church over issues of conscience and doctrine. The first concerned Dr Martin's criticism of a Drogheda priest, Fr Iggy O'Donovan, for celebrating the Eucharist with his Church of Ireland counterpart in Drogheda. The second was over the archbishop's displeasure at an invitation to another priest, Fr Charles Curran, to speak at a conference in Maynooth.

In Durcan's poem, Dr Martin is compared to a KGB enforcer and to Mao Zedong in his suppression of dissent on behalf of his "General Secretary", the current Pope. There's an unpleasantly snobbish undercurrent in the reference to the archbishop's "demotic Dublin accent", which, along with the over-extended boot boy metaphor, labours the point: this is a working-class thug willing to crack the skulls of refined intellectuals on behalf of his party boss.

As several correspondents to this newspaper have already pointed out, it is deeply disrespectful to the memory of the millions who suffered and died under Soviet totalitarianism to compare their plight to that of a couple of dissident Catholic clergymen in 21st-century Ireland. Has Fr O'Donovan had his fingernails removed in some basement cell below the Bishop's Palace? Has Fr Curran been buried in an unmarked grave? This is the sort of puerile codswallop which one might expect to hear from a pimply teenager who sees all policemen as fascists. Paul Durcan, however, is in his 60s.

Unsurprisingly, most of those who have objected to the poem come from within the ranks of the Catholic Church, but, for those of us who left that institution's embrace a long time ago, it raises the question of the often abysmal level of engagement with such issues in contemporary Irish society.

It's of little consequence to me whether the Catholic Church believes the world is balancing on the back of a giant turtle, or floating on a cloud of pixie dust. Nor do I particularly care whether it insists its believers adhere to Archbishop Martin's doctrines on transubstantiation or the actual existence of Jesus Christ. But there does appear to be a generation which, despite having raged against the church since puberty, seems unwilling just to let it go its own way. Perhaps due to unpleasant formative experiences at the hands of the Catholic education system of the 1950s and 1960s, it seems to regress to the most tedious and banal adolescent abuse whenever the subject comes up.

Surely it would be better for all concerned if those afflicted by this unfortunate condition were to reconcile themselves to the fact that, as adults, they are free to construct whatever belief system suits them best and live their lives accordingly. Even better, they might try to conceive of a world on which the Catholic Church does not impinge.

Unlike Ireland, most other predominantly Catholic countries experienced vigorous anti-clerical movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These movements led in turn to the formation of anti-clerical political parties, the establishment of secular institutions and, more often than not, the enactment of constitutions which explicitly separated the private expression of religious belief from the public functions of the state.

They were not dedicated to some woolly attempt to turn the Catholic Church into a loose association of free-thinkers; they saw the church as a reactionary, anti-democratic force which was free to conduct its own affairs as it saw fit but which should get its nose out of the lives of non-believers.

That historical moment has passed, though its legacy can still be seen in the politics and civil society of most European countries. We largely missed out on all that, and seem stuck forever with the consequences.

These include the unattractive spectacle of ageing irreconcilables hurling juvenile insults at Catholic bishops for doing what Catholic bishops are supposed to do. And worse, in verse.


• Shane Hegarty is on leave