A blast from a past of celebrity and grandeur

 

HOW many Irish people still yearn for the halcyon days of Irish Catholic power and influence for the Latin Mass and the Corpus Christi processions, the rosaries and novenas, the bishop throwing the ball in at Croke Park, even the politicians trooping up to Archbishop's House for advice on faith and morals?

Such questions, apparently long dead and buried, must begin to be asked again following the astonishing success of the album Faith of Our Fathers: Classic Religious Anthems of Ireland. In the three weeks since its release it has sold more than 65,000 copies, putting it firmly at the top of the Irish hit parade, and giving it the biggest initial sales of any album in Irish music history.

Last week, according to its marketing company, Lunar Records, it sold more than any other album in Ireland in any one week since U2's Zooropa three years ago. Now there are plans for Faith of our Fathers - the Show at the Point in Dublin on at least three nights in late January.

John Kearns, the Dublin businessman who dreamed up the idea, believes the prime reason behind the album's phenomenal success is nostalgia for that long lost era of Catholic certainty and prestige.

"My memories of being an altar boy in the Sixties are of tremendous pomp and ceremony and grandeur surrounding the liturgy - magic, you would call it - in those days, which were otherwise grey enough.

"In the UK they had the royal family; in Ireland the Catholic Church provided our spectacle. In its efforts to become more part of the people after Vatican II, possibly the church lost a lot of the magic it had and demystified itself too much. People need to have something outside themselves to look to something bigger, grander, more spectacular."

He recognises that it is not a simplistic matter of going back to the great Catholic certainties of 40 years ago. "If the success of the album reflected that desire, the Pope would be hugely popular, instead of coming in for a lot of criticism," he says.

But he has "tremendous sympathy for a lot of older people who feel totally let down by recent scandals, and feel the pillars they held onto are being gradually eroded."

For these people, Faith of our Fathers was a chance to relive and enjoy that earlier age, often "in tears and with wonderful nostalgic flashes."

Certainly the press material published with the album, written by Mr Kearns, makes no bones about its unashamed appeal to what many believe its an era better consigned to the past. Among questions it suggests the album might prompt are: "Whatever happened to the old Catholic Church - Corpus Christi processions, socialities, confraternities, May altars, benediction, expositions, novenas, rosaries, indulgences, holy hours etc?"

The liberal Catholic writer Sean MacReamoinn has no doubts that the huge success of Faith of oar Fathers represents "the soft side of the hard phenomenon which is Archbishop Lefebvre and all the other people who think Vatican II screwed up the church."

There was no ecumenism in those days before the second Vatican Council, of course, with the tiny Protestant minority in the Republic keeping its head down.

So it should come as little surprise that there are few if any Protestant hymns on Faith of our Fathers.

But did not our parents always say "the Protestants always had the best hymns?" In the days of the Latin Mass and faithful, passive congregations, hymn singing in Catholic churches was something people listened to rather than took part in. That legacy is still there in the thin sounds contemporary Irish congregations make when they sing.

In striking contrast, one can go into any large Anglican, Presbyterian or Methodist church anywhere in Ireland and hear great Irish hymns sung with a mighty gusto undreamed of in Catholic churches.

John Kearns's response to this is to say that all the well known Protestant hymns have already been superbly recorded by English and American artists. "I felt a lack of any sense of pride as an Irish person when I saw that our great hymns had never been recorded," he says. "There was no hidden agenda. People love those hymns, yet they had never been recorded. I just said to myself - `let's do it'."