Sketching out the possible

PHILOSOPHY: JOHN F DEANE reviews Underground Cathedrals , By Mark Patrick Hederman, Columba Press, 194pp, €14.99

PHILOSOPHY: JOHN F DEANEreviews Underground Cathedrals, By Mark Patrick Hederman, Columba Press, 194pp, €14.99

IN HIS exquisite new collection, Afterlife(Dedalus Press), the poet Pádraig J Daly writes, in a poem titled In the Light of 'Ryan',"We huddle in our upper room,/ The doors bolted, / For shame at our betrayal / Of all that is tender. / To our place of infamy, come, / Jesus, come." The poem is an acceptance of priestly accountability; its reference is to the disciples hiding after the Crucifixion, hoping against hope that the Spirit will give them courage and new life. Bishop Jim Moriarty, when he resigned, said, "Renewal must begin with accepting responsibility for the past", and "I should have challenged the prevailing culture". Abbot Hederman is not offering a defence of any church, this is a wider, humane and essential view of where we are in Ireland. "We are living in spiritually destitute times"; from this premise he goes on to speak of John McGahern's writings as "an act of love" of the world. Hederman's thesis is that we need, and have always needed, artists to "sketch out the possible".

The book offers a wise and useful summary of philosophy and theology over the centuries, an insight into what has brought us to the state we are in. He concludes that we have constructed a medieval Cathedral that was suited to a Roman Catholic, de Valera-dreamed Ireland where Thomistic theology has reigned supreme. In there, we were safe, cautioned against independent thought, against women, against modern scientific ideas. He goes on to show how “there are moments in history when a people get a chance to reinvent their country”; perhaps now is such a moment but to whom do we turn for this reinvention? Hederman answers, the artists.

He moves on somewhat dangerous ground when “explaining” what brought religious to such a fervour of child abuse, pointing to “our own corporate responsibility” as a society: “At this moment in the chaos which results from the news of both the Ryan and the Murphy reports, there is a great deal of lynch law, megaphone diplomacy, and mob oratory which fails to understand the complexity of all that was involved, and is meting out rough justice to many of those who are supposed to have been responsible”. Bishop Moriarty has chosen a truer path. The real value of this book is its demonstration of how Ireland lost its freedom and responsibility, how the Church treated us all as children. Hederman shows how the artists always kept alive a different view, a view of self-responsibility. His critiques are generally gentle, deep and alert with understanding. We relied on a “mediating imagery” between humanity and the Divine, and this “often reflects the narrow and impoverished limitations of the religious culture from which it emerges”. In discussing how the recent Papal attempts to net the artists in the cause have succeeded, he tells how Pope Benedict quoted Herman Hesse: “Art means: revealing God in everything that exists”. In this context, it is vital to translate that word “God” to whatever term touches most deeply on an individual’s spirit; works of art become works of love.


ABBOT HEDERMAN TRACES the antagonisms between art and society, art and the religious orthodoxy, from the " Playboy" riots of 1907 to Tom Murphy's The White Housein 1977. If the artists were working to create the "underground cathedral", they were met with a repression that was nothing more than self-protective and wholly aggressive attack.

Dialogue was always required, and was never there, because the ego-systems do not approve of dialogue. In dialogue between theology and art, the quietly intense work of Columba Press is quite exemplary, as is the work of theologians such as Fr Enda MacDonagh. Perhaps the underground cathedral is under construction. Dublin now offers us a spire (yes, it may be too easy to take this cathedral metaphor a bit too far), we have the James Joyce bridge, we have the Samuel Beckett bridge. It is to the artists we must look to elaborate a new mediating imagery to lighten our way into the future. Hederman offers excellent overviews of the work of Brian Friel, Louis le Brocquy and Seamus Heaney and how such work demonstrates the possibility of a new flight of the spirit. One could add, of course, to that list, but for the moment this book, carefully written and finely poised, ought to open up an essential dialogue. The works of love are in dispute.

John F Deane's latest collection of poetry is A Little Book of Hours(Carcanet, 2008). A novel, Where no Storms Come, is due from Blackstaff in the autumn