The only thing I have to say about sexual morality is this . . .

. . . I wish that love could take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh

A friend phoned me last week; a woman who worries about the unborn. She’s a pillar of the church, a righteous woman with a soft voice, and she is always dressed like a priest’s lawn; neat but colourless. And although she is grey beneath her little hats, she can find her way through the nuances of Catholic morality with the fluidity of a violinist negotiating a Bach concerto. But what keeps her awake at night is that she dwells on the devil’s vicarious power over other women’s flawed minds, and the consequent dangers that such women pose to the unborn.

“Surely you realise that Enda Kenny is a wicked man?” she said.

I said: “Please don’t upset me. I’m not well in the head. How could I know what’s in Enda Kenny’s heart? I’ve been stretched on the couches of numerous therapists for far too long, and I’m still no better. I’ve got loser ideation – only I’ve no more money for therapy so I’m going to get myself analysed by Tommy Tiernan in the Lime Tree Theatre in Limerick on Wednesday night and see will that cure me.”

She said she didn’t know what I was talking about. I said: “Doesn’t that prove my point? I’m not well.”


“But someone has to teach the young people,” she said, “what is right and wrong.”

“Could I sing you a song instead,” I suggested.

And if she had let me, I would have sung a love song, to make her smile, as she kept her vigil at the window of her suburban house. “You know,” she said, whispering, “We cannot rely on the clergy any more. You should put something in the newspaper.” And then she hung up.

“Put it round the back, Father,” I remember a woman saying many years ago, regarding a Volkswagen, but not to me. She never asked me to put my Ford Escort round the back because it was another parish priest who was partial to a few brandies on a Sunday evening and who she herself was partial to.

Oh, the stories I could tell of women in wardrobes in the seminary, and the teacher and the curate, and the nun who couldn’t find her hotel room at a weekend workshop. And the songs I could sing of prayer groups that started off on the vertical axis talking with God and then ended up on the horizontal axis talking on the rug beside the fire.

I suppose even the clergy fall in love. They too know jigs and reels are not just squeezed from instruments or from rigid, buckled shoes clattering on flagstones, but that the music of love and longing sweats from our pores, and oozes from our arms and legs and tangled torsos.

I am old now. I am past the stage where a young girl might have found me attractive. And if she did, to paraphrase Tommy Tiernan, she’d be flapping like a salmon in me hands and I wouldn’t be able to keep a hold of her. But somewhere in my loins I can remember being young. As my granny’s cousin Michael Walsh used to say: “The heart remembers morning.”

I remember once spending a night on the floor of a girl’s bedroom because I didn’t dare sleep with her, but neither could I bear to leave the room where we had kissed; two innocent 16-year-olds, like strings of an instrument vibrating with music. Love is the irrepressible music that leaves the dancer and the sean-nós singer shook, even in old age.

And as for the unborn, I hope that someday love will rise up in all of them, and that like mist, it will drench them, so that they can stand erect like rain-soaked trees; those wonderful wands of Celtic dreamtime.

But the only thing I have to say about sexual morality is this: I wish that love could take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh, and breasts of flesh, and haunches and ankles and fingers of flesh, to feel, and feel again, the salmon leap, to penetrate the Shannon pot, and feel the gills of wonder there.

“In other words,” I said, “give to God what is God’s, and leave the lawmakers to make the laws.”

We were on the phone again. She listened in silence. I spoke my piece and then inquired, “Is that good enough for you?”

"Oh yes, me good man," she said, "I can see you're definitely not well."
Michael Harding will be in conversation with Tommy Tiernan in the Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick city tomorrow at 8pm