Holy Catholic Ireland

FICTION : A Bit of a Scandal By Mary Rose Callaghan Brandon, 239pp. €18.99

 FICTION: A Bit of a Scandal By Mary Rose CallaghanBrandon, 239pp. €18.99

THERE'S NO such thing as scandal these days. We've seen it all before - Bill Clinton and his "sexual relations", Charlie Haughey and the brown envelope culture and Sinéad O'Connor ripping up a photo of the pope. Even the recent Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand telephone fiasco in the UK was just a storm in a teacup over a silly joke. The modern psyche, it seems, refuses to be scandalised.

But back in the old Ireland of Holy Communion and the confession box, scandals were everywhere - unmarried mothers, extramarital sex, illegal contraception. It was an era of outrage, with the church, parents and teachers in a constant state of insult. A classic, old-style scandal is revisited in Mary Rose Callaghan's latest novel which returns to the days of shame and contrition with a story of forbidden love between a young woman and a priest.

'A Bit of a Scandal' is Callaghan's ninth novel and is inspired by the medieval love affair of Heloise and Abelard. It tells the story of Louise, who has returned to Dublin after 30 years in New York, where she reminisces about a youthful romance. It all began one night in the 1970s, after a few glasses of wine. Louise, a struggling freelance reporter, meets Peter, a Bernardite monk from Canada who is studying theology in Dublin. Despite a drunken rant about all religious people being "creeps", Louise quickly becomes irresistible to Peter and so their tumultuous love story begins.


But unlike the tragic tale of Heloise and Abelard - who ends up being castrated after their marriage is discovered - Peter and Louise's relationship, and their youthful, over-zealous passion, is more of a comical affair. In one scene, for example, Louise insists that her priest-lover blesses the toilet in her dingy basement flat after an impassioned argument. "I feel reborn," Peter says to Louise, "but I can't marry you."

Celibacy and faith are questioned in a humorous, casual manner throughout the novel. There's no escaping the bizarre irony, for example, of a priest who is terrified of getting his lover pregnant but who nonetheless is adamant he will not use contraception. Louise, however, always remains at a remove from his faith, her curiosity never really venturing beyond his celibacy - or lack of it: "Wasn't the celibacy of the church a vast hypocrisy, one priest forgiving the next for the crime of love?"

But this is holy Catholic Ireland, we are reminded, where everyone is broke and guilty and no one has a job. This book is all about days and experiences long gone - the days of gas meters and smoky pubs, a time when duvets and lasagne were all the rage. The narrator likes to watch Gay Byrne on the 'Late Late Show'.

'A Bit of a Scandal' takes a light-hearted glance at some serious issues of faith and secrecy but at times the tone seems somewhat uneven. While some readers will enjoy the book's nostalgia for old Ireland, it's a little overstated. "Things were done like that in the Ireland of the day," the narrator tells us on many occasions, drawing constant comparisons between now and then.

Overall, the scandal (or bit of scandal) around the doomed love affair between Louise and Peter is implied rather than fully evoked. But while readers may not get a clear sense of the controversies of old, you nonetheless can't help feeling thankful those days are long gone.

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Timesjournalist

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist