Harry Clifton: Do not judge Desmond Connell too harshly

In his then 20 years of priesthood, he said he ‘never had a direct experience of God’

Harry Clifton: “I wonder whether I am allowed to salute a man who, probably against his better judgement, set me free once with an image, on the roads of the world.”

Harry Clifton: “I wonder whether I am allowed to salute a man who, probably against his better judgement, set me free once with an image, on the roads of the world.”

 

The death of Cardinal Desmond Connell, tragically miscast some would say as archbishop of Dublin, brings me back to classrooms in the philosophy department of University College Dublin in the 1970s.

I am the one lay person among seminarians undergoing preparation for further studies in Maynooth, of which this department, in philosophical terms, is merely an extension.

I ought to feel oppressed, but I am curious, excited. Like everyone else here, I have come through the dry-as-dust catechetics of an Irish Catholic schooling, that makes of a little boy a theologian by the age of nine, answering Thomistic questions on full knowledge, grave matter, full consent.

Now here I am, in Catholic Europe so to speak, where sex and ecstasy are also part of philosophy, as well as wild speculations on the nature of the soul – where Descartes sits on his stove, and Spinoza grinds lenses in Amsterdam, and the father of Augustine points out, at the bath-house, “the signs of active virility” in his son the philanderer and saint, and an old priest lovingly evokes “the brown bodies of women” from a text by Albert Camus.

At one point, in a seminar with the Professor of Philosophy, Desmond Connell, the conversation turns to God. This shy, remote man, whose usual illustrations are from Gilbert and Sullivan, steps suddenly out of character and says, in his 20 years of priesthood, he has “never had a direct experience of God”.

On he goes, crucially for me, to illuminate his dilemma with an image from Augustine – desert pilgrims endlessly travelling back and forth between Alexandria and Carthage, unable ever to decide which set of city walls are the most beautiful.

I listen, instinctively aware I am being given, ahead of time, the central metaphor of my life.

That evening, I complete a poem voiced for just such a spirit, disinherited of the absolute, forced to wander through relative states, as Augustine’s pilgrims wander between cities:

Paris, Maynooth, Louvain

Define my forty-year desert,

My home from home, terrain

Of groundless visions, assert

The same topography

As, he Augustine, mapped.

God, in those long-lost years, is firmly and institutionally in his Irish Catholic heaven. Masses are standing-room only, the hand of a priest on the shoulder is a gesture of condescension.

Politicians, in the privileged box at Croke Park rituals, jostle with bishops. The philosophy department is staffed exclusively by churchmen. The annual intake at Maynooth, now an empty, echoing shell of itself, will stretch to infinity. It ought to be death, but for the individual imagination, at the heart of all that monolithic self-satisfaction, anarchy and desolation sip at an ancient source.

Godless in Carthage city

A dialectician, trapped

In a waste of comparisons,

His speech is my speech, speech

Of failure, of a man

Old enough now to preach

Of a God he may never know

Under the sun – a mirage.

Desert route

My own desert route, as distinct from the womb-life of university, begins in September 1976 when I leave Ireland for a job in an African teacher training college. For the next 30 years, I am to live my life, an affair of deserts in cities, elsewhere than in Ireland. My states are relative states, in an age of relativities. And my cities, be they Lagos or Bangkok, Paris, London or Rome, are the single mythical city of Augustine.

When I publish a first collection of poems, The Walls of Carthage, it bears the name of that city.

So, with Augustine I tell you,

Alexandria, Carthage,

We in inferior reason,

Travel until we fall,

To compare, in a desert season,

The beauty of their walls.

Des Connell I am to meet briefly in Dublin once more, in the honeymoon period, if such it may be called, between his election as archbishop and the revelations that are to destroy the Irish Catholic power-structure, and with it his own later life.

He breaks away from his entourage and comes towards me, smiling. “I believe you have written a poem about me,” he says, astonished that anyone could take a grey churchman like himself, dedicated to inwardness, as any kind of inspiration.

He is right, of course, for my abiding memories are of seeing him alone, out walking his dog, on the sea-front at Sandymount – lost, happily, in his complicated world of Malebranche and God.

He is gone now, but the real rain beats as hard as ever on the windowpanes of those old seminar rooms. A different worldview is in place, the Augean stables have been cleansed.

Sometimes I wonder if that great image-bank of Catholic philosophy, looted by everyone from Dante to Beckett, is still there for the taking. And whether I am allowed to salute a man who, probably against his better judgement, set me free once with an image, on the roads of the world.

Or is it always the case that reality, goodness, as they pass between people, must never know themselves, in the giver or the recipient?

Harry Clifton’s Portobello Sonnets and The Holding Centre: Selected Poems 1974-2004 are published by Wake Forest and Bloodaxe Books. He was Ireland Professor of Poetry 2010-2013.

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