Sunday 24 September 2017

Lay of the Land: When fish on a Friday was fine - but not fishing

Many in this country town will eat fish on Good Friday - though whether they fancy a bit of battered cod and chips, rather than deference to religious dogma is debatable (Stock picture)
Many in this country town will eat fish on Good Friday - though whether they fancy a bit of battered cod and chips, rather than deference to religious dogma is debatable (Stock picture)

Fiona O'Connell

Many in this country town will eat fish on Good Friday - though whether they fancy a bit of battered cod and chips, rather than deference to religious dogma is debatable. Yet even when Lent was almost law, plenty had heathen hearts. Which emigration exacerbated by exposing them to godless ways.

Or so seems to be the case in a tale from Eddie Lenihan's collection The Devil Is An Irishman, about the conflict between superstitious spirituality and progressive pragmatism experienced by an emerging modern Ireland. It is set in a tightly-knit community in Galway during the 1920s, where folk make their living from the sea. Except on Fridays. "That's the day Our Saviour suffered for us... it wasn't worked in our father's time, and it won't be worked in ours either."

As Lenihan wryly notes, "outsiders shrugged at these quaint notions, those merchants with contracts to fill fretted, and even the local priests were prepared to intervene and negotiate a dispensation. But the ancients of the Claddagh were immovable".

Until Sean O'Duinnin - "the pride of the village" - hungers for adventure and heads to the British big smoke where he heeds his mother's advice to "mind your religion..." even if he went no further than the church door and could hardly see the priest, let alone hear him. He thrives, thanks to hard work and "his native Galway gobbiness". Plus he never drinks "to stupefaction like other lonely Irish bachelors".

Years slip by, until one day Sean seeks shelter during a sudden downpour in Highgate Cemetery. He is horrified when lightning illuminates a grave bearing his name, especially "in an English - worse, a London - graveyard!"

It's enough to make Sean finally head home, where his savings buy a big boat that employs everyone. Which means happy days - though Sean bullies them into working on the supposedly sacred one of Friday. But the community adjusts, until "the matter of Friday fishing as a topic of conversation, even of casual reference, was by now long a thing of the past; people no longer even questioned why they had ever held such a foolish, nonsensical belief".

But there are limits, for the crew refuse to fish on Good Friday. Sean is furious and jumps at the offer of a sinister stranger to do the entire crew's work. Sean is delighted when he nets the biggest catch of his life. Until he discovers the even bigger catch is his life. For the stranger is the devil - and Sean's soul is his wages.

Thankfully, the crucifix that Sean's long-suffering mother gave him scares off Satan. And while there is sympathy when Sean loses his boat, "most felt that right had triumphed". And so "there was no more Friday fishing... the clergy read it most thoroughly from the altar as the devil's own work. And for once they had the complete support of the people".

Though perhaps a few pagans - peeved at losing the freedom to work on Friday - took the devil's side and privately pointed the fish finger.

Sunday Independent

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