Thursday 25 April 2019

'Religion should be abolished'

Reading Jennifer Johnston is a little like remembering -- about how things used to be and how much (hopefully) they have changed. Born in Dublin in 1930, Johnston lived enough of her life in Catholic Ireland to experience the damage religion did to a whole generation of people.

In her 17th novel, Shadowstory, she takes on the topic of 'ne temere', the old command that for a Protestant to marry a Catholic they had to sign a solemn vow to raise any children resulting from that marriage in the Catholic faith.

"A whole two generations of Protestants lost their identity because of this. My mother's next sister up had to go to Holyhead to get married because not a priest in Dublin would marry them because he was Catholic.

"What's strange about that family is they had four children, three of whom threw the church over their shoulders anyway, and the fourth one became a sort of mad wannabe popeman," she chuckles.

Johnston is a formidable woman, tall and rangy, with a no-nonsense air. She can be softly warm and sharply witty, depending on what or who she is talking about. She looks nothing like her 81 years, her only concession to age a flower-patterned cane propped against her chair.

Her father was the playwright Denis Johnston and her mother was an actress (Shelah Richards), which informed her own choice of career -- "my father was a writer, so it wasn't a strange thing to do".

"Having had two of my four children and having been living a very agreeable life in london I suddenly started to get itchy inside my own head. My husband gave me a little Italian typewriter with a soft leather cover, I remember it so well, and when the children went to school in the morning I would sit down and I would bang away on this typewriter and I wrote a play."

She gave the play to her mother -- "I don't know whether it was a sensible thing to do or not because she could be quite acerbic; she was a great lady but you were never sure with her what way she was going to jump" -- who sent it to her agent in London, who then called Johnston in to see him.

"So I went round, I saw him and he said, 'it's a terrible play but you're a writer, now go away and write me a novel'."

She went on to win the Whitbread Book Award for The Old Jest in 1979.

Religion has always been a strong theme in Johnston's books, especially the divide between Irish Catholics and Protestants. It's not surprising, considering she experienced life as a sort of 'second-class citizen' herself as a Protestant growing up in 1930s Catholic Ireland.

She still remembers the effects religious horror stories, perpetuated by children and adults alike, had on her young self. "My parents didn't have my brother and myself baptised because they wanted us to make our own choice when we reached an age. Unfortunately, they didn't tell us this.

"When I was about 13 our local curate came up to see my mother one evening and said, 'it's about Jennifer being confirmed'. My mother started to laugh and I thought 'uh-oh'.

"She said, 'but she hasn't been baptised' and the curate nearly died. I was a very overimaginative child and I stopped going to school on my bicycle because I was convinced I would be run over by a bus and dead in limbo!"

She says she 'fiddled around' with Catholicism a bit in her teens.

"There was this thing that was thrown at you, 'you're not Irish because you're Protestant'. Don't be daft," she says now, although you can still sense a sort of aftertaste of how much that accusation must have stung all those years ago.

"Personally I think that religion should be abolished and I think when you look around we're doing not too bad a job of it in this country at the moment. It's all just moving and about time, too."

Shadowstory by Jennifer Johnston is published by Headline Review

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