Monday 23 September 2019

Lay of the Land: Canon who drew on his kindness

Stock photo
Stock photo

Fiona O'Connell

It's easy to forget that some of those who suffered during Ireland's oppressive era of church rule included people of the faith, their lives limited by the system to which they belonged.

For belong they did, in those dour days, selfless men and women as trapped as those in miserable marriages by their religious vows. These victims of virtue were shackled to a church in cahoots with a State, powerless to prevent their oppressive policies.

So I was reminded by In the Shadow of the Steeple, published by the Tullaherin Heritage Society, in which former school teacher Eddie Kennedy recalls a popular priest's visits to his school that "provoked a near-riot in the schoolyard". And not just because Canon Martin Drea "tossed sixpences or sweets like confetti". For the "tall, gently smiling giant in black cassock" seemed compassionately fond of children, though he was "an austere and very frugal man" when it came to his own needs.

The kind canon "never examined, admonished or preached" in the classroom. Instead, "he filled the religion time and the blackboard with chalk sketches and cartoons lampooning teachers or easily-identified pupils, in a gentle, humorous way".

As illustrated by "a typical card of his invention, left for us in the staffroom" that showed a monk, warmed by a blazing fire, about to set upon a 'Full Irish' breakfast. The caption read "from the frying pan into the friar".

Drea was the main illustrator for the Christian Brothers' Our Boys for many years. But he was denied creative freedom, once confiding to Kennedy that "he waged a secret war" against the prudish brothers by attempting to include "risque drawings".

Such as the time he had to illustrate a scene of Indians firing arrows at a cowboy and drew one arrow "stuck in the fleeing man's bottom".

But when Our Boys arrived in print, the literally cheeky cartoon was missing.

Little wonder that Drea's favourite subjects were "clergymen, teachers and generally people who taught others to be better... always red-cheeked and rather pompous looking".

School visits became less frequent as the years passed. Drea "would park the black VW across the road and painfully make his way to the front door, pause, and say something like, 'it's amazing the grip on life an old wreck like me has'."

Life lost its grip on Drea, as Kennedy puts it, in 1965. Leaving us to wonder if the church is in crisis because it didn't get a grip and appreciate those truly spiritual souls who gave their life in its service.

Who can say for sure? But you can draw your own conclusions.

Sunday Independent

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