Thursday 23 January 2020

Forgotten classic that paints a colourful picture of parish life

Fiction: The Hungry Grass, Richard Power, Apollo, €12.99

The Hungry Grass by Richard Power
The Hungry Grass by Richard Power

Justine Carbery

When depicting priests in fiction there is a danger of creating one-dimensional stereotypical characters. We've had our share of whiskey priests, doubting priests and paedophile priests. Indeed, clerics populate the short stories of many Irish writers such as Frank O'Connor, James Joyce, Liam O'Flaherty, Mary Lavin, Edna O'Brien, Francis MacManus, etc. But in general, they were there almost as stock figures, pious and unbending, whose role was generally to lay down the law, to keep the people subjugated and unquestioning of the Church's authority, with a virtual monopoly on Irish morality.

But in Richard Power's recently reissued forgotten classic The Hungry Grass we are allowed a sympathetic glimpse into the inner life of Father Tom Conroy, the ageing and irascible parish priest of the small West of Ireland community of Rosnagree. This stylistic and sharp novel recounts the last two weeks of the life of this ornery man, mingling snapshots of his present struggles with vivid flashbacks.

Fr Tom found himself inadvertently in the seminary, taking the place of his older brother Frank, who left the priesthood before being ordained, but Tom discovers, much to his own surprise, that he has "brains to burn" and a love of the classics. However, a maverick streak and an inability to toe the party line prevents him from progressing within the church. He now spends his days in his small parish visiting the sick and the simple, administering the sacraments and caustic comments.

In his last days he calls on his sister Kate, marvelling at how his eminent family ever allowed her to be married off to the slovenly Mikie, and revisits the memory of his brother Owen, who moved to London and died suddenly, leaving behind a young wife and two young boys. A last ditch attempt to make restitution to his nephews ends in failure and Fr Tom returns to his parish with his health waning, though he accepts with pleasure an invitation to attend an annual gathering of his fellow seminarians.

What Power has managed to do here in this quiet novel is create a character of depth and complexity. Conroy is a credible human being, revered and feared in equal measure. Intolerant and sharp-tongued, unimpressed with new-fangled clerical practice, he is nonetheless beloved of his parishioners. As a portrait of society on the cusp of change and a character caught in its inexorable tide, The Hungry Grass is a find. I wouldn't usually reach for a book about a priest but I'm so glad I did, because Tom Conroy is so much more than a cleric. What stays with you is Tom, the man; the funny, smart, curmudgeonly man who happens to be the parish priest.

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