When Joe Armstrong entered the seminary at age 18, he was sure he would be a priest until his dying day. What followed, however, was almost a decade of wrestling with his faith. His doubts, coupled with the profound effect his first kiss had on him, eventually led to him walking away – not just from the Church, but from his belief in the divine
Joe Armstrong is thinking back to the young man he was 40 years ago. What would the 18-year-old trainee priest of 1981 have thought about the person he would be come?
“I think he would have been horrified,” Armstrong says. “He would have thought what I was doing was wrong and sinful and he would try to get me to mend my ways.”
Today, Joe Armstrong is a humanist celebrant. He is also married with two adult children. Both facets of his life would have been unthinkable when he enrolled at the Marist Fathers’ Mount St Mary’s seminary in Milltown, Dublin, after his Leaving Cert in 1980.
“When I went to the seminary, I was sure I knew what my life would be like: I would be a priest until my dying day. There had been priests in the family. The idea that I would marry and have children didn’t even come into the picture — or not in the early days, anyway.”
His memoir, In My Gut, I Don’t Believe documents his journey over a near 10-year period in which he wrestled with doubts about the existence of God and his place in the world. It’s a disarmingly frank account of a young man’s search for himself and it draws from journal entries that he wrote at the time. “Some of them are terribly embarrassing to read back on,” he says, “but they really capture what was in my mind at the time.”
A native of Donnycarney, on Dublin’s northside, Armstrong had been brought up a devout Catholic and he felt a strong pull towards the Church. His mother — whom he both loved and feared — had been fanatically religious.
As a teen, he was drawn to the burgeoning Charismatic Christian movement and the Irish visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 was a momentous occasion. “It’s hard to convey to a young person in today’s Ireland just what a big deal the Papal visit was back then,” he says. “If I ever felt I was on the extreme end of my commitment to faith, the fact that nearly one-third of the population were at the Phoenix Park for that Mass sort of validated it.”
It was an Ireland where many young men felt a calling to the priesthood, just as they had done for decades before. When Armstrong first walked through the doors of the seminary, it was full of people just like him.
But his once unwavering faith soon became tested and the surety he had known all his life fell apart. He began to question every aspect of his faith and, like dominos, everything he had once believed —including the existence of an afterlife — started to fall.
He wasn’t the only one to feel at sea in the seminary, he says. Every time one of his fellow novices walked away, he questioned what he was staying for. And the rate of attrition was high. Armstrong had joined firmly believing his ministry would “help save many souls”, but that fundamental tenet started to feel hollow right from the start.
“It’s a powerful thing to be told when you are 17 or 18 that your ministry will have such a positive impact on people’s lives,” he says. “You’re very impressionable at that age, but then as you’re going through your 20s, you really start to ask yourself the big questions.”
By the time he left the Marist Fathers in 1989 — six months before his ordination — he was trusting himself and his unbelief. “It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make. I had given such a large part of my life to becoming a priest and now I was just walking away from it. Over the the course of the decade, I went from someone who didn’t believe. I trusted myself, my hunches, my doubts. I realise that, in my gut, I didn’t believe in God.”
It’s a view that has not changed in his life since then, and yet when he looks back at his near decade-long existence in the religious order, he says he does not have regrets. “It shaped the person I am today. It gave me an opportunity to reflect and it sort of offered protection from the social difficulties that were commonplace in Ireland back then.”
The 1980s, of course, was a time of huge unemployment and mass emigration and Armstrong was shielded from that. “It was easy to feel removed from that world. There was a lot of turmoil in that Ireland, but we were sheltered from it. I didn’t have the worries that a lot of my contemporaries at the time did. There was a sense of security, even though we had very little financial independence.” If he wanted to do something as commonplace as buy a shirt, for instance, he had to seek funds from one of his superiors.
His years at Mount St Mary’s seminary also provided companionship with like-minded people as well as mentors who helped take him from innocent teenager to fully formed adult. Not for him, the idea of bashing the clergy.
“I met many very good people whose hearts were very much in the right place,” he says. “They wanted to do good — and they did.” There’s a special place in his heart for the late Marist priest Denis Green, a man who helped guide him through choppy waters.
However, he is convinced that there are many serving priests in Ireland today who feel they are trapped. “It’s easy to become institutionalised — it happened to me, to a degree — and it can be a lonely place. I’m also sure there are priests out there who have lost their faith completely, but are going through the motions. They might feel it is too late to make a seismic change in their lives.”
Armstrong was one of 20 young men enrolled in Mount St Mary’s in 1980. Today, he says, just three of them remain in the priesthood. Of those who left, one he knows of is in a gay relationship, several are married. Others have lost any vestige of faith they once had.
He is convinced that there would be a greater acceptance of the priesthood if the vow of chastity was repealed. “It wasn’t such a big deal as a very innocent teenager,” he says, “but that all changed as I got older. It really started to prey on my mind, this idea that there was so much I was missing out on.”
There was a period early on when he felt tortured by his attraction to women and an increasing awareness of his sexual drive. But he had been taught a restrictive code, one in which even masturbation was deemed sinful. After five years in the seminary, and in France for summer pastoral work, Armstrong kissed a woman for the first time.
“It had a profound effect on me,” he says, adding it was among the first times he believed his future might not be as preordained as he had thought. “I came to think of it all as self-delusion.”
Always passionate about writing, Armstrong sent a short story to the then hugely popular Gay Byrne Show on RTÉ radio. Readers had been invited to write something romantic and, under a nom-de-plume, he wrote about the power of a simple kiss from the vantage of a priest looking back on a pivotal encounter in his early life. The actor Dan Riordan read it on air and Armstrong keenly felt the possibilities of the outside world.
He wasn’t to know it at the time, but it would mark the beginning of the long road out of the seminary.
“The thought of leaving preoccupied me, but it felt frightening to leave a world that had become my life. It wasn’t just leaving a job, it was abandoning what I’d always thought was my role in life, the very meaning of my existence.”
In his book, he reproduces lines he wrote in a journal. “Damn it, celibacy is hard! Why does the life I want so badly to live well have to exclude this kind of intimacy? The beauty, warmth and closeness of my youthful body next to that of another young adult.”
That year — 1985 — he decided he would leave the seminary and, initially, one of his senior advisors supported the decision. But, then, he says he was told that if he was to go, he would not be welcomed back by the Marist Fathers. He was 23, but he says his life experience had been so limited, that he felt cowed into staying.
It would be a further four years before he eventually packed his bags. He left the seminary with £500 to his name but he also had an arts degree from UCD, undertaken as part of his studies at the seminary. Apprehensive, but liberated he found a new calling: teaching.
Like so many Irish then, he emigrated to England. He secured a job teaching in an East End London school — and he adored the experience. He also met the love of his life, Ruth — she was teaching in a neighbouring school. He proposed quickly and she accepted. “When you know, you know,” he says.
When they returned to Ireland, Armstrong got to put his passion for writing to the test — he wrote a column in The Irish Times for seven years.
Now, the Armstrongs live in rural Co Meath. Ruth is still teaching. Their children, John and Sarah, have careers and lives that excite them. Armstrong’s focus is on his role as a humanist celebrant. He says it brings him great joy. “There are weddings, funerals, baby naming ceremonies — you’re part of a celebration of the human spirit. There’s a strong ethical base, but there’s no religion involved.”
He firmly believes that his time at Mount St Mary’s was not wasted. He is a contemplative and deeply empathetic soul. “Life is good,” he says. “I’m at peace with the various experiences of my early life. All those years in that seminary helped make me who I am today.”
This article was amended on May 5, 2021.