Friday 22 November 2019

The good sisters believe they have already paid their dues

Gerard O'Regan

They were an unlikely duo to put it mildly – the alcoholic vagabond poet Patrick Kavanagh, and the austere, uncompromising, religious dictator of his time, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

And what brought them together was money.

Kavanagh famously abandoned the "stony grey soil of Monaghan'' for what would prove to be a lifetime of relative poverty in the much documented 1950s' Dublin literary scene.

But as he weaved those wonderful lines of poetry, which strike a chord with so many, he also indulged too many booze-filled evenings in the likes of McDaid's, the Bailey, and the Palace bar. It meant his already precarious lifestyle, all too often, plummeted into the depths of abject poverty.

Meanwhile, up the road in Drumcondra, in the plush surroundings of what was termed his 'Bishop's Palace', Archbishop McQuaid kept a beady eye on Kavanagh. The archbishop, of course, had his "vigilantes'' scouring the capital for any kind of tittle-tattle, which would inform him of "immoral tendencies'' by Catholics in positions of power or influence.

Kavanagh's artistic coterie – producing their poems, novels and plays – were more of an irritant to the archbishop than anything else. He was far more concerned that the interests of the Catholic Church, should be strictly monitored in areas such as government, education, health, media and the law.

He was determined to keep the so-called movers and shakers in Irish society within a vice-like grip, which would ensure the moral compass of the nation, as he saw it, remained firmly on track

So why did he bother at all with the irascible, frequently hungover, poet from Inniskeen in deepest Co Monaghan? But bother he did – especially when it came to matters of hard cash.

It seems the archbishop, on various occasions, gave the poet what in modern-day parlance would be described as a "bit of a digout'', particularly on occasions such as Christmas. He even tried to fix him up with some work on the 'Catholic Standard' newspaper.

The biographies of both men remain vague as to what prompted the archbishop – notorious for his harsh, judgmental, and unforgiving view of the world – to be so concerned about Kavanagh and cash.

But Catholicism has always had a slightly schizoid attitude to money and the acquisition of wealth. Maybe it is the residue through the ages of those lines from the St Matthew Gospel: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.''

Such words have inevitably been used by the church over the centuries to placate and console those who are trying to make do on the wrong side of the tracks. The general gist is that stoic acceptance of one's lot in this life will lead to eternal reward in the next.

It was a dictum that greatly informed much of the archbishop's view of the world. Having hailed from a comfortable background in Co Cavan, where his father was a doctor, on matters economic and financial he remained ultra-conservative all his days, embracing the old mantra: "The poor we will always have with us.''

Maybe it was classic Catholic paternalism that moved him to help Kavanagh. Perhaps part of him secretly realised that lives of enforced poverty do not always uplift the spirit and make for happier human beings, regardless of the compensations to be anticipated in the hereafter.

It could be argued that, in the case of Kavanagh at least, the archbishop was as they say "funny about money''.

Maybe another very individualistic approach to money matters is reflected in the attitude of the four religious orders, who this week point-blank refused a request from Justice Minister Alan Shatter to offer some money towards the Magdalene Laundries compensation fund.

The initial reaction from many quarters was one of anger and condemnation. How could those religious orders be so tight-fisted, given the blighted lives of so many who were in their care?

Surely they could even make a token gesture? They are not so hard up that this would be beyond them.

But the response to the minister from the nuns has been "no", and a steely "no'' at that. They will help out wherever necessary by way of providing documentation to help process compensation claims – but there will be no financial compensation forthcoming; the State can pick up the tab.

Could it be that these nuns believe they picked up the tab for the State during all those years when parents, politicians, priests and gardai so often connived to ensure they would be the ones to look after the forlorn and the destitute.

Mistakes were certainly made attending to those in their care. But how many nuns – too many of whom were cajoled into religious life at too young an age – feel they were also victims of the unforgiving hypocrisy of the time?

In any case, just as has been reflected in the Archbishop McQuaid/Patrick Kavanagh story, the Magdalene religious are but the latest example of how Catholic institutions can be "funny about money''. The parable about the camel, the eye of the needle and making it through the Pearly Gates can be open to wide interpretation.

"A few pounds in the pocket is great for the nerves,'' concluded the playwright Sean O'Casey on one occasion as he tried not to be carried away with his socialism.

The ghost of John Charles McQuaid might understand such a sentiment.

But much more mysterious are the secret thoughts of those nuns who, when asked to part with some cash, this week told a minister and his Government to take a running jump.

Irish Independent

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