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Revolution in Catholic Ireland

From 1978, I lived for nearly 30 years in Ireland and witnessed a religious revolution. For a long time, nothing seemed less likely.

Long before the Celtic Tiger, the Catholic Lion ruled Ireland. It was a strange place. In Co Wicklow, our parish priest preached entirely from the red Penny Catechism. Women went to Belfast to buy condoms. Clinics could hand them out for free but doctors risked being locked up for giving them to patients who'd already manufactured 15 children.

I'd written a UK best-seller, Bless Me, Father, and a TV sit-com based on it starring comic genius Arthur Lowe of Dad's Army fame. This gentle story of a wily old Irish priest and his green young curate was showing on RTE to some acclaim.

Fr Brian D'Arcy told me he was in a pub in the West with a couple of priest chums in civvies when an episode appeared on the box. Regulars at the bar, nose-deep in froth, chuckled into their Guinnesses. Brian's priest friends fumed, We're not like that. But we are, said Brian.

The three series were shown in over 30 countries. The second series was advertised and paid for but, without explanation, never shown in holy Ireland. An RTE insider told me priests had complained it was irreligious. My first brush with the Catholic Lion.

Soon John Paul II came out of the sky and, as one wit put it, reversed nature: he kissed the ground and trod on the women. When he told crowds all the things they couldn't do they went delirious with joy. One semi-pious lady from Wexford supposedly removed her diaphragm when the Pope flew in and put it back as soon as he flew out.

The highlight of his visit was Mass at the Ballybrit Racetrack where he was flanked by two adored clerics, Bishop Eamonn Casey and Fr Michael Cleary. Such a sweet culmination of centuries of Irish Catholicism.

"Young people of Ireland, I luff you," said the Pontiff, as he warned them against, among other things, illicit sex. Too late for the two celebrity celibates next to him. Far away, in Connecticut, a small boy watching TV was told by his ma, "That man with a red cape next to the Pope is your daddy."

Meanwhile, I wrote Vicars Of Christ, an ABC of all the barbarians who had sat on Peter's Chair, mass murderers, heretics, torturers, thieves. Also many papal fornicators aged 12 and up. Some went speedily to God when jealous husbands caught them in the act and smashed the backs of their holy heads in with a hammer. I warned my family we might be hounded out of the country. To my surprise, Vicars sold very well.

Next I contributed to the myth of the Catholic Lion with Rebels, my book on the Easter Rising. At its climax, Irish patriots like Pearse confessed in their cells at Kilmainham Jail to saintly Capuchins. At dawn the friars led them to the Stonebreakers' Yard to be shot by British soldiers. Ireland and the Catholic Church seemed twinned in an unbreakable alliance.

Things began to change in 1992 when a distinctive American female voice talked over the Irish airwaves of floating on gossamer wings. Yeah, I was Bishop Casey's mistress and yep he's the father of my child. The Church had damned Parnell for less.

The limericks and street ballads were unprintable. Young Dubliners wore T-shirts advising, Wear A Condom Just In Casey. It raised a moral question: Does a bishop sin more or less by wearing a condom in bed?

When I co-wrote Forbidden Fruit with Annie Murphy, a distinguished colleague congratulated me on getting the scoop of our generation. In fact, it dropped into my lap. My agent met Annie's lawyer in New York, saw a copy of Rebels on his desk and convinced him I was the man to write her story. I flew to Connecticut to meet Annie and her son Peter, it was his birthday, and we hit it off.

Disguise

Soon she flew into Dublin in what she thought was disguise, though, heavily lip-sticked, in dark glasses and a big straw hat, she looked the typical femme fatale. In my Wicklow home, I recorded her incredibly funny and poignant story.

The love affair had been conducted in Dublin bedsits, a gravel pit where Peter was conceived, and in Eamonn's summer residence, a sumptuous Georgian house overlooking Inch beach.

When the press got news of her whereabouts, I whisked her out of the country in the same disguise. Later, I returned to New York for the final part of her story.

Once news broke that I was writing Forbidden Fruit, things took a nasty turn. A priest from Cavan sent me a cheque for 30 pieces of silver. Without a word, I handed it to my wife. She looked at it and said, I hope he didn't send one to Bishop Casey.

Phone-calls followed day and night from women with hard-edged northern voices ending in death threats. Detectives came to our house to advise on security but 50 men could hide in our wooded garden. We worried for our teenage sons. Unfazed, they insisted on answering the phone, saying to every caller, God bless you, too.

Two devout ladies wrote to me: Didn't Annie Murphy know Eamonn Casey was a bishop? Another said, Do you have to go inside the Bishop's bedroom? I thought it was poetic justice. For centuries, bishops had intruded into the beds of the laity, even imposing on them the missionary position.

Before her book came out, I said, Annie, why not dedicate it: To our son? No, she snapped back. To MY son. Ironically, I helped educate Eamonn's son. Peter received $250,000 from sales of the book.

Annie braced herself for the storm. She had to, for Peter's sake. Soon he'd be asking questions. The book was her attempt to answer them. He had a right to know who his father was and about the love she still felt for him though he'd never leave the priesthood for her.

She'd held on to the boy when Eamonn put intense pressure on her to have him adopted. She was too wicked to bring him up while he was evidently worthy enough to continue as a bishop. But, then, she was only a woman.

She dreaded having to face the public, many of whom felt she had no shame. The Late, Late Show proved her only partly right. Gay Byrne, master broadcaster, himself the recipient of death threats, made the biggest mistake of his professional life. He misread the mood of the time. He didn't grasp that the Annie Murphy-Bishop Casey affair was a turning point in the history of the Irish Church. The laity showed signs of no longer wanting to be force-fed with peculiar Catholic morals imposed on them by a Church of celibates by celibates for celibates.

Climax

Gay couldn't have weakened the case against Annie more had he tried. He hired a noisy lynch mob of conservative Catholics headed by Fr Michael Cleary. To viewers at home and in the studio, Annie seemed like a brave Christian mother being thrown to the lions.

The climax of the interview was a disaster for Gay. He said, If the boy is only half as good as his father... This to the woman who'd kept her new-born when his bishop-father almost tried to wrench him from her arms. Annie, already on her feet, delivered the killer line: I'm not so bad myself, Mr Byrne.

For weeks after, Gay's voice betrayed a man suffering from deep depression. I wasn't exactly buoyant either. I agreed with Annie, the truth had to be told at last. How sad that it led to the downfall of probably the most dynamic, funny, caring prelate Ireland has produced. He was one of the few bishops a normal woman could fall in love with.

Before the Late, Late, Annie wrote to me: "All things considered, I feel Eamonn and I will both lose, as we should. What will evolve after the loss I have no idea but I really believe this story is one that will provoke awareness of what the Church might want to readdress in its advance into the 21st century. I believe in my heart that the Church is made of its people and their cries should not be muffled out by some centuries-old doctrines that are no longer valid in these times."

However painful her life had been and Eamonn's would become in exile, a revolution was on the way. The Catholic Lion was wounded though, on that historic night at RTE, to what extent no one could have foreseen.

Events were to prove that beneath the pomp and circumstance of Catholic Ireland, the corruption was deep and long-lasting. Poor naive Dr Paisley grossly under-estimated it.

The most iconic image of the 1979 papal visit to Ireland was of John Paul flanked by two clerics. It is memorable for its triple deception: two celibates with three sons between them and a Pope whose 'luff' for young people never seemed to include those abused by priests.

Annie's mantra was, You're only as sick as your secrets. Far from being the Isle of saints and scholars, Ireland was a cemetery of sickening secrets. At the next stage of the Catholic revolution scandals were dug up that were a lot worse than a bishop fathering a child with a brave lady who loved him.


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