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“The story is told with . . . superb grace and wit.”—The New Yorker
“If reading it upsets you, do not be surprised. . . . Moore has eliminated our standard escapes from God—a secularized Kingdom or a romanticized past.”—America
“A neat and striking story.”—Times Literary Supplement
In the not-too-distant future, the Fourth Vatican Council has abolished private ...
“The story is told with . . . superb grace and wit.”—The New Yorker
“If reading it upsets you, do not be surprised. . . . Moore has eliminated our standard escapes from God—a secularized Kingdom or a romanticized past.”—America
“A neat and striking story.”—Times Literary Supplement
In the not-too-distant future, the Fourth Vatican Council has abolished private confession, clerical dress, and the Latin Mass, and opened discussions about a merger with Buddhism. Authorities in Rome are embarrassed by publicity surrounding a group of monks who stubbornly celebrate the old Mass in their island abbey off the coast of Ireland. The clever, assured Father James Kinsella is dispatched to set things right. At Muck Abbey he meets Abbot Tomás, a man plagued by doubt who nevertheless leads his monks in the old ways. In the hands of the masterly Brian Moore, their confrontation becomes a subtle, provocative parable of doubt and faith.
Loyola Classics are new editions of acclaimed Catholic novels.
On a storm-swept island off the coast of Ireland, a community of “Albanesian” monks maintains the “faith of their fathers,” worshipping God as the church has for centuries, “changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ the way Jesus told his disciples to do it at the Last Supper.” It was monks such as these who kept the faith alive during previous times of invasion and persecution, and who, indeed, as Thomas Cahill has put it, “saved civilization” when barbarians roamed the land. Except that now, it is the barbarians who are running the church.
Such is the background of Catholics. Brian Moore’s short novel, first published in 1972, is set sometime in the near future, after a fictional Vatican IV has completed the church’s wholesale capitulation to the spirit of secularism. Far beyond Vatican II’s famous aggiornamento
(“—updating”), the church is now on the brink of a historic apertura, allowing for the first time “interpenetration” between the Christian and Buddhist faiths.
But suddenly, on the eve of this breakthrough, comes disturbing news. Catholic pilgrims from around the world have been converging on a coastal town in Ireland where the monks of Muck Abbey, ignoring current church teaching, continue to say Mass in Latin according to the old Tridentine rite. To put an end to this scandalous anachronism, an American priest, James Kinsella, has been dispatched to deliver an ultimatum to the recalcitrant monks: either conform to the new order or face the consequences.
Kinsella is a perfect embodiment of the new Catholicism. Dressed “like a soldier boy” in denim fatigues, he is bemused by the monks’ references to “mortal sin” and their attachment to the rosary, to outmoded prayers, and to the practice of private confession. Religion for him is mainly a vehicle for social change. Asked to provide his own understanding of the Mass, Kinsella, speaking for “most Catholics in the world today,” describes it a purely symbolic act: “I do not, in the old sense, think of God as actually being present, there in the tabernacle,” he says.
Facing Kinsella is Tomás O’Malley, the abbot of Muck, whose wily graciousness leaves us in doubt, right up to the end, about how he will respond. Will he yield to authority and give up the Latin Mass, or will he stand up defiantly for the old way? It is more than simply a dispute over language. As the monks see it, the conflict is really about the religious content of the liturgy. As one of them puts it, “This new Mass isn’t a mystery, it’s a mockery, a singsong, it’s not talking to God, it’s talking to your neighbor.”
Complicating the abbot’s decision, as we soon learn, is the fact that he himself has long since lost his faith. He continues in his post, much as a foreman or manager, making sure the job gets done, while dreading the day when he must face the void and enter “null.” On his response rests the future of Muck Abbey, and perhaps even more.
Although the specific drama of Catholics is set in an imaginary future, the conflict it describes reflects a real tension in the post–Vatican II church. The decision in those years to replace the Tridentine Latin Mass with a new liturgy in the vernacular was a jarring transition, even for those who accepted it. For centuries, Catholics had been raised on an image of the church as essentially timeless and unchanging, united by one language, one liturgy, and one symbol of unity (an infallible pope). For some, the reforms of Vatican II called everything into question, removing the ancient symbols of faith without offering anything substantial in their place.
Of course Vatican II’s reform of the liturgy, which sought to put more emphasis on the role of the community, involved no retreat from the traditional Catholic teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Nevertheless, pockets of resistance arose from the likes of Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers. After he ordained several traditionalist bishops without Vatican authorization, Lefebvre was excommunicated.
But he was by no means the most extreme case. More-radical sectarians have entirely rejected the legitimacy of Vatican II, holding that Pope John Paul II and his immediate predecessors were in fact apostates from the true faith. One can find their screeds on the internet, denouncing the pope’s interfaith prayer meetings at Assisi with such vehemence that one might assume that the fanciful “apertura” was already upon us.
And yet quite apart from this paranoid fringe, concerns about the place of faith and tradition in the modern, secular world are shared by many believers. In recent years Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, were among those who warned against the danger that Christians, in the name of dialogue and openness to the world, would lose any sense of transcendent truth.
In words that might have been spoken by a monk of Muck Abbey, Cardinal Ratzinger proclaimed the following in 1988:
While there are many motives that might have led a great number of people to seek a refuge in the traditional liturgy, the chief one is that they find the dignity of the sacred preserved there. After the Council there were many priests who deliberately raised “desacralization” to the level of a program, on the plea that the New Testament abolished the cult of the Temple: the veil of the Temple which was torn from top to bottom at the moment of Christ’s death on the cross is, according to certain people, the sign of the end of the sacred. The death of Jesus, outside the City walls, that is to say, in the public world, is now the true religion. Religion, if it has any being at all, must have it in the nonsacredness of daily life, in love that is lived. Inspired by such reasoning, they put aside the sacred vestments; they have despoiled the churches as much as they could of that splendor which brings to mind the sacred; and they have reduced the liturgy to the language and the gestures of ordinary life, by means of greetings, common signs of friendship, and such things.
This is the same man who warned, on the eve of his papal election, of the “dictatorship of relativism.” In the conflict between Muck Abbey and the church of “Vatican IV,” it is not hard to imagine where his sympathies would lie. What is at stake is whether the church will opt for “relevance” at the expense of emptying out the essential religious content of its faith.
Flannery O’Connor, a Southern Catholic novelist who died in 1964, wrote extensively about this tension, as she saw it, between faith and the secularizing tendencies of her age. Long before Father Kinsella (citing the “standard belief in this day and age”) would describe the Eucharist as a symbol, O’Connor supplied her own memorable reply: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” To a liberal friend, she wrote, “All around you today you will find people accepting ‘religion’ that has been rid of its religious elements. This is what you are asking: if you can be a Catholic and find a natural explanation for mysteries we can never comprehend. You are asking if you can be a Catholic and substitute something for faith. The answer is no.”
That is ultimately the dramatic crux of Moore’s novel—not a parody of contemporary ecclesiastical politics, but a question about the ultimate mysteries that lie at the heart of faith. Kinsella and his ilk believe passionately in not much of anything. The monks of Muck Abbey, in contrast, believe just as passionately in the old certainties. And then there is Abbot Tomás, who cannot be identified unequivocally with either faction. He is a man with nothing but doubts. And yet those doubts, which at least pertain to matters of ultimate significance, may be the slender thread that preserves his connection to God.
In that light, it is fair to wonder whether the abbot’s dilemma doesn’t speak for the author himself. Brian Moore, who was raised as a Catholic in Protestant Belfast, claimed to have abandoned his faith long before he left Ireland for a new life in North America. And yet in many of his twenty novels he wrestled with the problem of faith and the things that take its place when it is gone. One option in this novel is the proud secularism of Father Kinsella. Another is the “null” that haunts Abbot Tomás. But is there also a third option, a “faith beyond faith,” that lies beyond these characters’ imagination?
According to Scripture, faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” There is always an element of risk in trusting in the hidden God. And so the tension between belief and doubt is not a contest between “true Catholics” and the general mass of modernists. It is a tension that runs through the heart of every believer. How will we distinguish between the essentials of faith and the changeable traditions in which it is conveyed? Is it not possible to opt for both relevance and sacred mystery? Openness to the world and a passion for truth?
Whichever choice Abbot Tomás makes will involve a leap into the void. The same is true for every Christian. We can only trust in the abbot’s final words (whether he and Moore believe them or not): “If our words become prayer, God will come.”
Robert Ellsberg is editor in chief of Orbis Books and the author of several books, including All Saints and The Saints’ Guide to Happiness.
The fog lifted. The island was there. The visitor walked to the end of the disused pier and saw it across three miles of ocean, riding the sea like an overturned fishing boat. Morning sunlight moved along a keel of mountain, above valleys black as tarred boat sides.
He thought of Rome. Surprisingly, the order itself had little descriptive information. In the Lungotevere Vaticano he had been handed an out-of-print book: Weir’s Guide to Religious Monuments.
Muck Abbey, Kerry, Ireland. On a small island off the rocky panoramic coastline of the Atlantic Ocean known as “The Ring of Kerry.” The monastery, (Albanesian order), founded 1216, rebuilt 1400–1470, has a dependency, or cell, on the mainland, the priory of Holy Cross, at Mount Coom near the village of Cahirciveen. This priory, sacked by Cromwellian troops, was, in Penal times, a site for clandestine Mass, conducted in the open air on a “Mass rock” altar. The abbey itself (on Muck Island) escaped Cromwellian despoliation and sits on the western slope of the island overlooking a splendor of sea. From the abbey tower the visitor looks down on gray waves that curl on barren rock. The monks fish and gather kelp.
He had telephoned again before breakfast. The pretty girl at the desk in his hotel cranked up an incredibly old-fashioned device to call exchange. “We’re wanting Muck Island. No, Sheilagh, it’s all right, it’s for that priest who spoke to the island last night.
“There now, Father.” He took the receiver. A bell rang and rang.
“Muck Island One,” said a crackly voice, out in the Atlantic.
The visitor gave his name. He said he had been asked to call and check on the weather.
“What was your name again, now?”
“Kinsella. Father James Kinsella.” He had learned his lesson.
“Ah, Father Kinsella. We’ll send a boat for you, to be sure. Go down to the pier now, and Padraig will be along shortly.”
Gulls, searching the remains of fish, skimmed overhead, dipped to the brackish waters beneath. Behind him, at the end of the road that led to the pier, were three roofless concrete boat sheds, floored with weeds, smelling of urine and sheep droppings. A very old car, which he had thought abandoned, sat in one of the sheds. Yesterday, when he first drove down here searching the fog for a sight of the island, he had looked in at the car. A purple silk stole lay on the front seat. At the hotel, after dinner, he asked who had built this pier. No, the monks had not built it, the Irish government built it, years ago, before the fishing became polluted. At that time, there were some twenty families living on the island. “They’ve nearly all come out since. Scattered now, to the four ends of the world.”
“Polluted. Does that mean the monks don’t fish anymore?”
“Ah, no, the fishing is grand again. The water was cleaned up, a while back. The trouble is, it was done too late for the people of Muck. There do be only four families left on the island. And the monks.”
The old car he had seen in the boat shed, was it the monastery car?
“It is, indeed. The monks do use it to drive to Cahirciveen of a Sunday. It’s twenty miles, Father.”
“But, what if the sea is rough, or if there’s a fog, and a boat can’t come over from the island?”
“Then no Mass is said at Cahirciveen.”
No Mass? Yesterday’s sights filled his mind; the streets of this Kerry village, gray nineteenth-century facades, market square, gray Gothic church, streets built before, and impassable to, today’s traffic. Now existing in permanent confusion, cars, buses, trucks, campers, vans, moving in an endless clogged procession in and out of the narrow streets, while on the outskirts more vehicles were bogged in the muddy confusion of improvised car parks and tent villages. And everywhere in Cahirciveen, jammed into the shops and pubs, herded into the main square like beasts on a fair day, the pilgrims. No one knew how many they were on any given weekend, but for months there had not been a room or a bed to rent for fifty miles around. They were Irish, of course, but there seemed an almost equal number from England and Scotland. Others came by car ferry and charter plane from the continent; an emphasis of French, but also many Germans and even some pilgrims from Rome itself. The Americans had flown in two charter groups, many of them old souls who had never crossed the Atlantic before. They came, it seemed, simply to hear at least one Mass, say the rosary, and leave. The uncomfortable local accommodations did not encourage a long stay. It was a phenomenon, even in the history of pilgrimage. There were no miracles, there was no hysteria, there was not even a special fervor. The mood was nostalgic. The pilgrims rose early on Sunday, went in buses and cars to the foot of Mount Coom, five miles from the village. There, they ascended the mountain, on foot, to kneel on muddied grassy slopes, or on shelves of rock, often in the unyielding Irish rain. Most could see the Mass rock and the priest only from a distance, but all heard the Latin, thundering from loudspeakers rigged up by the townsfolk. Latin. The communion bell. Monks as altar boys saying the Latin responses. Incense. The old way.
“No Mass?” he said to the hotelkeeper. “But when they’ve come all this way, what do they do if there’s no Mass?”
“Ah, now, Father, that’s a grand thing to see. The pilgrims just stay there, kneeling and saying the rosary. They stay all day, waiting and praying.”
“But don’t some of them try to go out to the island itself?”
The hotelkeeper laughed, showing gap teeth. “No fear! No boat can land on Muck that doesn’t know the trick of it. And the island boats will land nobody without the abbot’s permission. Besides,” the hotelkeeper said, serious again, “these pilgrims do be good people. When the abbot put up a sign in the church here in Cahirciveen saying ‘Parishioners Only for Confession,’ most of the pilgrims stopped bothering the monks. Mind you, the lines are still long. After Mass, on a Sunday, there do be three monks, hard at it in the church until it’s time for them to take the boat back.”
“But why do the confessions take so long?”
“We still have private confessions. One person at a time in the box.”
Private confessions. This was not known in Rome. “What about public confessions?”
“Public confessions, Father?”
“Where the whole congregation stands before Mass and says an act of contrition?”
“Ah, that never took here.”
Anger, sudden and cold, made Kinsella say: “It took everywhere else!” Ashamed, he saw the hotelkeeper bob his head, obedient, rebuked, but unconvinced.
Yesterday when he first arrived by car from Shannon, Kinsella had carried a paramilitary dispatch case, a musette bag, and was wearing gray-green denim fatigues. At the desk of Hern’s Hotel, the girl was curt. The hotel was full, there was a two-month waiting list, no reservations had been made for days. “But you took my reservation,” he said. “You confirmed it, and the confirmation was telexed from Dublin to Amsterdam Ecumenical Center. This is Hern’s Hotel, isn’t it?”
“What was your name again, sir?”
“James Kinsella. Catholic priest,” he said, in the Ecumenical manner.
“Oh, Father Kinsella. Oh, excuse me, Father. We have a room for you, certainly.”
Father. In the crowded hotel lobby, every available seat was occupied. Standees circled disconsolately around racks of seaside postcards and shelves of paperback books. Father. Sun-reddened faces turned to stare, supercilious of his American accent, his ecumenical clothes. Most of these pilgrims were older than he, old enough to remember the Latin Mass. But there were young ones too, former Catholic Pentecostals, now eager for experience as the penitentes of the day. Their scorn toward him, his own scorn in reverse, met him as he went toward the stairs and the privileged bedroom. His friend Visher, a behaviorist, had made a study of current Catholic attitudes toward their clergy. “People are sheep,” Visher said. “They haven’t changed. They want those old parish priests and those old family doctors. Sheep need authoritarian sheepdogs nipping at their heels from birth to funeral. People don’t want truth or social justice, they don’t want this ecumenical tolerance. They want certainties. The old parish priest promised that. You can’t, Jim.”
Waves lapped the slimed boat steps. A new sound entered Kinsella’s ear, the pulse of an engine. He looked at the sea but saw no boat. Sound, preceding vision, carrying clear over the whitecapped waves. Pulsing. Coming, coming; the painful confrontation. He and the abbot of Muck.
“This will not be your first visit to Ireland,” father general said, looking up from the file. It was a statement, not a question, but he felt he should answer it.
“No, sir. In my last year at Harvard, I went over there to attend a summer school. The Yeats school, in Sligo. My ancestors were Irish. They came from County Mayo, I believe. It’s in the West, where this abbey is.”
“William Butler Yeats.” The general smiled his faint, Prussian smile. “‘What rough beast, its hour come round at last.’ Appropriate. I want you to bury this beast. And I think the way to do that is for me to give you plenipotentiary status. Emissaries who must report back to headquarters, especially young ones, would seem to these old mastodons to be mere novices. I will make clear to this abbot that you are me. What you decide will be the order’s final edict.”
“What about the father provincial in Dublin, sir?”
The general sighed. “It seems that he and the abbot of Muck have a disagreement going back as far as the Pauline papacy. As you know, since Vatican IV, bishops are no longer bound by the orders of provincials. These Irish abbots are mitred and of episcopal rank. Each is a prelatus nullius, belonging to no one. This one has chosen to ignore the provincial’s recommendations. However, he cannot ignore mine.” Father general picked up a xerox sheet, a facsimile of an old chapter house record book, microfilmed, its original now destroyed. “The recalcitrant abbot of Muck,” the general said. “Let’s see. He is one Tomás O’Malley, now in his sixty-ninth year, the son of a greengrocer. What is a greengrocer, I wonder?”
“A seller of vegetables, sir.”
“Ah. The abbot is the product of an Irish seminary, a place called Kilcoole. Prizewinner, Latin, oh, lala! Doctorate in—can’t read this script, must be uncial—doesn’t matter. Four years at Buckmore Abbey in Kent. Then, Ireland, Dublin, hmm, hmm, and appointed abbot of Muck. Cast down on some remote little island and abandoned at a relatively early age, it would seem the order had no great hopes of him. Subsequent life of poverty, thirty monks, fishermen all, income from kelp and dulse, whatever that is, and manure sales—well, that’s quite enough of that. You can look this over at your leisure.” The general picked up an order fact form. “Now, this gives the age of the abbey, details of grants, et cetera. I think I see why the media people are interested, sick as we all are nowadays for a past we never knew. The monastery was founded in 1216.” The general lolled in his Eames chair and looked out of the tall windows of his office. Below was the new pedestrian mall of the Lungotevere Vaticano and, beyond it, the dull, muddy flow of the Tiber. The general’s eye moved left to fix on the roofs of the Vatican, and the dome of St. Peter’s, immense, even at a distance. “The year twelve hundred and sixteen. Think of it. The fourth Lateran council had just closed. Innocent the Third was in the chair of Peter. And that great monstrosity down the road there was three hundred years away from being built.”
He looked again at the fact form. “In the beginning the abbey was not ours. It was founded by some local king, at the behest of Patrick, an Irish bishop saint. The Albanesians petitioned to take over in 1406. Within a couple of hundred years they owned half the lands of Kerry, which is why they have this priory on the mainland. The abbot of Muck has always had the right to appoint the prior of the cell of Holy Cross at Cahirciveen.”
“I believe there is no prior there now, sir.”
“That’s right, yes.” The general consulted the fact form. “There are nearby parishes, of course, but the monks still cross to the mainland to say Mass and perform sacerdotal duties. And the changes that have taken place elsewhere in our time have simply been bypassed at Cahirciveen. Our Irish provincial has made ‘suggestions’ on four differing occasions, but this abbot remains blind and dumb. I wonder how long it would have gone on, if it had not been for the tourists? Anyway, it was a BBC crew that did the damage. Latin Mass. Imagine that,” the general said, and smiled. “I’d rather like to see one again, wouldn’t you?”
“I don’t really remember it, sir.”
“Backs to the congregation, vestments, introibo ad altare dei. And the bell! The Sanctus! Oh, lala, how one forgets. And now it’s packing them in. Listen to this. Ferry tours from Liverpool and Fishguard, charter flights from Leeds, Boston, New York—pilgrimage from France—even bella Italia.” The general’s amusement turned to a fit of sneezing. He used a nasal inhaler, then stared again at the brownish waters of the Tiber. “It is cliché to say it was to be expected. Even Vatican IV can’t bury two thousand years in a few decades. But, I’d have thought Spain. Or, perhaps, some former Portuguese possession.” The general sighed. “We are so infallibly fallible, aren’t we? Wasn’t it Chesterton who said something about a thing being too big to be seen? Ireland. Of course! Well, here you are. Take the file. Let my secretary have your itinerary. I’d suggest you hop a supersonic tonight and go straight to Amsterdam. It’s a formality, of course, but in an affair of this kind everything should be strictly kosher.” He smiled. “I’ll alert the council that you are my plenipotentiary. After Amsterdam, get straight over to Ireland. Remember, I want this settled by the end of the month.”
“Get that old fool down off that mountain, James. And if he gives you any trouble—bite him!”
A fishing boat was instantly in sight, bashing through the tops of the whitecaps, as though in the moment Kinsella had looked away, some Brobdingnagian hand had painted it into the seascape. A diesel-engined ten-tonner, it was built to scramble up and over these gray walls of waves. The wind force increased, sending a great slap of water over the edge of the pier. A black storm cloud filled the edge of the horizon. As the fishing boat approached across the strait, Kinsella picked up his dispatch case, which contained the general’s letter and an order plenipotentiary, signed in Amsterdam by the four current members of the World Ecumen Council. He walked to the stone steps as the boat cut its engines and drifted outside the bar. A man in a tweed hat appeared and moved about in the bow. Another stood in the wheelhouse, a stout young fellow in a white turtleneck sweater. Not monks, as he had expected, but islanders, the few fisher families still living on the abbot’s domain. The man in the tweed hat untied a black curragh, which floated light as a mussel shell at the stern of the ten-tonner. Pulling it close, he jumped in, raised long oars, and rowed strongly toward the pier, the curragh swinging up like an amusement park gondola to hang on the white-tipped peaks, then fall, dizzyingly, into the trough of waves. The mother boat heeled. With a rattle, an anchor spilled like entrails from its bow, falling deep into the sea. The stout youth came out of the wheelhouse and stood at the side, staring across the water at Kinsella. With his curling red hair, freckled skin, snub nose, and white fisherman’s sweater he looked like Dylan Thomas.
The curragh, stroked easily now that it had passed into the shelter of the pier, came toward the steps where Kinsella waited. The rower had his back to the steps. Skillful, he shipped the oars as he glided alongside, his hand, with the blind touch of practice, finding the solitary iron bollard at the foot of the steps.
As the tweed-hatted rower turned to look back at the pier, a smile rose on Kinsella’s face, an American smile, the currency of greeting. But the rower’s eyes moved past him as though he were some idle seabird come to rest on the pier. Eyes swept the pier, the sheds, the road beyond, then, reluctantly, came back to him. “Morning,” the boatman said.
“Hello, there.” Kinsella, smiling, moved confidently down the last slimed steps toward the curragh. But the boatman shook his head, warning him not to board. The boatman was young, vulpine, with a wild cub’s grace. His gray eyes stared, as the eyes of an animal stare from a zoo cage.
“I’m James Kinsella, Catholic priest,” Kinsella said, from Ecumenical habit.
The boatman’s tongue appeared, round as a teat between his teeth. Its owner sucked on it, staring, silent.
“Father Kinsella,” Kinsella corrected himself.
“Ah, come off it,” the boatman said, in a soft island brogue.
“I come for a priest. I can’t take nobody else. Sorry, now.”
“But I’m the man you came for. I am a priest.”
The boatman, sucking his tongue again, looked past Kinsella, again searching the pier, the sheds, the road beyond. Then turned to look out at the fishing boat anchored at the bar. On deck, Dylan Thomas raised his head in query.
“Not here yit,” the boatman called.
The boy on deck turned and looked back at the distant mass of the island. The fat black cloud was now immense, moving like a dark lens across the sky. The boatman also stared up at the sky.
“Storm coming up?” Kinsella asked.
“Well, let’s go, then. Do you want to see my papers, or something?”
“Come off it,” the boatman said, again. He turned away as though Kinsella had already disappeared. Sat in the long, light curragh, gripping the bollard, steadying the craft, which bobbed, on the lapping pier waves. Sucked his round tongue for a moment, then yelled across the water. “There’s no-o car---aaaa-ar!”
On deck the white-sweatered boy pointed to the sky. “Let’s go--o b--aack, Padraig,” he called, syllables of sound separated in their transit across the waves.
The boatman abruptly let go of the bollard and took up his oars. Kinsella, irritated, reached down and caught hold of the curragh’s stern.
“Let go of that.”
“I tell you, I am Father Kinsella. The abbot is expecting me.”
Padraig, the boatman, let go of one oar, seized up a steel rowlock from beneath it and, swift as a biting dog, struck the knuckles that held the curragh’s stern. With a gasp of pain, Kinsella drew his hand back. The rowlock snapped into its hole, the oar in it, and, with two swift strokes, the boatman swung the curragh out of reach.
“You don’t look like a priest, I just can’t imagine you as one.” His mother said that, long ago, when in his second year at college he decided to study with Hartmann. Agnostic herself, his mother had continued her son’s religious education after her Catholic husband died. She was one for keeping promises. Futures were another matter, as her son found when he told her he intended to become a Catholic priest. Useless to instance that his new hero, Gustav Hartmann, had taken holy orders as an Albanesian monk, much as Malraux had become a minister of state in the Fifth Republic, not for the obvious condition, but as a means toward social action. Which, in Hartmann’s case, had made him a twentieth-century Bolívar to this generation of South American revolutionary priests and nuns. The church, Hartmann taught, despite its history and its dependence on myth and miracle, exists today as the quintessential structure through which social revolution can be brought to certain areas of the globe. But Kinsella’s mother, a Liberal, born in the nineteen thirties, did not believe in the combination of holy orders and revolutionary theory. She, like that fisherman rowing away from him now, could not see things as they really were.
The curragh tied up beside the fishing boat. The fishing boat’s engine came to life, the anchor growled up from the sea. As the fishing boat, turning, churning, headed back toward open waters, Kinsella found himself running, up the pier toward his rented car. Jumped in, went breakneck toward Cahirciveen and a telephone. He was a priest and they had not known he was a priest because the priests they knew wore black suits, or the clothes of old women, long brown habits, sandals, thick belts knotted about with big rosary beads, and he must telephone and order them to turn that boat around and send it back for him at once.
Four miles from the pier, driving through the flat trench landscape of a turf bog, he came, unexpectedly, to a crossroads. A whitewashed cottage stood on one corner, and what seemed to be a larger cottage, also whitewashed, but with a big barn behind it, faced on the opposite corner. On the doorway of the larger cottage was a sign.
p. mcginn: licensed to sell wines & spirits And a smaller sign, in Gaelic. telefon.
Hens rose in fright as he swerved into the cobbled yard. A rooster ran past, wattles loose, one skelly eye fixed on the car in wild alarm. Inside the pub it was dark as evening. Two Irish laborers, wearing greasy old black suits, once their Sunday best, now their daily dungarees, white shirts open at the neck, and knee-length rubber Wellington boots. Faces the color of strawberry jam looked up from large glasses of black porter. Behind the small bar, a man, broad as a rain barrel, wearing a white turtleneck sweater, wiped glasses with a linen cloth. “G’day,” said he, to Kinsella. “’Twill rain, I would say.”
“I want to telephone Muck Island.”
“You wouldn’t get them.”
“I’m a priest. They’re expecting me.”
Strawberry faces of the laborers bobbed uniformly in greeting, as though Kinsella had just entered the pub. “G’day, Father,” in unison, they sang. From beneath the bar the proprietor took up a receiver on a hand-crank stand, cranked it up, spoke in a language that Kinsella assumed to be Gaelic. Then: “There, Father. There you are, so.”
The crackly island voice. “What? What . . . ? Padraig didn’t get you? Ah, sure that’s a disaster.” And, over the wire, wheezing laughter. “Didn’t know you were a priest? Oh, God love us! I’m sorry, Father, but do you see that weather out there, I’m afraid we’ll not get you in today. . . . What? What?”
He had to shout. Three faces watched him in that small, hop-stinking room. “Send the boat back! I have to get there today. It’s urgent.”
“Well, now, Father, the minute the we-----eeee---ather clears, do you heeeee-- do you heeeee--aa-arr?”
Static crackles. Silence. Then a girl’s voice. “You were cut off, Father. It’s a bad connection at the best of times. I could try them later, if you like?”
“I’ll call you,” he said, and put the phone down.
Three faces turned to him. Unlike people from more civilized places they did not pretend that they had not overheard. Strawberry cheeks bunched in grins. “So, Padraig refused you,” the proprietor said. “Isn’t that a good one!”
They laughed. It was.
“Those boys on the island, you see,” the proprietor explained. “They never come out, they have no notion that the priests out here do be just like the rest of us, nowadays. Begging your pardon, Father. Are you an American?”
“A grand country, so. You’ll get out tomorrow. I’d say ’twill clear.”
“’Twill clear,” one of the laborers promised.
“How much do I owe you for the phone?”
“Ah, not at all.”
“Well, thank you. Thank you very much.”
“Thank you again,” Kinsella said.
Outside, in the cobbled yard, hens tacked cautiously around his feet. He looked at the crossroads and there, blurring its outlines, was a rainbow’s end. The rainbow arched up and away from this place to disappear behind a brow of mountain. Raindrops spat warnings. Hens stalked to cover. Rain came, wetting to a thick flow. As Kinsella retreated into the shelter of the pub doorway, thunder banged above him. Thunderclouds, massing over the far mountain, advanced to take possession of the sky.
He felt cold. He thought of Hartmann in the rain forests of Brazil. He looked again for the rainbow, but it had vanished, shimmering, in that sudden rain. It had appeared, then disappeared, in this lonely place, a place that now, in its noon darkness, made him think of a Beckett landscape, that place in which Vladimir and Estragon might have waited for Godot. The rainbow had seemed to end, down there, in the center of the white cross formed by two concrete ribbons of road. In such phenomena people once read signs of God’s hand. He turned and went back into the pub.
Posted November 21, 2014