A remarkable book with a vision for the future

The Chain that Binds the Earth

by Seán O’Conaill

(Author House, £15.95; ISBN: 9781504942287)

Aidan Donaldson

With the return to school of students, Sean O’Conaill’s novel about the experience of modern Catholic education in Ireland proves to be very topical.

This is a wonderful and quite remarkable work that will engage, provoke and inspire a wide audience from a variety of backgrounds, interests and ages. 

If it was ‘merely’ a novel dealing with four young people starting a new school and the issues of transition, friendship, relationships and challenges then this work could be deemed an unqualified success. Yet it is so much more than that.

The author leads the reader into deeper reflection on fundamental issues that face society – and the Church – today; including the environment, fractured relationships, reconciliation, power, freedom of expression, justice and truth.  

There are strong theological aspects to the work, and difficult and challenging questions about the nature of God and the person of Jesus and his mission, as well as the role of the Church in the world. 

All of these are presented in a very clear and thought-provoking manner that will not leave the reader unmoved or unchallenged.

The story takes place in the fictional Iona College in contemporary Derry. The principal characters are four young students who meet for the first time at the start of the school year in their ‘new school’ and who set about bonding and establishing new friendships as all young people do at these important points of transition.

Johnny Mullan, Margaret Philips, Eddy Li and Mary McNevin begin their relationship confronting issues of bullying, social exclusion, the environment and how to handle conflict and power relations in a very typical and natural school/community setting.  

In responding to these issues they end up unconsciously challenging the school system and the value system that underpins much of modern consumerist society, and the institutional and clericalised version of the Church that many traditional and conservative Catholics still favour.

The author, a retired teacher from the North West of the country, demonstrates a detailed, deep and sympathetic understanding of a society that is still struggling to deal with the past never mind moving into the future.

Echoes of the Troubles are everywhere in this work and O’Conaill does a service to all of us who have lived though that very difficult time, which continues to influence the lives of even those who were born after the Good Friday Agreement, by demonstrating the enduring legacy of conflict on the lives of those who suffered. 

He also shows that those who inflicted violence on others may also be considered victims too.

O’Conaill suggests that forgiveness, reconciliation and acknowledging each of us as brothers and sisters is not only possible; it is the only way in which a peaceful and inclusive future may be built.  

Central to the work is the notion of ‘copy-wanting’ which the young people introduce and develop as the cause of much of the ills in the world throughout human history. 

It is a ‘virus’ (identified by the sociologist, James Oliver, as ‘affluenza’) by which people are made unhappy about themselves unless they can possess the latest must-have commodities – an unending cycle of consumerism and materialism.

The author continually reminds us of the de-humanising and destructive effects of this ceaseless pursuit of material goods and power, and how this ‘coveting’ was rejected throughout the Scriptures and by Jesus through his teachings and actions. It also lies at the heart of the message of Pope Francis, who urges us to strip ourselves of our wealth and wordliness lest we become ‘pastry-shop Christians’.


The traditional and conservative position in the novel is advanced by and through the head of the Religious Education department at Iona College, Dr McGinnis, who seeks to simply preserve the unchanging and unchangeable deposit of the Church’s truths preserved by tradition and dogma.   

His version and vision of the Church is one that is highly sacramentalised, clericalised and unquestionable. The role of the laity – and children – is simply to accept and to practice. There is no room for dissent. To do so is to embrace heresy. It is a pre-Vatican II model based on certainty that some in the Church still espouse. 

Yet it is untenable and wrong in terms of the mission of the Church and those whom it seeks to serve.

The Jesus who is revealed in this work is one who refused to embrace power and wealth, and who preferentially reached out to those in need. And for that he was put to death by the rich and powerful – the Roman political authorities and the Jewish religious elite.

O’Conaill does not shy away from the claim (made by those such as Archbishop Oscar Romero and those of the liberation theology position) that the compromise and identification with the powerful since Constantine has undermined the mission of the Church and ‘made Jesus safe’ to follow.

The book strongly suggests that in order to restore its mission, the Church (as the people of God) must renounce wealth, privilege and authority. Only then can it truly be faithful to the mission to create the Kingdom of God on Earth which the young rabbi from Nazareth set out to announce 2,000 years ago. 

Only then can we truly be considered to be true disciples of Christ.

This is a wonderful book that is deserving of the widest audience and consideration.