Newman’s heirs

Newman’s heirs Prof. Declan Kiberd Photo: Irish Literary Times
There’s a rich vein of Catholic writing in the modern Irish canon, Greg Daly is told


“It is a curious thing, do you know,” observes a friend of Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce’s alter ego in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “how your mind is supersaturated in the religion in which you say you disbelieve.”

For Notre Dame’s Prof. Declan Kiberd, Ireland’s major writers have tended to be much more deeply engaged with religion than might be commonly assumed, with Joyce being a textbook example of this.

“I wrote a book a few years ago called Ulysses and Us which basically argued that Joyce was a religious writer – extra-institutional of course – and that he was very critical of the Irish Catholic Church as an institution, mainly because of the way in which he felt that the priests in it didn’t really believe what they said they believed,” he says.

“He believed it as a child and took it seriously, and then discovered they didn’t really. There’s that scene in Portrait where the Dean of Studies and his father have a laugh behind his back about an unjust punishment he complains about – it’s almost like a metaphor for his relations with Catholicism itself.”


Noting how one of Joyce’s sisters had described her brother as more deeply involved with Jesus than anyone she’d ever met, Prof. Kiberd says that in his book he tries to show how over Portrait and Ulysses, the young Stephen Dedalus, having refused his mother’s wish that he kneel at her deathbed, or that he make his Easter duty, ends up actually confronting her in the brothel scene in Ulysses, and is then brought home by Leopold Bloom who gives him coffee and a bun.

“It’s almost as if this young fellow who refused to make his Communion as an act of defiance against his mother and Catholicism, ends up receiving it in this unlikely form of Eucharist from a half-Jewish man,” he says, adding that a great deal of modernism works that way with many modernist writers seeking to achieve a religious effect by other means.

Joyce “went to all the Easter ceremonies in Notre Dame in Paris when he lived there as a hero to the hyper-modernists”, Prof. Kiberd says. “He went the whole week, and he knew the whole Latin by heart, but he stood by the edge in the doorway, quietly uttering the words, but would not go up into the main part of the church.”

Religion had played a key part in the Irish Revival of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Prof. Kiberd points out, with Protestant writers especially expressing a form of Protestant Christianity very different from the form which was ascendant in the North.

“O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, which would be his generic play, in which Bessie Burgess, in a play filled with men talking about sacrifice, actually does sacrifice her life at the window for a neighbour, while using all this Protestant rhetoric in her speechifying,” he says as an example. “Or you’ve got Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, whose main character is Christy – as in Christ – who is brought gifts by three people, who rides in triumph on an ass, and then becomes sacrificed so that the community can be bound together again.”

Acknowledging that this is a very simple way of looking at these things, he says it’s all clearly there, and points to Shaw’s St Joan as a story of a religious figure who bypasses the priests and bishops to communicate directly with God, helping to invent modern mysticism and also nationalism.


“They’re all deeply religious texts when you start scratching beneath the surface, and some of them are very Protestant in their textuality,” he says. “For instance, my old friend Vivian Mercier used to joke that the Irish Revival was held in order to provide employment for the idle children of Protestant rectors, and if you think about it, Yeats, Douglas Hyde, Synge all come from Protestant ecclesiastical families, so it’s not surprising in a way that they might in their texts be trying to get a kind of another version of their religion.”

This is very conscious on their part, he says, as tends to be the way with the great writers.

“My reading of that would be that they’re all south Irish Protestants, very aware that a different form of Protestantism is emerging in the north, which is much more rudimentary, much more evangelical, much more in one way simplifying of the code they’d been brought up in, and they are basically involved in a kind-of life-and-death debate with northern co-religionists about who is going to inherit Ireland,” he says.

“They are putting in a strong bid for a kind of liberal southern Protestant – almost Bohemian – code, so obviously opposed to the business code which dominates the more Puritan forms of northern Protestantism.”


With the Protestant characters of major writers of the Revival being so clear, he says, it’s easy to miss a parallel Catholic strand.

“And I began to think that the Catholic strand had major roots in Newman because Joyce said Newman was the great prose stylist of the English language,” he says. “His prose is slightly silken, if I can use that word about it, which is what I think appealed to Joyce. It’s sort of shiny and insinuating in a way that could almost be described and probably was by Kingsley and some of his enemies as slippery, but I think Joyce liked that element of it.”


Observing that as a conversion narrative, Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua lies behind Joyce’s Portrait, and that Joyce’s incremental and accreted method of writing Ulysses echoed the Apologia, Prof. Kiberd notes how it’s striking that when Joyce quotes Newman in the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter of Ulysses he does so without parody.

“When he’s doing Pepys or Dickens or any of the others, it’s parodistic and over the top, but when he does Newman he does him level, just as he is. And I think for that reason it’s kind of homage as a form of imitation,” he says.

Joyce had been struck by Newman’s idea in his lectures on the University that English has developed through a series of stylistic mutations, and that great writers in the early phases of a language had to be geniuses to achieve anything.

“Joyce probably was thinking most Irish people were using English for the first time in their lives around the time of Newman’s lectures in the 1850s,” Prof. Kiberd says. “Their use of English had the excitement of surprise and intense discovery – it would be like African-Americans taking up the banjo or piano or violin and making jazz, this strange new sound, and Irish people were doing that with English as a new instrument of communication, the way Newman said Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the early users of English were geniuses because they were strong enough to use this new medium.”

Where Joyce differed strongly from Newman was in the Englishman’s conviction that the English literary tradition was inherently Protestant and had stabilised as such.

“That’s his real point of dissent: even though he’s hugely a fan and follower of Cardinal Newman he doesn’t agree with that,” observes Prof. Kiberd. “Joyce argues that Chaucer is a rewrite of Boccacio’s Decameron, that Milton is a puritan transcript of the Divine Comedy, and that Shakespeare is an Italianate Englishman. In other words, Joyce believes that the three really great texts of English literature are Catholic, and rooted in the medieval Catholicism which Joyce himself was so fascinated by, following his studies in UCD and Aquinas and so on.”

Whether or not Joyce was right, one irony about Newman’s conviction, Prof. Kiberd observes, was that “the university he founded and gave those founding lectures for in the 1850s would itself produce a whole string of Catholic writers”.

Not that Newman’s influence on Irish Catholic writing was limited to UCD, it should be added, with the Trinity College- and Oxford-educated Oscar Wilde being an important follower of Newman, something that’s been effectively shown by Trinity’s Dr Jarlath Killeen, author of The Faiths of Oscar Wilde and The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde.


“He argues for instance something Joyce actually said about Wilde, that the sense of loss inherent in sin is the key to his art. ‘Experience is the name a man gives to his mistakes’ – The Importance of Being Earnest is about how you learn more from your errors than from your right moments. That’s the felix culpa, the happy fault which can be happy if you’re educated by your sin,” Prof. Kiberd says.

“In fact when Wilde was locked up the first thing he asked for was the writings of Newman for prison reading, when the governor told him he could read, when he discovered he had an intellectual prisoner on his hands,” he adds.


Newman and Wilde were both accused of justifying lying in the service of a deeper point, he continues, with both men– like, later, Flann O’Brien – allowing false rumours to circulate uncorrected about themselves.

It’s possible to map a kind of ‘ludic’ or playful tradition around these authors which suggests that the truth value of art is less important than the extent to which it nourishes the imagination and the spirit, Prof. Kiberd says. “This is what Newman says about the making of a gentleman in the arts degree: that it is literally not useful, that’s its beauty. It’s not utilitarian.

“This is Newman against the kind of efficiency and Gradgrindery of the Victorian period, and I’m saying that he opposed the spirit of that age, and that all people who opposed the spirit of the age capture it more fully than those who reflect it. That opposition to use value passes on to Wilde who says that all art is useless, perfectly useless, and glories in this fact. It goes then to people like Flann O’Brien, the idea of a multiple self, which Newman cultivated and which Wilde believed in and Joyce too, that the self is not singular but multiple and playful.”

This tradition was especially prominent among Catholic writers linked with UCD, it seems.

“It’s in Hopkins as well, who of course worked in the university and could be arguably seen along with Joyce as the most playful punster in the English language and who had that same sense of art as fun, but then you go through those people who are called Catholic modernists who came out of UCD in the 1930s, people like Denis Devlin and Brian Coffey. Flann O’Brien most famously, I suppose, but even going back someone like Thomas MacDonagh was a bit like that,” he says.

“I suppose what I’m saying is there’s a kind of aesthetic philosophy whose most famous example in the world is Joyce, but whose source is Newman, and there’s lots of other figures around Joyce before and after, including Hopkins and Flann O’Brien who seem to fit this particular aesthetic.”

It’s a very different tradition of Catholic writing than has been distinctive of modern Britain, a literature of conversion similarly drawing from Newman but exemplified by such writers as G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Muriel Sparke, but it nonetheless points to Ireland having had a lay intelligentsia of Catholic writers.

“They were all lay people, all from Catholic families, and they all had this idea that if you’d a strong belief in God you could afford to be playful about Faith and belief,” he says.

“You could hold it with a degree of not mockery, but playfulness, like medieval monks did making doodles in the margins of their poems or even medieval theology students who could be quite blasphemous because the belief itself was so strong it could survive the blasphemy, that sort of thing.”

This tradition harks back to older Gaelic texts which are playful to the point of sacrilegious in their treatment of saints and the Church, he says, with this being possible because the faith itself was rock-solid.

“I think in a way that’s how I see Joyce and those writers, as part of that inbuilt critique, rather than thinking he’s gone agnostic or anti-Catholic. I really see him as part of a loyal internal opposition,” he says.


Joyce’s internal opposition seems to have in large part come from a suspicion that too many Irish priests were functionaries – even good-hearted ones – without a real belief in the Faith they purported to uphold, Prof. Kiberd explains.

“It does strike me that the Catholic Church, in the absence of economic justice in the 19th Century or even from the time of the Penal Laws had to function as a kind of welfare state for the community, and had to provide hospitals, education, etc., and while that was compassionate and necessary, by the time of the actual State being set up, it got them caught up in a series of unfortunate relationships from which they’re still not recovering,” he says.

Centuries from now, he speculates, historians might wonder not why did De Valera kiss Archbishop McQuaid’s ring, but rather why did the priests allow the State to hijack the Church for a secular project.

“This is what I mean by saying that Joyce believed in it more than they did,” he says. “I think in the end he regarded a lot of the priests as kind of bureaucrats, you know, that priest who gives a retreat for businessmen in a story in Dubliners called ‘Grace’ and tells them to regard him as their spiritual accountant, and I think that what Joyce is saying is that these were almost like Kafka bureaucrats, decent men trying to do their best, but utterly in most cases devoid of spirit or vision or a sense of the otherworld, which I think Joyce did have.

“In other words, he’s probably aware that they’re powerful institutionally and that some of their power is a result of certain ideals they have, but they’re deficient in terms of vision, most of them. Now, that wouldn’t be true of all of them – you wouldn’t want to generalise – but there’s a sense in which they settled for power rather than authority, maybe, and for social compassion rather than vision.”


While Irish literature has been too often marked in recent decades by writers “posing as a persecuted minority, when often in fact they hold the reins of discursive power”, he thinks that things may be changing, pointing to how the poetry of the Cardiff-based Ailbhe Darcy “fills her poems with what you might almost call lost objects of previous Catholicism, sacred objects which have been evacuated of meaning for this generation, but which meant something to your grandmother”.

“She will reinvigorate these as a poet, as part of her poetry-writing act,” he continues. “It’s a kind of Catholicism which is unmoored from all the old repressive ethical denunciation of sexual licence etc., but is connected to something more visionary to do with the power of these images.”

The ultimate exhibit of this, he says, is the playwright Conor McPherson, who he describes as both playful and extraordinarily visionary.

“He has a sacred heart lamp in that play The Seafarer, which actually ends with four slightly drunk, slightly hopeless middle-aged machomen, Nick Hornby readers, going off to an early Mass. I never thought,” he says, “an award-winning, switched-on Irish play by maybe the main current playwright would end with the main characters on the stage going off to Mass.”