Nostalgia and humanity with Fr Jack

Nostalgia and humanity with Fr Jack Father Delaney: Silent Witness Photo: RTE

Film footage of Catholic Ireland in the mid-20th Century can suggest a time that was grim and dour. But that’s not the full story – there was colour and joy too.

I was impressed and entertained by the archive footage of old Dublin in Father Delaney: Silent Witness (RTÉ1, Thursday). Joe Duffy presented a fascinating documentary about the cine films taken by Fr Jack Delaney, former priest of Gloucester St and Dun Laoghaire, from the 1930’s on – and what a treasure they were.

The footage amounted to an insightful social history – we saw people at work and play, in places that still exist, places that have changed and places that have disappeared. There were First Communion days, May processions, unfamiliar footage of the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 and other events of cultural and religious significance but the poverty wasn’t ignored, especially in the inner city.

A warm humanity came across in the various scenes, especially those home movies of the priest’s own family. Like Hitchcock, he briefly appeared in one scene when it looked like someone else had playfully gotten hold of the camera and for once he was the subject.

While I was fine with Duffy’s narration which gave valuable context, I was less enamoured of some of the modern commentary which served up the usual jaundiced narrative about the Catholic Church in Ireland. Yes there are things to be negative about (in broader society as well), and to be fair film maker Jim Sheridan  did admire Fr Delaney’s artistic approach to his filming but also had some digs about “power and control” – but what about the undeniable element of service?

Mind you, the programme also outlined how the power of the Church, particularly through Frank Duff and the Legion of Mary, successfully challenged the exploitation of women in the red light district of Monto, leading to the ‘madams’ becoming upstanding pillars of the community!

We also saw footage of the residents of the Magdalen Laundry in Gloucester St apparently having a great time and putting on plays, followed by commentary on the darker side of such institutions.

The best commentators of all were those who lived in these areas at the time – we saw some sharp, elderly ladies reminiscing and even spotting themselves or acquaintances in the footage.

Also casting a backward glance was Olivia O’Leary in her radio column on last Wednesday’s Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1) when she took pot shots at some predictable and easy targets – like Archbishop Charles McQuaid and Fr Michael Cleary, from secular Ireland’s negative litany. She added Bishop Alphonsus Cullinane for his questioning of the use of yoga and mindfulness in Catholic primary schools. Shock horror for Halloween! Catholic Bishop advises Catholic schools under his patronage!


O’Leary admired the nuns for pursuing self-discovery from the 90’s and credited the Catholic school she attended for getting her through exams and the like but she said they didn’t teach her to think, though perhaps her career in journalism just might suggest otherwise.  In my experience, Catholic education did indeed have faults but was also marked by great learning, idealism, dedication and fun.

The column would have been more effective in its challenging if she could have developed a more nuanced approach, seeing the good in those religious who devoted lives selflessly to the cause of education for years, especially in the past for those who couldn’t have afforded it otherwise.

I think O’Leary contributed to the unnecessary polarisation that is so much a feature of public discourse today – driving people into the bunker because they’re under attack rather than encouraging them out of the bunker to at least have some dialogue and reflection.

She could have done us a favour and opened up a useful discussion on mindfulness but instead I think she tended to shut it down.

Finally, I enjoyed Lonesome (BBC2 NI) on Sunday night. This was the story of Jordan Mogey and Andy Calderwoord from Antrim. Both had been through tough times with substance abuse, but had found their ways through to better places. For Andy his Christian faith helped, for Jordan country music was crucial. Both found common ground in country gospel and it was quite touching to hear them singing harmonies on the old gospel song ‘Angel Band’.

It was a low key programme, but very human and inspiring in its treatment of redemption and new beginnings.


Pick of the Week
Songs of Praise
BBC1, Sunday, November 3, 1.15 pm

Singer Russell Watson tells Aled Jones how a near-death experience transformed his Christian faith. Hymns include In Christ Alone, Ave Maria and Be Thou My Vision.

Children of The Troubles
RTÉ1, Monday, November 4, 9.35 pm

Joe Duffy explores the lives and tragic deaths of the children who were killed during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The Leap of Faith
RTÉ Radio 1, Friday, November 8, 10.05 pm

Insights on topical religious affairs with Michael Comyn.