Crimson and Gold: Life as a Limerick
by Mark Patrick Hederman (Columba Books, €19.99hb/£17.99hb)
John F. Deane
Dear reader: I presume you are an Irish Catholic; I am an Irish Catholic; I am reviewing a book on Irish Catholicism by an Irish Catholic for The Irish Catholic. And are we not all anxious, in the present, over the past, and for the future?
This timely, utterly readable, almost adorable book by an Irish Catholic, a monk and a priest and a former Abbot of Glenstal, may surely help to ease that anxiety, even a little.
We are given, scattered here and there as we read, some salient details of the life of Mark Patrick Hederman. Two of these, in particular, clarify the direction and tenor of the book. The first is that he was born close to Knockfierna, an Cnoc Fírinne, the ‘hill of truth’, in sight of the Galtee Mountains.
He tells us this hill was the palace of Donn Fíreannach, god of the dead and of fertility, and that he rides on horseback. It was – and is – a place rich in the Irish world of fairy and myth, an offering to the otherworld.
As a child, Mark Patrick found God on that hill, experiencing “an epiphany” and promising his life to the service of his Christ. This he has faithfully and seriously carried out.
The second detail is that, at the age of 64, as a contented monk, he was suddenly elected Abbot of Glenstal Abbey. Canon Law, Church rules, state that only an ordained priest may become an abbot and Mark Patrick found himself with a shotgun ordination, being made a priest within two months. This emphasised for him the ludicrous and volatile nature of Canon Law.
The early part of this delighting and sometimes mesmerising and disconcerting tale, presents a carefully sieved history of Ireland in the twentieth century, and how we have seen and treated our Irish Catholic faith down the decades. This is an enlightening tour, and a tour de force, told with precise detail and affirmation of sources, and with an engaging sense of humour.
How, for instance, we grew to immaturity under a monarchical hierarchy: John Charles McQuaid was always ‘a prince of the Church’, and acted accordingly; how we accepted celibacy as a law, infallibility, the elite standing of priests, and so much more.
And it was definitely wrong even to raise a question about such things. The Roman Church became our master and ruler and eventually Canon Law began to shoulder out of existence the purity and truth of the gospels themselves and, of course, that God is love. And remember, Mark Patrick offered himself to God on the Hill of Truth.
The result of our subservience was that we knew, by following all the rules and regulations given to us by our saintly betters, we would make it across the high rope-bridge into Heaven. We neglected, therefore, the wilderness within, disregarded our being persons-in-Christ and working for universal love, and even the care of the earth on which we live.
In the early years of our nationhood, great demands were made to shape Ireland as ‘a Catholic nation’. To the detriment of so much more: our culture, our literature, our freedoms to grow as human beings in the wider cosmos. We lost a sense of the beauty of contradictory things, of the deeper wisdom available to us, of the wonders that poetry can expose us to. ‘Nature’, the magnificent earth we survive on, became inimical, in the Western Church, to the ‘supernatural’ and we took the Church as absolute and changeless.
Mark Patrick brightly alerts us to the sixties in Ireland and, indeed, throughout the world, when all of this began to disappear, as quickly as dewfall on a summer day. Now ‘the lazy monopoly’ of the Irish Church was quickly eroded.
This book outlines the reasons why, and they are reasons that go far beyond our own shores. A newspaper, commenting on the Fleadh Cheoil held in 1963, noted the “disgraceful and unruly scenes in Mullingar”, the sexual explosion, the wild dancing, the music. Vatican II came about; Eamonn Casey was a bishop! Oh, and so much more unreasonable ballast we were hauling about for centuries.
Fr Hederman tells several stories, quotes poems, refers to our need for a deeper relationship with God, one that corresponds to the reality of our lives, of who we are. After the many preambles he comes to the point, and the preambles authorise him to do so: “How do we here in Ireland, in this twenty-first century, get nearer to our God?”
He does not prescribe any answers: but he suggests a complete decluttering of all that hides the purity of the gospels from us. He outlines many ways this may be undertaken and how we all may come to offer “a fling of the heart to the heart of the host”.
The final sections of this richly orchestrated book make positive and heartening reading. The many streams outlined throughout come together in a fluidly delighting and hopeful confluence to make a satisfying assault into the sea of faith. The Cnoc Fírinne of the child’s epiphany offers us the Christ, the way, the truth and the life, for the adult Irish Catholic.
John F. Deane is from Achill Island; he is founder of Poetry Ireland and its journal The Poetry Ireland Review. His new collection of poems, Naming of the Bones, comes from Carcanet Press in November.