Shining a light on ordinary parish life

Shining a light on ordinary parish life The Patrick Kavanagh statue in Dublin
Bro. Conor McDonough

Picture the scene: a mid-20th-Century crowd of Irish emigrants in a newsagent’s after Mass. They all rush to buy the ‘Irish papers’ to find out what the important people in Dublin are doing and how the metropolis views the provinces. Then in walks a Monaghan eccentric. He has notions, so maybe he’s above the Irish papers and will buy a London paper, or even a continental one? But he has no interest in Paris or London or Dublin. This poet picks up a copy of the Dundalk Democrat. He wants only to know “who has died, and who has sold his farm”.

Patrick Kavanagh was a poet of the parish (in the geographical, not ecclesiastical, sense). He explicitly subscribed to a world view he called ‘parochialism’, contrasting it with ‘provincialism’.

The provincial has his eyes turned to the metropolis, and doesn’t trust what he sees with his own eyes unless the metropolis approves it. But the parishioner has no such anxiety, and “is never in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish”.


The parochial person sees and loves what is in front of him: the landscape, people, and buildings that make up the microcosm he inhabits. But the provincial person has no mind of his own, and “lives by other people’s loves”.

Just think of Kavanagh’s poem ‘Epic’, where he contrasts the great geopolitical events of his time (“the Munich bother”) with a local land dispute about “half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land”.

A provincial would be inclined to devalue the artistic and spiritual significance of a fight between Duffys and McCabes, but the ghost of Homer whispers to the Monaghan poet: “I made the Iliad from such/A local row”. For Kavanagh, to ponder the universe of the parish is to come face to face with the universals of humanity, and even the Creator himself: “Green, blue, yellow and red-/God is down in the swamps and marshes”.


The struggle between provincialism and parochialism is an old one, but of late the value of the small and local has taken a real battering.

Thanks to the constant flow of images and information in our socially-networked age our lives are overshadowed by ‘FOMO’, the fear of missing out: we’re afraid of missing out on the latest news and trends, the best concerts and festivals, the most intense experiences and most beautiful destinations our world has to offer.

Our eyes may not be turned to Dublin, but instead we admire and emulate, and seek the approval of, the stars of YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram, who seem to live a life less ordinary than ours.

Digital natives imbibe like mother’s milk the sense that life is happening elsewhere, and that we have to chase it.

Our centre of gravity is outside of us, and we live largely by other people’s loves.

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Kavanagh’s wisdom is not entirely extinct. Ed Sheeran might seem an unlikely heir to Kavanagh, but I can’t help hearing echoes of a healthy parochialism in his songs, especially his latest, ‘Castle on the Hill’. It’s a song of nostalgic return to the secret universe of his childhood home. The elements of this little world are perfectly ordinary: rolling down hills, drinking and smoking, friends who are retail workers and are dealing with disappointments.

Ed Sheeran is a superstar, he’s meant to be living a life less ordinary, yet here he shines a light on his parish and all its ordinariness.

He’s not singing about the glamour of fame, about nightclubs and models and ‘likes’ and ‘follows’, all these things that lure us out of ourselves. He’s singing about Framlingham, about its grass and people and sunsets – “and it’s real”.

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Knockadoon awakens all

Since joining the Dominicans I’ve come to know and love a little headland in East Cork called Knockadoon. It’s at the end of a very long country road, and is home every summer to hundreds of young people who attend summer camps under the care of the Dominicans.

The effect this place has is astonishing. The facilities are simple, so WiFi is not an option, and the campers, instead of having their eyes on the social media metropolis, are invited to see clearly the people in front of them, to open their eyes to the dazzling beauty of the sea, to inhabit and love this parish which is theirs for a week every summer.

I’ve heard many of these young people tell how they feel truly alive and happy when they’re in Knockadoon and are glad to take a break from the stress of a socially networked life. For one week, they cease to be anxious provincials, and become parishioners, as happy as the swifts and seagulls that swoop overhead.