In recent years we have seen the publication of many memoirs by Irish missionary priests. Dealing as they do with exotic lands, and often troubled people, these books are always of interest. There is always something in them for us stay-at-homes to learn.
But perhaps what we really need are some honest memoirs by priests who have, so to speak, served their time here at home in Ireland.
These would be perhaps less exotic in some ways, but one suspects the people would be no less troubled than those from China to Peru.
A model of what I have in mind is provided by a book which has not as yet been translated into English or Irish, but ought to be. Written by Bernard Alexandre, the curé of Vattetot-sous-Beaumont, in the Caux country, east of Le Havre, it is entitled Le Horsain: Vivre et survivre en pays de Caux (Plon, 1988).
Le Horsain means in the local patois of Upper Normandy, an outsider, a stranger to the parish. Though his mother was from the region, he was born in the city of Le Havre. “Here we are in the heart of the Caux country… But for all that, I did not see the light of day on this upland. I was raised in the big city I left just this morning. I am an horsain, an outsider.” Thus opens the book. But he was also an outsider to the local people in being a priest.
That did not matter: his book is the work of a man who became an insider. Yet after his arrival he never left the parish. He found that the solitude and isolation of the rural priest in France was only too true.
A man of profound spirituality, he was also a man of great intellectual energy, active in the social life of the village and the district, a lover of films, and a talented raconteur.
It is his skills as a story teller that makes the book what it is. For he traces not just his life in the parish since 1945, but the history of the parish itself as he could find it in the parish records (which covered two centuries), through his training as a priest, to his long years of service to his declining parish, where from time to time (given the old traditions of the place) he had to act as an exorcist.
The book was published in the series edited until a recent date by Jean Malaurie called Terre Humaine in which such books as Levi-Strauss’s Triste Tropiques and Soustelle’s The Four Suns appeared.
But the question the book posed for the future of the countryside is “who will baptise us, who will marry us, who will bury us?” For now the answer was the quickly vanishing rural clergy.
It has to be remembered that Republican France was anti-clerical in a manner never seen in these islands. The local clergy, often men of great poverty, but great patience, suffered badly because of the high politics played by the hierarchy and the wealthy Catholics who down to the end of 1930s still hankered after the old royal or imperial regimes of France.
This is a book about rural life. It reminds one of Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, about rural Suffolk, or Hugh Brody’s Inishkillane, about the west of Ireland. But those books were written by outside observers, sensitive and insightful writers, but still outsiders in a way a priest should not be.
When one looks back on the decades of Irish literature since Maynooth was established in 1797 one has to regret that the Irish clergy for all their gifts, have never produced such a writer, such a humble but patient man of the people. And perhaps now that the clergy here too are dying away we too may have to ask: “Who will baptise us, who will marry us, who will bury us?”
Bernard Alexandre died in Rouen at the age of 71 in 1990, two years after the publication of his book, which sold some 350,000 copies. Le Horsain remains a timeless classic of French literature, the testimony of a living witness to a dying culture.