The Ongoing Present: A Critical Look at the Society and World in which I Grew Up, by Micheál Mac Gréil, Messenger Publications, 472 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1910248065
When reading works that are critical of modern Irish society, it is helpful to recall the terms used by Albert Hirschman in his seminal book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970). There Hirschman explored two ways to respond to unjust, exasperating, or inefficient organisations and relationships. You can leave (“exit”) or you can complain (“voice”). If you are loyal, you will not exit, but you still have the options of either speaking out or remaining silent.
The spirit of Hirschman’s “loyalty” and “voice” options permeates Dr Mac Gréil’s fascinating account of his active and very eventful life. First, as a boy growing up in the West of Ireland countryside in the 1930s and 1940s, where he absorbed its traditions and culture at the very time when they were on the cusp of change and decay. Then as a young man who became an officer in the Irish army during the 1950s and through this role became aware of the problems, rigid class divisions and latent prejudices in society. Leaving his army career, he became a student and university lecturer, achieving high academic honours and recognition, but always using his knowledge and expertise to fight for society’s underdogs and to combat prejudice and bigotry wherever he found it. Finally, as a Jesuit priest for most of his adult life, and in addition to engaging in a wide range of activities to support rural and disadvantaged communities, he welcomed the changes brought to the Catholic Church by Vatican II, worked to overcome the often tardy and grudging way that the Church authorities implemented change and witnessed with horror the shocking scandals that were a major factor in the decline and marginalisation of the role of religion and the organised Church in modern times.
His eureka moment appears to have come in the mid-1960s when he spent a liberating period at Kent State University in Ohio, at a time when US society was in turmoil, struggling to come to terms with the fact that it was waging what was widely regarded as an unjust, cruel and futile war in Vietnam and adapting to the dismantling of laws and customs that discriminated against black Americans. He excelled in his postgraduate studies of sociology and anthropology and drew lessons both from his academic research and from his interactions with US society that would have been largely absent at that time from the less radical dialogue that went on within Irish universities:
More than these academic distinctions, my mind was ‘blown open’ to the nasty side of society and the need to question conventional wisdom without being presumptuous. I was challenged to become an intellectual in Karl Mannheim’s meaning of the concept, i.e. one who was capable of being critical of one’s own culture and, at the same time, being loyal to it. …. It was during my graduate studies in Kent State University that I realised that St Ignatius was shaping my world view and enabling me to stand back and cast a cold eye on it all. I developed, I hope, a greater tolerance of cognitive ambiguity and saw the injustice caused by closed-mindedness and authoritarianism in many organisations and systems.
In later life, as he reflected wryly on the consequences of his “loyalty-voice” stance, drawing on his experience in the army, it is clear that he understood how this would affect his career as a priest:
You cannot be a radical above the rank of lieutenant! It was a real skill to be active within the establishment, without compromise of one’s principles. It was necessary to be in at the ‘lieutenant rank’ in order to have sufficient influence and credibility (in respect of criticism) to promote necessary change. If a person of this ‘left wing’ were to be promoted, there would always be a danger of his or her becoming a defender of the status quo, thus dampening the desire to work for necessary change of it … I am happy now not to have been given promotion above the rank of lieutenant!
Dr Mac Gréil never intended his book to be considered as a conventional autobiography. But it is, in a sense, a social and intellectual autobiography in that it shows how his upbringing and life choices were influenced by the structure and prevailing ideas of the society and the Church to which he gave his loyalty, and how he, in turn, tried to influence the way in which that society and Church evolved, drawing on his sociological research and extensive community involvement. This is an approach that has become less fashionable in the modern world, where issues are usually portrayed as black or white; good or evil; right or wrong; where you are either with us or against us.
The understandable reluctance to critique the world in this dogmatic manner can often be confused with indecisiveness or passivity, particularly as modern forms of instant communication have made the conduct of public debate unreflective and excessively confrontational. A key motivation of Dr McGréil’s book was to counter what he terms “the apostate complex”, namely a compulsive alienation from what one was originally, and an over-identity with what one has become in later life. He reflects that:
By being aware of this psychological danger and trying to address personal, social and cultural change in a positive and integrated manner, I will still respect the views of those I may not now appreciate as strongly as I once did. Ireland’s reputation has been greatly damaged (unwittingly, I hope) by the negative influence of those (from among modern writers) suffering from the “apostate complex” … At times in my life I may have drifted into the trap of becoming alienated from the old in favour of the new, but experience has shown me the wisdom of seeking the true value of both!”
Micheál Mac Gréil was born in 1931 in Laois, but the family moved back to Westport shortly afterwards, where his father’s family home was located. The first chapter (“The 1920s and 1930s: After Independence and Before the War”) gives an extraordinarily detailed and often nostalgic account of what life was like in the West of Ireland before Ireland modernised. These were hard times and children were both schooled and were expected to pull their weight at home (“Most children were inducted into the chores of farming. Each season had its own duties”). Religion played a central role in peoples’ lives, but interestingly, the Catholic Church was, unlike today, very much a “domestic Church”. For example, in the 1930s the majority of those who died were waked in their homes and were not brought to the church before burial, a rule that was only introduced later in the 1940s. The overriding societal behaviour was that of a closely knit community that was self-supporting and self-organising to a much greater degree than in later eras. Whatever problems there were in these isolated and relatively poor regions of marginal agriculture, anomie was not one of them, though it was to come with modernisation and emigration to cities, both at home and abroad.
The second chapter (“The 1940s: A Decade of Disaster and Change”) continues the description of growing up, being educated and starting to socialise in a rural community, and how the outbreak of the Second World War impacted on the people and on their often hazy and confused understanding of the complex issues involved and global decisions being taken. Food production became an overriding imperative when foreign trade effectively ceased; in an era prior to mechanisation the farm work became increasingly, grindingly hard. Sometimes the war itself came close:
A British bomber made an emergency landing behind Louisburgh in a flat stretch of bog land. The aircraft was dismembered by the air mechanics and the ‘carcass’ was carried on heavy loaders through Westport en route to Northern Ireland.
And through stories told by visitors who had earlier emigrated to England, the horrors of German bombing of cities became very real and personal, even if the eagerly followed nightly bulletins of Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce, broadcasting from Berlin) on the wireless fed a confusing ambivalence of attitudes towards Germany.
Having completed his second level education, in 1950 Dr Mac Gréil joined the Irish army as a cadet and served as an officer for eight years. While in the army, many of the interests that he developed and the initiatives that he took served as a preparation for the time when he would leave to join another close-knit community and become a Jesuit priest. In particular he recognised that the gulf between officers and other ranks was often the result of lack of educational facilities, combined with segregation, backed by accepted custom and prejudice. An early run-in with the Church authorities related to the Sandes Home, set up in the Curragh by a Protestant benevolent group to provide non-alcoholic recreation for soldiers.
I once organised an Irish play, Íosagán, in Sandes’ for young people to promote the Irish language. The hall filled with soldiers in support of the young people. It was a great night. As a result, I was reported to the Camp Adjutant by a member of the Catholic clergy for organising an Irish play in the Sandes’ Home … These were not very ecumenical times!
The decision to resign his commission and become a priest was not without its tensions and regrets, but was a logical move that was clearly in harmony with his interests and evolving personality. This was a time of great change and high expectations within the Catholic Church, as Pope John XXIII initiated moves designed to bring it into a better dialogue with modern society. It was also a time when long overdue socio-economic policy changes, the opening of the economy to the global market and the start of moves to join the then European Common Market, kickstarted a period of development and modernisation within the Irish State.
The main chapters in the book take one, decade by decade, on a roller-coaster ride from the 1960s (“The Heady Decade”), through the 1970s (“The Decade After Optimism”), to the 1980s (“The Chickens Come Home to Roost”). The book concludes with an account of the 1990s (“A Decade of Progress and Regress”); a sociological reflection on change in previous decades (“The Twentieth Century in Retrospect”); and thoughts on “The Dawn of a New Century”).
As I read this narrative, it triggered long-suppressed reflections and memories of the hopeless fashion in which the Catholic Church dealt with the modernisation of Ireland as I experienced it as a teenager in the 1960s. They made it so inevitable that we would take the “exit” route, and most of us did. One recalls what Edward Wilson, the famous entomologist, said about common sense:
If common sense means living by a set of rules of thumb that have worked in the past, but living without examining these rules too closely or in detail, then, yes, ants have common sense.
In the early 1960s, only some five per cent of Leaving Certificate students went on to university and it was not too far in the past when few children, and a negligible number from poor families, even made it to secondary school. Religion, or more precisely, apologetics, as taught in secondary schools, consisted of perfunctory ritual denunciations of almost all modern movements in science, philosophy and literature. The education system that facilitated this misguided and ultimately doomed preparation for life was about to change dramatically, driven initially by the reforms of second level education introduced by Donogh O’Malley in 1966 and followed closely by a rapidly rising participation in university and other third level education. But the Church authorities, who dominated first and second level education, simply had no strategic understanding of how their alienating, closed and domineering world was about to be shattered. It is interesting to contrast the behaviour of the Irish Catholic Church authorities, who were treated with fawning devotion and obedience by the Irish political ruling class, with the behaviour of the Polish Church authorities, who experienced decades of dealing with a hard-nosed Communist regime that was violently antagonistic to religion. Not only had the Irish Catholic Church become physically soft; it had also become intellectually soft.
In his description of his studies prior to ordination in 1969, Dr Mac Gréil gives an insight into how Catholicism in Ireland might have evolved if the reforms of Vatican II had been embraced with more openness and enthusiasm.
I suppose it was inevitable that there would be resistance to ecumenical unity within the Catholic clergy and laity. It amazed me at the time that otherwise good priests would not row in behind the Decree on Ecumenism of the Vatican Council, which was the most authoritative voice of the Church. While they did not oppose the ecumenical movement publicly, they used more subtle means such as lip-service and tokenism.
It was during the 1970s that Dr Mac Gréil carried out the research that brought clarity and understanding to the issue that had long preoccupied him. His doctoral thesis set out to describe, explore and explain the level of intergroup prejudice in Ireland.
My own research and study of prejudice enabled me to take a hard look at ethnocentrism (prejudice based on nationality and culture), at racism (prejudice based on physical difference), at anti-Semitism (i.e., against the Jews), at sexism (largely prejudice against females), at social-class prejudice (i.e., in Ireland contributing to anti-Traveller attitudes), at homophobia (prejudice against homosexuals), and at other groups and categories who were victims of prejudice and discrimination.
The publication of his thesis in book form in 1977 (as Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland, College of Industrial Relations, Dublin) precipitated an outbreak of intolerance that must have strained Dr Mac Gréil’s voice-loyalty philosophy almost beyond breaking point. In November 1977 he received a telephone call from Mrs Jane Ewart-Biggs, the widow of the assassinated British ambassador to Ireland, Christopher Ewart-Biggs, telling him that his book had been selected for the first Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Peace Prize (awarded jointly with ATQ Stewart’s book The Narrow Ground: Aspects of Ulster 1609-1969). Dr Mac Gréil was honoured to accept this award as a recognition of his research, and it was duly celebrated at a function in London.
On his return to Ireland, a vicious storm broke out within Conradh na Gaeilge, an organisation of which Dr Mac Gréil was an active and enthusiastic member, where there were objections to his accepting such an award. A motion was proposed in the Conradh where he was given three options: to give back the prize; failing that, to resign from the Conradh; or failing these two options, to face expulsion from the Conradh. In a stunning example of patience and reasoned tolerance in the face of intolerance, Dr Mac Gréil refused to back down or to resign from the Conradh. Eventually, the Conradh compromised by expressisng disagreement with his accepting the Ewart-Biggs prize but asserting his right to do so!
From an early stage in his career as a university lecturer, Dr Mac Gréil was a member of staff in what was then St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. This institution was in the process of mutating from being a pontifical college and Ireland’s national Catholic seminary to becoming a constituent college of the secular National University of Ireland. In the mid-1970s a major industrial relations crisis blew up when two members of staff, Professor Patrick McGrath and Fr Malachy O’Rourke, were dismissed from the college after they had left the priesthood. An unfair dismissal case taken by the academic union IFUT, in which Dr Mac Gréil was an active member, was initially won in the High Court, but subsequently lost on appeal by the college authorities to the Irish Supreme Court (on the basis that the statutes of Maynooth were de facto and de jure binding on ordained academic staff). As Dr Mac Gréil commented:
The whole ethos of the mid-1970s was one of almost uncontrollable social and religious change within the Church. That was true also of the staff of Maynooth College, where there were two camps, i.e., those who were afraid of where the Church was going after Vatican II and wished to ‘batten down the hatches’, and those who were frustrated by the slow pace of change which they had anticipated after Vatican II. Many of the latter group left the priesthood and a few became hostile towards the Church’s leadership”.
Dr Mac Gréil certainly never lacked the courage of his convictions. In 1983, Mary Robinson, acting as senior counsel in the High Court case taken by Senator David Norris against the criminalisation of voluntary homosexual relations between consenting male adults, asked him to appear as an expert witness, based on his widely acknowledged academic research into prejudice and tolerance.
I did not hesitate to agree to put my findings on the record of the court. I must admit that not everyone (lay or clerical) would be too happy with my going into public court to give evidence in favour of gay men’s right to privacy. For me to refuse would be academically dishonourable. I found out that homophobia was one of the most invidious forms of prejudice, which was as universal as anti-Semitism. It was no accident that the Nazis’ murder machine killed homosexuals as well as Jews.
As is well known, both the Irish High Court and the Supreme Court cases went against Senator Norris. But unlike the earlier Maynooth case, where the option did not appear to be available, an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights succeeded in 1988.
Perhaps the most sensitive issue examined in this book is that of the sexual scandals exposed in the early 1990s that undermined, or even destroyed, the credibility of the Church, particularly in the eyes of those who felt marginalised within it. This is a difficult subject to discuss from within the priesthood. Dr Mac Gréil’s choice of loyalty-voice guides him to defend what is right and good within the Church, while condemning without reservation what is wrong and bad. But just as he did not see why the intolerant actions of an intolerant few in Conradh na Gaeilge should be allowed to drive him away from his love of the Irish language, nor did he see that the actions of a few should be seen as destroying the Church he loved and wished to reform.
In this review I have merely touched on the more academic and intellectual side of Dr Mac Gréil’s life story. But there is a whole additional side to his active life that deals with his support and direction of a wide range of community initiatives, ranging from the goal of restoration of the cross-radial rail service linking Limerick to Sligo; the study of tourism initiatives in Westport; a leading role within the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association; a pastoral audit of the needs and resources of the Tuam and the Meath archdioceses; the revival of the ancient Máméan Patrician shrine and pilgrimage; and many others. The list seems endless. His energy seems inexhaustible. Even his humour is mischievous. What other priest would be fascinated by the coincidence that his beloved mother died on Marx Day, March 14th, 1982, and that her first anniversary fell on the centenary of the death of Karl Marx?
For a modest man, but one who never feared to speak out in defence of the weak or persecuted, it is fitting that his epitaph (used as an example in one of his sermons where he urged people not to be too hard on themselves) should be equally modest:
I offered them what I would like to be written (in Irish, of course) on my mythical tombstone. ‘Here lies the mortal remains of Micheál Mac Gréil. The world is bad enough, but it might have been worse without him. May he rest in peace.’ I told them to rejoice in the good that they had done for their children and not to persecute themselves for the decisions some of their children made.
John Bradley was for many years a research professor at the ESRI and now works as an international consultant in the area of economic and industrial strategy. He regularly advises the European Commission, the World Bank and other international organisations and governments on policy issues related to promoting long-term economic growth and development.