The prevailing wisdom of A Love Divided

20140404 A Love Divided

Based on a true story, “A Love Divided” chronicles the aftermath of a mixed marriage in Co. Wexford, Ireland, where Protestant-raised Sheila refuses to send her children to a local Catholic school. She flees with her two young girls, leaving her husband Sean confused and frustrated.

“A Love Divided” was shown at Culturlann, as part of the Belfast Film Festival and organised in collaboration with Pieces of the Past oral history project.

Sheila signed the Ne Temere contract, which obligated her to raise her children as Catholic. In the film, the priest Father Stafford ratchets up his outrage at her non-compliance, instructing his parishioners to boycott all non-Catholic business. Yet this leads locals to “more base instincts” (as the bishop later put it), with Kristallnacht night-style daubing (“Scabs”) and broken glass, beatings and torchings.

Following the showing, there was a panel discussion chaired by Claire Hackett (Falls Community Council), with Ken Dunn (Chair, Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA)) and Geraldine Smyth (Senior Lecturer, Irish School of Ecumenics).

Mr Dunn complemented the story we just viewed with one from Belfast over 100 years ago, where a Catholic woman, Mrs Agnes McCann, was told that her mixed marriage was not recognised; they married in a Presbyterian church, and the just passed Ne Temere decreed that they should have married in a Catholic church. Her Catholic husband, Mr Alexander McCann, absconded with their two children.

Mrs McCann never saw her children again. It was suspected that the Catholic church assisted with the relocation of Mr McCann and the children, through New York then Philadelphia. NIMMA recently tracked down their descendents, the parents’ grandchildren.

Politically, at the time of this case Belfast Protestants held rallies, so large they had to have street meetings as the available halls could not contain them.

In fact, the familiar phrase, “Home Rule is Rome Rule”, can be attributed to John Gregg (later to become Archbishop of Dublin and Armagh), who published a leaflet arguing that Ne Temere was final proof of this.

Mr Dunn provided a chronology of mixed marriages in Ireland:

  1. “Galway Convention”: traditional custom whereby sons would follow the religion of their fathers and daughters follow that of their mothers
  2. Ne Temere (1908): allowed priests to impose conditions on mixed marriages, such as an obligation for any children to be baptised and brought up as Catholics, and for the non-Catholic partners to submit to religious education with the aim of converting them to Catholicism
  3. Matrimonia Mixta (1970): the Catholic party is “gravely bound” to make a sincere promise to do all in his power to have all the children baptized and brought up in the Catholic Church; whether by word of mouth alone, in writing, or before witnesses
  4. Directory on Mixed Marriages (1983): practical enactment of Matrimonia Mixta and subsequent Vatican decrees; recognises that “the religious upbringing of children is the joint responsibility of both parents, (and that) the obligations of the Catholic party do not, and cannot, cancel out … the conscientious duty of the other party”

Geraldine Smyth described the role of her organisation, the Irish School of Ecumenics, in supporting mixed marriage association throughout the island, North and South, as well as the development of mixed marriage policy among churches. She noted that in Ireland, there tended to be a 10-15 year lag in the implementation of what was common practice in Northern Europe:

“Here there was a lack of promulgation. Policy change in the Catholic Church is sometimes said to happen by amnesia. But in our sectarian society, that may mean never. We need to have public discussions among the churches on this issue, to ensure that official change is truly respected and actively implemented.”

Indeed, in the audience was Canon Edgar Turner, who gave some detail on how unsigned Ne Temere documents were still in circulation in Northern Ireland, long after 1970, with bishops having to intervene to confiscate and burn them. Mr Dunn added that at NIMMA they still have to report errant priests seeking to impose contracts on mixed marriages.

In reviewing the history of Ne Temere before coming to tonight’s film showing, Ms Smyth referenced a passage in Memory and Redemption, which puts forward the idea of “conscience” as being “consciousness of the other”, and in this way, it is “the other” who defines us. Therefore, the consciousness of the Catholic community in this village should not be one of closing ranks among its own members, but by inspecting what the non-Catholics could expect of them.

She also referenced a line in the film, when the Bishop declared it was time to end “a little pogrom in Co. Wexford”. “Pogroms are never little,” Ms Smyth told the audience.

The film scene that showed the burning of a barn with much livestock trapped inside evoked her knowledge of a massacre of over 100 Protestants in Scullabogue during the 1798 Rebellion. Ms Smyth added that such atrocities were selectively forgotten during the 200-year commemoration, as the historic events needed to be presented in a positive light for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. “But local people are good at remembering,” she said, noting that there is a memorial stone at the graveyard of the Old Ross Church of Ireland.

Ms Smyth concluded by explaining that the film quote she usually tells her students is: “The prevailing wisdom is to keep our heads down and mouths shut,” as advice given to the defiant Mrs Cloney by her Rector.

But tonight Ms Smyth felt another line was more profound; the atheist publican Andy tells Mr Cloney: “Love is too precious and life too long without it.”

A subsequent general discussion with the audience revealed some interesting additional facts:

  • An Orange Order member is free to marry a Catholic, but will be barred if their children become Catholic
  • Former Irish Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, a product of a mixed marriage himself, got no favourable response from local bishops to stop practising Ne Temere (even after it was dropped by the Vatican in 1970), and had to resort to organising a clandestine meeting with the Pope to raise the matter
  • Academic John Whyte provided evidence of Catholics from other parishes, who defied the boycott in Co. Wexford at the time of the Cloney controversy

Claire Hackett concluded the event with a call for everyone in the audience to consider how the status of those in mixed marriages, and their offspring, are respected in society today. She described tonight’s discussion as “hopefully the first of many” that need to be had.

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