What happens in a society when previously dominant traditions of religion, spirituality, and morality crumble and then proceed to disintegrate at break-neck speed?
The island of Ireland could be considered something of a sociological case study in this regard. The ‘holy Catholic Ireland’ of the Republic has been discredited and denigrated. The often oppositional Christian traditions of Northern Ireland also seem destined for inexorable decline. Analysis of the rise of those who claim they have ‘no religion’ can only be a growth area in the sociology of religion.
At the same time, there is religious, spiritual, and moral persistence despite these developments – north as well as south of the border. Some of my own sociological research documents these pockets of vitality.
Yet, storytellers – not sociologists – often provide more subtle and penetrating insights on such trends. Such can be found in Triangle: Three Novellas of Ireland by Pól Ó Muirí (Arlen House, 2022).
This short book, just 100 pages, contains three novellas, encompassing the lives and times of the souls whose time on this island has coincided with the Troubles, the peace, and the Celtic Tiger economic boom.
The main protagonist in each novella is a man, negotiating societal changes that threaten their cultural heritage and their own spirits. These are the stories of a rural youth striving to make his fortune in Dublin; a Catholic who forsakes a Protestant woman for a career abroad but finds no satisfying escape from the Troubles; and an elderly priest who ministered faithfully during the Troubles but now seems adrift among the people he serves.
All three men have almost no power to shape the society changing around them but must negotiate a barrage of decisions – large and small – which challenge their integrity and their spiritual resources.
Much of Ó Muirí’s previous writing has been in Irish and the language also lilts throughout these stories, as marginalised as faith in many cases, but surviving still.
The stories of the fortune seeker and the emigrant are told in the first-person. This allows for a certain immediacy and insight on the ups and downs of their lives and the times and spaces where faith re-awakened or was extinguished (in one case, with a tragic and seeming finality).
The story of the priest is told in the third-person, so while it chronicles his memories and inner thoughts it is not quite so immediate. It is notoriously difficult for novelists to get inside the mind of a priest, let alone an Irish priest who has tried to maintain some integrity as the Catholic Church self-destructs around him.
Ó Muirí’s ‘Father Monsignor’ remains unnamed throughout the novella, referred to as ‘the priest’. These devices reinforce the distance of priest from people. His designation as ‘the priest’ also seems to recall the many anonymous priests who served without scandal in an age of scandal.
Perhaps the best-known recent novel featuring an Irish priest is John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness. His priest, Fr Odran, is a sympathetic character but deeply implicated in the abuse scandal due to what finally appears to be his own wilful blindness. On one interpretation, his life as a priest was a waste.
Taken together, Ó Muirí’s novellas testify that a life of faith is not a waste, while simultaneously raising nagging and persistent questions about what remains when religious institutions and cultural traditions falter.
Gladys is a Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast and a member of the Royal Irish Academy.
She is also a runner who has represented Ireland and Northern Ireland. She blogs on religion and politics at gladysganiel.com