Published in Features, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 2000), Volume 8

JMcC:    Tell us about your background.

ED:    I was born in Dundalk in 1947. My father worked as a boilermaker for Great Northern Railways. When the railway works closed down we moved to Birmingham. One of the things that has struck me over the last ten years is how much I live out of those first thirteen years. And so from the age of thirteen I went through the English education system, went to a grammar school, did a degree in theology and philosophy, a history PhD at Cambridge, and then got a series of jobs in British universities.

JMcC:    You had thought about becoming a theologian?

ED:    I was going to be a priest actually. I hadn’t been to a seminary but that was the long-term plan. But then I met my wife and decided that an academic career might be better and someone suggested  research in ecclesiastical history. Originally I had intended joining the Orotorian order and at that time Stephen Dessain was editing Newman’s letters and the idea was that I would be his assistant. He suggested my PhD topic—on late eighteenth and early nineteenth century English Catholic political history. It took me a long time to research my way out of that. I found myself moving backwards into the eighteenth century and back into the seventeenth century. Most of my practising career as a historian has been in the eighteenth and more recently in the seventeenth centuries. And suddenly I was sick of it. I needed to break out. I had become very interested in the European Counter Reformation and I was thinking of doing work on either Holland or Italy. I  realised that I had a very active interest in the Miiddle Ages which I had never pursued. It was part of my interest in religion rather than history. I was invited by the English faculty in Cambridge to contribute to a series of lectures on death. They put on a course based around texts to do with rites of passage—birth, marriage, death—and they asked me to do the funeral service and I tackled it by looking at the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer. That was the germ of my interest in The Stripping of the Altars.

JMcC:    Do you think that modern post Vatican II Catholics have lost the link with the Christian dead.

ED:    Yes. At the specific moment at which the Council came there was a profound iconoclasm in Western culture and attitudes to society, to our own past, to our institutions, and so a great deal of very second-rate disengagement with the long-term and very immediate past was presented as the work of the Holy Spirit. One of the problems that the Catholic Church faces at the moment is a dislocation with its own history which has left a sort of no-mans-land. It is being reclaimed by people who call themselves ‘traditionalists’, who are quite often reactionaries wedded to a particular and very recent version of the Catholic past, a profoundly dysfunctional form of Christianity, very alienating and ultimately destructive. And the mainstream church has rather left the past to those people with disastrous consequences.

JMcC:    Both Saints and Sinners and The Stripping of the Altars were best-sellers. Did this surprise you?

ED:    I knew that The Stripping of the Alters would be of interest to people other than academic historians and for that reason I insisted that the publishers keep the price low. I was surprised that it was read by so many Protestant and Anglican clergy with interest and approval. I had thought that it would be experienced by them as a negative or threatening sort of text. Part of the reason is that it came at just the moment when English culture is disengaging itself from its own Protestant past. It is part of the reconsideration of British and English identity that has been going on for quite some time. Protestantism is no longer a major constituting element of English identity. And so people were ready to look back at the past and reappropriate it without seeing ‘the dark ages of popery’. They could read the book as a text about their past and not just about the Catholic past.

JMcC:    Talking about changing identity, your reflections on the 1950s in a recent article in Priests and People (January 2000) are somewhat at odds with dominent views in Irish historical and literary circles which tend to depict that decade as dank, dark and disastrous. Do you think that it’s time for more mature reflection on that period?

ED:    Well, your childhood is your childhood and mine was the ‘50s. Everything I had experienced before thirteen went into cold storage. I can understand why people can look back to the 1950s as a grey period in Irish history and it was. I lived in Dundalk which was a really impoverished place in those days. There was disaster looming everywhere. Industries which had sustained Dundalk were closing and people were leaving in droves. My family left. But it does seem to me that the closed culture of the Catholicism of that period was an astonishingly strong cultural package. Of course it had its negative side and we’re discovering horror stories about it left right and centre now and I don’t dispute the truth of all that but it also seems to me that it was an incredibly vivid shared experience that was life enhancing as well as life denying. There was the strength that comes from an intensely shared culture. You can see the way in which a poet like Paddy Kavanagh was able to process it in a vivid way and make it part of his art, which is not in the least affectionate but which shows that it was capable of breathing as well as sterilising. I suppose people have to go through a period of rejection but you can’t help feeling that there’s something adolescent about it.

JMcC:     You say very explicitly in the preface to Saints and Sinners that you are a Catholic. Do you think you have to be a believer or have been brought up in a belief system to be a good Christian ecclesiastical historian?

ED:    No, I don’t. I think what happens to you in your life is a resource and a limitation. I’m always struck by the opening paragraph of Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems—’Between my finger and my thumb the pen sits snug as a gun. I will dig with it…’ You can dig with your past or you can try to bury it. I very strongly disapprove of the notion of the disengaged eye of the historian as the non interactive observer of the history he or she writes and I think that one of the problems with the revisionist project in Irish history is the pretence of disengagement. There is no possible disengagement for anyone who works in the social sciences and history. You can adopt two strategies. You can try and write with as much detachment as possible—a liberal intellectual method which, it seems to me, involves an element of self-deception. I think it is much better if you’ve got a past that gives you a particular insight to work with that while having the humility to recognise that if it gives you an insight into some things it’s going to cauterise your sensibilities in other ways. So I think I’m a good historian of Catholicism because I’ve been there and done that. There’s a great ditch of disjunction running through the cultural experiences of Catholics of my age. We had our formation in the church of Pius XII and that church is gone forever. And so already there is a process of disengagement involved there but if you can try and hold on to the earlier things it does give you a tool to dig with. So I’m in favour of historians with strong engagement using that as a resource but warning their readers where they’re coming from.

JMcC:    Do you think that the English Reformation was a mistake?

ED:     I was reading Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy the other day and the hero, Gabriel Oaks, is a decent man, a good man. He’s distinguished by Hardy from the community of people. He goes to church but he’s bored by it and he doesn’t go to Communion. That creation of Christianity as an activity for the pious elite I do think is largely the product of the Reformation and was a disaster. It cut England off from Europe. It needn’t have done. England was to begin with, part of a Calvinist international but the internal history of the Church of England meant that by the mid seventeenth century it had really repudiated its membership of the Calvinist international and went it alone. There was a narrowing of spirit. That’s not to say that there weren’t enormous gains because I do think that the vernacular Bible was a huge blessing and it was one of the insane afflictions of pre-Reformation English Christianity that it had an almost paranoid fear of the Bible which was peculiar to England. You don’t find it anyway else. It’s rooted in the reaction to Lollardy [a late medieval heresy]. There were several versions of the Bible in German, French, Italian, Spanish circulating before the Reformation but none in England. It had been suppressed. I do think that giving the Bible to people in their own language opened up a whole imaginative world to them and freed them from the endless repetition of the ecclesiastically approved symbolism which was one of the drawbacks of the pre-Reformation Christianity.

JMcC:    Is there anything unique or distinctive about Irish Catholicism?

ED:    The most interesting period in the history of Irish Catholicism is the period from Cardinal Cullen onwards, the extraordinary success story of the creation of a symbiotic relationship between folk Catholicism and hierarchical Catholicism. I was aware as a child of the uneasiness of that relationship. I can remember the clergy going out to Faughart to conduct patterns, like the feast of St Brigid. You would have Mass or Benediction or the Rosary led by a priest. We used to gather rushes there  to make St Brigid’s crosses. People used to kneel on particular stones. There was a well in Faughart graveyard where there were thorn bushes covered in rags. I noticed recently they are still there. I was aware that there were two sorts of Catholicism. But the Irish church was extraordinarily successful in harnessing popular loyalty to the church to a particular hierarchical account. That was accompanied with a great deal of practical anti-clericalism. I suppose it had to be if it were to remain even remotely healthy and that’s what’s cracked open, a complete collapse of confidence in the hierarchical church. I have a friend who is quite a prominent priest in an English diocese. He spent his entire clerical career in England. He comes from the west of Ireland and on a recent visit home—he doesn’t wear a dog collar in England, but at home his mother likes it—walking down the main street of a country town, he was shouted at, with his mother on his arm,  ‘You f—ing pervert!’ That seems to me to be an extraordinary collapse. But between about 1860 and 1960 there was that extraordinary coming together and the church was enormously successful in adapting itself to national culture.

JMcC:    In one of the earliest interviews in History Ireland Roy Foster argued that it was very important that Irish history was taught in Britain, not just for purposes of heritage for those of Irish descent but also because of its innate interest. Do you think the converse is true, that British history should be thought in Irish universities?

ED:    I do. The most positive side of the whole revisionist project is the reinsertion of Irish history into the history of the archipelago and more widely of the Empire. For example, my maternal grandfather, a Presbyterian, had been in the British army, in the Inniskilling Fusiliers. He fought in the Boer War and the First World War. His bible, his dragoon helmet, and various items from that part of the family’s history were kept in a cupboard in my grandmother’s house. They disappeared in the house clearance when she died. We never spoke about that part of our family history. We were terribly proud and passionately interested in my father’s involvement in the IRA, the Civil War, and the family’s Catholic and nationalist past. We had no interest at all in the fact that great chunks of the family came from Monaghan and Tyrone and that there was a long history of intermarriage between the religions. That was edited out of our own past. Nationalist Ireland as a whole edited out those dimensions and I think it’s fantastic that we should be re-discovering all this. Yesterday I was at a loose end and I walked around St Patrick’s Cathedral and I was absolutely riveted by the monuments, especially the military ones, the Irish who had died in China in the 1840s, in the Boer War and in the First World War. It  will be an enormous enrichment and also a healing for those things to be reclaimed, and not in a bland way. They can be and should be brought to bear on the nationalist story as well. While you can present the Empire as an opportunity for Irish people the large number of Irish in the British army is also testament to the fact that there was little else for an able-bodied man to do in Ireland. So you can call the chess board white or you can call it black. We’re aware now that there were both black and white squares.

JMcC:    In Saints and Sinners you describe Gregory the Great (AD 590-604) as possibly the greatest pope ever. Why?

ED:    Because he’s a man who stands at the end of a particular historical period. He’s the last great classical pope. He was a Roman aristocrat, governor of the city of Rome. He believed in romanitas. He’s a toff. He is also a man who has profound suspicions of the barbarian nations, loathes the Lombards, is broken by the fact that free Roman citizens are being sold into slavery, that the great Roman people are now a subject people. But instead of wringing his hands or retreating he gets on with the job and says, ‘Right, what do we do?’ So he creates a new financial structure for the papacy and reorganises his estates in Sicily to provide food for the starving people of Rome. And as the connection with Byzantium is threatened and becomes less and less a saving reality for Italy, he recognises that Italy will have to go it alone. So he begins to evangelise to the north. He’s also a man who combines an immense sense of the dignity and responsibility of his own office with a profound sense of collegial co-operation among his bishops. He combines everything that was noble, fine and resourceful in Roman civilisation with an openness to the future, even though he’s a conservative man and in some ways a very limited man. He lived at what must have seemed the most difficult time for Western civilisation. And yet he lays the foundation for the medieval western church.

JMcC:    And the current incumbent?

ED:    John Paul II will probably be remembered as the most important pope of the last two hundred years. His role in the management of the collapse of communism will emerge as very significant. On the whole his influence on that process was benign, even providential. He believes in a hands-on, centrally directed papacy, the unity of the church focused on his person. And that’s reflected in his personal spirituality, his conviction that the Third Secret of Fatima was about him, for example. He’s not new in that. That’s the history of the papacy over the last one hundred and fifty years. He’s an Ultramontane pope and I worry about that. Although it can be enormously helpful for churches in situations of crisis, China for example, to have a lifeline to a very strong centre, it can be profoundly disabling and infantalising for the regional churches elsewhere to have a strong father figure. On the other hand we haven’t had such an intellectually powerful pope for a long time even if one finds his theology idiosyncratic. His attitude to the Jews will emerge as a landmark, his evident lack of prejudice, his desire for a reconciliation between Jews and Catholics. This is in huge contrast to the very unsatisfactory document on the Jews which seemed to be as anxious to exculpate the church as it was to make up for offences against the Jews.

JMcC:    Do you think that the papacy itself is set fair to continue into the twenty-first century?

ED:    Oh yes. The papacy is a hugely successful international corporation and its control of the church has increased over the last few years. There is a profound unease about that, even among conservative bishops. It’s not to do with theology. People are concerned at what’s going on inside the Vatican bureaucracy when you’ve got an elderly pope with limited physical resources, who gets tired, can’t keep his eye on the ball. He was never much of an administrator anyway. He left all that to other people. He is more interested in the symbolic and prophetic character of the role and he does that supremely well. The very least one can say is that he is an impressive human being.

JMcC:    Finally, what are you working on at the moment?

ED:    There’s a priest who features in The Stripping of the Alters, Sir Christopher Trychay, who was the parish priest of a West Country parish for forty-three years during the Reformation. He left a set of accounts and I’m writing a book about them and their ambiguities called Sir Christopher Talking. It’s partly about the nature of evidence for religion in the early modern period and how you read it. At one stage I thought it would be a history of the Reformation in one single rural community, a sort of West Country Montailleau—without the sex—but unfortunately the wills for this community were destroyed during the war and there are no manorial records. There are some tax records but basically there’s just one set of accounts and that’s not enough.

John McCafferty lectures in history at University College Dublin.


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