Monday, 5 March 2012


Relationships between Church and State hit a bump on the rocky road they travel together as Father Brian Ó Fearraigh, based in Derrybeg, (55 degrees North, 8 degrees West) in the north-west of Ireland, refers to the recently introduced household charge as 'an unjust law'. The priest supports the non-payment campaign building across the country.

Politicians, including the Labour Party socialist Jimmy Harte, a senator in the Republic of Ireland's coalition government, quickly condemn the priest.

The priest is challenged in regard to what he can and cannot express an opinion upon. He is advised to confine himself to spiritual matters. In his defence, he appeals to the right of the citizen in a free country to dissent, especially when she sees that laws are unjust.

Most of the time the relationship between Church and State in Ireland is as that portrayed in Brian Friel's wondrous play Philadelphia, Here I Come; a  benign and friendly contest over a low stakes game of draughts, between the parish priest and the county councillor.

Generally, it's as Canon Mick O' Byrne, the priest in the play, says:

Black for the crows and white for the swans. 

Birds of a feather sticking together and divvying up the board and the money in a manner that does not upset the status quo, though trenchant reports into child sexual abuse scandals and a minor diplomatic stand-off with The Vatican have upped the ante in recent years.

Father Brian Ó Fearraigh's intervention invokes images and language from the New Testament, in particular the violence of Jesus in throwing the moneylenders out of the Temple and his assertions regarding what to render to God and what to render to Caesar, the imperial power. 

In the circumstances of Ireland today, it is a question of who has the moral – and the attendant political - authority; the Trinity of the Christians or the Troika of the Financiers.

As Madge, the stalwart citizen and housekeeper of the play, notes:

If it was turkeys or marble clocks they were playing for, they couldn't be more serious.

Priests and politicians, as a general rule, are on-side, colluding and conoodling. When a priest breaks ranks – exceptionally, thus affirming the general rule – the very rule itself is thrown into sharp relief.

Ironically, a core matter in Brian Friel's great play is youth emigration, in the context of a father and son relationship under stress. A core matter of the breakdown of Ireland today is the manner in which the sins of omission and commission of the elders visit the sole option of emigration on today's youth.

The priest and the politician play their parts.

Father Brian Ó Fearraigh issues an open invitation to dramatists and theatre makers:

Words must flow and the peoples' voices must be heard.

The Senator warns:

If people pick and choose what laws they want to obey, then we'll end up with anarchy.


Brian Friel wrote an essay in 1967/8, entitled The Theatre of Hope and Despair. He quotes Albert Camus:

'At the end of this darkness, there will be a light, which we have already conceived and for which we must fight in order to bring it into existence. In the middle of the ruins, on the other side of nihilism, we are preparing for a renaissance. But few know it.' I am convinced that the dramatists are among the few.

Is Brian Friel right? 

Philadelphia, Here I Come: play; Brian Friel; Faber and Faber; 1965/2000
Brian Friel: Essays, Diaries, Interviews: 1964-1999; book; editor - Christopher Murray; Faber and Faber; 1999

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