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Lapsed agnostic

30 November, 1999

John Waters is journalist who has become an outspoken campaigner for fathers’ rights in Ireland. He has also written a song to represent Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest. Here he recalls his journey from belief to unbelief and back again.

193 pp. Continuum UK and Continuum US. To purchase this book online, go to www.continuumbooks.com.


  1. The Tunnel of Trees 
  2. Pan’s People 
  3. Georgic 
  4. The Unquenchable Thirst 
  5. Desperate Dan 
  6. The Hole in the Doughnut 
  7. The Great Hunger 
  8. After Don’t  



My first notion of my relationship with God was based on the idea of a child with a toy. I was God’s doll, or, more correctly, one of God’s millions of dolls. He played with me when it suited Him. Sometimes He favoured me, and sometimes He was cruel or careless or arbitrary. Sometimes I felt like I’d been forgotten; occasionally that I was, like the Velveteen Rabbit or the teddy bear I inherited from my older sister, a favourite toy. And yet, I simultaneously had the idea that God loomed large over me, watching my every move. It was as though He had set up a clockwork doll’s house, and was constantly patrolling, around it: adjusting, teasing, rewinding, and displaying either pleasure or irritation with what He observed.

I don’t know where this idea came from, but I’m pretty sure it preexisted the catechism we studied so exhaustively for Confirmation. This tiny but terrifying red-covered book told us that God, the Creator and Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth and of all things, would reward the good and punish the wicked. It told us that God was everywhere but that He manifested His glory only in heaven, where His company was enjoyed by the blessed. God had no beginning and would have no end. He had no body and could not been seen by us. Nevertheless, He could see us and watched over us constantly. He knew all things, even our most secret thoughts and actions, and would judge us accordingly. He was all powerful, and could do anything He put His mind to. He had made the world out of nothing for His own glory, to demonstrate His power and wisdom and, to what seemed to be a significantly lesser extent, for man’s use and benefit.

God, therefore, was something of an egomaniac: a distant, hyperactive, judgemental, vindictive, compulsive-obsessive, who needed constant attention and flatten, or He would exact some terrible vengeance. We didn’t have these terms or perspectives to hand at the time, but that, in retrospect, was what I secretly felt about God but wouldn’t dare even begin to frame as thoughts.

Despite having no body, God managed to have a long beard, and was dressed in a kind of long white vestment-type garment. He was bald on top but had long hair down his back and shoulders. He wore sandals, without socks. I’m not sure where the sandals came from, because God usually manifested Himself only from the waist up, the lower half of His body being suffused in fluffy white clouds. I think the baldness was a way of distinguishing Him from Jesus, whose hair, though also long, was dark brown and curly and perfectly matched a rich, luxuriant beard. This was the figure from the Sacred Heart pictures which hung in almost every Irish living room and, with living pictures of the pope and John Fitzgerald Kennedy on either side, providing an unintended reminder of the good thief and the bad thief on Calvary. I remember becoming confused and disoriented once watching a movie depicting the passion of Christ, which had a balding actor playing Jesus. I knew from my catechism that God comprised three Divine Persons – Father, Son and Holy Ghost –who together made one God, but still I couldn’t cope with the balding Jesus. God the Father was losing His hair, but it was, I sensed, a little early in the life of the Redeemer for hereditary hair loss to be manifesting.

I think these rather reductionist ideas were pretty much my own conception, based on innumerable cultural messages coming at me from all directions. Nobody actually described God to me in these terms, but the picture grew with the accumulation of images and information I absorbed as I went along.

The idea of God as Father must have contributed certain elements of this picture, but it also added to the confusion. My own father was, in a sense, distant, somewhat severe, yet sometimes mischievous and fun loving. How ever, he had short hair and no beard and wouldn’t wear sandals to save his soul. He also wore glasses, which God, being all seeing, did not. Nevertheless, I gathered that, notwithstanding his need to be ‘sucked up to’, God was my Protector, and, although given to moods and grumpiness, was on the whole a decent sort and, most importantly, in my corner for as long as I remained ‘good’. For all its crudity, this concept of God was extremely useful and carried within it the vague beginnings of some fairly complex ideas, such as the idea of dependence, of free will and even of original sin.

These ideas of God suffused my childhood. I was, on the surface at least, a devout child. I said my prayers, although I never quite grasped what prayer was supposed to be about. Like everyone else around me, I went to confession, mass and communion. But I had, I would say, an added layer of piety which resulted from my father’s rather exaggerated religiosity. The nature of my father’s faith was always inscrutable to me. People talk patronizingly nowadays about the ‘simple faith’ of the people of the Ireland which has, in the course of a generation, passed into history. But there was nothing simple about my father. Though uneducated in any formal sense, he was a very smart and thoughtful man who left behind him a small library of books embracing Euclid, Dickens and Shakespeare. The truth is that I haven’t the faintest idea about what he believed as regards the big questions of life. He had an incontrovertible appearance of devoutness, but I know too much from looking out through the eyeholes in my own skull to read anything of this at face value.

My mother was, and remains, a devout Catholic, but her practice of the faith always appeared more, in a sense, normal than my father’s. I mean normal more in a historical sense, in the sense of the entire flow of time down all the years I can remember. My mother’s approach seemed, and seems, more balanced somehow. My father’s practice had about it an element of intensity that both marked it out and, by a strange paradox, seemed to mirror the mood of the time, in much the same way that a great musician can capture the mood of the everyday.

My father was almost a generation older than my mother, and so was rooted in an era that was overwhelmingly defined, in the almost immediate past, by the Great Famine, and, in his teens, by the Easter Uprising, the War of Independence and the bloody Civil War. The worst of these calamities was the Famine of the 1840s, which left at least one million Irish people dead and another two million scattered around the globe. Simply by virtue of its existence and remit in a society with no other indigenous means of self-organization, the Catholic Church was lumbered with responsibility for creating cohesion and providing a moral and social framework to, in effect, ensure that Ireland could contrive to avoid such a calamity in the future. It was to become perhaps its most disadvantageous characteristic that, in the necessary moral reconstruction that occurred as a consequence of these events, the Catholic Church became a supreme player, a sort of surrogate moral government which assumed responsibility for social as well as for moral and spiritual affairs.

As far as I am able to divine, I was conceived on my father’s fiftieth birthday, and I know almost nothing of what kind of man he was before then. Occasionally I would meet men who knew him well when he was younger, and they would half-tell me stories about dances and motorbikes. But this became for me no more than the speculative building of a legend. I suspect my father reinvented his personality when he had children, as a lot of men seemed to do in those days, so as to present to us an unambiguous model of uprightness. But if his religiosity was a part of this reinvention, it was without doubt founded on something much deeper than a desire for respectability. I have no doubt that not only was his faith sincerely felt but it was something he thought about a great deal. He never talked about it, other than in occasional admonitions cast in our, his children’s direction, usually amounting to the assertion that we had no religion. We were ‘pagans’, he would say. Often these observations would be presented as oblique parables constructed around some event or individual in the town, in which the phenomenon of  ‘paganism’ was especially conspicuous. The implication of what was really half a joke centred on the notion of our dissolution. We were not merely unbelievers, but uncivilized with it.

It strikes me now that my father was, if not a typical man of his time, in some odd way emblematic of the totality of the culture in that now seemingly far-off era. He had inherited a faith which, if he questioned it at all, he questioned it in the privacy of his own thoughts. It was a faith that sustained him, that provided him with an identity, that motivated him through a life of relative poverty and considerable hardship. In this he was a product of post-Famine Ireland who had lived slightly beyond his time. It wasn’t that he ‘believed’ in God: he simply took it for granted that God existed. The idea of questioning the existence of God would for him have been as unthinkable as questioning the existence of the America to which most of his family had disappeared. I don’t know how literally he took the prevailing images of God, but he certainly did or said nothing to correct the somewhat colourful and contradictory images mages running riot around my brain. He took no interest in what they taught me at school, but merely, assumed that I knew the same things that he knew and believed them just as absolutely.

When I think back to the heyday of Irish Catholicism, a period which seems to overlap with the early part of my life, I think of it as reflecting the complexity of my father’s life and temperament. An accusation that is levelled at the Catholicism of the Ireland into which my generation was born is that it was rooted in aspirations to respectability. There is a caricature of those times which portrays an ostentatious piety designed, first of all, to convey itself to an imagined audience, a devotion exaggerated for show. Nothing could have been further from my father’s mind. You had only to look at his ragged coat to know that he had no desire whatever to be respectable in the conventional sense of the word. Indeed, he despised ‘respectable’ society and increasingly became alienated from a Catholic clergy which he perceived to be pandering to this respectability. Though extremely devout, he couldn’t have cared less what anyone thought of him. I sometimes wonder if this lack of concern for an audience was not in itself part of a more calculated and complex demonstration, but this kind of scepticism I find unproductive and more than a little unworthy. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, the chances are it’s not a partridge in a pear tree.

Although he visited the church nearly every evening of his working life, he did not do so for purposes of ostentation or conformity. I accompanied him on numerous occasions and most of the time we met almost nobody. At Sunday mass, he would go to the same place every week – the space beside the confessional box in the left-hand aisle, about halfway down. I don’t know why he liked this particular space, but I fancy it was because it placed him approximately halfway between the ‘respectable’ people in the conventional pews and the ‘cornerboy’ fraternity congregating just inside the door. (All cornerboys were pagans, though not all pagans were cornerboys.)

I think he would have been too self-conscious to go into a conventional pew. The position he chose, because it had no seat in front, gave him more room to spread himself out. He never sat down or stood up, but knelt continuously with one knee on his cap, not to protect his trousers but presumably to soften the strain on his knee. He never took any part in the liturgy, never acknowledged proceedings in any way, but simply said the rosary to himself continuously during mass. As the time passed, he slumped forward until he was virtually prostrate on the floor, his head bowed down, like a bishop being consecrated, but oblivious to everyone around him. For me, he conveyed at all times a sense, not of practised belief, still less of preserving an outward appearance, but of an existence lived in the utter conviction of another reality. His whole life was like this, and in many ways ours became so too, as an inevitable consequence of his personality and outlook. He seemed to need nothing except his work, sleep, three meals a day, nightly prayers, and the newspaper. He seemed to carry with him the sense of Catholicism as an essential element of survival, as a tool for dealing with a hard and unrelenting reality. It was as though he had breathed in the entire recent history of Ireland and was recreated in its image.

My father lived for nearly 85 years in this world but for as much of his life as I consciously knew him (roughly the final third) he seemed to belong to the next. I do not believe that his faith had anything to do with fear of death. I never once observed my father manifest fear of anything. Rather, his belief in God and his observance of the Catholic faith were both a reasoned response to the exigencies of a tough and unrelenting reality, and a source of comfort and motivation in a life characterized by monotonous and continuous hard work. He worked roughly fifteen hours a day, six days a week, until he was well into his seventies. He had no social life other than communication with the people he met in the course of his working day, though, as I have written elsewhere, this was intense and rewarding for him. His asceticism, which went beyond the monkish, seemed to be rooted in a view of reality that included the afterlife as an intrinsic part of that reality. Towards the end of his life he had accumulated a degree of financial security, mainly through his ownership of several small farms. But this did little to alter our actual circumstances or to render him more susceptible to materialism. Rather it was an additional expression of the virtue that he had apparently enforced upon himself, the objective evidence of his industry. This, at least, was part of the story – there was another, more ambiguous, element to his asceticism which I have inherited and which I will come to later.

Although at the upper level, Irish society of the 1960s and early 1970s retained elements of a materialist hierarchy, the majority of people defined themselves, not on the basis of what they had, but on what they were and what they did. In those days, to be described as a ‘good worker’ was close to the highest compliment a man could be paid. Industry, thrift and adherence to duty were badges of especial honour in a society which had few material resources to share around. Hard work was, of course, essential if a man was to house, feed and clothe his family, but it was also a way of displaying virtue and therefore of acquiring an acceptable, admirable identity. And this sense of virtue, while in turn motivated by a man’s desire to provide for his dependants, was also rooted in a cultural sense of goodness that had its roots in Christian notions of the Good Man. To work hard was to be on God’s team, to enjoy a constant sense of fulfilment on the basis of being able to compare oneself favourably with the less industrious, with the ‘cornerboys’ and ‘bowsies’ who took both work and church less seriously. To be idle, for my father, was to feel bad. He never took days off, or went on holidays, or even trips of any kind that were not necessitated by some practical exigency such as a medical check-up or a consultation with his lawyer. He was not a ‘Pioneer’; that is, he had not sworn off drink completely, but he rarely drank other than, as he used to pointedly observe, ‘for medicinal purposes’. At the back of this constant pursuit of a personal sense of virtue there appeared to be a belief that the human being was prone to temptation and mischief if not preoccupied with useful endeavour, though this dark side of the human condition became nullified in the personality of someone who was, in the almost reverential phrase of the time, ‘a great worker’, and therefore someone who appeared to have eliminated all possibility of leisure or frivolity from his life. I can say with certainty, based on various things that my father said during my childhood, that he would not have entertained any concept of a ‘deserving poor’, but regarded such poverty as evidence of moral failing, rectifiable only by hard work. To his mind, work and religious observance seemed to go hand in hand. He disdained all trappings of earthly indulgence, and, although he was a witty and mischievous man, would use words like ‘fun’, ‘conceit’ and ‘pleasure’ as disapproving epithets to describe those of more worldly polarity. In all this he seemed to embody the cultural value system of a post-Famine Ireland, in which the most abundant resources were piety, labour and faith.

With the best will in the world, this model of Catholicism could hope to offer nothing to the generations born after the middle of the twentieth century. The world was changing, of course, making inevitable the failure of the existing brand of Irish Catholicism to catch fire with the first generations to grow up in Ireland, post-independence, post-war and, eventually, post the notion of frugal comfort, as de Valera described the kind of lifestyle my father and his generation sought to lead. Young Irish people were becoming better educated, slightly more prosperous, but, more importantly, more exposed to the burgeoning popular culture of other Western societies, especially the United Kingdom and the United States. The nature of work, of daily activity, was changing too. My father’s generation had, in a particular sense, been masters of its own economic destiny. The jobs men of this era did were mostly humble in terms of both status and income, but they had the saving grace of allowing men to be something. My father, as mailcar driver, had a status, but also a visible role in society. He did things that mattered and could be observed by others. He had tangible skills. Most men of the time were in similar situations. They were carpenters, painters, shoemakers, electricians, who by virtue of their individual skills acquired confidence and, more importantly, authority, based on the idea that they, in a sense, owned their own capacities to feed their families. When I was a child, most men were like this. Nowadays, both men and women are breadwinners, but mostly they operate in a completely different climate. They work in offices or factories, where the ability to continue earning is predicated less on an individual’s own skill base than on the whim of the employer. There has, therefore, been a diminution of the general capacity of the individualis to convey a sense of authority on the basis having acquired and pursued a useful function. Authority now resides with State institutions and their officials. It is bureaucratic and anonymous and, for these reasons, a target of vague but quite generalized resentment. Moreover, because the initiation of much of the activity in the Irish economy has occurred outside the society, there is a heightened sense of dependency which further alienates people from the concept of authority. Combined with the aftershocks of a series of revelations concerning the betrayal of authority figures in various institutions, most notably the Catholic Church, the effect of this has been to heighten in the collective imagination a resentment towards, and a resistance to, all forms of authority.

These factors, together with the intrinsic weakness of the existing model of Catholicism, served to render the demise of Catholicism a foregone conclusion. To begin with, there was little conscious memory of the events in which the existing model of Catholicism was so firmly rooted. The Great Famine was not talked about. You might expect an event with such a cataclysmic effect on the society it had ravaged to loom very  large in the culture, but the opposite was the case. One school of thought on the subject of this silence would put it down to the forgetting that afflicts post-colonial societies concerning what has been a tremendous source of shame. Occupation, and the radical interference that accompanies it, provokes at a surface level a consciousness that can lead to rebellion. But deeper down it invites amnesia. To be colonized is to be proved worthless in your own eyes. At various levels of the colonized society there is a high degree of acceptance of the message of the colonizer – that the native society is, left alone, capable of nothing but savagery, that its indigenous culture is worthless, and that its only hope of redemption resides in imitation of the conqueror. Since the Famine of the 1840s was the most traumatic event in the bloody history of Ireland’s relationship with England, it became, in a sense, an emblem of shame, firstly because it served as a reminder of humiliation, but also because, having reduced the Irish people to their most desperate state, it inevitably raised the most profound questions as to the morality of having survived it at all. What did any individual, any family, have to do to stay alive when so many others were dead and gone? What trade-offs? What crimes? What compromises? What dishonour? The silence arising from the evasion of these questions caused the Famine to be, if not forgotten, certainly pushed into the recesses of the memory, and talked about less and less.

There was also, as often occurs in such societies, a consolidation by the middle classes around the fiction of normality. Having bought the colonizer’s description of reality, hook, line and sinker, those with something to lose moved to create a subtly different version of reality. There had been no colonization, no real quarrel with England, but simply outbreaks of bother, caused mainly by disgruntled elements within. This led to the emergence of euphemistic phrases like ‘the Troubles’ to describe the extended period of conflict that followed the abortive rising of 1916 – later to be appended also to the outbreak of conflict in the north of the country after the putting down of the civil rights movement in 1969.

The problem for the Catholic Church in all this was that it took the wrong side. Having long been a rebel church on the side of the people during the most traumatic of times, it moved after independence to establish itself as a central element of the new ‘respectable’ Ireland that was seeking to construct a self-sustaining society and re-write the problematic bits of its past history. The Church became associated with nationalism and with a superficially nationalistic version of history, but this was an account of past events that failed to acknowledge the deeper trauma that had been inflicted and, more significantly, was silent on the nature of the remedies that had been put in place by the Church itself. The Church became, then, a mouthpiece of the normalizing tendency and occasionally a proponent of crude and largely rhetorical brands of nationalism. Society not only became increasingly deprived of the most basic insights into its own psychological condition, but also lost sight of why Irish Catholicism had evolved in the way it had. I think this is partly why people like my father practised a form of the faith which, though conducted on the premises provided by the Church, sought to make a connection with something else, as though bypassing the gombeen nature of what the Church had become.

And if the Church had failed to hold the imaginations of people like my father, what hope could it have of holding on to the generations reared on television, rock ‘n’ roll and the sexual revolution?

For a while I tried to emulate my father’s religiosity but without much success. He was a hard act to follow, and my spirit was weak. He prayed every evening, in front of us but alone. He would first of all read prayers from a book while sitting in his armchair and then produce his rosary beads from his pocket and turn around and kneel at the chair to say the rosary. He prayed silently and never once, to the best of my memory, asked any of us to join him. I have no idea why. He also, as well as going to mass on Sundays, visited the church most evenings after work. For a time, when I was perhaps ten or eleven, I fell into the habit of going along with him. I think it was my way of currying favour with both God and my father, who often struck me as equally disapproving of me, though I have little memory now of why I felt this. I used to think my father carried his faith as a kind of accusation against the rest of us, but nevertheless he allowed us total freedom of conscience to do as we pleased when it came to religion, while letting it be known that his approval of us was inextricably bound up with our behaviour in matters of devotion. For a time I took to playing up to this. I remember many evenings, mainly dark winter ones, over what seems like several years, when I would go to meet him at the post office and accompany him to the church.
As I have said, he worked as a mailcar driver, transporting mail between the area post office which was in our home town, Castlerea, and a dozen or so sub-offices in the surrounding countryside. He finished work about seven, when he had delivered his evening mail collection to the post office. Setting out from home, I would invest myself with the personality of a fictional character from some comic or book I happened to be reading, perhaps Paul Terune, the languid private detective from the Hornet, and walk through the rain-sodden town to meet my informant. On the way, I would stop off at Burkes’ sweetshop just over the bridge, and buy a shilling’s worth of Zoo Animals. These were jelly sweets in the shapes of tigers, lions and elephants, and had a consistency which is nowadays only approximated in the comestible universe by wine gums. I would put the bag of sweets in my overcoat pocket to allow for easy access. An exchange of nods with my father would usually be the only preliminary communication between us as we set off through the glistening streets, I observing passing pedestrians for suspicious behaviour that might lead to a breakthrough in whatever was my case of the moment. Sometimes there would be a prayer service under way in the church, but usually the church was empty except for ourselves. Sometimes it might appear empty but, after a while a cough or a sibilant smattering of whispered prayerful ejaculations would betray the presence of an old woman pleading with God with a hint of desperation that always scared me rigid. Outwardly, my father and I would give the impression of a devout father and son, piously doing the Stations of the Cross. I can’t speak for my father, but inwardly I was anything but devout, As though oblivious of the all-seeing God, my head would be full of plot twists and investigatory conundrums as I wrote each person I encountered into the unfolding saga in my head. Posing as a devout Catholic boy, I would in truth be on the trail of a serial murderer or on the point of discovering the hiding place of a gang of jewel thieves. As we walked around the fourteen stations, I would surreptitiously transport Zoo Animals from pocket to mouth, trying to guess the colour and shape of each one by  teasing it with my tongue. Mindful of the sacred context, I allowed myself just one sweet per station.

In these years I became for my father a kind of aide-de-camp who represented him on important occasions in the town, which invariably meant funerals. Funerals in country-towns were often major gatherings, for which the whole town seemed to change gear for the couple of days between the announcement and the burial. Because of his work, my father was rarely able to attend. This was his stated reason anyway, but the truth is he would have felt out of place in the social event that a funeral inevitably became. He had a preoccupation with sending mass cards to the bereaved, even people he seemed to know only slightly, and the execution of this duty fell largely to me. My father would buy the mass card and give it to me, together with a pound note for the priest. I would have to go to the canon’s house, or sometimes the presbytery, depending on which cleric was most in favour with my father at the time. I would then have to attend the funeral to drop the card in the box in front of the coffin and sympathize with the family. If anyone thought it odd for a 10year-old boy to be walking the line of bereaved relatives intoning, `Sorry for your trouble’, they gave no hint of it. I would often attend three or four funerals a week, especially at the peak season for mortality, just after Christmas.

Apart from the monumental influence of my father, my experience of Catholicism as a child was remarkably devoid of intensity. It was ever present, a daily adventure, but strangely lacking in meaning. We never absorbed anything of theology or Scripture, apart from the rote answers to the questions in our little catechism, a handful of prayers and a few woolly stories about Pharisees and tax-collectors.What was known as ‘devotional literature’ — a selection of Catholic periodicals of varying emphasis and quality — came into our house. I read them often, usually when I ran out of other things to read, but cannot recall any of them doing anything except confirming the general sense of religiosity conveyed by church and school.

Reflecting on it now, it strikes me that the Catholicism I grew up with impressed on me the strongest possible sense of the peripherals of Christianity but almost nothing of the core meaning. God the Father, as I have outlined, was a huge presence in our lives, as a transcendent authority figure and as the source of the earthly authority of the Church. The Blessed Virgin also loomed large, being depicted everywhere in Marian shrines. The rosary which was said everywhere all the time, addressed both these figures in explicit terms. Jesus was referred to, of course, but in a muted way. There was a vague sense that the whole point of Christianity had something important to do with Him, but there was, too, a sense that He was subordinate to the others. He had been sent by the Father to save us. From what? From the wrath of the Father. The catechism said: ‘By His passion and death Christ satisfied the justice of God, and delivered us from hell, and from the power of the devil.’ It would be several decades later that a tremendous priest I met in Italy explained to me that the context in which Jesus died for me and my sins had to do, not with saving me from the wrath of the Father, but with saving me from death itself. The Resurrection, he explained, was the death of death. Jesus died not because of the rage of His Father but in order to tell me that eternity was a reality. It seemed so simple. Forty years of angst fell away in an instant.

Prayer mystified me. The idea of repeating a series of formulaic incantations until you were numb with boredom held no attraction whatsoever. My attempts at prayer were characterized by an acute knowledge of failure. I would start off well, but soon, though the words would continue to flow, my mind would wander into some reverie. In a short time I would notice and pull myself back to the words, but soon another distraction would jump up in the back of my head, saying ‘Hey, think about me!’ The next stage was a dismayed descent into a mood of self-criticism, as, reflecting on the dismal failure of the attempt to make contact with God, I would berate myself for my frivolity. I would grind my teeth in an attempt at concentration, focusing on the meaning of every word as though I was encountering the prayer for the first time. I would soon grow bored with this, however, and another magical thought would sneak in from the recesses of my mind. I was under no illusion that I was bad at praying, which translated as bad, full stop. And yet, all the while, I had a deeper sense of the meaninglessness of saying the same words again and again to a God who presumably knew them off by heart long ago and, anyway, since he knew all things, past, present and to come, could predict the quality of my prayer output before I started. During the rosary in church, I would amuse myself by, though not counting the Hail Marys, tuning in towards the end of each decade to predict which Hail Mary we were on. In due course I acquired a flawless expertise at this.

If you ask me today to evaluate the condition of my early faith, I would say that what I felt was a constant sense of unworthiness. I felt unclean. I felt that God must be able to see through me. I felt that there was no place I could hide from my own calculation, my own self-absorption. It’s not that I would have engaged in overmuch analysis of my motives or intentions, but rather that I had a constant sense of failing some unstated test of holiness. In my bones I knew that my holiness was a matter of show, that I felt nothing of what I should have felt in the knowledge and presence of God. I often wonder if my generation’s retrospective disparagement of the piety of its parents’ generation is more a reaction to its own forced childhood ostentation, which expresses itself as a repudiation of the alleged falsity of its religious inheritance.

My childhood experience of what we thought of as religion comes back to me in a series of images, colours, smell and tastes, as though from a five-sensed movie reel replayable at the prompting of a thought. One such reel shows reruns of the annual Corpus Christi procession which took over the town for a day in early summer, and will forever be associated in my mind with my birthday, which falls on 28 May. The procession involved the Holy Sacrament being transported from the church to somewhere such as the fair green or the market square. The priest would carry the monstrance in which was encased the sacred Host, with four members of the men’s sodality holding a canopy over him. To be the altar boy with charge of the thurible on such an occasion was a privilege indeed – to walk alongside the priest, swinging the smoking urn as the whole town came out to watch. Along the route, householders would build spectacular altars outside their houses, featuring statues of the Sacred Heart, the Blessed Virgin and the Child of Prague, bedecked with bluebells, snowdrops and lupins. It is perhaps a comment on the cultural poverty of the time, but there was nothing in the cultural or sporting calendar in those days to match the Corpus Christi procession.

Another such reel relates to my first mass as an altar boy: the suddenness of it and the fuss and the burning knot of worry beginning deep in the belly so I could hardly eat or sleep. You had no way of knowing when the call would come or what the system was or why you had been chosen or not chosen yet. It could happen at any time after you went into fourth class, maybe straight away or maybe before Christmas or maybe not until the spring and sometimes not until you went into fifth class which was a sign of something, though nobody quite knew what. A few new names were announced every month, usually on a Friday evening when the class was stowing away the art things before the final bell, and your heart skipped at least five beats and then beat like fury to catch up so you could hardly hear the names, except that something had already told you that one of them wasn’t going to be you. As the brother gave out the new names you would try to work out what the system was and why some had been chosen and not others. It wasn’t that they were holier, or at least it didn’t seem to be, because I was near enough the holiest of all and yet was one of the last to be picked. Or it might have been to do with the size of your house or the street you lived on, except that, now and then, a name would be given out that seemed to go against this general trend. Sometimes someone would be chosen early on from a poor household, but usually it would he someone whose manner had something in it to suggest that they didn’t belong in a poor house. There was a sense about it, as there was a sense in almost everything, of a moral hierarchy being observed. A more mundane theory had it that the brother got it mixed up with hurling, and this, since I was useless at hurling, would explain why I was nearly the last to be selected. But I felt sure it had to do with something much more profound, like the aggregate of a number of unspecified qualities. For me, my late selection therefore dovetailed with my own sense of my place in the moral hierarchy.

But when my turn finally came, it came out of the blue, not on a Friday for a Monday morning start but on a Tuesday for a Wednesday, because one of the sixth-class boys had moved out of town, leaving a place to be filled straight away. When I heard the brother say my name, and my name only, it was as though I had been hit from behind with a flat board. I watched the room move around me, the curious turning of heads, the brother’s face slowed down to yawning speed.

`Can you be at the church at half seven?’

I heard myself say ‘Yes’, but the ache had already started in my belly and this moment that I’d waited for brought only dread and fear. I wondered then if joy at the realization of dreams was ever possible, or if the anticipation of something was always not merely better than the reality, but the only reality joy would ever inhabit.

For several years in my late childhood, I served as an altar boy, sang in the choir for high masses and attended all the routine devotions and celebrations, but all the while I retained my sense of a darkish, forbidding God observing my every move and thought. The two things, however, never quite merged into one: the God I recognized seemed separate somehow from the acting out of religion, which for me was largely a social ritual, and sometimes a spectacular one. To be called to serve was to bear a heavy responsibility and no little prestige. That first morning as an altar boy remains unsurpassed for stress by any other event in my life, and these include High Court actions and even the Eurovision Song Contest. There was something about carrying out the fairly simple duties that filled me with dread of making a mistake. Every team of altar boys had a captain, who ruled ruthlessly and unforgivingly over the performances of his underlings. To begin with you had to work your way up through the simple duties – ringing the church bell five minutes before mass began and ministering to the priest’s requirements during the ‘first wine’ – the filling of the chalice before the consecration – and holding the paten under the chins of communicants in case the host slipped out of the priest’s hand. After this you graduated on to the ‘last wine’, which occurred after communion, ringing the bell during the consecration, and maintaining the thurible during benediction, priming it with incense and ensuring that it remained alight. This required almost the confidence of a priest, as the trick resided in swinging it vigorously even during the quiet periods when nothing much was happening. To let the thurible go out was close to a hanging offence, so only veterans were trusted with this job. To hit the sanctuary bell off centre and bring a note of discordance to the consecration was regarded as a serious failure.

I remember as though it were this very morning both the emotional upheaval and the physical detail of that first morning as an altar boy: the fresh silence of the street, the scent of the sprinkling of new rain on the breeze-dried dust of late March, like the taste of a penny on the tongue. I still clearly remember the fear of the journey, in the midst of all the other fears of all the other journeys through those same streets, the excitement and the terror all wound up together in a tight ball threatening to go spinning into orbit, taking me with it. I remember leaving our house, my borrowed soutane trailing in the wet of the footpath, the walk through the still-sleeping town, running past the old women as they trudged their way to the eight o’clock mass of which they were the sole patrons, reaching the sacristy and not knowing where to go. Knowing that on other such journeys I would be better able to savour my importance but for now having to postpone all this much-anticipated joy, leaving my black coat open to reveal the swan white of the surplice over the crow black of the soutane, walking purposefully and nodding thoughtfully to the old women with a cold ‘Good Morning’, but for now feeling nothing but the fear and dread and unknowing.

The first few days you had nothing to do except kneel there on the deep red carpet and watch. I had never knelt on a carpet before. After the first morning the fear had disappeared, leaving only the self-importance, the pride and the leaping in the heart. On the Friday morning I was allowed to hold the priest’s vestment during the consecration. On Saturday I helped with the last wine, pouring the water over the priest’s fingers to wash away the blood of the Lord and make sure none was wasted or spilt. But mostly in that week I knelt with my back to the church, listening and watching. Listening to the priest unleash breakneck pleadings in Latin into the mouth of the altar, his hands held out like a boastful fisherman: ‘In nomine Patris, et filii et Spiritus sancti … accipite et bibite ex eo omnes.’ I had never before heard someone speak fluently in a language that was not English. I watched the priest’s mouth move through the phrases with certainty and ease, his tone or delivery never extending beyond the conversational, as though he were an interpreter nominated to speak on behalf of the tiny congregation to a presence with which they all desired to commune. In the silences I knelt with eyes closed, listening to the coughs and croaks and sneezes from the body of the church, each one echoing off every pillar and buttress, flying high up into the rafters into the light of the sun through the stained-glass images of stories I knew only vaguely but which amazed me in inverse proportion to my grasp of them. I closed my eyes in pained concentration, counting and listening, and listening and counting, trying to connect coughs to faces and sneezes to stooped backs and croaks to tightened scarves around pinched faces and trembling, whispering lips.

On the Saturday of that first week I got to walk to the belfry with the team captain and watch him tug the rope and go down with it and wait for the peal of the bell and go up with the rope and ride its pursuit of the ebbing sound and come down again harder still and up and around and down and up as if he were being pulled up to heaven. And the sound of the bell happened near and yet far away, distant as though the work of other hands and yet happening now at this moment and as it had always been, as when I sat in my school desk listening and counting the minutes until lunch, or on the riverbank watching the water ripple over the stones, inhaling the scent of the whin and the smell of bread from Dyar’s bakery to the south, or in the railway station at noon watching the steam rising from the rear of a departing train, or in the bog to the east with my father, handing him up the rectangular sods of turf to build into a bank as true as a gospel, my townie’s hands sore and reddened, and the bell ringing out to tell us it was time for tea. And the captain, without warning, stepped back from the rope as it followed the peal of the bell into the clouds and gestured to me to take over and, pulling up his soutane, took from his pocket a box of matches which had a single cigarette butt sandwiched between the two remaining matches inside. As he took to smoking I grabbed the swinging rope in terrified hands and pulled and waited, and when nothing happened pulled again in fright, and felt the rope shudder and then heard the bell ring, not as before but hollow and short, and then nothing but the rope swinging because in my terror I had let it go. And drawing on his cigarette, the captain muttered under his breath, ‘Jesus Christ, will you pull the fuckin’ thing for fuck’s sake?’ He pushed me aside and pulled again on the rope, long and steady in harmony with the glow of the cigarette between his lips, and then stepped back again and gestured for me to have another go. This time I followed the flow of the rope around the smooth corner of the peal and as the sound drained away I pulled again, this time evenly, and listened and felt the rope run through my hands, and listened and then pulled again, and heard the bell sound as smooth and true as if someone else was ringing it and I was standing someplace else in the town where no one knew of my presence, listening to the bell sounding its call or accusation for my ears only.

Until my late teens, I successfully passed myself off as a pious boy and youth, so much so that, when I was about to go into secondary school, I received an exploratory visit from a representative of a college in the south of the country dedicated to preparing boys for the priesthood. This was not a seminary but a boarding school to which aspirant seminarians might be sent in the hope of nurturing their burgeoning vocations. The priest, a kind of recruiting sergeant for the college, visited our house and those of at least two of my classmates, one of whom would go on to become a remarkably successful womanizer. None of us took up the challenge but, in my case, this came down to finances – the fees and additional costs of attending the college were out of reach of our family circumstances.

I remained an outwardly devout Catholic until my late teens, though the more intense immersion in religion began to wane when I started playing soccer at about the age of 12. Shortly afterwards, through the influence of various friends I became interested in pop music. This interest was ludicrously random, non-chronological and unscientific in nature: T Rex, followed by the Beatles, followed by Johnny Cash, Rory Gallagher and, eventually, Horslips. This brings us to the early 1970s, when news of the pop revolution was just beginning to hit Castlerea. We grew our hair long and, when possible, wore moderately flamboyant clothes, although this flamboyance was somewhat restricted by virtue of the penguin-like outfits we were expected to wear to school. We began to dabble with guitars and flirted with songwiting. In our heads we were the Beatles. Actually, in our hearts each one of us was John. I could barely tease out three chords on the guitar, but could play the melodeon in a rather rudimentary way. I remember one winter doing a concert in the local mental hospital, performing a few marches and come-all-yes, with a version of the Dave Edmunds hit of the time, ‘I Hear You Knocking’ stuck incongruously in the middle. Undoubtedly it was appalling, but nobody complained, and for us it was like a combination of Johnny Cash at San Quentin and the rooftop concert from ‘Let It Be’. Such fantasies were capable of keeping our spirits afloat amidst even the most unprepossessing of realities.

I am amazed in retrospect when I consider the extent to which I and the lads I hung around with then lived completely in a fantasy world. Thoughts of what we were going to do when we left school never entered our heads. I don’t think it was so much that we seriously imagined we would become famous footballers or pop stars, but that we did not wish to contemplate the reality outside the cocoon of fantasy in which we lived. We read the NME (the New, Musical Express) and congregated on a Thursday night in one of the other lads’ houses to watch Top of the Pops. (It was always ‘one of the other lads’ houses’ because my father refused to allow a television set into the house.)

The beginning of the end of this first phase of my religious life came following the rather dismal outcome of my Leaving Certificate examination. Since I was reputed to be something of a brainbox, my parents were disappointed, to say the least, when I scraped a pass in five subjects, just enough not to fail the exam. After some robust debate, it was decided that I should repeat. I was unhappy about this, but didn’t have any better ideas. Feeling both aggrieved and somewhat proud of my willingness to give it a go, I found myself within a couple of days at loggerheads with the priest who came in to teach us Christian Doctrine. The outcome of this had perhaps been rendered inevitable by virtue of the fact that an elderly neighbour would regularly regale me with tales of the bacchanalian indulgences of this particular priest – late-night rambles to the homes of chancy women, vodka bottles in the dustbin at dawn, that sort of thing.

It was all something and nothing. I was sitting beside a friend of mine, the only other boy who was repeating, who made one of his cutting remarks into my ear. I laughed, the priest saw me, asked me to share the source of my amusement with the class in general and I told him it was none of his business. One word borrowed another and I decided to leave before anyone had the pleasure of throwing me out. My parents were beside themselves but I stood my ground. I didn’t grasp it there and then, but that incident was also to provide me with an alibi for my withdrawal from Catholicism. I gradually came to decide that there was no point in listening to people who were manifestly all too human when it came to the things they were, as it seemed, employed to rail against, and who, moreover, lacked any kind of perspective when scrutinizing the flaws of lesser mortals. The alternative, I reckoned, was infinitely more attractive. The alternative was to declare myself free.

I don’t think I ever ‘gave up’ religion. I gave up the Catholic Church. I gave up prayer. I gave up ‘believing’ in God. But I don’t think I ever gave up religion, because, inasfar as we understand it now, I don’t believe I ever had any to begin with. My father was right about that, except that I wasn’t even a decent ‘pagan’. My primary feeling towards the Church was anger – unfocused and not particularly rational. And strangely, or perhaps not, it is a small step from being angry with God to deciding He does not exist. I was about to leave my teens and had been flirting with rock ‘n’ roll and the attendant philosophy of peace and love. This was five years or so before a north Dublin foursome attending Mount Temple School began to make the first tentative steps towards integrating the twin imperatives of God and groove. We had no such vision: the two just didn’t go together. Even if you factored out what is now called rock ‘n’ roll excess, the fact remained that, for all kinds of cultural reasons, God appeared to be incompatible with the path stretching out ahead of us. We had grown up with a model of God centred on authority and control, in which message and meaning had been reduced to a series of ‘don’ts’. In the model we had been given, the bottom line appeared to rest on a disavowal of pleasure, at least of the more immediate kinds, and really there appeared not to be much more to the whole religion thing. Pleasure was pretty much coterminous with sin, and brought with it both guilt and fear of punishment. Once it became clear that the enforcers of the doctrine were open to not practising what they preached, the power of the idea of sin began to fragment, and the system that had enforced it began to seem arbitrarily and gratuitously oppressive.

Moreover, there was the fact that disbelief appeared so much, well, smarter. Believing in God was not merely old-fashioned, superstitious and constricting, it was also a sign of weakness, simplicity and fearfulness. We were too clever, too clued in, too cute in every sense you can conceive of, to need crutches. My contemporaries and I were about to set out on an adventure of freedom. We had started to pocket our first pay packets and were determined to let the throttle out. We were going to party, dance, drink, love, and drive fast-looking cars, and we did not want God riding shotgun on such activities.

Looking back now, I cannot recall a single moment of epiphany when I understood, even briefly, the enormity of what I now understand religion to signify. But I have a sense today, acquired several eventful decades later, that I never recall having had as a child, of what religion is, and of what it might offer. The strange thing is that I always had this sense, except that I never thought of it as religion. I had, as a child, an awareness that religion might be important, but no sense of what its content might be. I was aware of the things I now think of religion as containing, but had no idea that these could be called religion.

It was many, many years later that I awoke one morning with a phrase running around my head and, in the background, the sound of a wind swirling through trees, and realized that I had had as a child the most vibrant sense of the religious. The phrase was ‘Picture yourself being born . . .’ It was all I recalled from a passage I’d read in a book by Fr Luigi Giussani, the Italian priest who founded Communion and Liberation around the time I was, in fact, born. The trees I recognized also, because as I woke I became convinced that I was back in my aunt’s house in Cloonyquin, in the County Roscommon countryside, and I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. The book was The Religious Sense, in which Giussani, by telling us what religion is, implicitly tells us what religion is not: ‘Picture yourself being born, coming out of your mother’s womb at the age you are now at this very moment in terms of your development and consciousness. What would be the first, absolutely your initial reaction? If I were to open my eyes for the first time in this instant, emerging from my mother’s womb, I would be overpowered by the wonder and awe of things as a “presence”. I would be bowled over and amazed by the stupefying repercussion of a presence which is expressed in current language by the word “thing”. Things! That’s “something”! “Thing”, which is a concrete and, if you please, banal version of the word “being”. Being: not as some abstract entity, but as presence, a presence which I do not myself make, which I find. A presence which imposes itself on me.’

As we grow we forget what it is like to be a child. I don’t mean that we necessarily forget what happened or what our thoughts were, but we forget the constant torrent of sensation that childhood is. We become inured to things, indifferent, worn down. We lose our taste for the sharpness of sensation. In that moment of waking, I was returned, not to a childhood memory in the abstract sense, but to a Proustian moment of recall, when the sound of the trees outside my aunt’s house was vibrant in my head, as though forty years had been reduced to moments. And with the sound came everything else as well: the scent of the beech, the mystery of O’Rourke’s field over the ditch, the wonder of the distance to the main road more than a mile away, the resonance of the phrase – ‘the cross’ – used to describe the intersection between my aunt’s road and the main Roscommon to Boyle road, the very light of some of those many summer days which I and my older sister Marian spent as children in that paradise. In the next minute there unleashed from somewhere inside of me a torrent of such memory: collecting acorns, and particularly their shape and texture, filling bean cans with water from the potholes after rain, the fizz of the lemonade from the picnics we had up beyond French’s House, the resonance of names . . . Scramogue, Taluntupeen, the Avenue. From the ages of 4 or 5, we had gone there every summer, sometimes for weeks on end. The year my sister Margaret was born, we spent several months there, from spring through to September.
There was something about Cloonyquin that captivated and excited us beyond anything else. Best known, to the extent that it is known at all, as the birthplace of the songwriter Percy French, it was for us our mother’s birthplace, a paradise that contrasted with the drabness of the town of Castlerea (though I remember too the strange attraction the streets of the town had for a couple of days after going home). It was a magical place to be, to lie in bed at night and listen to the quiet of the countryside and the sounds that comprised this quietude. The night there was made of soft and cool, of light airy brushes arising accidentally out of the darkness. Leaf on leaf. Wire on wood. Water on galvanized iron. Together, this host of simultaneous accidents created a web of sound that rolled through to the eardrum like cotton wool, drawing you into its folds. At home in town before sleep, you fought the sounds of the street; here you fell into their embrace and they closed around him.

I remember the ‘tunnel of trees’ just up from my aunt’s house, and there being something ritualistic about running through it on the first evening to where Jimmy, then my aunt’s boyfriend, used to live. I only need to pause for a second to tune into a moment shortly after our arrival there when I was 8 or 9 years old: the trees on either side of the road resonating with the racket of the recent rain, droplets tripping from the towering treetops that meet overhead in the centre of the road’s airspace, buffeted from leaf to twig to branch as they tumble downwards, slapping and tutting and sighing and moaning as they spit down from their momentary halting places, each drop sounding separately and in unison with the others: on the one hand a plop, a plip, a determined round splat; on the other a hissing, streaming, torrent of sound, like a living machine for distilling and delaying the sensation of rain, which has stopped outside but is captured here in the tunnel for God knows what purpose. All around are sudden cracks and sighs, as if the world might soon awake from a deep sleep. Away in the depths of the trees are plants with shapes and shadows I recognize by sight but never could name: one like a strange, crouching bird that seemed to be alive, another with a sharply featured triangular-shaped leaf as green as a front door. In the pockets of light beneath where the tunnel’s roof remains unclosed, small clouds of midges have gathered to pass the aeons of time before darkness falls, like pockets of displaced cloud trapped by darkness far from home, terrified and dangerous. We run through the tunnel of weeping leaves with our eyes closed.

Straight ahead on the far side, as the road curves into the climb towards the hayfields and the sun, is the hungry gate of the house where the two Padians lived. The little house stands in its fairytale grandeur silhouetted against the western sky clearing momentarily before capitulating to the darkness, the sun making a stain of redness that seems to seep through the house like a hand against a light bulb.

In my memory, Miss Padian stands inside the gate, staring deep into the tunnel as though she and she alone is responsible for the hubble-bubble of the weeping trees. In her fingers she holds a lighted cigarette, a wand of white and fire as she stands watching the two little strangers timidly pass on the other side of the road and break into another sudden run. Then the humming of Jimmy’s bicycle mingles with the discourse of the tumbling droplets in the tree-tunnel’s million leaves, like a stream of running water or something live that couldn’t settle, as though the bicycle were a part of this as much as anything, as though it had learned the language of this place and belonged there more than the recently returned and prodigal rain.

Jimmy lifts me onto the bar of the black bike and ushers Marian astride the carrier behind the saddle packed underneath with newspapers. As though our weights make no difference, he pushes the bike forward and begins walking it and its passengers towards the house. As we draw level again with the gate of the Padians’ house, he lets go of the right-hand handlebar and lifts his cap to Miss Padian standing at the gate, the cigarette clasped tightly in her lips, her eyes all but closed against the smoke. She mouths a greeting without removing the cigarette from her lips. She seems not to know it is there. As we pause for the adults to exchange their rudimentary phrases about the weather, I watch the ash waggle slightly, waiting for the moment when it falls off, but instead it grows and grows until there is more ash than cigarette, then hardly anything but ash at all.

Those weeks we spent at our Aunt Teresa’s were the most intense of our childhoods, and, when the holidays were over, we had to be dragged screaming into my father’s van to be brought back to Castlerea. Now, forty years later, I was awaking to the reality that, as a child, I had, like all children, the most intense experience of religion. I had encountered reality and been overcome by it, by the wonder of it and the intensity of it. I had, on a moment-to-moment basis, been experiencing a profound sense of the religious reality, but nobody had ever told me that this is what it was.

It reminds me a little of the first time I ever saw a television set. It was sometime in the early 1960s. I had never heard the word ‘television’, still less had the faintest idea what it might be. But one day I observed that a crowd had gathered around the window of Sonny Coyne’s radio shop just up the street, staring in at something. I joined the edge of the crowd and craned my neck to see. I could make out nothing between the coats of the adults, but, after a while, settled on a moderately colourful poster on the window. This, I supposed, was what they were looking at. I stared at it for a while, determined to experience whatever it was that was attracting the adults, but after a while I grew bored. Still, strangely, I stayed, by now I was staring at the poster. And still the crowd grew, and by in the middle of a much larger gathering. I thought, ‘Well. It’s a really nice poster, but have these people not got something better to do. I was about to leave when the crowd shifted slightly, enabling me to see, over at the corner of the shop, something moving. On a grey, flaky screen, there was a, yes, a moving ship, looming large through what looked like snow. I was astonished and for the first time understood why all the people were there. The strange thing is that, under the influence of the crowd, I had been prepared to stay for the poster, which I had become so convinced held some intense significance. My sense of my childhood experience of religion is a little like that: nobody ever told me, and it never dawned on me, that religion was anything to do with the taste of reality and the awe I felt at being alive in a world filled with wonder. 

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