There is about one Roman Catholic priest to every thousand people in Southern Ireland. Ireland is said to produce more priests and nuns than any other country in the world. ‘Men in Black’ a documentary for Intertel, explores the relationship between the clergy and the three million or so Catholics in Eire – the only English-speaking Catholic country. Here, scriptwriter peter duval-smith describes the way in which religion enters into every sphere of an Irish Catholic’s life.
We are supposed to be living in a Christian society, yet day by day most of us are hardly aware of the fact. Religion is something we have on Sundays, if at all; in British society the Church is a separate thing, an institution like the Public Schools or the Stock Exchange. The clergyman we pass in the street is a man apart, a slightly curious sort of person, the butt of unsubtle jokes. Yet the Christian beliefs that he stands for influence our lives at a level so deep that we are scarcely conscious of them.
This cannot be a healthy state of affairs, and this is why we had the notion of making a film about a country where religion really matters to people, where the Church is woven into the fabric of national life. We could have chosen Spain or perhaps Italy; in the event we went to the Republic of Ireland (or Eire). This was the idea of Geoffrey Hughes, who directed the film, and I think the choice was an ideal one. There is a case for saying Ireland is the most religious country in the world. Here the Roman Catholic Church penetrates the life of the Irish people at every level and in every possible way. In Ireland 95 per cent of the population are Catholic, and on Sunday mornings virtually everybody in the entire country is in church. Every week there are queues in the churches of Irish men and women and children from the age of seven waiting to confess their sins to a priest; at midday and six o’clock each evening, the hours of the Angelus, most Irish folk will bow their heads for a few seconds in prayer; during the day every time they pass a church or a shrine, they will make the sign of the cross, even if they are on a bus or a bicycle or at the wheel of a car.
These are the visible signs of piety, but the influence of the church goes far beyond the spiritual. The Irish primary school system is controlled almost entirely by the Church, through a system of school managers who are always priests. They employ the teachers and keep an eye on what is taught. In the notorious (but now milder) state censorship of books and films, priests sit on the committees. They sit on all sorts of other committees, and in every Irish community the priest is the man to be reckoned with, without whose blessing little can be accomplished in business or sport or local government. This influence of the priests is very hard to pin down, being often a matter of a casual word or a telephone call, but it extends to the highest quarters of government although, in fact, the Irish church is not established and has no official position in the government.
From time to time at Dublin airport an extraordinary sight can be seen, when a Minister or other high official returns to Ireland after a duty trip abroad, and is greeted at the airport by the Nuncio, the delegate of the Vatican. The Minister kneels and kisses the ring of the ambassador of a foreign power, who is welcoming him back to his own country. There is not necessarily anything sinister about this great power of the Catholic Church in Ireland. As in all human affairs, its influence is a mixture of good and ill, but it is certainly important. Perhaps the most important single fact about the Church in Ireland is that nearly three-quarters of its young priests are exported to spread the gospel in foreign countries. In Canada, Australia, and paramountly in the United States, to take only three, the Catholic Church is dominated by the Irish clergy.
In some ways this was an easy film to make, in others a very tricky one. The true piety of Irish Catholics is not in doubt, and the film opens with what is to my mind a really stunning sequence taken on the annual pilgrimage that 40,000 people make in the middle of the night on the last Sunday of July to the top of Croagh Patrick, the steep and rocky mountain of St Patrick in County Mayo. During the night these people perform their penitential rituals and at dawn masses are celebrated on the summit. Our cameraman Ted Lloyd excelled himself, and much of the pagan feeling of Irish Catholicism comes through in his pictures. Again we filmed the ordination of a young priest, a deeply impressive ceremony, and we filmed an actual confession (though you will not, of course, hear the penitent speak). We observed priests at work in their parishes, and at play, and observed, too, the strange process of alienation that overtakes a priest in his career. An Irish priest is an Irishman like any other, for every priest must have a mother and father and they keep in touch with their families after ordination. But in spite of this they are men apart, and as one Irish woman said to me: ‘In this country there are three sexes – the men, and the women, and the priests.’
In this apartness, and in the deep but mainly hidden power of the Church, lay the tricky side of the filming. So often people would tell us things about the interference of the priests in private or business affairs, and then be frightened to repeat their criticisms for the camera. Ireland is a small place, really just a large family, and word gets round. It’s this feeling of oppressiveness that drives so many Irish people to emigrate.
At the end we came, I think, to no startling conclusions about the relationship between the men in black and the people, except that like all human relationships it was at least as conducive to unhappiness as to happiness; but then that, perhaps, is what the Church is teaching anyway.